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Continuing the "Great Conversation" with Fiddler-Philosopher Matt Glaser
Peter Anick
2002-12-01

The first time I encountered the name "Matt Glaser," it was on the back of an album by a New York string band calling itself the Central Park Sheiks. That was in the mid-'70s, when it was still relatively unusual to hear a violin soloing over old swing tunes like "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Stompin' at the Savoy." Since that time, I've run across Matt in a lot of unusual contexts -- as one third of the triple fiddle section of Fiddle Fever (with Jay Ungar and Evan Stover), on the soundtracks of Ken Burns' Civil War and Lewis and Clark documentaries, playing second violin with Stéphane Grappelli on a whirlwind chorus of "Tiger Rag," teaching Texas-style fiddling for a taped fiddle instruction series, and reflecting on the evolution of jazz in Ken Burns' film epic "Jazz."

For over two decades, Matt has also served as chair of the Berklee College of Music's string department. And throughout his tenure, Boston's fiddling philosopher has always managed to keep one foot in the world of folk and bluegrass and the other in jazz. His latest project, a musical collaboration called the Wayfaring Strangers is an unabashed attempt to meld those two worlds within a single ensemble.

In this interview, held in his book-strewn Cambridge apartment, Matt recounts his journey from New York teenager hooked on old time fiddling to head of a string department renowned for its eclecticism. Like his improvisations, the conversation takes all sorts of turns, but never drifts too far from the central theme -- how can one express oneself through music?

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I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My mom was an opera singer and my dad had a great record collection. He was a music lover. I always said that my mom wouldn't swing if you hung her from a chandelier. She was an opera singer, but she knew all the words to the standard tunes and when I was growing up, I could always ask her and she would sing. But my dad gave me the feeling for black music and popular music and jazz and country music and blues. He turned me on to Mississippi John Hurt and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. I was really into that stuff. So I played piano when I was a kid and played some guitar with a harmonica wrapped around my neck, the Bob Dylan thing. And I took up the fiddle when I was thirteen after hearing some old-timey fiddling on the radio. 

So you hadn't studied classical violin?

I did have classical violin training subsequently, but I started out with an interest in old-timey fiddling. So for my thirteenth birthday, my parents got me the record Hell Broke Loose in Georgia: Georgia Fiddle Bands on County Records, and they got me a fiddle. And I would take the subway from Queens into Manhattan and take fiddle lessons with John Burke, who was a clawhammer banjo player. He was also subsequently Mark O'Connor's first fiddle teacher. He left New York shortly after he started teaching me and moved to Washington state.

I was never a very good old-timey fiddler and still not, but I resonate very much with that music and the dark weirdness and depth that comes through those tunes.

What got you hooked on that? You were listening to jazz and blues.

I loved classical music. I loved Bach. I played the piano and the organ some and I was a Bach fanatic. Like many people, you don't keep a track record in your mind of "I should like this and I shouldn't like that." You just like whatever you like. You hear music and you like it. I am still unembarrassed about liking all kinds of music. All kinds of pop music catches my ear to this day. This is one part of my personality that really irritates the people in the jazz community, which is that I believe more firmly in the general power of music than in anything else. The sheer existential power of music as something positive in people's lives. And as I age, that becomes more fundamentally important, and the distinctions, while still there in the background, maybe recede a little bit. So anyway, for whatever reason, I just loved the sound of old time fiddling when I was thirteen years old. So I would take fiddle lessons. Then my parents moved to upstate New York and I auditioned for the orchestra director there, Paul Ehrlich, and he could see that I could play okay. I became very close friends with him and his family and we went down to the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention the next summer. So when I was still in junior high school, I went to Union Grove. That was an amazing experience. I remember seeing Buddy Pendleton playing around the fireplace. It was an incredible, mythic kind of experience for me hearing all these guys. I met Jay Ungar around that time. He was living in the next town over. He was playing at a square dance in Bedford Hills, New York. So I was interested in that stuff, but I also started to study classical when I was in junior high and in high school. I got really into it and worked hard on it. But then my life got thrown for a loop when I heard Vassar Clements play on the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, which must have been around '72. The next summer I started seeking out bluegrass bands to play in. I didn't know anything about bluegrass but I wanted to "be" Vassar Clements.

