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.
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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