I can picture myself now at the 2014 Marshall University Jazzfest –
I’d spent the past couple days with my All-Star troop noodling and preparing for the performance that was to come almost as soon as we’d began practicing. But I wasn’t nervous, oh no; I was anxious to put it on stage from the minute I found out I was even a part of it.
So, with a skip in my step and head held high, I walk into the auditorium hours before we were even meant to be there to get the headstart-iest of headstarts on playing my music, especially since just like the practices and performance, I’d be getting to see the music and then never play it again before I ever knew it. Might as well spend some time really getting into its core and seeing how it ticks from my perspective, right?
I had my notebook with all my notes about the songs with me, I could’ve copied down all of the music to have a personal set to keep, but I felt that there was a value to keeping the timeframe I was given responsibility over the music to the length it would’ve been.
Heck, I was so excited about the whole thing, I didn’t even make sure I was in the right practicing area. I ended up practicing alone in what looked like a dance classroom with a piano and drumset, with a large curtain veiling a wide mirror. Lucky my common sense told me to start looking around once it got to an hour prior.
So, suited up like I love to be, I went out there and put on a show. Everyone else tapped a foot lightly or stayed as still as possible, focused on feeling and reading their way through the tunes. Meanwhile, here I am, bottom row with the saxes at the end next to the rhythm section, swinging my Bari inadvertently while my feet tap out every beat and rhythm they can and my face goes through the expressions of the phrases on the faster songs. On the slower ones, I’m swaying my upper body like a sensual mating dance mixed with ‘The Worm’. I’m throwing my hands and fingers around and missing keys, screwing up tricky runs, and loving every second of it. Only a couple spots, anyways, and it was always when my whole section was playing the same thing, so it sounded fine. Playing with legendary drummer Butch Miles made that song impossible not to go crazy-legs on.
When it was all said and done, I was treated to getting to watch and listen to yet more of the jazz I crave. The next day, I got to perform alongside my High School jazz band. This time, I decided to introduce myself much more softly. Instead of my trademark wide smile and preemptively rocking body, I came in like there wasn’t a thing special to me. I did this because of our first song; it was my song. Tenor Madness, jokingly called ‘Bari Madness’ by my band director since I was taking over the soloing and remaining mic’d throughout. I wanted everyone to lower their expectations, not for what they were about to hear, but for what they were about to see. And as soon as Phil kicked off, my eyes shut, and my body started moving to the beat. I wasn’t tapping my feet, I was thrusting my legs, with a little bit of shuffling, just like what I did at the All-Star performance sitting in that chair. And when my solo came up? Again, I was so into it, I was screwing it up. But again, I didn’t give two tits and a gravy.
I may not be the most dedicated instrument player, but if there’s one thing I refuse to put out about my personality, it’s that I’m not a passionate musician. That’s why they gave me a medal for being an outstanding soloist; I did what insecure teenagers don’t and didn’t do – I sacrificed trying to impress others for being myself. No doubt in my mind there were a ton of more talented instrument players within the other schools that performed, even just Bari saxes, but I’ll be damned if someone tells me they saw another kid that showed the love I did. I didn’t. And that’s not to say no one out there loved music more than me, my point is that I proved my love without having to say it. That’s what love is about.
Just yesterday and at the time I wrote this I was over at my Aunt’s for a family reunion, and that day happened to be the same as an annual Bluegrass pickin’ (and eatin’) that my Aunt’s family throws. The festivities were taken up mostly by talking to family in the house while the music and food stayed outside and made its way in gradually. By about 9pm, the crowd left, but the music stayed, and had now fully moved into the house by way of the living room.
My cousin was on guitar along several other musicians. I’d say who they are and what they played, but there was so much instrument switching it was more like instruments were just moving from hand-to-hand than being designated to anyone. There were guitars, mandolins, fiddles, violins, a doghouse bass, a banjo, I think even a Dobro at some point, and I even jumped in a little at the start with my melodica. I quickly left however, because as the number of musicians increased, so did the complexity, and I felt it better to listen to the shear talent and practice than to try and walk in its footsteps.
These were people from all over the place, from the WV capitol as far as Tennessee to my knowledge, but they all knew the songs and the instruments so well that they could just play for hours. And they did. The most amazing part was the inbetween, where each song would end and be immediately met with idle conversation and random noodling, until one person would just noodle the right thing, and everyone would immediately join in. One man, a beer-bellied fiddler with missing incisors, seemed to know lyrics to every song they played. They’d sing in 2, 3, 4, even 5-part harmonies, in that trademark Bluegrass southern draw. They played for so long, that when I went to sleep at 2am, they were still playing. I heard they played until 4:30am. That’s 7 hours and 30 minutes of high-energy pickin’.
