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Fit As A Fiddle: How the Violin Helped Shape Jazz, Part 2

Fit As A Fiddle: How the Violin Helped Shape Jazz, Part 2

Courtesy Colin Lenton


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So, maybe the following week my father [John Blake, Jr] called McCoy, and said it looks like I'll be available now to be in your band. Dad said McCoy’s exact words were, ‘You can stay in the band as long as you like.’
—Johnathan Blake
Part 1 | Part 2

This is Now

I hate to confess this, but I've never been that keen on Stephane Grappelli's playing, as masterful and brilliant as he assuredly was. ("He plays with an accent," violinist and Berklee professor Rob Thomas confided to me when I hesitantly mentioned this to him. What Rob meant was that Stephane used a lot more vibrato than most other jazz violinists.)

"It was that gypsy, slightly classical style," Detroit-born Regina Carter explained, adding that even though her early career was spent moving between classical orchestras and Motown bands, Grappelli was one of the violinists who inspired her to take up jazz violin. (For non- violinists, playing jazz with a wide vibrato, to some modern ears, is a little like hearing a classical singer trying to sing the The Rolling Stones' hit "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" with a clipped, upper-class British accent). Grappelli's playing is masterful, and his fame and acclaim are hard earned and deserved. But that vibrato—it feels out of sync to some modern ears (like mine), not unlike the huge vibrato that tenor saxophone players used before Lester Young came on the scene and changed what a cool horn sound should be.

The invention, in the 1940s, of an electric pick-up for the violin revolutionized it in much the same way as a decade or so earlier it had revolutionized the guitar. But it wasn't just that the violin could sound louder and could compete with instruments that had previously drowned it out. Starting in the late 1960s, as electric instruments became more available and affordable, jazz violinists started following guitarists and keyboard players in exploring interesting new sounds on their instrument that other front line instruments didn't gravitate to so readily.

One of my jazz teachers, a saxophonist who did not play the guitar (my instrument), strongly encouraged ear training and learning solos as part of my instrument technique. He once told me, "the voice is the first instrument." The violin is, arguably, one of the closest instruments to the human voice. The voice is created by air vibrating vocal cords, while the violin's sound comes from a bow vibrating strings. Both sustain notes with fluid pitch and dynamics making it a deeply expressive instrument with the right instrument in the right hands. Amplified though, it can be as different from the acoustic instrument as, say, the electric guitar can sound from the acoustic guitar. Apart from drums and percussion, the violin is possibly the only instrument that, in some form or other, is found in nearly every culture throughout time, from stone-age hamlets to sophisticated skyscraper cities. That leads, potentially, to violinists finding ways of fusing and borrowing from a vast musical palette of sounds and idioms, such as: classical, bluegrass, country, Celtic, folk, middle eastern and far eastern music, Southeast Asian music, gospel, rock, bebop and swing/gypsy jazz, and the androgynously named World music.

By the mid to late 1950s, official American jazz diplomacy tours flourished around the world. At the same time, Ghana became the first African colony to win its independence from European rule. As independence movements grew in Africa and 19th Century colonialism finally went into its death spasms, in the United States the Civil Rights movement encouraged Black artists to explore and reclaim their uniquely African voices.

In an interview with All About Jazz in 2003, for example, pianist Randy Weston said, "For me, my music is African rhythms. That is what I call my music. I have been trying to project the history of our music, which is Africa. But as far as categories are concerned, it all depends on each artist."

As the post-bop period evolved through the 1960s and '70s, a number of Black American jazz musicians embraced a conscious effort to return to jazz's African roots. The violinist who most obviously embraced this effort, embodied in the gospel organ he heard his mother play in church every Sunday, was John Blake, Jr. As jazz evolved into funk and groove, Blake naturally picked up where Stuff Smith had left off, bringing with him that gospel/blues feel that Stuff had made so distinctly his own. "Growing up I heard a lot of spirituals," Blake said, in a YouTube interview.

