Friday, November 14, 2008

How Jean Baptiste Told the Master Race to Eat a Hat

You know, sometimes being the man just trumps everything. As an intro here is one of my old man's favorite stories. The sales manager comes to the boss and says "Johnson has been showing up late and his expense report is through the roof!"
The boss replies, "Did you mention it to him?"

"Yes, and he said you could eat your hat and that I should go &^%$ myself."

The boss replies, "What do his sales look like?"

"Twice as good as anyone else, but what are we going to do about his attitude?"

And the boss says, "Well I am going to get a new hat, and you have a personal problem."

The old man would always use this little joke as a way of reminding me that there are perks that come with excellence. Many of my father's life lessons took this form. He was just a bottom line kind of guy.

Now let me tell you another story, A story of a gypsy man. His name was Jean Baptiste Reinhardt, but he became known as Django to the world. To many, he was the finest guitarist who ever lived. He was born in 1910 and lived most of his life in France among the manouche gypsy population. In 1928, at age 18 he was living in a gypsy caravan vardo like one of these:

He was already an accomplished guitarist and jazz banjo player. His wife made celluloid flowers. One night the vardo catches fire and the celluloid stuff just turns the whole thing into an inferno. Django was caught inside. He had serious burns all over his body, but one of the most damaged areas was his fretting hand--the breadwinner of all his body parts. His ring finger and little finger were horribly burned and were rendered all but useless. Here is a picture of his hand:

This does not stop the guy. In fact, he was just getting started. He starts using chord shapes and styles that are suitable for his damaged hand. Before long he meets virtuoso violinist Stephane Grappelli and they form a band that plays jazz but all on string instruments. Many of the various side men are also gypsies including Django's brother Joseph. They record some of the most beautiful and most swinging music ever recorded. Django's playing is just amazing. Almost every jazz guitarist since claims him as an influence. And he is doing all this with two working fingers and a stump of a third. Just as things are really starting to get kicking and the band is becoming known world wide, the Germans occupy France. Stephane Grappelli (who was gay) decides to leave and wait out the war in England, but Django remains behind and continues to gig. Now think about this--we are not talking about some low profile working class guy trying not to be noticed, this is a gigging musician band leader who is out front every time he goes to work attracting attention to himself, and he is a handicapped gypsy in a gypsy band playing music written by blacks right in the middle of Paris when the place is crawling with Nazis. Sweet Jesus, they came for the gypsies before they came for the jews! I guess my pop is right. If you are the man, if you are creating something that no one else can, well sometimes a fellow like that gets a pass. There is only one known piece of footage of Django playing where the sound is synced up with the visual image. This is from when he was still playing with Stephane Grappelli. Here it is:Now listen to what a man of an "inferior" race can do with two fingers: