Part 4: Jambalaya (On the Bayou)

The Gibson used by Elvin in the recordings

Continued from part 3.

As always, there is a little complication in life that has to be dealt with: money! It was suggested to me that my best bet was to get a job teaching guitar. The instrument was quite popular at the time and somebody who had the credentials that I did shouldn’t have had too hard of a time finding a job. I found one almost immediately. When interviewed, I told the manager of a rather large music store that I wanted to teach classic guitar. He told me that he could hire me in that position, but I probably wouldn’t get enough students to make a living. For that, I needed to teach popular styles too. I mentioned my background in plectrum guitar and was hired for both. From that day on I developed in both directions. I enjoy both for different reasons. The latter goes along better with my pleasure in singing, so in terms of my musical talents I have become a “jack of all trades and master of none.”

There was one unpredictable situation that I got into by moving to Washington. The teacher that we were studying with felt that there should be a more serious way of approaching guitar technique than simply to rely on tradition. Extensive studies had been done on most other instruments other than guitar. The objective is to get the greatest benefit in both tone and speed and avoid placing strain on the body that can result in medical problems. That sounds well enough, but somehow it became an issue of conflict and tempers rose and there were some harsh exchanges between the traditionalists and the skeptics. The arguments got heated and the fellow we were studying with chose to resign and went elsewhere. I would like to say that I stayed out of it, but moderation and intelligence were not angels sitting on my shoulders at that particular moment. I regret having gotten into it. I didn’t make any permanent enemies, but I am a little embarrassed. Over time, the chips have all fallen where they did and probably there are other controversies, but I am not in the middle of those and never will be. That’s part of the educational process.

There was another place where work was clearly needed. The classic guitar didn’t have a well developed curriculum that led the beginning student slowly and surely to an advanced or professional level. Robert sensed that filling such a need could be his part of the pie. Early on he started writing little pieces and studied composition with the composers who were working at the conservatory. He set out to write interesting pieces that would be pleasing and pedagogic at the same time. As time progressed and he gained experience, he began to write larger works. In time they will become part of the standard repertoire.

At some point I felt that I might like to have a degree in guitar. I applied to a conservatory in Baltimore and was accepted. Robert’s teacher was working there at the time. It was a useful year. I learned quite a bit. However, my employer really wasn’t interested in my earning a degree. He was mostly interested in my doing my job and being present. He was right. Most of my students were taking guitar as an elective. A diploma would have been nice, but availability was valuable asset too. In fact, the other guitar students at the conservatory probably couldn’t hope for a better job than the one I and several other teachers had. I decided to continue lessons and let the rest of it go. I already had a degree in music education.
The year or two in Baltimore was rather interesting. I lived there and commuted by bus and car to Washington to teach. Washington had a certain amount of class. Baltimore didn’t seem to have much. The longer I stayed there, however, the more I found out that it had something else: funk. For the most part it was a working class town. There were professional people there, but at that time they were mostly out in the suburbs. But there was a lot of art, popular music and just good fun to be had downtown. I met a lot of characters. It was just the opposite of what I had grown up with in the south and did me a world of good. (Baltimore is sometime characterized as the most northern southern town and the most southern northern town.) Quite a few people were buying inexpensive houses in the center city and fixing them up. Some of those places had been urban mansions in the past.

The inner harbor at that time was dismal and probably polluted. Finally, some enlightened people got into city hall and decided to develop the harbor and the area around it. There are concerts and even an off the wall little museum that popped up over near Federal Hill. It is called the Visionary Arts Museum and is worth the bother if you are in the area. The other museums in town are richly rewarding too. All the while I continued working on the guitar, experimenting with different styles and listening to street musicians.

Since this is supposed to be an autobiography, I am going to take a break from hopscotching around the country and talk a bit about my family origins.

Continue to Part 5.


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