U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Champion, two-time Junior National Scottish Fiddle Champion, twice ASTA Alternative Styles Competition winner, recipient of the Mark O’Connor Award of Merit and the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin, winner of Detroit Music Awards for Outstanding Folk Artist, Outstanding Jazz Recording and Outstanding Jazz Composer, veteran of three CDs and a thousand concert appearances including the Kennedy Center and “A Prairie Home Companion” –– Jeremy Kittel could be resting on his laurels at age twenty-three. But when I ran into him last year at the American String Teachers Association conference in Detroit, resting was the last thing on his mind. He was studying jazz at the Manhattan School of Music, touring with a brand new band, and still finding time to give workshops at the ASTA conference. The night before, he had played a concert at Ann Arbor’s famous music venue, the Ark, treating his home town audience to a high energy and highly original fusion of Celtic and jazz fiddling. As he traded licks with special guest Darol Anger, it was easy to see Jeremy as one of the leaders of the next generation of the virtual “republic of strings.”
In this interview, Jeremy talks about his twin interests in Celtic and jazz fiddling, how he made it to the top ranks of the Celtic competitions and how that prepared him to tackle jazz. Like many a fiddler before him, Jeremy credits his parents for instilling his early love of music.
Jeremy: My family was very musical. Especially my mom was very involved in folk music. When she was in her twenties, she used to build instruments –– hammered dulcimer, banjos. Having us three kids, an older brother and a younger sister, she decided that we should be exposed to music and have the opportunity to learn it. We didn’t have a piano in the house, so she bought a cheap fiddle and started my brother off on lessons when he was five. In turn, each of us would do that.
Did they start you in Suzuki lessons or were you actually studying fiddle?
It was Suzuki at first. You know, I saw my older brother doing it and thought, “That’s cool!” I wanted to try so I was more than ready to have my chance at it at five years old. I took Suzuki for about a year and I remember thinking despairingly, I was crying that I would never play “Twinkle, Twinkle,” I was having so many problems. And then I switched to private classical violin lessons. I wasn’t really involved in fiddle music until a few years later. When I was about eleven, we went to the Scottish Games in Alma, Michigan. They have a Scottish fiddle competition there and I saw these players jamming in addition to competing. It looked like a really fun thing to do with the instrument. So we talked to a couple of players there about some lessons and after that I went to different Scottish fiddle competitions and festivals. I was going to Irish sessions in Ann Arbor…I was just learning it all by ear. Nobody told me that I should slow it down or learn a tune bit by bit, so it was really good for my ear at that point. I would just sit down for a few hours every Wednesday night and try to learn tunes. I never had a regular teacher for fiddling of any kind. I had a lesson here from Liz Carroll, there from Mick Gavin, who was a great fiddler from Galway who lived in Detroit. I learned a lot from players like Mick and some of the older Irish fiddlers in the Detroit, Ann Arbor area.
When you say you “learned a lot” from them, how did you go about doing that?
I would get a couple lessons. Then we’d play at a session together. They’d have me at a gig, eventually. Most of it was really done in the sessions. Then, since I was involved in the competitions, I started to hone the style, the intricacies of both Irish and Scottish fiddle. I would also go to workshops and fiddle camps. I would go to camps such as Valley of the Moon (Scottish Fiddle School), Ohio Scottish Arts School with Ed Pearlman. I attended a week-long music program called Scoil Eigse in Ireland each year for three years, which takes place just before the big festival, the Fleadh.
So you didn’t have a regular teacher but you had a lot to work on from workshops and camps.
I had a lot at home. This is important –– I had peers and friends who were my age and getting into this music, too. We grew up playing this music and were really excited about it. We’d form bands and play gigs when we were thirteen and fourteen year olds. Pipes and fiddle, harps and flute.
What was the appeal for you in Celtic music?
Something that’s always appealed to me is the community aspect of it, that everybody can come and participate in something that is beautiful and positive. It’s often very uplifting music. That sense of optimism and bringing people together is something I try to carry on also when I play jazz and other styles of music. Irish and Scottish music had this lift and drive to it that was really infectious. I was really attracted to it.
