For artists like Stevie Wonder, Django Reinhardt, disability became a catalyst for musical innovation
In some cases it gave birth to new styles of play, influencing countless musicians that came after
This story was originally published Oct. 12, 2020.
In 1928, jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt narrowly escaped death in a fire that left his left fretting hand badly burned, fusing his pinky to the finger beside it and permanently curling both in.
"He had to find new ways to fret chords," said Roberto Rosenman, himself a jazz guitarist who has studied and emulated Reinhardt's style. At the time, popular guitarists weren't yet experimenting with chord extensions, which add a colourful tone to music.
Because of his fused fingers, Django could no longer play conventional chord shapes, but was able to play variants on these, Rosenman told Canadian vocalist Alex Pangman, host of the CBC Radio special Music in the Key of Life. Those modified chords gave his playing different shadings and an identifiable sound that was ahead of its time harmonically.
The fire was the catalyst for his adaptation.
Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, co-editor of the Oxford Book of Music and Disability Studies, said Reinhardt's way of playing the guitar "has influenced so many people who have no disability just because he was such an innovator."
"I think it's very important to realize that creativity and innovation are things that happen when people have neurodiversity, and when people do create with a different type of body," said Jensen-Moulton, who is also an associate professor of music of Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York. "And it's important to look at their work as a reason for having human diversity."
For musicians such as Reinhardt and Stevie Wonder, disability was much more than a physical challenge that needed to be overcome.
It was a springboard for innovation that in some cases gave birth to new styles of play, cementing the artists as important pioneers who have influenced countless musicians that came after them, say academics and artists who study their work.
Take Wonder, for instance. He's one of the most influential musicians in popular music. He also happens to be blind.
Born premature in Saginaw, Mich., he lost his eyesight in a hospital incubator. But Wonder never let being blind define him, said Will Fulton, an associate professor of music at LaGuardia Community College in New York, who has studied Wonder's music extensively.
Wonder was signed to Motown Records at the tender age of 11. He's won three Grammys for album of the year and has sold more than 100 million records.
Some of his most recognizable sounds have roots in adaptations he made to orient himself at the keyboard, said Fulton.
"He has never spoken publicly about this, but one thing that's fascinating about Stevie Wonder is that … the musical keys that he was most comfortable in were the keys that were all the flats on the piano," he said.
"He would rest his thumb underneath the keyboard when he was playing those songs — they ended up being [in] E-flat pentatonic minor or G-flat major — those were the songs that used only the black keys."
Though Wonder was known for his complicated tonality and chord structures across all keys, said Fulton, a number of his most popular tracks, including Superstition and Higher Ground, are in these ones.
"Those are the keys that he would really play his funkiest and his loosest. And it comes down to, I think, this early self-assistive technique he had developed to have his thumb under the keyboard, his fingers on the black keys and just kind of move around like that and therefore be aware of his positioning."
'He wanted control of his music'
Leaving the Motown label at 21 after he'd completed his contract, Wonder was eager to disengage from the "assembly line" approach at Motown, Fulton said. Under founder Berry Gordy, Motown vocalists were brought in to lay down tracks as instructed, had little influence over instrumentation and few opportunities to record or produce their own music.
"He always had to face what some scholars have called the specter of dependency. So he's always needed assistance in some way. He wanted control of his music. He wanted the ability to produce his music," Fulton said.
That drive for autonomy helped fuel Wonder's pioneering use of new synthesizer technology in the 1970s, prompting the creative renaissance that would come next, he said.
Watch: Meet TONTO, the machine behind Stevie Wonder's Superstition
"Stevie Wonder is one of the first, and certainly, the most well-known person, to record all of his musical parts in the studio and all of his vocal parts on many of his famous songs."
Wonder sought out a couple of New York sound engineers who had just put out an electronic album, according to Fulton. He spent the next four years in the studio with them — and an eight-foot-long synthesizer called TONTO — putting out album after album of some of his most influential work.
"What he ended up doing is producing his music to an extent to which nobody had ever really done anything like that before."
Of course Wonder created this work with collaborators who would help him out in the studio, even guiding his hand to find the knobs that he was looking for, said Fulton.
"Nothing happens in a complete vacuum. We're all assisted by technology. We're all assisted by each other. And so these recordings represent that. But they also represent Stevie Wonder really trying to gain autonomy over his music in a very serious way."
Fulton said Wonder had a huge influence on artists that followed him, including Prince — who performed, composed and produced everything on his albums and was billed as "the next Stevie Wonder" when first signed by Warner records in 1977 — and more recently, artists like Pharrell Williams and Timbaland.
The stories they tell
Adrian Anantawan is a concert violinist from Mississauga, Ont., who's performed at the White House and the United Nations. He studied at the prestigious Curtis institute of Music in Philadelphia. He has one hand and uses a prosthetic to hold his bow.
After realizing he wasn't going to be able to play the recorder in elementary school music class — "there were just too many holes in the actual instrument for me to actually cover because I'm missing five of my fingers" — his parents went on a quest to find him an instrument he could play.
But Anantawan found his own while watching an episode of Sesame Street.
"There was this clip of a man who came onstage in crutches" and struggled up some stairs in a segment about people with disabilities, said Anantawan. The man turned out to be celebrated Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman, who uses mobility devices because of polio he contracted in childhood.
"I remember that moment of just seeing someone on TV with a visible disability who wasn't really letting that disability define how he did things…. So I told my parents, well, I want to try that one."
Whether he's playing for a group of dignitaries or a concert hall of chamber music fans, there's an approach to storytelling that Anantawan said is enriched by his experience as a person with a disability.
"I think that in any music that we listen to, we're always trying to hear a story, even if there are no lyrics present. Whatever you're presenting for the listener has to be compelling in a sense that reflects … human life," he said.
If your personal story is a unique one, you're more able to create something that feels novel and interesting, he said. "That allows me, at least, to be able to express a piece by [Polish violinist Henryk] Wieniawski, for instance, in a slightly different way than someone who has two hands."
Anantawan said people with disabilities are particularly conscious of their own internal narratives, because in order to make meaning out of a disability, "you really do have to go internally, because no one can really explain it for you."
That exploration can be shared musically, he said, in a way that resonates with audiences on a key element of the human experience — struggle.
"And it's really … providing a slightly different perspective of how struggle might look, especially in disability — or triumph as well — that allows us to have almost like a unique fingerprint on a piece of music or any type of artwork."
Written by Brandie Weikle and Helen Bagshaw. Produced by Helen Bagshaw.