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Remembering John Blake, Father of American Jazz Violin

John Blake Jr., Bill Contreras, Christian Howes, Camille Howes
A violinist who swung harder then anyone else and embodied the blues and soul of African American culture on an instrument almost exclusively associated with the Western European tradition, he was practically an anomaly, and the depth of his artistry was probably largely invisible to most in the classical violin community who, without having been exposed to the depth of sophistication within the jazz idiom, may have not been able to appreciate how unique and powerful John's voice was.

Not only did John Blake Jr. set the artistic standard for American Jazz violinists over the past 40 years. He was a role model for all musicians through his paternal support of young artists and unwavering positive attitude towards his colleagues.

A violinist who swung harder then anyone and embodied the blues and soulfulness of his African American heritage on an instrument often pigeon-holed in the Western European tradition, he was practically an anomaly, and the depth of his artistry was probably largely invisible during his lifetime to most in the classical violin community who, without having been exposed to jazz, were unable appreciate how unique and powerful John’s voice was. His deep artistic statements came across not only in his work as a violinist (as a bandleader or through sideman work with greats like McCoy Tyner and Grover Washington Jr.), but also through his piano playing, composing and arranging. The breadth of his contribution also comes through in educational resources he developed for the jazz strings community, frequent engagements as a clinician, and his work with humanities departments at the college level, raising awareness for African and African American history and culture, including art, music, and literature.

I first met John in 1996 when, after naively shipping him a copy of my first CD, he surprised me with a personal phone call. “Hi, Christian, this is John Blake,” he said. While I was still processing my shock, he launched into a series of supportive comments, which, in retrospect, I hardly think I deserved. That was John, though; always offering praise and encouragement, slipping in bits of wisdom here and there which never felt preachy. They were the supportive teachings of the kind which a loving, patient father would dole out, and he continued to check in with me consistently over the next 18 years, always with the same positive vibes, always giving of his time and energy without asking anything in return. When meeting at conferences, he would happily drop what he was doing to play a tune, catch a bite, or just talk for a while. (Pictured above with Camille, Billy Contreras and I, during one such occasion when we were in Philly, he took time out to hang.) Out of the blue he would call up once a year to see how things were going. I don’t know how he did it, but he kept tabs on many other people in similar ways. I half wonder if John must have woken up most mornings asking, “Who needs my help today?”. In the past couple years he mentioned health issues vaguely, but only in passing and just before getting right back into offering his loving support. This example from an email exchange shows how he could make a strong, paternal impact:

“Hi Christian, I am glad to see that you are so active and busy and you are taking care of business with your family.  I am proud of your accomplishments….”

I can almost hear the inflection in his voice, which would have made me feel his approval while simultaneously reminding me to ask, “Am I handling my business with my family?”

Looking back, I realize he was teaching us all so many lessons in his understated way. He was a community builder, setting an example for the rest of us to get out of our own heads and make the most of our lives by enriching our families and communities. John walked the walk of his Christian faith, demonstrating kindness and selfless love, no doubt serving what he believed was a higher cause then his own success and comfort. Always tremendously devoted to his wife, children and grandchildren, he made others feel as if they were family, readily giving out big hugs and looking deeply into your eyes with the most loving expression of interest and acceptance. He made me feel as if I was the most important thing to him during every moment we were together, and it lifted me up, giving me strength to shed my worries of the moment and walk away from the encounter a better person, healed in a way. He invited me to perform with him on a couple of concerts, including at the Martin Luther King Center in Columbus, Ohio. He even played a song with Camille during the concert, and would always make time to talk with her or play a tune if she were around.

I will try to remember his example better now that he is gone. I will try to walk in his footsteps, building community and setting a better example for others to catch on to. Life is too short… May we all learn from John, rising to a higher level of compassion and sensitivity.

If he were here today I would like to say, “Thank you John, for your kindness. Thanks for being like a father to all of us. I love you and will miss you dearly. Your efforts and messages were received. We will remember you and build upon everything you gave us.”

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