In 1969, I had a job on an evening newspaper who also payed for me to go to college and get a journalism degree. If you were around then, and of a certain age, whether in England where I was, or in the U.S., Timothy Leary-like mind expanding experiments were not unknown, be it alcohol, "tea," or magic blotting paper and sugar cubes. I was seriously into jazz, of course, but was also getting high with my college room-mates and listening loudly to LPs like Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland (Reprise, 1969), and Frank Zappa's Hot Rats (Bizarre/Reprise, 1969).

Zappa can best be described as an intensely irreverent rock satirist, deliberately outrageous, flirting in his own way with rock tinged with jazz, in the same kind of outside spirit Joe Henderson, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman were experimenting with in jazz. Ornette also played the violin—bet most of you didn't know that. If you're open to Free Jazz check this out:

The song off the Hot Rats album my room mates and I listened to most was a heavy metal track called "Willie the Pimp." There, in the opening bars was a brash something?! What was that? It took me a few moments to recognize it as the electric violin of a musician I later found out was Don "Sugarcane" Harris. A couple of tracks further on was, "It Must Be a Camel" with that electric violin again as part of the ensemble voices. This time played by a young Jean-Luc Ponty. That's when I realized I wasn't listening to Grappelli or Venuti any more. This was something new.

A couple of years later I discovered Ponty had collaborated with Frank Zappa on another record, which featured the violin, called King Kong (Blue Note, 1993).

From the outset, the violin sounded reminiscent of the music of McCoy Tyner and Wayne Shorter. The tracks sometimes went on a bit too long for my taste, but what was particularly cool about the record, very much a product of its time, was that Ponty was a major award-winning classical violinist—another one! —who I discovered also played jazz clarinet and saxophone throughout college, before finally deciding to play jazz on his main instrument— the violin—as well.

Fusion jazz in Europe featuring the violin started to head in directions that leaned away from its gypsy-style jazz origins and bluesy American sounds. Instead, it ventured more into the outer reaches of improvised music where jazz, classical, soft rock, and folk (both of the east and the west) seemed to merge unsteadily, in the process creating a new genre of music sometimes tagged "World Music."

Back in the States, the now-amplified violin was also undergoing a rediscovery of sorts. And this is where it gets interesting—of the major American jazz violinists on the jazz scene today (2021), some of the most notable include Regina Carter, Rob Thomas, Christian Howes, Sara Caswell, Benjamin Sutin, and Jeremy Kittel. Each either studied with or was mentored by John Blake, Jr., who also had many other students at various prestigious institutions. (Less so in Rob Thomas' case, though he and Blake were good friends.) John Blake, Jr.,'s legacy, it turns out, isn't just the recordings and performances with Grover Washington, Jr., and McCoy Tyner, or the records he made under his own leadership, but also the young violinists he taught, inspired and mentored through his jazz violin education efforts. In their own way, all of them are following in Blake's footsteps as they in turn now help nurture new generations of violinists.

Grammy Nominee (2018) Sara Caswell, for example, is a well recorded performer who also teaches at several prestigious music schools. She is equally at home (as are most jazz violinists) playing either classical, jazz, or original modern music laced with electric folk and groove that somewhat defies an easy labelling. Studying with Blake, she said, was exhilarating. "As soon as the lessons were done, I wanted to go home and practice and work on these things he showed me. He was that kind of teacher who is really able to teach not just by their fine artistry, but also just by who they are and influenced their students by how they lived. That's something that is very rare and John definitely had a big hand in shaping so many violinists and how they are in the world."

John Blake, Jr., blazed a trail as a soulful post-bop, jazz funk player, a kind of cross if you like, between the Ponty-Lockwood style, and Stuff Smith (who had died in 1967 aged 58, in Munich, Germany).

Philadelphia has birthed some pretty remarkable jazz musicians, and stories of Philly musicians looking out for each other are many. John Blake, Jr.'s, was one of them. He started out as a pianist, but by the time he was nine he had switched instruments after hearing classical violinists like Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin. Although as an adult he played with a traditional European violin technique, he was also influenced by Indian music, such as south Indian Carnatic rhythms, which he studied in Montreux, Switzerland for postgraduate work. In an interview with Julie Lyonn Lieberman, he attributed working on the unusual Indian style of playing the violin, with the head stock pointing down and sliding into notes, with helping his blues playing.

