Fiddler Mark O'Connor (right) takes the stage at Berklee College of Music on Thursday night to kick off a new American Roots Music Program intended to help students connect contemporary styles in jazz and rock - Berklee's bread and butter - to their musical heritage. Blues, gospel, folk, country, bluegrass, Cajun, Western swing, polka, Tex-Mex and other genres will become a larger part of the school's educational mission. Roots music will be an academic concentration. Berklee Professor Matt Glaser - a fiddler who will share the stage with O'Connor Thursday night - has stepped down as chair of the school's string department to head up the new program. His plans include everything from new curriculum to symposia and concerts. The advisory board for the program includes famous names Ricky Skaggs, Bela Fleck, Leo Kottke, Charlie Haden, David Grisman, Geoff Muldaur and Micheal Doucet.
HubArts: Why do we need a new program for this at Berklee?
Glaser: We don't need a new program, but what's happening is the college is trying to address a huge influx of kids coming in from all these folk-based worlds: bluegrass and old-time music acoustic blues, western swing. They're growing up playing all these kinds of music by ear, and they have their particular set of skills and also particular deficits, and we're trying to address that. It also makes sense to connect these kinds of music across the college and give them a sort of home. ... This concert with Mark O'Connor on Thursday is an attempt to kick it off and demonstrate some of the styles of music that are involved.
What is the roots program going to consist of?
Glaser: It's going to be doing a number of things. It's going to be designing and implementing some curriculum on a modest level. Performance classes, survey classes, teaching improvisation from a non-jazz standpoint, which is something that interests me very much. ... We'll also be bringing in visiting artists, and I intend to put on periodic symposiums. The first one will be about a year from now, tentatively titled "Jazz and Country Music: Kissing Cousins or the Hatfields and the McCoys?" ... This will not be an ethnomusicology program or an academic program. Those exist all over the place and do fine work. This is more from the standpoint of performing musicians reflecting on what they do, which makes it more in line with the character of Berklee.
You talked about an influx of kids coming out of that acoustic world. Why now?
Glaser: I don't know exactly why, but it's like, on fire, this scene. There's suddenly in America an awareness among young string musicians that they should be able to play classical music, jazz, country music, bluegrass, old time, Celtic, all at a very high level simultaneously. That's like a paradigm shift in the thinking of these young kids. One sociological component probably accounts for this, these fiddle camps...where kids from all over get together and hear other kids do amazing things, and it just kind of stokes the fire. And Berklee just happens to be the place that was out front as an institution that says, "If you play this kind of stuff, come on and we'll work with you."
In a way there's a parallel to jazz ... classical institutions didn't want to have anything to do with jazz musicians, and Berklee welcomed them. Now jazz is institutionalized and ... it's like that old saying, the oppressed becomes the oppressor. Jazz musicians had been treated poorly and weren't appreciated by classical musicians. Now some say jazz musicians have a similar attitude to these styles, like they don't see the musical value in it. It's not universally true, I'm just trying to make a point. You'd be hard-pressed as a musician to not see the levels of achievement in these young string players.
Roots music is not thought of as an academic topic. It's self-taught musicians, it's barroom culture. How does that affect your plans and peoples' reactions to this program?
Glaser: I wrote my masters thesis on Texas contest fiddling. Texas contest fiddling is populated by guys wearing cowboy hats who never talk about what they're doing, but what they're doing is like, if Bach grew up in Texas. They're doing the heaviest shit, excuse my French. This music is deep and complicated and worthy of great study ... it just doesn't happen to have a verbal or intellectual tradition that goes along with it, but that doesn't mean the music is not as good as any other music. If you heard Bach and he was some sort of self-effacing guy and he said, "I dunno, I just wrote it," it would still be Bach's music and worthy of study. It's the same with jazz. Until pointy-headed intellectuals came along like myself and millions of other academics, there wasn't a tradition in jazz of self reference and academic discourse, but the music was incredibly deep and complicated and stood on its own terms. Inevitably the same thing is happening with these folk-based styles. We're digging into them and finding all the incredible depth and Bach-ian complexity that is there, and extrapolating and verbalizing it and making it into curriculum. That might be plunging the final knife into the heart of the music (laughs). I hope not.
Thursday's 8:15 concert at the Berklee Performance Center also features faculty member John McGann, student bluegrass groups, the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra, and the Berklee Jazz/World String Orchestra. Tickets are $20-$25 and available at the Berklee Performance Center box office, at Ticketmaster.com or 617-931-2000.
Glaser has also put together a list of essential listening to give you a flavor of what the program is after:
- Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee – "Stranger Blues" (blues) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnggxQJVpZk
- The Stanley Brothers – "It Takes a Worried Man" (bluegrass) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMJz-puzniU&feature=related
- Roscoe Holcomb – "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" (Appalachian folk) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cJRRc8FToQ&feature=related
- Bob Willis & His Texas Playboys – "Goodbye Liza Jane" (Western swing) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0Wkd0jQ-nw&feature=related
- Mahalia Jackson – "Lord Search My Heart" (gospel) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3okRcd-TZc
- Floyd Tillman with Hank Garland – "Slippin’ Around" (country) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Is9Rzvd_3Jg&feature=related
- Dewey Balfa with Todd Balfa - "Jai Ete Au Bal" (Cajun) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFyOGqmITjM
- Howlin’ Wolf – "Smokestack Lightning" (blues) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1FK620bS7A
- Ralph Stanley – "Glory Land" (bluegrass) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7yEb-yC4zY&feature=related
- Los Relampagos Del Norte - "Ya No Llores" (Tex-Mex) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoV58r2dvLo