At Gaston Hall Sunday night, the National Council for the Traditional Arts will present "Masters of the Folk Violin." They'll make music the old-fashioned way, with rosin and bow.
There are six of them, all told, ranging in age from 16 to 80. They include a Cajun fiddler (Michael Doucet), an Irish national champion (Seamus Conley), a virtuoso from Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island (Joe Cormier), a teen-age phenom (Alison Krauss), a bluegrass legend (Kenny Baker) and a venerable jazz great (Claude Williams).
Because regional flavorings add spice to their tunes, each has a distinct style. Yet their music has a lot in common, too. More than just a link to the past, it's a reminder that some acoustic folk traditions have remained surprisingly strong and resilient in the electronic age.
"I had no idea the music on this tour would be as interesting as this," says Williams, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday by playing with the Count Basie band, his first performance with the group since he left it in 1937. "There are so many different people here doing different things, and they're all experts at what they do."
When he was working with Basie, Williams played guitar mostly, having discovered earlier that the fiddle severely limited his job prospects in jazz. But the fiddle was always his instrument of choice, he says, ever since he was a kid growing up in Muskogee, Okla. He still remembers hearing the pioneer jazz violinist Joe Venuti playing in an outdoor pavilion not far from his home. "All I could hear was the violin playing way up there, way over the band. I turned to my mother and said, 'That's it. That's what I want to do.' "
Growing up in Oklahoma, Williams was also exposed to a lot of western swing, particularly the music of Bob Wills, so early on he developed an appreciation of country music. After touring the South with black road shows ("I don't think I ever did see a payday back then"), he later moved on to Kansas City, Chicago and New York, then back to Kansas City, which he still calls home.
Williams met just about every important jazz figure along the way, and he still vividly recalls the great ones. On Basie: "He liked the fiddle all right. I played a couple of tunes, but he really liked the guitar -- the beat of the guitar with the kind of piano he was playing." On Charlie Parker: "When I first met him he didn't have his stuff together at all. He'd always have his horn and his instruction book with him, but he'd break up jam sessions because he didn't know what he was doing then. The other musicians would just stop and give up." On Nat King Cole: "He was playing with his brother Eddie in Chicago, playing the hell out of the piano, but back then he wasn't a singer, didn't sing a note."
Ironically, while Williams enjoyed western swing and country music, Baker, who's best known for his two decades of work with bluegrass king Bill Monroe, readily acknowledges the debt he owes jazz fiddlers like Stephane Grappelli.
A former Kentucky coal miner and a third-generation Appalachian fiddler, Baker didn't really concentrate on playing the instrument until he went into the service. "That's when I began to hear different styles from what I already knew, more of a jazz style," he recalls. By the time Baker joined Monroe's Blue Grass Boys more than a decade later, he had created his own sound, characterized by a sweet tone and a keen sense of swing and melody.
He laughs now, remembering how he once asked Monroe if he was expected to mimic the busier style of one of his previous fiddlers. "No," Monroe shot back. "If I wanted you to sound like him, I would have kept him."
After working with Monroe for 20 years, on and off, and recording some classic albums with him, Baker quit for good in 1984. He has since teamed up with dobroist Josh Graves, who will accompany him Sunday night. "I miss bluegrass," Baker says, "but I'm more content working with Josh in Nashville and calling my own shots."
Between them, Williams and Baker have played fiddle for more than 100 years, and yet they still marvel at the music they're discovering on this tour. "I'm hearing a lot of tunes I've never heard before," Baker says, referring to some of the Irish tunes and the music from Cape Breton. "And I've heard Cajun music before, but not like this. Then there's Claude's playing, you know, and that just knocks me out."
Baker is also optimistic about the future of the folk violin. "Take 1960," he says. "Back then it was hard to find a fiddler, real hard. This day in time they're all around, and most of them are quite young."