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R.I.P. John Blake Jr., Father of American Jazz Violin

christian howes

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Published: August 18, 2014 at 4:54 PM [UTC]

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 fatherly 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 almost exclusively associated with 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, may have not been able to 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, given my relative newness to jazz. 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. Out of the blue, he would call up once a year just 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 fatherly talk.

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 own 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, almost as if I had experienced a healing.

I will try to remember his example better now that he is gone. May we all learn from John, rising to a higher level of compassion and sensitivity.

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John Blake performs solo violin versions of "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child," and McCoy Tyner's "Passion Dance" (Interview, then music begins at 3:40):

From Paul Deck
Posted on August 19, 2014 at 3:15 PM
It would have been fun had Billy Taylor and the group joined him for that classic McCoy tune. I like the way Blake adapted that for violin.

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