If there are still any skeptics about the viability of the violin as a bona fide jazz instrument, Christian Howes is on a one-man mission to convert them. Drawing on his top-notch classical chops, his well-honed improvisational instincts, and life experiences well beyond the typical suburban violinist’s, Christian’s edgy and soulful solos tap the full range of the violin’s expressive power.
A “Yamaha Performing Artist,” Chris is equally at home on electric and acoustic violins. He has toured with ex-Miles Davis saxman Bill Evans’ Soulgrass group, which has been developing a new fusion of jazz and Americana. He was nominated for a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album as a member of Dafnis Prieto’s Absolute Quintet. His 2004 Jazz Fiddle Revolution recording with Nashville’s Billy Contreras demonstrates how two unaccompanied acoustic fiddlers can belt out powerful funk, bebop, and blues, with one fiddle comping while the other solos. And he leads his own band, blending everything from classical to rock into an eclectic, electric mix. It’s no wonder that Matt Glaser calls him “the incredible hulk of the jazz violin.” Put a violin into the hands of this down-to-earth, Midwestern philosopher and anything might happen –– and usually does.
I met up with Christian in Detroit at the ASTA (American String Teachers Association) conference where he was offering several clinics on improvisation. With his strong classical background, he connected easily with the string teachers in the audience and it was clear that his passion for playing music was matched by a knack for teaching it. Our interview was equally animated as he recalled his early flirtation with classical music, a college education interrupted by the lessons of life in prison, and the subsequent discovery of his true musical calling.
Christian: My folks were singers, vocal majors at OSU (Ohio State University). They put me into Suzuki violin when I was five, so I did that... Violin lessons –– that was the one thing my parents always made sure they had money for… When I was about thirteen or fourteen, I went to Chautauqua (Summer School of Fine & Performing Arts) for a couple of summers, and that was a notable experience in my life, because there was this girl named Ruby, a year younger than me, and she just played so beautifully, it’s hard to say if I was really in love with her or the playing. She played the Bruch [violin concerto], and hearing her play and rehearse with the orchestra, I remember thinking that’s what I wanted to do –– be a classical concert violinist. Back at that time, it was the break dancing period, and I was into break dancing. I had this light blue sweat suit –– they used to call me “the smurf” –– and I remember walking around the grounds with this big boom box on my shoulder blasting Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole” or the Bruch violin concerto, all the romantic violin concertos. So I was really identifying at that moment that this is what I really wanted to do. That’s when I really started self-motivated practicing, up to three hours a day sometimes… I started to get the first chair in all the orchestra auditions and competitions, and the teachers started saying that they heard a maturity in my sound and a musicality emerge in my playing. I never thought I was the most technically gifted, but I had a sense of musicality –– I was really interested in phrasing. I was really philosophical about it, how you’d make the phrases work, how you’d make music sound like real music and feeling.
Around that time, in high school, some of my friends got guitars, basses, and drums and started rock bands. So I started playing bass in a band, started playing guitar a little bit. I always stress that to kids –– if you get a chance to play bass or electric guitar in a band, you should do it. It’s so easy if you play violin. It’s a big confidence booster, ’cause then you have this lexicon that you can share with the regular people, the non-classical geeks. It occurred to me that my friends who had just taken a couple of guitar lessons all of a sudden were jamming along with Jimi Hendrix records… I remember thinking at that time, there must be some deficit within me, that I wasn’t very creative. You know, I had practiced all these hours and all these years but there was something different between my ability to play classical music on the violin and my friends’ ability to just jam creatively, even though they hadn’t had much training.
So I became very interested in why that was. I was kind of self-conscious about that. And I tried to become more creative. I started writing songs. I played some songs on the piano and sang a little bit –– stuff like that. Eventually I went to college and was still playing bass and guitar. I was playing bass with this old blues guy named Ronnie Taylor and one day just got out the violin and played a little bit for him and he was blown away…
I was kind of like a hippie in my first year of college. I was seventeen and playing with these older guys in their twenties. I was in the honors dorm and I was with the orchestra, then I got hired with the chamber orchestra in town. I kind of felt like a big fish in a small pond. But where I found my place was playing bass in the classic rock bands in the bars with these guys in their twenties. And dealing bags of marijuana was how I carved out a social scene for myself. I learned the lesson of what it is to be the guy that has stuff that people want. Everybody came to my apartment. It was kind of like I had all these friends, but really they just wanted to smoke my pot. So it was kind of a dark period in my life, in a certain way…
I had kind of cleaned up right before the indictment. I had the realization, “Okay I’m out of control. I’ve got to get myself together.” But then the secret indictment came. I sobered up real quick. By law, the judge was required to give me fifteen to life. I was eighteen when this went down. I really didn’t believe it, “Come on. OSU scholarship, violin player, Boy Scouts, youth groups, leadership this, national this…” I cried profusely. I was totally devastated. And then I went to prison.
But in prison, some of the lessons I learned were really profound. I was twenty when I went in, twenty-four when I got out. Probably the biggest thing I learned was a sense of respect. I had been in a world of kids. Now I was confronted by a world of men. And I had to find my way around. What do I believe? What do I stand for, and what am I becoming? Every day, you have to take a stand one way or another in prison…. I had a violin in there and from time to time I was able to play. I learned a lot from interacting with the other convicts… I would interact with all these different groups of people in different musical situations. The ones that were serious about music, they wanted to learn from me, because knowledge is a valuable currency in prison. So I had a lot of interaction through that, and throughout that, I was learning about different cultural concepts of manhood. All these amazing stories.
These kinds of experiences also changed my understanding of what music is. Music was a spontaneous thing that just occurred in the community. It didn’t have a thing to do with top billings in magazines and dressing up to go to the concert hall, commercialization and institutionalization and academia. Music is going to happen whether any of us have anything to say about it or not. It’s a humanizing factor, an element of humanity that just has to seep to the surface even when there is no community. Music makes people remember their humanity. On another level, it’s just something that comes out of a person. Everybody has their own way to get to the knowledge of what it is.
[For the full text of this interview, and Christian’s arrangement of “Groove Merchant,” purchase the Spring 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).]
Photo: John R. Fowler