Race, Jazz, and Gypsy Jazz Violin

Most people that know me have heard me say that I’m not all that into “Gypsy Jazz”.

I guess the reason for this is that I always felt that so-called “Gypsy Jazz” violinists play in sort of a classical style, and that the blues is somehow missing. The blues is a distinctly American thing and, many people would argue, a distinctly African-American thing. For a classical player to improvise over chord changes and tunes with a European/classical feel and sound, according to this view,  is sort of missing the point of jazz.

Also in line with this way of thinking about “jazz”, many people say that European (and other non-American) musicians typically lack a sense of blues and swing. (They don’t even REALIZE that they’re not swinging.)  Americans know the difference, so they say.

But if you’re going to take this position then you might as well concede that African-Americans know the difference much more than white americans. When black people hear white people play, I’m guessing that they’re thinking, “that is definitely NOT swinging”, or “that is NOT the blues”. (I’m just keeping it real.)

When I first set out to play jazz, I was determined to learn blues and swing in the authentic sense, i.e., “Rhythm and Blues” and all that. The violin is perceived by most as a “white” instrument and I thought it would be cool to somehow try to change that. Maybe I was kidding myself. After all, I am white.  (There have been some very important black violin players like Ray Nance, John Blake Jr.Claude Fiddler Williams, and  Stuff Smith.)

I’ll never forget the nine-hour drive from Columbus to NYC ten years ago with my friend James. We were on our way to a gig, and he told me he could wear a blindfold and pick out the white drummers from the black drummers just by listening to their playing.

I wanted to be the one guy that could play and make him believe he was listening to a black musician- For me, this would have equaled becoming a “true jazz musician”.

If it’s true that James, and other African-American musicians, could recognize the difference between a white and black musician just by hearing them play, then this implies that such a thing as “blackness” and/or “whiteness” is a measurable/tangible thing. You could almost write  an entire book just on the implications of this.  ( Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates are among the contemporary writers who have addressed questions about race/racism and cultural proprietorship, i.e. “can a white man play the blues”. )

For years I tried to understand and express “blackness” in my playing, by swinging eighth notes and using blues scales in a story telling kind of way, listening for “the spirit”, hanging out at gospel church services, watching Spike Lee movies, Soul Train reruns, Live at the Apollo, reading Zora Neale Hurston,  doing anything I could to absorb the nuances and understand the essence of real “black” culture- that which is “invisible” to those of us who come from the majority culture. (Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”  points out that  minority cultures are barely visible to the majority, and only in distorted ways, so it’s only the members of these subcultures that “get”(recognize) the stuff of their culture. This is the same reason a foreigner can’t quite speak english without a trace of foreign accent, and why my friend James can hear the difference between the black drummer and the white drummer while I can’t. )

For the same reason,  Austrians probably laugh at Americans playing Mozart, and I shudder to think what the Brazilians think about our Americanized Samba beats…

A few years ago I realized that in order to be truer to myself and evolve beyond trying to be a “white violin player who could sound black”, I needed to reclaim my own musical roots in the form of classical music, rock music and whatever I grew up with… What’s more, I needed to develop my own sound. It wasn’t just about legitimizing the violin in jazz, it was about becoming an artist with a voice that transcended my instrument, and being ok with who I am in general, making that work for me as an artist. Lot’s of great artists are compelling precisely because they’ve defined their voice through awareness of their own limitations. Bill Frisell doesn’t sound like Stevie Wonder, Miles could never sound like Charlie Parker. It bears noting that jazz artists can express their voice both through playing as well as composition.

But you never could’ve convinced me that I would come around and start liking Gypsy Jazz, especially on the violin.

Well I’m here today to do a public about-face and say that I’m now officially open to hearing Gypsy Jazz and giving it the respect due any genre. Let’s just say I’m growing up. Part of what made me rethink my position on this was my respect for the young violinist, Jason Anick. Jason has a very serious work ethic and he’s a very well-rounded musician, comfortable with classical, bluegrass, traditional to modern jazz and more- and he loves Gypsy swing . He doesn’t play the music as a crutch, but rather, because he likes it. And  he does it with heart and soul. Because of all this I had to rethink my position.

Jason’s just a young guy that grew up trying to play music the best he could, taking influence from every teacher he came into contact with. It takes the innocents to provide an almost jaded guy like me with some perspective- like politicians screaming at each other in the dining room while a baby is crying in the living room and nobody remembered to pay attention to it…

There are closed minded people on the right and the left of every position. I had closed my mind with seeming good intentions,i.e., “respect the music-respect the source”, but closed it nonetheless. I caught myself trying to be that “enlightened” musician when in reality I had some blinders on of my own.

Some people define JAZZ as music which contains rhythm and blues- i.e., music informed by a “black” cultural essence. There is no doubt in my mind that this thing needs to be recognized, studied, honored, protected, nurtured… but I also think that the music is evolving, and that offshoots around the world, even if we call them “jazz”, don’t in any way threaten the integrity of the music. If anything, they help build the market for it.

I choose to define “jazz” as music utilizing interactive improvisation. It’s “better” jazz, granted, when the people doing it are listening and have deeper experiences playing, but I don’t begrudge folks who grew up in Denmark and never got to sit in on a black gospel church service. They may never get that close to the true essence of blues and swing, but they still have the right to call what they do jazz, especially if they’re good at it because they’ve studied and practiced at it for years and their music moves someone.

I will continue to study “black music”. I will spend my life trying to swing and play the blues. I may never lose my foreign accent when I play :), but that’s ok, because it’s not the only thing that will inform my music. Some of the best music takes influence from a wide array of sources. Everyone has the ability to play with his or her own sense of “soul”. And yes I will still possess a bit of righteous indignation when I tell young string players that they need to “study the source” and try to learn blues and swing. But it will be mitigated with a more open mind.

In the video below Jason talked about some specific gypsy jazz techniques and some of the different approaches. We go on to play the title tune from his recent record “Sleepless”

Jason is now officially a teacher in the Creative Strings Academy, the online school for improvising string players.
Sign up HERE for a free trial.

He will also be teaching at the 2012 Creative Strings Workshop, the annual week long camp for improvising string players. Learn more here.

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