Early on he worked with Archie Shepp, but it was his collaboration with Grover Washington, Jr., that really got him attention. He then spent five years with McCoy Tyner in various ensembles enriching that reputation. In an NPR conversation and performance with Dr. Billy Taylor, he said his greatest musical inspiration was his mother "playing [organ] behind church choirs." John's last released recording, Motherless Child (ARC, 2010), which was nominated for a Grammy, seems to pay direct tribute to that lasting inspiration. It is an album of improvisations on hymns and spirituals, arranged by Blake for his quartet and the Howard University vocal jazz ensemble Afro Blue.

Jazz drummer, Jonathan Blake, John Blake, Jr.'s, son, recalled that his dad came from a big family. There were five kids altogether, and both his grandparents and his mom and dad were artists in their own way. "My grandmother made sure all her kids, after a certain point as they grew up, all had to do something in the arts. Music, painting, storytelling whatever.

"When dad got to West Virginia University he went to study classical violin. Then someone played him a recording of Ray Nance with Duke Ellington, and dad said he'd never heard the violin played like that. He said that was when he realized that's what he wanted to do.

"His first real, major gig was with Grover Washington, Jr.—maybe around 1975, he hired dad as a conductor for a project with strings they took on the road. Dad played keyboards. There are three albums that my dad played on with Grover. There's one called Live at the Bijou (Kudu, 1977). And that was the first one that went gold."

In the next two recordings, Grover featured Blake's playing more and more. These records were also commercial successes. Blake and Grover were arguably the first group to successfully cross over from jazz to jazzy rhythm and blues, with John Blake's violin playing a major role in that success.

Round about 1979, McCoy Tyner got ready to change up his band again. He wanted to expand his quintet and include violin. Johnathan Blake explained, "McCoy had started hearing violin for some of the music he was writing. This is what my father told me. Apparently, McCoy was going to call Jean-Luc Ponty and ask him to join his band. Before he did that, his bassist, Charles Fambrough, who was also from Philly and really good friends with my father, went to McCoy and said, hey man, I got this guy that I know you'll like, and he's from Philly. And McCoy, being from Philly I think [that settled it]. So McCoy called him up to do like one small gig, maybe in New York somewhere. And they played and McCoy fell in love with my father's playing, because, you know, my father was always about melodies and playing from the heart. Of course, he knew about changes and stuff like that, but he would pull at your heart strings when he played."

An old swing musician once told me the reason he didn't like Charlie Parker's music was that Bird made everything sound like the blues. And I said, that's exactly why his playing is so great! With John Blake, Jr., as his son says, "gospel just infused almost everything he played. Because it involved the blues and it was genuinely heartfelt. So that played heavily into what McCoy was doing. And McCoy told dad, 'I really want you to join my band.'"

"So, my dad called up Grover who he was still working with, and said, 'I'm being asked by McCoy Tyner to join his band. But I'm still part of your band.' And he told me, Grover said, 'Look man, I still have some more work with that band.' So dad was going to call McCoy and say I can't really join your band right now. But what wound up happening was that maybe a week or two later, Grover disbanded the group that my dad was a part of. So, maybe the following week my father called McCoy, and said it looks like I'll be available now to be in your band. Dad said McCoy's exact words were, 'You can stay in the band as long as you like.'"

Blake played with McCoy Tyner until 1984. It was at this point he became the leader of his own groups, recording several LPs in fairly short order. He also expanded his teaching from the Philadelphia Settlement Music School and the University of the Arts, and was three times voted one of two top jazz violinists in Down Beat magazine's Readers Polls.

After she graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music where she had studied classical violin, Regina Carter said "I tracked John down through his manager at the time. I got a National Endowment of the Arts study grant, so I would fly to New York and stay with a girlfriend who had moved to New York. And then I would take a bus or train to Philly." She did this for a couple of years.

In 2010 her research on the African roots of the violin resulted in the well-received album Reverse Thread (Entertainment One, 2010), that John produced for her, which explored compositions by artists from Kenya, Mali, and Senegal. In 2013, Regina and John performed two concerts at the Miner Auditorium in San Francisco, entitled African Roots of Violin with John Blake.

