Learning Joy from the Blues

B.B. Kings

“The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.” — B.B. King

There have been thousands of tributes and stories posted today regarding the passing of Blues great B.B. King. Likely a tribute from someone outside the popular music industry will go unnoticed. One from a classical music conductor and college educator is certainly apt to be lost in the shuffle. But considering his legacy today, I am nonetheless inspired to write a few thoughts about how a musician like B.B. King can serve as one of the best teachers for musicians of any genre.

Certainly there is no need here to list the myriad of accomplishments and influences that Mr. King had on the music industry for the past 60+ years. And while, King lacked the movie-star looks of Elvis Presley or the blazing technique of Jerry Lee Lewis, I’d argue that he has perhaps had more influence worldwide and across a broader spectrum than his more flashy colleagues. Blues, jazz, country and rock musicians regularly mention how influential he was to the development of their individual style.

His electrifying presence was felt on the music itself. What B.B. King had, and the reason every musician should listen to his playing, was an ability to communicate. Not with outer charisma or flashy stage presence, but through musical gesture. With music. Through music. And for music. His innovation lies in his ability to play chamber music, the most useful skill any musician can have.

It is instructive to listen to B.B. King play alongside other great musicians. But perhaps it is more enlightening to realize that he had the unusual ability to play chamber music with himself. One of his trademarks was, of course, his guitar and her namesake song, Lucille. The personal approach to every note provided B.B. King the ability to have a conversation with himself, not merely accompanying himself, but improvising a conversation and developing a story though music.

“I tried to connect my singing voice to my guitar an’ my guitar to my singing voice. Like the two was talking to one another.” — B.B. King

Here’s a video of that hallmark song:

It was a career of playing like this that inspired numerous musicians. Future blues and jazz legends listened and learned, and evolved their own voices. Rock icons did the same. Eric Clapton even paid homage in this fun song and video:

But can classical musicians can also learn from this approach? A former Associate Concertmaster with the Utah Symphony and violinist with the Boston Symphony, and respected music teacher Gerald Elias thinks so. His social media post this morning gave clear instructions to his students. And as a respected author as well, Jerry knows a thing or two about communication.

“Violin students: If you want to learn how to play with feeling, listen to B.B. King.” – Gerald Elias

Sure, B.B. King was just playing basic blues scales, and altering them in interesting ways. But he was also making new music with each riff. Composing on the fly. A lively, rapturous creation with each progression. Though he was playing the Blues, one can hear the joy bursting forth.

Can a classical violinist do the same in a series of Carl Flesch Scale Studies, or perhaps use it as inspiration to devise a new cadenza for a concerto? Can the very methods that B.B. King perfected be used to open a new energy in classical performance while staying true to the roots of our traditions–just as King did with the Blues? I’d have to say it is worth a shot. Apparently, so do others. Yo-Yo Ma has branched out, as has Joshua Bell, Richard Stoltzman and many others. Their results have been quite attractive. And now they provide a new thread for us to experience. We must listen with discernment to all of the greats, all traditions, whatever the style may be. New possibilities lie just around the corner.

I never had the good fortune to hear B.B. King live. As close as I got was eating at his place in Memphis (see picture above). His music has inspired me to listen deeper, more critically and more joyfully. And thankfully, he leaves that legacy for all of us through his music. Now it’s our turn.

Thanks, Mr. King. Rest in Peace.

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Music as Action: From Baltimore to Baghdad

Don't Keep Calm We’ve heard it (and probably said it) before:

It’s not my job.

They don’t pay me enough to do that.

I’m an ARTIST. I shouldn’t have to be involved in THAT.

That’s “their” problem.

While we are busy complaining about why we shouldn’t get involved in our own professional world (and watching news coverage of other events we are happy to be removed from) it is instructive to remember that some people are faced with a much different reality. For some, the choice of whether or not to get involved is a response beyond a personal need, and in fact produces far greater benefit.

Many of us seem to enjoy quibbling at the minutiae of our careers; things we can’t really do much about, like the temperature of the concert hall stage or less than ideal acoustics. We should remember, however, that we often do so from the comfort of our own complacency. Complaining about things and shifting blame is arguably human nature, but it also has become something we mindlessly aspire to in our comfortable lives. Actually doing something positive about a problem is an apparent rarity.

