Strolling along Main Street in Sag Harbor one luscious summer day, I spotted a rosary made of onyx beads in the window of one of my favorite shops. I always made a point of stopping by when I was in town because the things the owner brought together in her store were so exquisite—aromatic candles infusing the shop’s interiors with scents of lavender and rose, vessels made of watery-hued Portuguese glass, creamy hand-milled European soaps, and hand-woven French linens.
My Francophile Obsessions
The rosary’s beads, which reminded me of the coffee-colored seeds of some exotic fruit, were wound around the frozen reach of a large, crude cross once painted teal and then white, the flaking layers lending the religious symbol a distressed feel coveted by fans of primitive furnishings. Noticing my interest, her assistant lifted the rosary from the weathered plank and slowly curled it into the palm of my hand. I was of half a mind to buy it even before she said it was an 18th-century French antiquity.
The country of origin mattered because I’ve charted the genealogy on my father’s side of our family to discover that I am eight generations removed from the French countryside of Normandy near St. Sauveur. My ancestors there had fled to Jersey Island off the British coast in the 17th century long before this rosary felt the nimble caress of anyone’s fingers during devotions. It was Jean Gosset—the most remote name penned on my family tree—who had first turned away from this symbol of Catholicism to become a Huguenot, essentially making vagabonds of several succeeding generations of his descendants.
Hail Django, Gypsy of Jazz!
I placed the rosary on my lap during the train ride back to Manhattan, listening to what had become my greatest Francophile obsession, the plunky rhythms created by jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. The first time I heard his music, I concocted a fantasy that he could have been my grandfather. It was early fall and the windows were open, a buoyant breeze ruffling the leaves on the trees in the garden behind the bricked Upper West Side brownstone I called home.
The movement created dancing patterns on the ceiling, which mimicked his rhythmic strumming, and I plotted my imaginary family tree with him. My scheming was nonsense, of course. My father had similar dark good looks that could have been handed down to him from this mysterious man with a smoldering cigarette protruding from his pursed lips on the cover of the CD case I held but our histories had never intertwined.
Django and my father’s father were born five years apart—John Thomas Gossett in 1905 and Django in 1910. By then, my relatives had embraced the Southern Baptist religion, which was about as far from the Catholic faith as one could turn in my eyes. Being gypsies, the Reinhardts had refused to embrace any organized religion, though their superstitions as fetish worshipers led them to adopt Catholic symbolism as a safeguard against evil spirits. As I watched the ornamented string of beads imitate the train’s vibrations on the taut surface of my denim skirt, I wondered if Django had ever run the knobby length of a rosary through his sensitive fingers “just in case.”
I imagined he would have known how to handle each bead with effortless dexterity given his talent with his instruments and his lifelong passion for playing them. He had received his first banjo-guitar at the age of twelve, learning how to play it by mimicking the fingerings of the musicians he watched. He astounded everyone with his nimbleness and his sense of rhythm in the process. Before he was thirteen, he began his thirty-year musical career, which brought him a precarious run of lean times interspersed with bouts of fame and fortune.
The fact that he was born into a band of wandering comedians who had traveled from Germany through Belgium and into France after the war of 1870 heightened Reinhardt’s charisma for some jazz fans. He remained a gypsy to his very core throughout his boisterous career. Even when he was wealthy enough to afford a mansion, which he bought, he gathered his Romanies around him, setting up camp in the home’s large salon and on the lawn surrounding the house.
Django turned away from his music only once. It was during the last day of his life when he died of a stroke at the age of 43. Just before he passed, he told his wife something was wrong with his fingers but he wouldn’t allow her to call a doctor. He hated their needles; felt superstitious of medicine and science. These beliefs did not serve him well in the end, but what convictions formed in unruly childhoods ever do?
Childhoods Spent on the Move
Like Django’s rowdy life of traipsing from place to place, my early years were spent on the move. I never trundled along in a horse-drawn caravan with pots clanking and beads swaying, but I was traveling by the time I was six months old—a standard issue Air Force brat. These black-and-white photographs of my mother and father taken during a five-year stretch that found us living in places as diverse as Texas and Great Britain are my relics.
The glamorous twenty-something’s in the photos stared unabashedly at the camera lenses—Dad trim in his skimpy nylon swimsuit, tanned skin gleaming as he lounges on a beach in Africa with the ocean stretching out behind him; and Mom posed on a small divan in our tiny cottage in England, a glam shot à la 50’s pinup girl, her long legs gracefully crossed at the ankles and a mischievous look in her eyes. I have always loved these photographs: my parents when they were young and beautiful, not the tyrants I had made them out to be from puberty into young adulthood nor the aging, fragile beings they had become by the end of their lives.
As the train lumbered toward Manhattan that day, I was struck by how the rosary and the photos are proof that the emotional import of a thing is not inherent in the thing itself but in the associations it evokes. When we entered the weak light of the tunnel shunting us into Penn Station, I studied Jesus’ limp form draped on the crucifix in that terribly graceful death pose. I can let it rest in the palm of my hand with no reaction other than the pure enjoyment of the craftsmanship producing its delicate beauty. But as I closed my eyes and remembered the photographs of my young mother and father, I felt emotions no one else would have felt when studying these nostalgic figures from another time—my parents when I was a precocious toddler.
As the train loped to a stop, Django’s snappy rendition of “Minor Swing,” a song he co-wrote with Stéphane Grappelly, was wafting through my headphones. I applauded that he never settled down, even as I think I know what it must have cost him to always be on the move. I didn’t realize until after I had become a fan of his music that he played with a handicap. He saw his infirmity as a challenge he was obligated to overcome. One of the ways he did this was to redesign the harmonic system of his instruments so the weakness of the fingers on his left hand, which had been maimed in a fire, would not be noticeable in his music.
Fire is such an important element in a gypsy’s life. Sometimes it burns for good, sometimes for ill. I closed my eyes as the doors of the train whooshed open, imagining Django’s clan preparing to dismantle their camp nearly a century before, their urge to burn some other ground heeded once again. There would have been sizzle as they doused the fire, the splatter of water reducing flame to char. There would have been the stamp of restless hooves on clotted dirt, the acrid air all the horses needed to know of moving on.
An astrologist once told me I am a phoenix; that I burn down lives and arise from the ashes, born anew. I have come to see this as my own form of gypsy-like behavior, which keeps me on the move more than I care to admit. Since that weekend in the Hamptons, which brought the rosary into my life, I have traveled far in many ways, still corrupted by wanderlust and a desire to burn down all that is not working, which often takes with it all that is.
I take Django with me when I’m on the move. It’s as if his lively cadences create the perfect score for a life lived in constant motion, even after so many years and so many miles have gone by the wayside. The rosary travels with me, too—tucked away in a soft silken pouch in my purse, “just in case.”
The Berlin International Film Festival chose Django, a French film about the jazz guitarist directed by Etienne Comar, to open this year’s edition next month.
I recorded this great band, Borsalino, in Place des Voges during one of my trips to Paris. I love their CD I have, as it’s a bit of a more modern take on Django’s music:
Finally, ihis is such a happy clip with a cameo by Django, I couldn’t resist sharing it:
The Diary of an Improvateur and Hail Django, Gypsy of Jazz © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by