On a String and a Prayer

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In the six years since moving, I've tried to reclaim my identity, returning to my musical roots, embracing my instrument and even abandoning my attempt to act like a New Yorker.
By Christian Howes

From a string player's point of view, gaining acceptance within the jazz community is a little like showing up for the first day at a new school with a big stain on your shirt. If you've ever walked into a jam session with a violin slung over your shoulder, you'd know that obtaining an invitation to the stage isn't easy. But this is changing as more orchestral string players find their way into creative musical situations. Our struggle to gain both credibility and a sense of identity might offer insight to other instrumentalists in their own careers.

When I began 12 years ago to promote myself as a "jazz violinist," it quickly became clear that not many bandleaders were looking to hire me to play jazz. I realized that the only way for me to play jazz was to become a bandleader, so I did. In the beginning, as I struggled to learn the language and conventions of the music, I suffered my fair share of evil glances and jokes at my expense from some of the more veteran rhythm section players I had hired. In retrospect, I can't say I didn't deserve them.

But I soon found that, once I overcame the preliminary hurdles, it was also to my advantage (from a booking standpoint and for sheer entertainment value) that my instrument was so uncommon in jazz, because the violin helped me to be easily recognizable early in my career. In other words, it identified me. Nonetheless, for a long time I fought against this identity, in an effort to fit in with the more seasoned players. I was a minority desiring more than anything to be a member of "the club." Rather than working to develop my own sound, highlighting the violin as a distinct instrument and perhaps drawing from my early exposure to classical and rock music, I focused exclusively on the jazz language, which was quite foreign to me, in order to distance myself from the violin and have a sound that fit in.

This dilemma (i.e. whether to fit in or stand out) haunts many artists. We all have elements of ourselves that we perceive as different or disadvantageous, whether stemming from our musical background, hometown, race, gender, personality type or some other unique influence. It is all too easy to become self-conscious and try not to stand out, even though we rationally understand from observing great artists that our uniqueness is an asset. After all, the ability to be an identifiable brand is desirable in any business.

After studying the classic elements of jazz—learning tunes, the lingo and the protocol of gigging for about five years—I moved to New York City and began to see that there were many more niches or scenes then I had ever been exposed to in Columbus, Ohio. In NYC it seemed that players tended to be more typecast, working exclusively in one musical scene. Suddenly my broad-based skills caused people to question what my identity was—I began to see that maybe trying to "fit in" wasn't all it was cracked up to be, since, after all, it's my uniqueness, not sameness, that would ultimately make me valuable as an artist.

In the six years since moving, I've tried to reclaim my identity, returning to my musical roots, embracing my instrument and even abandoning my attempt to act like a New Yorker. I finally landed the legitimizing sideman gigs I'd always hoped for, playing with leaders like DD Jackson, Les Paul, Dafnis Prieto and Bill Evans—all of whom really wanted me to do my thing and welcomed the difference that both my personality and my violin brings. Although they didn't necessarily hire me for my "fluency" in jazz, I was ultimately better off for having it.

Through teaching in places like Berklee and my own annual Creative Strings Workshop, I've observed that string players need to overcome their own fears and go through a period of being "the new kid" in order to gain credibility in the jazz world. They need to humble themselves and study the jazz language. This can be psychologically risky, but risk is necessary for an artist (and a small business) and it's ultimately worth it. Assimilating into the culture of jazz requires stepping out of our enclaves into a vulnerable space and it takes a long time to become fluent and gain credibility from the "cats." Yet, at the same time, it behooves us to cherish what distinguishes and identifies us, never losing sight of our personal and idiosyncratic musical vision, regardless of our level of advancement. If this means we're identified by an uncommon instrument, then so be it. The balance is difficult to achieve but definitely worth it.

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