Joining the Jam

July 2, 2017, 9:45 PM · There are a lot of violinists out there who didn't get the chance to join the jam. Same with violists and cellists.

I'd consider myself one of them.

The first time I didn't get to join the jam was in grade school, when instead I joined my very first youth orchestra, the Aurora Youth Symphony in Colorado. Not that I didn't love and adore the Aurora Youth Symphony, I absolutely did. Not only that, but I'm grateful to the adults around me who worked hard (and only now do I understand how hard they worked) to create a beautiful environment for that.

They also created a parallel group for the wind players: the Aurora Jazz Ensemble. We had all our concerts together, the orchestra for the string players and the jazz band for the wind players. I learned from an early age how to enjoy jazz, to clap and holler for someone's solos, to appreciate the art of improvisation and see the continuum of kids getting better at doing it. I loved that music, and it looked like great fun.

It never even occurred to me that, as a violinist, I could even think about joining the jazz band. Jazz bands didn't have violinists, that's just how it was. Jazz = Not Violin. If I'd gone up to the conductor and said, "I know I'm a violinist, but I'd like to be in the jazz band, too.." What would he have said? But this thought absolutely never occurred to me.

It was pre-Internet, and no one around me was saying anything particularly like, "Have you heard of this amazing violinist, Stephane Grappelli?" Though a bit later, late in high school, I did get my hands on an album by Jean-Luc Ponty. I listened to it quite a lot. Interesting, I thought, very interesting.

Fast-forward to college: I had the world's best summer job, playing in the Disney All-American College Orchestra. We played all kinds of charts, including jazz and pop, though we didn't do any improvising. It was at after work at the party when people did that. We had a great keyboard player, drummer and bassist to create an impromptu rhythm section, and all the wind and brass players would gather with their Real Books and jam. This was the first time when I thought, "I really, really wish I could do that. If I showed up with my violin, would they let me in? Could I do it? Would that even work?"

I went to the parties, but not with my violin. Even though I thought it would be fun, I just didn't quite have the guts.

More recently, two of my long-term students each had the same idea - but completely separately. They go to different schools (one private, one public) and don't really know each other, but each came up with the idea of joining their jazz band. "I love it," is pretty much all I said about the matter. and that I'd help in whatever way I could. Fortunately, both directors were happy to have their first-ever violinists in the jazz band. I'm very proud of them, and glad they have had the opportunity to try this nearly every day of the week!

But what about me? I'm working on it.

Today I flew to Columbus, Ohio to take part in jazz violinist Christian Howes' Creative Strings Workshop. This is an entire workshop designed to allow violinists to join the jam!

As I was waiting at the airport in Los Angeles at 6 a.m., I realized I was sitting across from a college-age young woman - and as fate would have it, she had a violin at her side! We got to talking, and she told me that she liked playing electric violin and improvising. When she was growing up, her father practiced with her and every time she would master one of the pieces her teacher gave her, he let her learn five pop songs by ear. What a great way to learn! Unfortunately, her high school teacher thwarted her every attempt (and they sounded like ardent attempts) to show her classmates about improvisation, to invite a guest to play jazz for them, etc.

Good heavens, why are there so many barriers to violinists joining the jam!

Well, I've arrived at Ohio Wesleyan University, just north of Columbus, with my violin for this workshop on improvising and exploring new genres. Coming from the West Coast, I arrived rather late in the day, but I made it in time to try out one of three nighttime jazz sessions -- I had my choice of Fiddle Styles, Free Improv and Reading Session. I was actually on my way to Free Improv when I saw these folks, playing away at Duke Ellington's Don't Get Around Much Anymore.

Jam session

I mean, how am I supposed to resist music like that? It appeared they were mostly reading the tune, and I knew I could do that. So I walked over, got out my violin and joined the back of the group. I figured no one would ask me to improvise quite yet.

The leader, alternating between bass guitar and cello, was Greg Byers (celloGreg). He was directing the group with a nice combination of enthusiasm, expertise, and a very positive attitude. He encouraged us to be thinking rhythmically, quoting a jazzer (I don't know which one!) who said, "Always start by hearing the perfect drummer in your head." This helps give you a feel for the punch of the articulations, as well.

