“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