Sara Caswell studied with Blake at Manhattan School of Music. "He just had an immeasurable influence on the current generation of improvising string players. Part of it has to do with his personality. He was just such a loving man, caring, thoughtful, a great sense of humor and joy in the way that he existed and he was also very humble. And when you have a teacher who is such an incredible musician with those qualities, you can't help but be attracted to that person and want to know everything you can about how they view the world, how they think about their music, how they walk in the world. John listened with an amazing set of ears and knew how to explain those concepts that I needed to address with just the utmost clarity and inspiration."

Adam Baldych is a 35 year-old Polish violinist who has been making a name for himself on the European circuit. He got a scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music, was hailed a child prodigy on the violin, and has played and toured with a laundry list of prominent musicians. He won the 2013 ECHO Jazz Award "International Artist of the Year Other Instruments/Violin," for his recording Imaginary Room (ACT, 2012) and acclaim as Best Jazz Album for his 2014 recording The New Tradition (ACT). He has also headlined the Montreux and London Jazz Festivals but considers himself more of an improvising violinist, and is not completely comfortable with the tag "jazz violinist," though he certainly comes out of the school of playing his fellow countrymen Michal Urbaniak and Zbigniew Seifert pioneered. His latest recording, Clouds (ACT), released in 2020, is the sixth album he has released through ACT music in Germany.

Baldych's background as a jazz violinist is unusual in that despite coming of age as a musician in the early 2000s, in some ways he had a much more old school, on-the-job kind of apprenticeship than many of his jazz musician contemporaries, who largely got their education and early experience in high schools and music schools.

"I was 13 when I first started playing jazz and made my first band and we were playing standards and listening to anything we could grab," Baldych explained. "Remember, at that point there was still no Spotify or Apple music. So, you just met people and shared music and you would play all over whenever you could. And I tried to copy what I heard and also tried to find something new. I was also going all the time to a jazz club in my home city, Gorzów Wielkopolski."

This western Polish city is famous for its Jazz Club Pod Filarami which has been running for 35 years now. Every fall it organizes the Gorzów Jazz Celebrations, a festival that hosts internationally recognized musicians from Poland and around the world.

Baldych continued, "So when I was 13 years old I told the owner of the jazz club that I play jazz on the violin and can I play something, you know, with my band over there. And he let us. So we played our first concert and the owner believed in my talent and after that every single concert that was there in the club, the owner and the musicians let me join in as a guest at the end of the gig.

"I remember I was playing with the guys like Billy Cobham and other really great stars that were fantastic, coming to the jazz club. And I was still like 14 years old at that moment. So for me, it was just learning by playing with these great artists. I discovered that when you are on stage, it doesn't matter if you are older, or if you are young. You just need to make a dialogue and make music together. So supporting each other, finding some way to make it work, this is what breaks down any walls between artists who are playing this beautiful music."

In some ways, violinists are already pointing the way to where jazz and professional musicianship in general is already headed—more and more original music, and chimeras of a wide variety of mashed together styles and improvisations, released on independent labels for the most part.

Christian Howes, who was awarded the #1 spot in Downbeat magazine's Critics Poll (Rising Star Violin) in 2011, was also nominated for "Violinist of the Year" by the Jazz Journalists Association that same year. One track of his in particular, "Waltz for Bill" on his recording Song for my Daughter (ReverbNation, 2004) somehow sums up, for me at least, through its inventiveness and saxophone-like phrasing, a tradition that reaches back to Stuff Smith through John Blake, Jr. Violinists use pizzicato (plucking the string with a finger) all the time, and while there is nothing particularly "showboat-y" about what Christian does on this track, the chutzpah of playing the violin for a chorus or two as if he's improvising on a guitar before using his bow, is just not what listeners expect, and it is joyous.

These days, Christian spends much of his time teaching. His Creative Strings Workshop in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, is a clear continuation of the educational work John Blake, Jr., began. "He was never my teacher," Christian said, "but he was a friend and mentored me."