"It can be hard for string players to hear those articulations because we're used to hearing them in different instruments," he said. "But there is no reason," he said, tapping his cello, "we can't do it with this."

We played the tune a few times just to get to know it and start feeling those articulations and getting into the rhythms. Then he started going around the circle, having people improvise solos. Being late to the game, and having situated myself so cleverly and inconspicuously in the back, I assumed I was not really a candidate for doing an improvised solo. Until he turned to me pointed, with a big smile, "Okay!"

"What really me?" I said.


Finally it was my turn to jam, and so I did! It went better than I expected, and the nice supportive people around me smiled and nodded their heads. Let the work begin!

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July 3, 2017 at 12:48 PM · A lot of jazz groups are organized around getting a certain type of musical experience. Openness to a string player joining will vary. If you propose joining the sax section of a Stan Kenton style big band, you will probably be refused. By the same token you might not be welcome at a bluegrass jam with a sax. The solution is simply to organize your own jam and/or form your own group. One thing I have found is that Latin-style jazz (bossa novas and the like) comes a little easier on the violin than swing-style. Two friends and I formed a group (violin, guitar, percussion) that plays an all-Brazilian book. We don't get a lot of gigs (next one on August 19) but we do have fun working on tunes.

July 3, 2017 at 04:04 PM · It never occurred to me to join a band. All the nice girls were in the orchestra.

July 3, 2017 at 04:13 PM · The rather arbitrary attitude we have held regarding what each instrument can do, what roles they can play, and whether the average layman knows of a given instrument's existence has always fascinated me as someone who as been willing to try any genre, and as a violist. The perceived genre limitations, the idea of the "frontman" in rock, what qualifies as a "solo" instrument, the clear emphasis of certain instruments by the "great" classical composers, the frequency in which some instruments are studied, and more, just don't seem to have a rational explanation behind them. We need to have much more of these types of conversations and acknowledge our subconscious social conditioning if innovation in music is to continue.

July 3, 2017 at 04:35 PM · I took jazz guitar guitar lessons for about a year and half about a decade ago (I couldn't find a violin teacher so I though I would experiment). It was a great time. I learned a good bit of theory, did scales and arpeggios, learned a few standards. For the last 5-10 minutes of my lesson, the teacher and I would alternate comping chords and soloing in a new key every week. I really helped my musicality and the teacher and I had a blast.

July 3, 2017 at 04:56 PM · Sounds like you're in for an exciting week, Laurie! By the way, Yehudi Menuhin (my personal fave) was also fascinated by Grappelli. There is some wonderful footage of Menuhin and Grappelli playing together in the BBC documentary "Who's Yehudi." If you've not seen it, it's definitely worth checking out on YouTube.

July 3, 2017 at 06:04 PM · Not to offend anyone but I think Didier Lockwood is the best jazz violinist ever. He even has an album entitled "For Stephane" (his SECOND tribute album) that y'all Grappelli fans might enjoy.

As a kid I once got a Grappelli album for my birthday ... the one with Oscar Peterson. It really swings. Hanging out with (and arranging duets for) Menuhin gave him cachet in the well-heeled Carnegie Hall crowd. However, I think Grappelli's playing relies far to heavily on sequences of canned licks that he uses again and again. The same charge has been leveled against Oscar, of course.

Right now listening to Lockwood's duet album with French pianist Martial Solal -- wow.

July 5, 2017 at 06:41 PM · From playing violin in a weekly beginners jazz jam, it seems to me that learning to play jazz on a violin is the same as learning on any other instrument. You need to be able to read the charts, follow the form, and improvise melodic lines that fit the chords in a meaningful way. For the beginning sax players and classically trained pianists I've jammed with, it's the same thing. I agree though that it can be hard to find a group that's accepting of string players.

July 7, 2017 at 10:46 PM · Piano players don't need to be especially well trained to play in tune, maybe that's why.

July 8, 2017 at 12:39 AM · Paul, about piano players, in tune yes, but there's so many more wrong notes that they're able to play ;)

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