Kudos to the Baltimore Symphony and conductor Marin Alsop for doing something this past week. They took a step towards healing amidst a volatile situation in Baltimore. Alsop and the BSO provided an outdoor concert for the city, just a few days after the unrest began. They did something for the community. No telling how effective it was, but it certainly was a statement in the right direction: Things that truly matter will continue. The citizens responded with enthusiasm. (I might add, with better attendance than professional sports).

Baltimore Symphony Photo

Photo via Baltimore Symphony Facebook Page

The Baltimore Orioles bat against the Chicago White Sox during a baseball game without fans Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Due to security concerns the game was closed to the public. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

The Baltimore Orioles bat against the Chicago White Sox during a baseball game without fans Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Due to security concerns the game was closed to the public. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Photo via Time.com

We are fortunate that so few of us need take real risks to make an artistic statement. My colleague, Karim Wasfi, has been faced with the question of how to take action in his particular reality. Maestro Wasfi is the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and is a professional cellist. In the face of very real, life-threatening danger, Karim and others like him continue to make affirmations about what is truly worthy, thus insuring that the concepts of humanity and beauty remain a part of the conversation.

Perhaps Karim’s recent Facebook post will help bring us back to reality:

“I am stuck at home and imprisoned by the threat of three car bombs around mansur area, lost my Beethoven rehearsal with the symphony…”

Maestro Wasfi, not one to back away from the challenge of presenting classical music in a war-torn country, has made an effort to not be cowed by the threat. While he is undoubtedly careful, surely a survival trait in such a place, Wasfi does what every maestro and musician should do: insure beauty exists in the world. Whatever it takes.

“We have every sect in the orchestra, Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, women, Kurds. I’ve also launched a youth orchestra and an after-school youth academy where we teach music, civics, manners and the like to almost 300 kids. We pay poor kids to attend. Some even come all the way across town from Sadr City. Yes, I’m sure there are fanatics who disapprove of the symphony, but we’ve generated such goodwill that they’re afraid to oppose us publicly. The Institute of Fine Arts lay disused for two years until we made it our home. We brought new life to the area so the entire neighborhood helps keep us safe.” –from a 1/19/2011 Wall Street Journal Interview:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703333504576080452174478650

Responding to conflict with music. History is seemingly repeating itself.

Recently, Karim Wasfi took his cello and visited areas recently bombed by terrorists. It’s reminiscent of Vedran Smailović, the “Cellist of Sarajevo,” who played in bombed-out buildings during the Bosnian War.  Here is a video of Maestro Wasfi performing cello at the site of a recent car bomb attack:

Music as Action in Iraq. Music as Action in Baltimore. Now let us question why we are not doing the same in our relatively safer communities. The opportunity for leadership surely exists. As does the talent. And, I’ll wager, the need.

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

For more info:

The following link is to the Washington Post story about Maestro Wasfi’s recent activities:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/after-car-bombs-an-iraqi-musician-shows-up-with-his-cello/2015/05/06/6daf256a-edf7-11e4-8050-839e9234b303_story.html

NPR story regarding Iraqi artists’ roles in the fight against extremism:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2014/09/15/348760910/iraqs-artists-defy-extremists-with-bows-brushes-and-a-low-profile

And finally, a story about the Baltimore Symphony Concert amidst the conflicts in that city:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/after-turmoil-baltimore-symphony-plays-free-outdoor-concert/

How Tragedy Influenced a Generation of Music

Devo_Jocko_Homo_Mongoloid

While we enjoy our Star Wars references today (yes, May the Fourth Be With You, and all that…) I am reminded of another galvanizing cultural event of May the 4th, one that changed a generation. In this case, most of America saw the violence on the small screen. And in this case, the violence was real. But included in the aftermath is a generation of art. Musical expression filtered through our anger and shame, that lifted a magnifying glass to our society.  Introspection and commentary is one of the many things the arts can do besides entertain.

May 4, 1970: the U.S. National Guard opened fire and killed four unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio, wounding nine others. While a tragedy, this would also be a pivotal moment for the antiwar effort, bringing a new discernment to the arguments and actions on both sides of the issue. It also would be memorialized in song, Neil Young’s  Ohio, which also personalized the event by asking:

 “What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?”

Naturally, the event would be a life-changing event for anyone at the protest or even on the campus (two of the dead were not even protesters). And for music, the campus event and Neil Young’s song Ohio would be galvanizing for future musical giants as well. This included three who were students at Kent State at the time.  One Kent State student, Chrissie Hynde, would later form the rock group, The Pretenders. Two other Kent State students, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, would later become the founders of the punk/new wave/alternative band, Devo.

