Monday, June 21, 2010

It's All Jazz - Essay

I’ve been watching the HBO series Treme with interest and enjoyment as it follows a group of seemingly doomed characters through the trials and troubles of life in the lower seventh ward in New Orleans six months after hurricane Katrina.  Of particular interest to me has been my growing realization of the similarities between jazz and bluegrass.  Jazz, the other unique American musical art form, grew from people’s interpretation of their experience in America with the fermentation of a combination of world influences.  Jazz, like bluegrass, requires extraordinary ear skills and close listening, attracts musicians of unusual individual skill seeking to make music in a close knit ensemble, uses traditional themes in new and emerging formats, relies on pioneer work accomplished by a few identifiable pioneers, and so-on.

All this also got me thinking.  First, it’s worth noting that the seed music, New Orleans Dixieland Jazz, appears to be a dying art form practiced by elderly musicians for an aging and increasingly smaller fan base.  However, all is not lost. Since Louis Armstrong travelled up the Mississippi River to Chicago with his cornet, jazz has gone through a number of changes.  Along the way it has taken forms with a variety of different names and sounds: swing, big band, bebop, progressive, hot, cool, techno, acid, funk and more.  These jazz forms have created a variety of different fan bases and spread jazz music around the world.  Many adherents have their preferences, and I doubt there is anyone that likes it all.  But one thing seems certain: It’s All Jazz.

During the 1930’s and early 1940’s a young man from Rosine, KY moved north to the industrial region lining the Great Lakes in Indiana and Illinois. He joined his older brothers and began making music for the other folks from his region who had made the same move seeking employment during the hard times of the Great Depression.  Having heard and played a variety of kinds of music in his childhood and youth, he drew these influences together and formed a band which played familiar sounds for the other exiles. But Bill Monroe was never satisfied with the sounds he created.  He strove for a unique style and sound,  making it his own.  Forming a band he called The Blue Grass Boys, he toured, played local radio stations and began to make a name for himself.  Eventually he arrived at the newly established Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville and began making a significant mark.  In 1946 Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined Monroe’s band and bluegrass music as we know it was born.  Bill Monroe was recognized as a great innovator, a genius who created a new musical form that was named after his band.  At age 35, he had found his niche.

For many years Monroe refused to call his music “bluegrass.”  He fought hard to keep other people making similar music off the Grand Old Opry stage.  Eventually, his ideas about what constituted his music hardened.  He began to take seriously the appellation “Father of Bluegrass.”  He was prone to label other people’s interpretation of his invention as “no part of nothin’.”   Like many of us as we age, he hardened in his views. He began to defend the sound and shape “his” music should take.  Faced with the changing attitudes of a new world he didn’t fully understand and beginning to lose his grasp on popularity and his source of income due to the incursions of rock and roll music, Monroe faced huge challenges.  He was saved from total obscurity by the folk craze of the late 1960’s and the emergence of bluegrass festivals beginning with Fincastle in 1965.  He lived into his mid-eighties, still writing new music in, mostly, the format his work had hardened into in the near post WW II period.  Strict traditionalists today claim that only music adhering closely to the forms and sounds of Bill Monroe’s band of the 1946 – 1948 period is truly bluegrass, and they’re doing to bluegrass music what happened to Dixieland Jazz.

Each new innovation coming along has been damned as not being bluegrass.  The folk and rock infused influences of The Country Gentlemen and The Seldom Scene were revolutionary in their time.  Their music has worked its way into the traditional repertoire.  Newer bands have continued to come along, bringing with them the music that’s in the air and applying it to the traditional bluegrass instrumental, string band configuration.  New instruments have been added: the Dobro, cellos, mandolas, even the occasional drum or keyboard, with each change being signaled as “no part of nothin’” and rejected as NOT BLUEGRASS.  Meanwhile, young people hear the music that’s in the air (rock, punk, fusion, techno, more) and see how it sounds using the acoustic instruments they’re learning to play.  They apply the new content to the old sounds they’ve heard their parents and grandparents play, and new sounds emerge.  They plug in, but largely stay attached to the original instrumentation of its variants.

Some of these experiments find masses of fans. Some veer off into other formats and, by continuing to echo traditional forms, bring new people to more traditional bluegrass. Others leave entirely while some acknowledge their roots and quote the earlier sounds while taking them to new places no one else ever imagined.  Most of this material will never take root and will eventually lie forgotten on the dust pile of musical history.  Some will burn briefly and flare out.  A small amount of this new music will enter into the repertory and become accepted as a part of bluegrass.  There’s no predicting which examples will achieve immortality and which will die.  Perhaps, among all that’s being created, a new, unanticipated form will emerge owing its genesis to Bill Monroe.  Some people will like a good deal of the new attempts.  Others will reject them out of hand.  But one statement is probably true about emerging acoustic string band music: It’s all bluegrass.


  1. Good to see someone open-minded about "what is bluegrass." Too often we encounter the "bluegrass nazis" who have their own definition. Of course, bands that only play music from Monroe's catalog from '46-'48 (the only "real" bluegrass) are quick to be labled "just another cover band." You can't win, right?

    Well, my CD comes out in two weeks. Guess what, we don't have a banjo, but we still call it bluegrass. Actually, we have a banjo on just one song (a tribute to Grampa Jones). And, on that song we have TWO *gasp* banjos!

    Music that doesn't evolve will die. But, let's hope that we can still recognize it when it hits that next generation!


  2. Bob, this is a great post. I wish I had read it prior to writing my piece you were kind enough to re-post here on your blog. If so, I would have linked to this piece, too. I'm really glad to have discovered your blog. I only wish I wasn't a little late to the party!