When you first started competing in Irish music, were you competing in Ireland or Scotland as well?
The Scottish fiddling competitions I did were through “Scottish Fiddling Revival” –– SFIRE –– which was based in the U.S. So those had regionals and then a national competition which at the time was in New Hampshire. The Irish competitions had regional competitions both in Ireland and in the States. So after doing well at the Midwest Fleadh, I would go on to compete at the all-Ireland, with mixed results. We had a second place Grupa Cheoil win, which was a creative young music group category. I also won an award for a duet I did at the all-Ireland. At any of the competitions, the Scottish or the Irish, it was ultimately good because everybody got together and just played.
Going back in time, as a teen-ager, you were playing in bands with others your age. At what point did you think you might make a career out of it?
Well, I was also performing with this school program. BobPhillips was a really great music educator. He was my high school teacher, so I was also pursuing it with him. We had this fiddle club at an ungodly hour, practically in the middle of the night –– six in the morning, which to me at this point with my musician’s schedule now seems insane. But we’d get up Tuesday at six in the morning with Bob and he would teach us some jazz improvisation techniques. We’d do some call and response and just get a chance to improvise. That avenue also developed into a performing fiddle group, the “Fiddlers Philharmonic.” So I was performing with that school group, these Irish groups, and on my own. With a guitarist sometimes, playing my own tunes. It was something I just fell into and I always really liked it. And I continue to like it more and more as time has passed. The idea of having a career in music was present in my mind, as an option at least, since I was fourteen years old.
At what point did you start getting serious about jazz?
Well, in addition to the Celtic stuff, I was playing a little bluegrass and there’s more soloing in that. I was also participating in these jazz school classes. I really got into jazz, though, when I went to college. I was young when I graduated from high school. On my sixteenth birthday. I wanted to go to college to study music. I was sure about that. And maybe pre-med. That never happened, but that was the backup plan. I didn’t necessarily want to study classical music the whole time. I was interested in many different styles of music and my classical playing at that time wasn’t necessarily good enough to get into a lot of the good schools for it. The path that I found was to study jazz in college. At that point, I really didn’t know that much about jazz. I auditioned at the University of Michigan for their jazz program, and they basically had me do some ear testing and general improvising. After my audition, my mom went out and bought me a Coltrane record and a Miles Davis record and I thought, “Wow, this is cool stuff. Maybe I’ll try this out.” And I kept on listening more and more and by the time college came around I was ready to go at it. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but it’s been a really major part of my musical development since then.
How did it fit with the Celtic music? Did you think of them initially as separate or did you relate them right from the start? Coltrane is quite a ways from Scottish fiddle playing!
In some ways, yeah. In other ways, they share the idea of groove and spontaneity between musicians. More so in jazz, of course, but it’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. Some would argue that they don’t fit together. Everybody has their personal opinion. For me, over time, it’s just naturally come together in a way I feel comfortable playing. It means that I improvise more on the tunes.
That isn’t done much in traditional Celtic music, is it?
In Irish music, it’s more about the variations. Variations on a tune are really important in competitions just to make it interesting. Because you’re playing a tune three or four times a round, if you’re playing it the same way every time, it’s kinda likebeating someone over the head with it. Variations serve to develop it. Some people work their variations out exactly beforehand and some people do it on the spot. For me, when I play a Scottish or Irish or original tune, I’m going to use some variations I’ve used before and do something new as well.
When you were preparing to play a tune for a competition, did you pretty much work out exactly how you would play it?
I would work out some variations. I always had to keep in mind that it wasn’t really up to me what the final musical result was when you’re trying to follow these relatively strict guidelines of what people expect and keeping with tradition. That’s fine ––you’ve got to know where you’re starting from. You can’t go off playing Coltrane “Giant Steps” changes in the middle of “Saddle the Pony.” So I think it’s great to have that foundation. I hope I have enough of it, and I’m always looking for more.
[For the full text of this interview, as well as Jeremy’s tune “The Golden Plover," purchase the Summer 2008 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Peter Anick, co-author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” plays fiddle with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]