"The sun was high, the air was still, a day so hot the sun was sweating. In rode a redhead on a pinto pony, singing and yodeling. Legend has it she was raised by Comanche; others opine that she was left in a shopping mall by Scottish settlers. She was headed for parts unknown when she fell in with a band of renegade beboppers and ended up 'Swingin' Out West'."
Thus is the legend of Cow Bop, the Bay Area's premier cowboy-jazz band. The spirit of Western swing is not only alive and well, but in May 2004 it rocked a number of roadhouses along Route 66 as guitarist Bruce Forman, his wife, singer Pamela ("Pinto Pammy") Forman, and their bandmates trekked down the Mother Road. Their Chicago-to-Santa Monica "Route 66 Challenge" was intended as a seat-of-the-pants fundraiser for the JazzMasters Workshop, Forman's non-profit music education institute, but it turned into a life-changing experience for the four band members.
On May 7th the group left Chicago in a rented van, with just $100 in their pockets and no set schedule. Cow Bop grooved their way down 66 in the grand old road band fashion, stopping in at promising venues and setting up spontaneous gigs for whatever the house would permit: pass-the-hat, food and drinks, or payment of the management's choosing. Fans and curious patrons tracked the band's progress via GPS on their website, cowbop.com , and supporters pledged money per mile driven to benefit JazzMasters. Each night as they settled in, the band posted daily journal entries on the website detailing the progress they'd made and the sights and people they encountered. On the sunny morning of May 21st the quartet arrived at the Santa Monica pier, their mission accomplished and hearts enriched by working hand-to-mouth as a bona fide road band.
Forman is a critically acclaimed guitarist whose usual work is far removed from the Texas Playboys, but he's always had a soft spot in his heart for the music. He says, "I had always liked Western swing; I'd grown up hearing it in Texas as a kid. Being a guy who likes to ride horses and was immersed in horse culture, it was a natural thing for me to get around to exploring Western swing. Until now I had never performed this kind of music regularly, but over the years I had played at times with people who played that kind of thing. On the road you could find me playing with blues bands, salsa bands, whoever would let me play. Everybody had a different take on music, and that kind of learning was about as good as anyone can do in life!
"Marrying a woman who liked those things as well also helped," says Forman. "Pammy comes straight out of the Western world; she's a real country singer, and she balances out the jazz elements. Then we drew in other people, like our drummer Mike McKinley, who is the Central Coast regional director for JazzMasters. So the band sort of grew organically out of people who love the music."
Cow Bop's music, as presented on their debut album Swingin' Out West (BluJazz Productions), has perhaps more of a bebop feeling than the traditional sense of Western swing, but the spirit of Bob Wills is ever-present. "Wills' band had players from jazz, country and other styles of music. Remember, they played the pop music of the day, and the genesis of what we're doing is much the same." The CD includes cowboy-jazz takes on songs like "Dinah", "Cow Cow Boogie", "Sleepytime Down South", "Don't Fence Me In", "Honeysuckle Rose", and "'Deed I Do" with a guest spot by legendary retro singer Dan Hicks.
The JazzMasters Workshop was born out of Forman's desire to recreate the mentor spirit that nourished jazz in the 1930s and 40s, when young bucks could learn the trade at the feet of experienced veterans. "I grew up in a time when there were lots of music clubs around. There used to be a lot of workshops before gigs, particularly with guitar players. That was a key element of my development and upbringing as a player. Now the scene has changed, so there's not much of that left today. I wanted to bring back that dynamic where young people could play with seasoned pros and develop a mentor system.
"The music community is one of our true cultural resources in this country, and I saw it languishing. I got tired of hearing myself complaining about the state of jazz and not doing anything, so I finally determined to pursue something. I kept it guitar-centric at first, then some of my friends heard about what I was doing. They helped me to obtain nonprofit status, and it all grew from there.
"JazzMasters was first built around the apprenticeship model, and later we created an entry-level program so younger kids could get the benefit of discipline, dedication and professional input. You could say we created our own farm system in a way. Now we have ten weekly programs going around the country - mostly developmental programs - in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Salinas Valley, and the East Bay. After those programs, kids go on to the next level in the performance program. We offer them performance opportunities in their community, and we aim to make them worthy candidates for scholarships."