You and every other fiddle player who heard that record! I think we all did at that point.

Vassar's thing, you could tell, was a direct expressive channel for him. It's just this beautiful, natural sound coming through, organic expression of himself, and it was so far removed from classical music at the time. I was a mediocre classical student trying to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and listening to (Jascha) Heifetz and (Nathan) Milstein. But then to hear Vassar -- it was a whole other way of approaching the instrument. This direct transmission of yourself onto your axe.

So after high school, I went to the Eastman School of Music for one year and dropped out and came back to New York and started playing in a swing band, the Central Park Sheiks, with Richard Lieberson and Bob Hipkens, guys I still play with to this day. It was a straight-ahead string swing band. And that's when I started to get interested in jazz and swing and learn about that stuff. I was about nineteen.

Didn't you write a thesis on Texas fiddling at some point?

I did. It was a very heady time in New York in the late '70s. Amazing music was happening. I started playing with Andy Statman, Tony Trischka, Kenny Kosek. And then I came up to Boston in 1981 and I've been here ever since teaching at Berklee (College of Music). Trying to run a string department that's unlike any other string department in the sense that we want to give string players a sense of all the idioms that are played at a high level on string instruments, not just classical music. We honor and revere classical playing, but we also honor and revere all the folk traditions and jazz, improvisational and world music traditions. We want to create string players who have big ears that are open to all that stuff and can play at a technically high level in all these idioms. It's important for me that string players not be automatons. That they be literate musicians who understand music and can do things spontaneously in whatever idiom they're in.

Before your program at Berklee, folk fiddling was often looked down upon by classical players. You don't find that so much any more.

I think Mark O'Connor is mostly responsible for that. As you said, I wrote my master's thesis on Mark and Benny Thomasson. The name of my thesis is "Controlled Improvisation in Texas-style Fiddling." It's a 1992 thesis from Tufts University, and it looks at the tune "Grey Eagle" as played by Mark and Benny. For me, I'm interested in finding things that are musically valuable in any idiom. I delight in finding them in places that might be looked down upon. I found this quote recently from Béla Bartók that's pretty amazing. He said, "Folk melodies are the embodiment of an artistic perfection of the highest order; in fact, they are models of the way in which the way musical ideas can be expressed in the utmost perfection in terms of brevity of form and simplicity of meanings. Few people appreciate melodies such as these; indeed, the majority of conservative trained musicians hold them in contempt. This is understandable, because anyone who is slave to customary patterns will naturally qualify as unintelligible that which deviates slightly from them."

There are probably the type of people Bartók was talking about in every idiom. Classical, jazz We find it in the conservative bluegrass element.

Exactly. It's the quality of person and the quality of mindset that you find in these different idioms. How open-minded they are. Among jazz musicians, people think, "Oh, Glaser, he's a bluegrass fiddle player." And among bluegrass fiddle players, "Oh Matt Glaser, he's jazz." John Hartford said to me once, "If you'd stop playing that jazz [stuff], you'd make a decent old time fiddler!" So I've given up trying to be understood. I'm just trying to go about my own lonely road of learning about a variety of different kinds of music and finding a way to express myself musically that brings into play all the things that have been in my own experience. The Wayfaring Strangers project is the beginning of what I hope will be a lengthy process. I don't claim that it's wholly successful, but I was trying to make some music that had some deep feeling to it, that expressed what I thought was important in terms of my ideas about the world and to try to bring different idioms together in a deeper way. As one of the album reviews said, "Most attempts to fuse jazz and bluegrass end up sounding like wretched hippie crap."

[For the rest of this lengthy interview, purchase the Winter 02/03 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).]