The following was delivered to the student body of Thomas MacLaren School in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Monday, September 25th, 2017.
It was Henry David Thoreau who once wrote that he would not want to go to heaven if he could not take the pine tree with him. Trees inspire us at places like Redwood National Park in California, admired for their towering presence above us. When we think of a “tree” in our minds, we often summon an image of a straight tree trunk reaching to the sky from the earth. The tree is the perfect image of the proverbial “straight and narrow,” a moral example for mankind sinking its roots firmly into the earth in order to reach skyward.
But what is the “straight and narrow” within does not always manifest this way outwardly. Since moving west twelve years ago and spending many nights camping in the canyon country of southeast Utah, I grew within me a love and admiration for the mighty juniper. A ragged survivalist among its tree brethren, I find kinship with this tree that is able to plant itself in the most unlikely of places, clinging to the most trifling stores of earth, hanging from ledges and growing from places one would not expect a tree to thrive— the juniper—mangled, twisted, misshapen—yet determined, adaptive, strong. Within the juniper lies an inner code for its survival in harsh desert circumstances, and it twists and turns, splits, and contorts itself to actualize that code. What is straight and narrow within finds circuitous expression without.
All of us face difficulties unique to ourselves in one way or another. Sometimes we run up against a wall that our present devices seem unable to get around. But I’m here today to suggest to you that sometimes the solution lies in our problem.
Jean-Baptiste “Django” Reinhardt was born to a Belgian Romani (gypsy) band who lived in a caravan outside Paris in the early 20th century. As a boy, Django learned to play typical gypsy instruments from his father, including the banjo and violin. He learned the tradition of gypsy folk music— wild, passionate, and rhythmically complex, but, upon hearing a recording of Louis Armstrong from a friend in Paris, fell immediately in love with American jazz.
When he was 17, Django married. One night as he and his wife were preparing to go to bed, a candle caught their caravan on fire and as Reinhardt struggled to free himself and his wife from the engulfing blaze, he was severely burned all over his body. In particular, Django received such severe burns on his third and fourth fingers that they became paralyzed and misshapen. Doctors told Django that he would never play guitar again and that it was doubtful if he would walk. They pressed for a leg amputation, but Reinhardt refused. Instead of wallowing in despair, Django Reinhardt walked with a cane and began the painstaking and slow process of re-teaching himself to play the guitar in a new way. Using only his first two fingers and thumb, Django could only use his injured fingers very occasionally for some chord-work.
In performing around Paris, Django met a violinist, Stephane Grappelli, and the two began creating their own European strain of jazz music, blending the fire and fury of Romani music, American swing jazz, and romantic Parisian café music. The two formed a quintet and coined their new idiom jazz manouche, or “gypsy jazz.” In this new hot jazz the guitar, which had previously been relegated to a backing, rhythm-only role in a jazz outfit, took center stage and Django, using a loudly-projecting guitar, made guitar soloing in jazz an innovation.
Django’s injured fingers contributed toward innovation in his style of playing. Because of his impairment, Django had to find new ways around the fretboard that he had not considered before. This included, for example, the unusual practice of wrapping his thumb around the backside of the neck to grasp the 6th and 5th strings of the guitar, which led to some interesting use of octaves in his improvisation. He and Grappelli's Quintet of the Hot Club of France became a hit in Paris venues, leading to fame in France and abroad in America. Later, Duke Ellington, ever the curator of wildly unique jazz talent, would invite Reinhardt to accompany his orchestra at concert dates in the United States.
During the Nazi occupation in France, Django was separated from his bandmate Grappelli, who remained in Britain while Django resided in Paris. Due to his talents on the guitar, Django was permitted to live under Nazi occupation even while the projamos, or gypsy Holocaust, occurred with the aim of destroying the Romani people across Europe.
Django became remembered as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and the most pre-eminent among European jazz artists. Future guitarists as varied as Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Chet Atkins, The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi all drew inspiration from his playing. The latter two of these lost parts of fingers early in life and were inspired by Django’s example to keep playing guitar.
Fingers mangled, Django Reinhardt made a strength from an apparent misfortune. By the straight rectitude of his inner determination and love for music, Django found a way around his mangled hands in a mangled world. Let us bear this in mind as we encounter obstacles in our way in the world. Let us ask, “How is my problem my solution?”