Forman knew from the get-go that the program had to be well-organized, fun and rewarding in order to keep the kids interested. "Continuity is vital in programs like this because there's so much transiency in what they're involved with now. We have devoted pros who are willing to stick with these kids and give them what they need." Forman's dedication led the Jazz Journalists Association to honor him with a discretionary award in June 2003 for his service to the jazz community.
Like JazzMasters, the Route 66 Challenge was born from a sense of nostalgia for the old-time road bands, who traveled the nation without many advance bookings. "We came up with the Challenge after opening our Chicago program. I had been on tour in St. Louis the year before, and I stumbled upon historic Route 66 at an old roadhouse outside of town. I was fascinated by the history and I decided I wanted to see as much of this road as I could before it's all gone. My experience as a touring musician resonated with the whole idea of Route 66 and its place in our culture.
"As we developed the idea of the Challenge, it became an obvious thing that we had to do this. The Don Quixote/traveling minstrel parts of me saw that, despite modern conveniences and technological advances, person-to-person communication like the road bands used to do could still be done. The hardest part was talking the band into sleeping in a van and turning down paid work for a couple of weeks!" To fuel the fire Cow Bop put together an engaging version of Bobby Troup's road anthem, which was a big hit on the trip and which Forman says will be on their next album.
"The public really took to this. They tracked our progress on the website, and a lot of people called us along the road and said things like, 'I'm from Tulsa. Call this guy...' When you get to a venue and try to line up a spontaneous gig, the first thing they say is that you're crazy, then they realize what you're trying to do. When we finally talked them into it and they saw we were a high-performance, professional band, their reaction was usually more relief than surprise. As it turned out, we didn't even have to cut into the money from our CD sales, which we could have done if we hadn't been able to make it along the way. More and more what we saw was a family, almost a gypsy dynamic. The common goals and hardships we shared among the people we met along the Route strengthened our ties."
Although the mileage-pledge aspect wasn't as profitable as Forman had hoped, the experience of the road trip was worth every ounce of effort. "We had memorable moments daily, most of them having to do with the incredibly wonderful and generous people we met. We played the Tulsa Hall of Fame, which is the capitol of Western swing, and the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Santa Fe. There's a guy named Lou Grigsby in Springfield who's a traditional jazz trumpet player, and he really made the trip work for us... In many ways the trip changed my life. I don't think I'll ever have the same opinion of my fellow humans I had before. I became even more touched and impressed by people. That's really a Route 66 phenomenon. You feel it instantly - the attitude of the merchants, the people who are traveling - you can really sense the difference. It's heartwarming to know that a part of the country I really loved is still there. Probably the biggest decision for us was that, instead of being indecisive about the trip, we picked May 7th as the day we would leave and we stuck to it no matter what. It may seem trivial, but in making that commitment we became dedicated to making it work."
The advance promotion of the Route 66 Challenge was multi-leveled: website publicity, word-of-mouth, even coverage in Down Beat. "The response to this was overwhelming. Our website had over 100,000 hits after we went out. Newspapers printed parts of our online journals and had people clamoring for more. And it helps that the music is so friendly and non-technical. While it wasn't the great fundraiser that we had hoped for, it energized people's spirit for the road."
Having made it through this adventure, Forman and friends are on fire to hit the road again. "We decided to keep the concept going, perhaps reconfigure the Challenge a bit and make more opportunites to reach kids. We'd like to arrange to go to schools, boys' and girls' clubs and such. On the website we'll still have the daily journal, pictures, some historical perspective and talk about the interesting people we meet. We want to do this twice a year. We'll start with Highway 49 through California's gold country this fall, then hit the Mission Trail/El Camino Real in the spring. Since the missions are closer together that will give us more opportunity to plan things and meet with more kids. Then maybe in the fall of 2005 we'll hit Route 66 again."
Cow Bop's recent journey has been inspirational to people well beyond the music community, although Forman admits some folks didn't quite get the point. "We just opened the California Rodeo in Salinas, and we were billed as the band that won the Route 66 Challenge. We didn't have the heart to tell them we made it up and were the only ones doing it! But now we know we've inspired other bands to do the same kind of thing, so maybe this will become a regular part of our musical culture again."
To learn more about Cow Bop, hear their music, watch for their next road trip or make a donation to JazzMasters Workshop, visit www.cowbop.com or www.wayoutwestmusic.com .
Tom G. O'Neal