When I was in high school, my brother introduced me to a film called “Swing Kids.” We had grown up on big band music and it was a thought-provoking historical drama, let alone just a well-made movie! So, it instantly became a family favorite. The gist is this —- pre-Bats Christian Bale is a teenager in Germany just before WWII. He and his friends rebel against the HJ and growing Nazi regime by adopting American fads. They dress like American kids, use American slang, and dance to swing music. As the narrative unfolds, the HJ (“Hitler Youth”) infiltrate their gang, and the struggle to join or fight becomes a matter of life and death for all involved.
One of the friends is Arvid - a gimp who plays guitar at the underground jazz clubs. There comes a point when Arvid is attacked by members of the HJ, and “See how you play now,” one taunts as he crushes the cripple’s hand beneath his boot. I still cringe with tears every time I see him stomp. Later, in the hospital, we find Arvid unwrapping his mangled fingers. “He said I’d never play again," he declares, "but he forgot about Djangoman.”
Who was “Djangoman,” I wondered. Not only was this an intriguing scene in its own right, but it struck me especially because of his hand. My high school years were difficult as I watched my strength diminish more quickly. I’d already lost the use of my right arm, and now my left hand was failing me. My ring and pinky fingers were going limp — the two unusable to this gimp and, apparently, this other guy. As I heard Arvid speak with such hope while staring at my same problem, I decided I had to know the story of Djangoman.
As it turns, Django Reinhardt was a Romany guitarist wandering around France at that time. He was a musical genius —- the kind that was playing premier dance halls in Paris at the age of 12. But in his early 20’s, he was caught up in a fire that left him severely disfigured, especially in his left hand. His ring and pinky fingers were useless. Music was his great passion in life, though, so rather than giving up, he used his genius to redesign conventional chord structures. It was a long and frustrating process, but he re-emerged in time for the jazz waves of the 30’s and 40’s and is remembered still as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. He didn’t just work to play guitar again, you see; he pushed himself to be better than ever and to leave a powerful impression on the world.
Since first hearing his name and learning his story, more than 15 years ago, I have been inspired by Django’s life and music. I dare say, he has provided the soundtrack to many of my struggles and victories over the years. Often, when my body fails me and I am brought low by the lies of this old world about what I can and can’t do, I borrow the words of Arvid in his hospital bed. “But he forgot about Djangoman.”