Jazz and folk share a hand-hewn heritage

Here's a little experiment to try on yourself. Consider your age, then subtract that number from the year you were born. For example, I'm 49 years old; when I do this simple exercise, I find myself casting about in the year 1902.

Where I land in my temporal musings is in a period that spawned jazz. But what else musical was going on? Here in the U.S., a lot of music hall performances, for those who could afford them, but mostly it was the family gathered around a piano (if the family could afford a piano), granddad playing his classical violin repertoire after Sunday dinner (if he could afford a violin), or the immigrant eastern European playing with raindrop delicacy the notes of a mandolin he'd brought from the old country wrapped in a gunny sack (if he'd been able to afford a mandolin).

That, of course, is a description of an urban ambience. But what was happening in the rural areas? Men played homemade guitars and single-string tea-chest basses, plunked the diddley-bows nailed into their cabin walls and strung with broom or baling wire, blew harmonicas and thumped on bushel baskets or stroked washboards with thimble-covered fingers for rhythm.

What has this to do with jazz?

Well, exactly this: The need for self-entertainment led naturally to experimentation, and folk music morphed from the old ballads and sea chanteys of Europe to the topical and protest music that came to characterize folk music in the 1950s and 1960s.

Similarly, jazz was being invented by men and women who either didn't read music or who were willing to sacrifice generic purity for the integrity of the tune. The result is that jazz is one estuary of a larger musical river that diverged and went off in another direction.

We also have a lot of examples of instrumentational similarity that connect jazz and folk music.
Ray Nance, the multi-instrumentalist who wielded his talents for the Duke Ellington orchestra for nearly a quarter-century, made the violin a familiar sight on the jazz stage. So have the Dane, Svend Asmussen, and France's Stephane Grapelli.

Toots Thielemans plays the harmonica as though it belongs not only in a jazz combo, but in the traditional classical orchestra as well, and has broadened the possibilities of that "poor man's instrument" so as to pave the way for serious students of the mouth harp. Bela Fleck has brought the banjo into jazz and made it respectable, especially among younger listeners.

But I have here a CD I only recently discovered and it cried out to me to be bought. I try not to resist those impulses, so I brought home a disc entitled "So What" [Acoustic Disc, 1998] that features Jerry Garcia on guitar and David Grisman on mandolin.

"Wait a minute!" you say. "That Jerry Garcia? Grateful Dead Jerry Garcia?"

Yep. That Garcia indeed, the one who played everything from jug band music to psychedelic rock to bluegrass here lays down, with a mandolin player no less, some very fine tracks of jazz. I've never cared much for the Dead as musicians, but that is another story. With this disc, Garcia proves he wasn't the weak link in that often out-of-tune band.

Recorded 1990-1992, the disc presents three takes of "So What," two of "Milestones," two of "Bags' Groove" and a Grisman original entitled "16/16." It is 64 minutes of exploratory playing and, as one listens, the ties that bind folk and jazz become easier to discern. And it is interesting to observe the growth of a tune's arrangement as each repeated example reveals to the musicians its requirements for a fair hearing.

Grisman, himself a virtuoso, is interested in preserving acoustic music, as Garcia was. His independent label was founded with that purpose in mind. From the looks of his website at www.dawgnet.com, he's onto something.

So try that little mathematical experiment with your age. Consider the changes in all musical genres in the lifetime immediately preceding your own. Then look for jazz in there somewhere. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you find. And it'll be worth preserving. Just ask Dave Grisman.