I live in the seemingly small Venn diagram cross-section of people who enjoy both bluegrass and jazz. That curious nexus where one can appreciate and find merit in Bill Evans and Bill Monroe. John Coltrane and John Hartford. ‘Round Midnight and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Do I love everything from either genre? No. You’d be hard-pressed to find a lover of any type of music, art, etc. who does. That’s part of the game and the fun of discovery. It’s what a makes a true music listener (and thus, lover): knowing what you like, and not simply liking something because you’re “supposed” to. Being open, but also discerning. It’s that first part that keeps people positioned squarely in their side of the Venn diagram.
But why? Could it be the cultural connotations of jazz as an “intellectual” music and bluegrass as…not? Maybe. Probably. But if Herbie Hancock had ascribed to that same kind of “musical snobbery,” looking down on those who played keyboards and utilized electronics as he once did, we never would’ve had Head Hunters, one of the greatest selling records of all time in the jazz idiom (heck, at first, he dismissed Joni Mitchell as being nothing more than a simple “folk singer.”). Of course, when that came out, those same detractors hated it, thinking he had turned his back on “pure jazz.” The point is, it’s easy to scoff at, and even hate, something that’s different, but I argue that bluegrass and jazz are more alike than they are different.
Both sprang up as a means for oppressed, and often impoverished, people to express themselves. Both are distinctly American (which, of course, means they have ties to other cultures). The blues runs through both and both are essentially “folk” music, with a long tradition of songs being passed down, shared, and reinterpreted through the generations. There is the storied tradition of mentorship, lest this music be forgotten (Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys are no different from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in this respect). Of course, there is the music itself, both of which are heavily improvisation-based, yielding countless unique takes on the “standards.” One composes on the mandolin just as one does on the piano. There is a communal aspect to both, but these are not gated communities, and in thinking so, you’re missing out.
While I don’t expect this little write-up to convert anyone, the hope is that it spurs a mutual appreciation and acknowledgment that both artforms are important and have something to offer, and have more in common than not, and, maybe, you’ll even wade out of your Venn diagram section to see that there is so much good music out there for those open to it, as opposed to wagging their fingers at it. – Andrew Diemand