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Christian Howes: Blues for the Blues Violin

Ian Patterson By

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It's not difficult to think of great blues artists—there's a roll call of honor as long as that of great jazz artists—and every sizeable town in the world has a blues band or two. So where is the violin? Great blues guitarists and vocalists have never been in short supply, but the great blues violinist, once such an important part of the blues group, has all but disappeared.

Eighty or so years ago, dozens of blues recordings featured fiddle players. It may be that the emergence of the guitar played a role in subverting and nearly banishing the fiddle from blues groups in later years, though right up to the '60s, players like Papa John Creach, Clarence Gatemouth Brown and Don "Sugar Cane" Harris kept the legacy of fiddle forbearers Lonnie Johnson, Henry "Son" Sims and Eddie Anthony alive to some extent.

However, today most people would struggle to name a single blues fiddler, and the instrument is not exactly commonplace in jazz either. This is a sorry state of affairs, and it has to be said, a rather peculiar fact, given that this dramatic, soulful instrument which evolved from the West African one-stringed fiddle has such tremendous range, as well as enormous harmonic and melodic possibilities.

Plus, in the right hands, it is an instrument of powerful improvisational persuasion.

Christian Howes—a classically trained violinist who has turned his hand to all kinds of music from orchestral to Latin, and jazz to fusion—is doing his bit to revive the violin as an authentic voice of the blues. His just released second album for Resonance Records, Out of the Blue, is an exploration of the intangible essence of the blues and a passionate calling card from one of the most talented violinists of any genre of music.

For Howes, the disappearance of the violin from the blues is a matter of education; if a person is trained from infancy to associate the violin exclusively with the European classical tradition, then it will be extremely difficult to persuade this same person that the instrument can be used in an entirely different idiom. Four years in the penitentiary in Ohio on drugs charges, playing with black musicians in the yard and attending church gospel services may have been just about as authentic a blues education as Howes could have wished for. Although Howes considers his quest for the blues something of an ongoing process, few who listen to Out of the Blue would doubt that he hasn't already nailed it.

All About Jazz: First up, congratulations on a great album. Was a blues album something you wanted to do for a long time?

Christian Howes: Thanks. I've always been conscious of trying to express the blues in everything I play, especially because this is really what's been missing from a lot of the jazz violin tradition—with some notable exceptions such as John Blake and Stuff Smith. I had wanted to do an album of spirituals, actually, for some time. It was George Klabin's idea to do a project using the blues as a theme, and this resonated with me.

AAJ: For an album of what is, broadly speaking, blues music, I'm interested in your choice of material. You haven't chosen the obvious blues figures to reinterpret: Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, etc., nor have you covered blues violinists like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown or Don "Sugar Cane" Harris. What was behind your choice of interpretations?

CH: Good point. The term "blues" can be taken in many connotations, i.e., as a radio format, a song form, a historic tradition, or an intangible element of many styles of music such as gospel, jazz, rock, etc. I wanted to capture the element of blues as it occurs within jazz.

AAJ: Your choices perhaps underline the inseparable nature of jazz and blues music; fair comment?

CH: Actually, this is a very controversial premise, and one which is extremely important for musicians to examine. Some people say that, in order for music to qualify as "jazz," it must contain blues. Others say that jazz can be any music which includes interactive improvisation. I believe there are virtues and limitations within either side of this argument. Jazz was born out of blues, and this is a part of its African-American heritage. But how can someone on the other side of the world understand such a cultural thing without witnessing or somehow participating in it? Should Stephane Grappelli, for example, a French violinist who arguably had very little contact with blues or the culture from which it came, be denied the title of "jazz violinist"?

It's a complex issue which inevitably gets into issues of cultural propriety. For example, "Can a white person play the blues? " And of course, the question then follows whether a white person can play jazz, depending on whether we divorce jazz from blues or not. These questions prompted me to want to learn the blues and play jazz during my four- year incarceration in Ohio prisons. I was playing with black street musicians on the yard and in church services, all the time trying to understand the elusive quality which they expressed in all styles, including hip hop, R&B, gospel and different styles of jazz. For that matter, I could have asked any of them to sing a classical melody and they would have added blues. It really is something cultural, and anyone that wants to understand the blues who doesn't come from the culture should try to study the culture.

Having said all that, after years of trying to authentically represent the blues in everything I do, I also realize now that firstly, I'll always be limited in as much as I can achieve this and secondly, I can also be effective by exploring other elements of my musical and cultural background, and using these as material for expression in my music.

AAJ: The violin seems like the perfect blues instrument, being able to imitate the human voice, or emotions let's say, as well as it does; does it surprise you at all the violin has all but disappeared from the blues groups playing today? How do you account for the fact that so few people play blues violin in blues groups?

From left: Bill Evans, Christian Howes

CH: That's a good question. It's about culture, or specifically, the "culture of education." Most people trained on the violin are trained according to a "white" music educational system, i.e., a western European, analytical, discursive tradition. This tradition only pays attention to classical music, and therefore students never learn the blues. They never learn to improvise either. Even black string players that I've met, folks that can sing in church every week with lots of soul, when they put a violin in their hand, they sound like a classical musician because that's how they were taught to play the violin. Clearly, they were taught the violin in a very narrow context. Imagine if they were playing the violin in church since they were four years-old? We'd have a whole lot of soulful violin playing going on.

This is a reflection of the cultural segregation in our society. If our music educators recognized the need to teach the blues to string players, we'd have tons of bluesy string players.

Our (classical) music education system is carrying on this segregation and ignorance in our society, even if they do it with good intentions. Us white folks need to spend more effort exposing ourselves to the contributions of other cultures which are a part of our society. The full notion and experience of "the blues" is to us, as Ralph Ellison put it, "invisible." The only way to make something like this visible to the cultural majority is to teach it and explore it from as young an age as possible, and then we have the ability to be enriched by it, and to some extent, to express it or represent it more authentically.

It's a shock to the system when we hear a violin play the blues because of the disconnect between a violin, i.e., an archetypal symbol of the western European canon, and blues, a symbol of "blackness." That's part of what motivates me. I want to make a social statement that argues strongly with the unacceptable status quo.
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