He went on, "did I model myself after other violin players? And the answer is kind of, no, I modeled my playing after saxophone players and guitar players... I mean, Grappelli was great, but it's mistaking the tree for the forest. If you picked any one guitarist, I don't know, Wes Montgomery, who's a wonderful guitarist, and said that's jazz guitar, then everybody would sound like Wes Montgomery. But we know there are so many ways to use the guitar in jazz, and it's the same thing with violin. But I think that's one of the reasons violin players gravitated towards Grappelli, because it was a more familiar sound to classical players. It was less of a bridge to cross. The fact is, playing jazz, for most classical musicians, is a big jump."

He made a similar point about the violin and jazz that most of the violinists I talked with made to me in their own way: "I think we should be careful what we call jazz because it really just depends how you define it. When I moved to New York around 2000, there were maybe a handful of violin players interested in improvisation and going beyond just playing classical music. These days there are many, many more violin players that are interested in improvisation. And that trend in my view is a good thing because, we've had these very siloed communities in music education for a long time where classical musicians learn what they learn, and jazz musicians learn what they learn. What I've been doing for the last 20 years or more, has really been teaching classical string players about all of the music outside classical music, not just jazz, because that's where the jazz education community is kind of failing.

" [A lot of the time] they present such a narrow window of what's possible, you know.... Teachers only know what they know... But it's been changing because of people like John Blake, who encouraged people like me. And there's no stopping this change now."

I mentioned to Johnathan Blake that Jean-Luc Ponty, early in his career, said he wasn't a jazz violinist, he was a jazz musician who played violin. Johnathan said his father felt similarly. "I think dad really kind of bridged that gap between other music styles and jazz violin."

When I told Regina Carter that a number of young violinists I spoke with don't always call themselves jazz musicians, she said, "I think it's interesting because sometimes I say I'm a violinist and I don't even say jazz, because when you say the word jazz, a lot of times even here in the United States, so many people still don't realize that the violin is an important part of what jazz is... Depending on what you've grown up listening to, a lot of people either think of the violin as an instrument that belongs in European classical music or as a fiddle in country music. I think jazz is the last box on the list that most people tick... String players tend to cross the boundaries or not be pigeonholed or stuck into one style of music as much as perhaps other instrumentalists."

Like a number of her contemporaries, Sara Caswell was trained as a classical violinist but listened to all sorts of music, including jazz. She came from an inquisitive musical family that went out of its way embrace new types of music, she said. She plays across a multitude of styles that are improvisational, but not always necessarily obviously jazz (depending on how you define the word these days). About the Ponty quote, she said, "Now that quote, that quote very much resonates with me... when I started taking lessons with David Baker I was around eight or nine years old. He knew I'd been studying Suzuki, and was getting a really terrific foundation technically and classically from the pre-college program at Indiana university. And he knew the tradition, the pedagogy, but he also knew me as a person and knew that my ears were pretty open and pretty strong. And so my first batch of assignments from him was just transcriptions."

"I remember him telling my mom, I don't want her to transcribe any jazz violinists for the first, like, two or three years that I'm working with her. And I think my mom was puzzled by that because obviously you'd think that the first person I'd transcribe would be another jazz violinist. But he was much more focused on me absorbing the language first and having my studies be a language-based exploration. I think the first solo I transcribed was a Miles Davis solo."

"After I finished my undergraduate degree I found I was living sort of a segregated musical life in that I had my classical studies and I had my jazz studies and there was not a whole lot of overlap between the two. I kind of felt like I was living two lives because my true identity was in a way, I suppose, a blending of the two. Jazz just spoke to me in a way that I needed to pursue with all of my energy. These days I think of myself as musically multi-lingual. This generation, like the students that I'm teaching right now at Berklee and NYU, and the New School and MSN, they're coming up in a multi-lingual musical environment. There's not necessarily that compartmentalization that I grew up with. . . I think that's such an inspirational thing, just seeing where those journeys lead."

Adam Baldych added, "being an improviser...was something I really grappled with early on, but at the same time, for me, because I really began with improvisation, I'm feeling more drawn to classical music these days. Music is bringing me all these ideas. And I'm trying to bring together understanding classical music with improvisation. Of course, I am not stopping my projects, which are made primarily with jazz people."

