The Samick spinet piano in Kayle Simon's front foyer in Columbia comes with the standard, wooden piano bench. When her 16-year-old son Ethan is visited by his classical piano teacher, the instructor pulls up a chair alongside the bench and cocks his head attentively, listening to see if the teenager's phrasing and timing on the Bach and Beethoven pieces are accurate.
But Kayle instinctively knew that arrangement wouldn't work for Ethan's jazz lessons, for that music is taught as much by ear as by paper. Ethan's jazz teacher, the Baltimore pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, would want to get his hands on the keyboard to play examples—and that would lead to slapstick if they were both trying to sit on the same three-foot-long black bench.
So she looked around her living room and spotted a five-foot-long, Ethan Allen bench, covered in a tan-and-cream tapestry design. She switched it with the regular piano seat, and soon her son and Gilchrist were spending every Monday evening, sitting side-by-side, trading jazz licks over a bluesy funk swing.
What happens on that five-foot bench represents what's so valuable about the Maryland Traditions Master-Apprentice program. Sponsored by the Maryland State Arts Council, the program is built on the premise that "Folk and traditional arts are handed down from generation to generation through word of mouth or example." And that handing down is most effective when one older master artist works at close quarters with one younger apprentice.
It might be an experienced shipbuilder and an apprentice crouched beneath a skipjack. It might be a mosaic artist and a student perched on ladders in a church. It might be a veteran muskrat skinner and a youngster kneeling on the bank of an Eastern Shore creek. Or, it might be two jazz pianists sharing the same long bench. No book, no classroom can ever match the education of sitting beside an experienced practitioner and mirroring his every move, asking about his every motive.
A $2,000 Maryland Traditions grant is allowing Gilchrist and Ethan Simon to work together for a year that began last July and culminates with a public performance as part of the annual Maryland Traditions Gathering June 10 at the Creative Alliance.
At the Simons' home, Gilchrist, wearing a ribbed-knit gray hat turned backwards and a small tuft of hair on his chin, plops down on the right end of the bench. Ethan, wearing a green surfer's jersey and shaggy dark bangs, sits to his left. Gilchrist pulls out a new, untitled composition and props it up in front of Ethan, who leans in and tries to play through it. "No, that's an A-flat," Gilchrist comments.
He reaches across his student and plays through the changes, marking the syncopated rhythm with clucks of his tongue and pats of his right foot. "It's hard getting around that figure, because it's not the notes you usually play," Ethan remarks.
"It's like the standard blues we've been dealing with," Gilchrist replies, "but with little twists thrown in."
Ethan stabs at the keys again; Gilchrist stabs at them, too. The mentor sings out the wordless melody and the apprentice mimics the line on the keys. Finally, Ethan grasps the flow of the piece, and his mentor cries, "Yeah, that's it. That sounds good—nice and full." Big smiles break out on both faces.
"It's so interesting to hear these lessons," Kayle says after the session ends. "It's not like a classical lesson where Ethan plays what's put in front of him. This is more of a dialogue, a back-and-forth to find out where they're going."
"When my mom first mentioned an apprenticeship," Ethan recalls, "I was confused. Why would I want to be a blacksmith or a cobbler? But when she explained it to me, it sounded like a good thing, because I felt stuck on the piano. I'd been doing the traditional New Orleans thing, but I couldn't get to the next stage. Working side-by-side with Lafayette has gotten me there."
Gilchrist occupies a unique position in Maryland Traditions, for he was an apprentice in the program before he became a master. Between July 2007 and June 2008, he apprenticed with master artist Carl Grubbs, a saxophonist who has recorded with Stanley Clarke, Julius Hemphill, and others. The year of lessons in Grubbs's Baltimore County basement led to a joint concert (with Mike Formanek on bass and Eric Allen on drums) at Baltimore's An die Musik that was recorded and, thanks to a second grant, released as a CD, Maryland Traditions in Jazz.
But this mentoring story goes back much further than that. In 1958, when Grubbs was a fledgling 13-year-old musician in Philadelphia, he traveled with his parents and older brother to New York to visit their cousin Naima. There, he met Naima's husband, saxophone great John Coltrane.
"Man, I was so green that when I saw him with his neck strap on, I thought it was a funny tie," Grubbs remembers. "We were sleeping at their place at 103rd and Broadway, and we knew John was awake when we heard him playing tenor sax for an hour. . . John explained that he was playing the intervals to his recent composition, 'Giant Steps'; he even showed us the voicings on the piano.
"We wrote down the voicings and even recorded his practice session. When we got back to Philadelphia, we played that tape over and over again."
So you have this transmission of the jazz tradition that goes from Coltrane to Grubbs to Gilchrist to Simon. "It's important that Carl's roots are planted in the jazz of this region," says Cliff Murphy, co-director of Maryland Traditions. "I believe very strongly that the geographic and cultural landscape of a region creates a sense of place that affects art, especially traditional art. Country music is different in Maryland than it is in Texas or California—so are cooking, wood carving, and jazz. Regional accents go beyond the way people talk; it goes to the way they view the world and express themselves. It comes out in music; it comes out in food, in all sorts of things.