Devo’s Jerry Casale said the following about the Kent State Massacre:

“I was a student, I was a member of SDS – an antiwar group called Students for a Democratic Society, trying to restore Democracy at a time when LBJ and Nixon were running roughshod over it. There were several antiwar groups. That protest that day where everybody got shot was a protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. It was a secret expansion, Nixon had done it the night before and we found out about it the next day – the whole nation did. They did it without an act of congress, without passing any new law or having any meetings. It was completely unconstitutional, so we’re out there at noon, about 3,500 students at Kent State were out there. The governor, who certainly was a pro-war kind of guy, Governor Rhodes, he had placed the National Guard inside the heating plant of the school the night before anticipating what would happen when the students found out about Cambodia. Not only did he do that, but he waited until about 9 am on May 4th to declare Martial Law, which suspends all first amendment rights of The Constitution, meaning that any assembly is automatically illegal, you’re automatically committing a crime. These National Guardsmen poured out of the heating plant, surrounded the protesters, and with a bullhorn announced that Martial Law had been declared and that we were all going to jail. Everybody starts chanting and screaming and they start shooting tear gas and some of the more ballsy protesters, while they’re coughing and choking and puking are trying to throw it back, but most of the kids were anywhere from 50 to 100 yards away from these lines of National Guardsmen with guns. Nobody believed that the guns were actually loaded with live ammo. They just suddenly formed a row. The first one knelt and the second one stood, and they just shot right into the crowd, shot at all of us, down the hill at all of us. The worst thing about it is that 2 of the 4 students killed weren’t part of the demonstration, weren’t part of an antiwar group. They’d just come out of class from the journalism building at that time and come out on their way to their next class and were looking at the protest, just seeing what the hell’s going on, and they got killed. The bullets just went everywhere, it was like a scatter-gun approach, like shooting geese. A lot of the bullets went over the heads of the protesters and kept going straight down the hill. One of the kids that’s paralyzed for life was getting into his car to leave campus after his class, and they shot him in the back. He was at least 200 yards away and wanted nothing to do with what was going on. It was shocking. It pretty much knocked any hippie that I had left in me right out of me that day.
I had been a member of the honors college and the only way I went to school was with a scholarship. My family was poor and I got a scholarship to go to school. What I had to do every year to earn my scholarship was work 3 months in the summer for the university admitting new students to the honors college, the incoming freshman, and helping them arrange their curriculum, taking them through the registration process. The summer before May 4th, I had befriended Jeffery Miller and Allison Krause, 2 honor students, and they turn out to be 2 of the 4 killed on May 4th. So I’d known both of them 9 months before this happened, and so when I realized that this girl on her stomach with a huge exit wound in her back with blood running down the sidewalk was Allison, I nearly passed out. I sat down on the grass and kind of swooned around and lied down. I was in shock, I couldn’t move.
The government and the press tried to lie about what happened as well as they could. The fact that anybody knows what happened is amazing because they did such a good job of muddying it up and lying, it was amazing. The final chapter there was that the parents of the students who were shot and killed banded together and went on a class action suit against Governor Rhodes and the state of Ohio and the National Guard, and summarily lost across the board. These kids that were shot were 18 and 19 years old. 2 of them were 18 and 2 of them were 19. They lost because by law, no one was allowed to be having a protest once Martial Law was declared, and they threw it out of the court system. I don’t think anyone wants to know the truth. It ruins the myth of freedom in America to find out how easily it can be gone.”

(From http://calendar.songfacts.com/)

(Complete Devo Interview here on Song Facts blog: http://www.songfacts.com/blog/interviews/devo/)

It is little wonder these incidents influenced a fledgling band to choose the name Devo, originally from a cartoon representing the De-evolution of society. It probably also explains, to some extent, the biting satire apparent in many of their songs. Additionally, it may have been a factor in developing the tough image of Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders.

But one thing is for certain, these events have regularly galvanized and changed artists into new creative energies. Indeed, as Leonard Bernstein famously said:

“This will be our reply to violence:
to make music more intensely,
more beautifully,
more devotedly than ever before.”

More devotedly.

Devo-tedly.

Indeed.

May the Memory of the Fourth Be With Us Always.

Cross-posted on Weird Music History blog.