Conclusion—It's All About Family

A lot of great violin players haven't been mentioned so far, like Noel Pointer, Polly Bradfield, Zach Brock, Mark Feldman, Mark OConnor, Noel Webb, Johnny Frigo, Scott Tixier, Billy Bang, and Leroy Jenkins to name but a few. But a comment Johnathan Blake made stuck with me:

"To my father, everybody was like family, like his son or his daughter or something, you know, even the more well-known artists like Regina Carter. And so, my father would teach out of our house and all these students became my extended family because they just loved him so much, because he was just so giving of his time and just really, you know, always very family oriented."

In many ways, jazz violinists perhaps more than other instrumentalists consider themselves to be part of a family, a community. Jazz violin players are a breed apart, and not totally from their own choice. Certainly, there are fewer of them than most other jazz instrumentalists and so that sparsity has contributed to a sense of camaraderie. But more than that, the fact that in America in particular, so few still appreciate how important the violin and violinists were in shaping jazz has created a shared sense of being outliers in a musical form that they helped to birth.

When my son, Ben, for example, an aspiring jazz violinist, got to high school we searched for places for him to continue his jazz studies. He was already studying and playing classical music, and had a jazz violin teacher, but most places that taught jazz did so around a big band concept and considered the violin an "exotic" jazz instrument and unfortunately he did not "fit in." It really frustrated him. His middle school experience with Jazz at Lincoln Center middle school under Eli Yamin had been markedly encouraging and inclusive. But at age 14 all of that seemed to shut down.

The New Jersey Performing Arts Center's Newark-based, Jazz for Teens program was a striking exception to this jazz violin cold-shoulder, and they accepted Ben with open arms (as did the Litchfield, CT jazz camp run by Don Braden). In both venues he was able to rub shoulders, learn and play with working jazz musicians (particularly bassist Avery Sharpe, who had played with McCoy, and had been a close friend of John Blake, Jr). Ben played in big bands and small combos, including combining his experiences with his classical group, the New York ISO in concert as a string section with the Mingus Dynasty small group, who invited him to solo with them. But this is partly because he is a New York City kid, and the child of musicians. Elsewhere, jazz violin is still considered something of an outlier. Even now, for example, that famed cathedral of musical education, Julliard music school, whose jazz department is run by no less a luminary than Aaron Flagg, considers the violin to be solely a classical instrument. And they told my son so bluntly at a college fair.

I'd like to give the last word to my friend Ben Sutin, a rising violin player who has embraced not just jazz but improvised Klezmer music and plays regularly with Bobby Sanabria's Multiverse Big Band. Ben is featured on Bobby's 2018 Grammy nominated recording West Side Story Reimagined (Jazz Heads).

Ben Sutin, known affectionately in my house as "Big Ben" to distinguish him from my son, "Little Ben," was my son's jazz violin teacher for years, and he became a kind of older brother. Big Ben is also a former student of both Rob Thomas and Sara Caswell, but primarily John Blake, Jr., with whom he was very close. He was, in fact, John Blake, Jr.'s last private student.

He said, "Jazz, in my mind, has always been about the coming together of different musical genres and cultures to create something new, something distinct and beautiful. I think there is a particular emphasis in jazz these days on paying homage to your roots, while still respecting where the music initially came from. Jazz violinists in particular are able to draw from such a wide array of musical influences, such as Klezmer fiddling which is my primary influence. John, for example, studied Carnatic [i.e., south Indian] fiddling for years which greatly influenced his writing and playing.

"I remember visiting John on his deathbed. He held my hand and entrusted me with passing along the torch he gave me, and that's what I try to do every day. Losing John was like losing a parent."

In one of those weird moments of fate, or destiny, or whatever you want to call it, Big Ben agreed to start teaching Little Ben on the very day that John Blake, Jr., died. So this is where history and the present sort of meet in an oddly personal way. As I write this, Little Ben is now 6 feet tall, towers over both Big Ben and myself, and is a freshman at NYU studying jazz violin with Sara Caswell. His first jazz violin teacher, when he was 10, at the Harlem School of the Arts was Rob Thomas. And so Little Ben has become part of another family, a small but growing community of improvising violinists that have been passing along their skills and traditions one-to-one going back almost directly to Stuff Smith and Joe Venuti.

That's one hell'uva family.

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