"Even the newest traditions are regional," Murphy continues. "You can go to a tortilla joint in East Baltimore and get a fish taco with Old Bay seasoning. That's why it's important that Ethan is absorbing not a universal jazz tradition but a very specifically Mid-Atlantic jazz tradition from Lafayette, Carl, and Coltrane."
And each link in that chain was forged when an experienced musician met one-on-one with a younger player. Is there a difference, though, between the impromptu encounters of Coltrane with his cousin-in-law and the more organized sessions of Gilchrist and Simon? Yes, and that improvement is a key component of Maryland Traditions's contribution to the centuries-old customs of cultural continuity.
Because these art forms are perennially undercompensated, master artists are usually scrambling to make a living and don't always have time to pass on their knowledge. The Maryland Traditions program gives the experienced craftsman a financial motive to meet with an apprentice on a regular schedule rather than on a catch-as-catch-can basis. The process doesn't necessarily change, but its intensity does, and an apprentice can learn in a year what might have taken much longer under a less structured system.
Gilchrist's experiences illustrate this. He was a latecomer to the piano, not starting on the instrument until he was a freshman at UMBC in 1986. Two years later, the Carl Grubbs Quartet played a concert at UMBC, and Gilchrist sought out the saxophonist backstage after the show.
The youngster was soon invited to Grubbs's home near Liberty Road and the Beltway, and Gilchrist found himself following the dreadlocked veteran down a set of narrow stairs to a basement studio. After a minimum of ceremony, Grubbs sat the visitor down at a piano bench.
"Carl wasn't much for words," Gilchrist remembers. "He wanted you to get it by playing with him. He'd call a tune, and we'd see if we could get through it. Usually, I couldn't. He'd explain stuff, and I'd try to understand within my limited knowledge at the time. It was in that basement that I learned how to move through chord changes and what time was all about. These were informal, irregular, unpaid get-togethers, but it meant a lot, that Carl would let me come over to his house."
When Grubbs and Gilchrist resumed their sessions in 2007 through the Maryland Traditions grant, the experience was much different. For one thing, Gilchrist was now an accomplished jazz artist, with three nationally distributed albums and several tours as part of the David Murray Quartet under his belt. But the pianist knew there was still something he could get from Grubbs—especially if they met regularly.
"It was a chance to deal with that Coltrane s**t, which I knew Carl was privy to," Gilchrist explains. "It was also a chance to deal with Carl's compositions, which are pretty heavy. I'm a firm believer that art forms get passed on not so much through universities as through apprenticeships. That's particularly true of jazz, where the emotional and spiritual aspects of the art are so interwoven with the technical aspects. It's so tied into each person's perspective that you have to spend time with that person if you want to learn their approach."
"Practicing by yourself will only get you so far," agrees Grubbs, "and playing with a CD won't get you much further. When you play with someone else, especially someone who's better than you, you can see what kind of response you get. That's how jazz musicians learn to play—not in the classroom but from older musicians passing it down."
He recalls once attending a conference sponsored by the Maryland State Arts Council, "where they were talking about the traditional arts. Someone was playing the banjo, and someone else was spinning a pot. I said, 'Why isn't jazz here?'"
Hoping to remedy that, Grubbs applied for a Maryland Traditions grant and became the first jazz master artist in the program in 2005. His first student was bassist David Lowe, and Gilchrist was his second.
Five months after Grubbs and Gilchrist recorded their live CD, Ethan played piano for the 50th birthday party of his stepmother Laura Lippman in January 2009. Maryland Traditions co-director Elaine Eff was at the party and was so impressed by what she heard that she suggested to Ethan's dad, David Simon—of Homicide, The Wire, and Treme fame—that his son might be a good fit for the program. David was already familiar with Gilchrist's work—in fact, he used one of Gilchrist's piano pieces, "Assume the Position," on a Wire soundtrack—so the connection seemed natural.
"We saw Lafayette perform live at the Patterson Theater," David related in an e-mail, "and Ethan turned to me at the end of 'Assume the Position' and said drily, 'That was in the key of outrageous.' It was then that I approached Lafayette and asked if he did any teaching. Mentorship as a concept had always appealed to me, because everything creative to which I have been a party has been made dramatically better because of smart editors and producers who were guiding me, schooling me, and, yes, protecting me. . . . There may be prodigies who come to artistic maturity and creative control on their own, but I am not that. And neither is Ethan. But he works hard and he is hungry to learn, so a mentor is essential to the equation."
Back at his house, Ethan plays one of his own compositions, "Enigmatic, Idiosyncratic," for Gilchrist. "I'm not sure if I like this whole bridge section," he tells his teacher, "but I just wrote it today."
"I think what you already have can work, if you brighten up the rhythm and give it a bounce," says Gilchrist. He demonstrates on the keyboard, and Ethan is soon playing the same groove. Gilchrist suggests a different time signature (6/8) and when Ethan adds the triplet feel, the whole piece snaps into focus.
"What I've learned from these sessions, is that music is more flexible than I thought it was," says Ethan afterwards. "Someone once told me that you can play any note over any chord if you really mean it. I didn't think that was true. But after working with Lafayette, I know it's true."
"What I discovered with Carl, and what I hope to pass on to Ethan, is that melody, harmony, and rhythm are like a river," says Gilchrist. "They all flow into each other, and it all depends on where you step into it on any given day."
Thanks to such encounters, the river of tradition keeps flowing, too.