"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.