Musical Communities, Improvisation and the COVID-19 Pandemic

I am co-editing a forthcoming special double issue of the journal Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation on musical communities, improvisation and the COVID-19 pandemic, in collaboration with Daniel Fischlin (University of Guelph) and Jesse Stewart (Carleton University). Even as other sectors of the economy reopen, the performing arts remain on hold with venues closed, festivals deferred, touring on shutdown, and even music lessons severely curtailed. Social distancing has foregrounded the presumptions of mobility and physical closeness that underpin music-making and music consumption, and has called into question the economic viability of current models for musical performance, consumption, curation, and dissemination. This special double issue takes an explicitly activist stance by engaging with issues of immediate import for musicians, audiences, industry personnel, policy makers, scholars, and educators, and will include not only academic articles but also first-person perspectives from over 50 performers, arts presenters, etc.

Read my OpEd for The Globe and Mail about the impact of the pandemic on musical communities and participatory music-making.

Veillées, Violoneux, Variants: Traditional Music in Quebec

“La vie musicale Québec: pour un décloisonnement de l’histoire, 1919-1952” is a SSHRC-funded project led by Sandria Bouliane (Université Laval) and in collaboration with Marie Beaulieu (UQAM) and Vanessa Blais-Tremblay (UQAM). We’re launching this project in Fall 2020 with an in-depth look at musical life in Montréal in the first half of the 20th century. I’ll be heading up the traditional/folk music axis.

Read my chapter on “Le bon vieux temps: The Veillée in Twentieth-Century Quebec” in Contemporary Musical Expressions in Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), edited by Anna Hoefnagels, Judith Klassen, and Sherry Johnson.This research builds on my doctoral dissertation in Musicology from McGill University (2017), under the supervision of David Brackett.

Ginger Smock: First Lady of the Jazz Violin

Ginger Smock (1920–1995) was one of the first women to record “hot” jazz improvisations on the violin, and one of the first female African American bandleaders on television. Her horn-like solos and dramatic stage presence electrified audiences across the United States. I worked with Lydia Bennett, a member of her extended family, and Dean Reeves, son of Canadian jazz violin collector John Reeves, to bring their collections of Ginger Smock memorabilia — including letters, press clippings, photos, cassette tapes and reel-to-reels, handwritten compositions and arrangements, and even Smock’s violin — to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. In November 2020, I wrote a Strings Magazine cover story on Ginger Smock.

You can hear most of Ginger Smock’s early recordings on the excellent CD Strange Blues: Ginger Smock, The Lovely Lady with the Violin, Los Angeles Studio & Demo Recordings 1946-1958 (AB Fable, 2005), compiled by jazz violin historian Anthony Barnett. Since acquiring the Ginger Smock collection, the Smithsonian has twice featured Smock on its website: “The Trailblazing Violinist You Might Not Have Heard Of” and “The Woman with the Violin: Ginger Smock and the Los Angeles Jazz Scene.” Learn more about Central Avenue through the Central Avenue Sounds Oral History Project and the Black Music and Musicians in Los Angeles Oral History Collection, both at UCLA. Watch an interview with Ginger Smock by historian and educator Bette Cox.

Douglastown: Music and Song from the Gaspé Coast

With Glenn Patterson, I co-produced the CD “Douglastown: Music and Song from the Gaspé Coast.” It is a portrait of the unique musical culture of the village of Douglastown, Quebec, from the early 20th century to the 1980s, and comes with a bilingual 56-page booklet. There are 46 tracks in total: fiddles, songs, accordion, harmonica, guitar, pump organ, stepdancing, and spoken anecdotes.

Glenn and I wrote about this CD project for the journal MUSICultures in an article called “Digitization, Recirculation and Reciprocity: Proactive Archiving for Community and Memory on the Gaspé Coast and Beyond.” This CD won the 2014 Prix Mnémo for outstanding documentation of Quebec’s intangible cultural heritage. Learn more about Douglastown via the Community Centre website, and the “Gaspé Fiddle” blog of Glenn Patterson and Brian Morris.

The Chop: The Diffusion of an Instrumental Technique Across North Atlantic Fiddling Traditions

The “chop” is a percussive string instrument technique pioneered by bluegrass fiddler Richard Greene in the 1960s and adopted into contemporary string styles by Darol Anger in the 1980s. I wrote an article for the journal Ethnomusicology (JSTOR link here) that traces the diffusion of the chop through a number of North Atlantic fiddling traditions in the 1990s and 2000s. The article also considers the circumstances and implications of musicians’ decisions to adopt, adapt, or reject the chop.