For what time I spent on the couch right next to them listening, my legs more moving and my feet were tapping. Just like when I was there at the MU JazzFest. As soon as each song started, my eyes went shut, and I was crazy-legs again; tapping out all the rhythms in beat that felt right. Sometimes, just letting them go stupid as if I was standing up and shuffling without my upper body being a part of it.
What was happening wasn’t a similar thing. It was exactly the same.
If they’d played any slow-Blues, I’d bet I’d’ve done the rocking sway just the same.
At its roots, all music goes back to Blues. Before Blues, it was all orchestrations. Songs may have been meant to make you feel an emotion, but not always to express it. Songs didn’t really have lyrics, and titles if not non-existent were usually coupled by “Song Number 6” and so on. Of course, this wasn’t always the case, but comparatively vapid to Blues. The Blues was all about pain and truth, and though a conscientious observer might notice more of an affinity in me to the Orchestra more than the Blues, I’m impartial. The Orchestra is about taking you through a musical journey, while the Blues is about telling you a musical story, neither better than the other. Blues was the slowly growing musical style that birthed all the music we know. Quote:
“Ah, swing, well, we used to call it syncopation, then they called it ragtime, then blues, then jazz. Now, it’s swing.” -Louis Armstrong
The quote may be taken to assume that Blues wasn’t the root, but technically, it wasn’t. However, it’s not useful to talk about the history of lemons by talking about what went on before and completely unrelated to them. The American music scene was defined by Blues, and then by Jazz. Call it whatever you want, practicality perhaps, it’s what mattered.
If there’s one thing America did for the world that it never spitballed back an equal gift, it’s our musical roots.
Blues was in a lot of places, I’m a little against the idea that it started here, but Jazz definitely did. From Jazz came Rock & Roll, and I think we all know how much takes its roots from that American treasure. Oh, and also from Blues came Country.
A sub-genre of Country, Bluegrass takes its roots here among the Appalachian region, where the traditional music of all its cultures blended into a high-energy hoedown describing the nitty-gritty life of the Appalachian people. What’s interesting about it is how it turns every situation into a dancing-silly situation. Relationship issues, laborious working conditions, political outrage; all put into lyrics along poppy rhythms and flying fingers. Even when the chord progressions and lyrics say sad, the smiling faces, “Yeehaw!” lilt in their voices, and the high G-force flow of the rhythms say “Party in the Hills”.
Not being a Bluegrass player doesn’t stop me from being a musician, and listening to it for hours and hours taught me about how it ticks.
And y’know what? It’s Country Jazz.
When I’m playing Jazz, it usually has a bunch of tricky note values and runs that only someone who either really knew the song or the style or how to figure them out on the fly could do. What makes it different from other music, because technically that’s how most music is, is that there’s a story behind every note, every measure, and every phrase. Bluegrass is like that, too.
When I’m playing Jazz, some sections just forget conventional techniques like making a freaking part to play, and instead just opens it up for you to put in whatever it is you like. Knowing the style of the song and your instrument helps you add yourself to the song’s story in a way that’s conducive to the rest of it. Knowing how to Improv isn’t just a show-off technique you can do to surprise people, sometimes it’s required by the song’s demand, because it wants your story in with it. Bluegrass is like that, too.
When I’m playing Jazz, there’s always the complexity and diversity in each part of the Overture of an Orchestration, but with a beat told to me by the drummer and/or bassist. Even if I’m the loudest one, and the spotlight has been put on me, it’s still a team effort as to keeping the song going. People might be listening to me, but I’m listening to both myself and the beat-keepers. And the beat-keepers will always be underrated by anyone ignorant to their importance. Bluegrass is like that, too.
Of course, as I’ve said, playing or listening to Jazz communicates the story of the music or lyrics through to my body and straight into a dance that can express it right back. Feels just the same with Bluegrass.
If someone asked me if there is a style of music that took appreciation for the style and understanding of music in general, and that laid down narratives about people, cultures, and times through sing and song; that allowed its musicians to go places with it every time they played it, but that forced them to be a team player lest they feel and look like fools, and that would make them feel like dancing like idiots or reflecting on their lives and existences depending solely on their mood; that found its roots in American culture and lives on today, and is about expressing emotions, telling stories, and having a good time, I’d have this to say:
“I can think of 2: Jazz and Bluegrass.”
Hiya, thanks for reading.
If you love Jazz and/or Bluegrass, feel like adding your story into this posts song (Even if it’s in disagreement), or want to influence and perpetuate the style of this blog and the amount of content coming out through, there are a ton of convenient share links below as well as a comment section.
It’ll really boost my morale and hopefully distract me as I try to figure out what to call a mixture of Jazz and Bluegrass I’m doing.