The Vandals Took The Handles

May 13, 2021

In a 1990s interview, someone asked Branford Marsalis what he thought of fellow saxophonist Greg Osby's work. At the time, Osby was known for, among other things, his involvement with a Brooklyn-based artistic collective known as M-Base, which stood for "macro-basic array of structured extemporization," a term coined by yet another saxophonist, Steve Coleman. Marsalis' response was something along the lines of "Greg Osby? Great player. Very smart cat. Great idea, giving a name to what you do."

The handle M-Base was intended to create some breathing room between the music Coleman, Osby and their colleagues were making and the word "jazz," which for many musicians is freighted with various meanings and implications they would prefer to sidestep. But the part that struck me was the bit about giving your work a name. Many artists, especially musicians, bristle at being categorized. It's one of the great ironies of 20th century creativity that a music thought of by its instigators as art music, a serious modern attempt to break with the entertainment-oriented past, wound up identified by the nonsense syllables "bebop."

I could probably be proved wrong pretty quickly by anyone with a passing knowledge of 20th century visual art, but it seems to me that the people making the stuff rarely wind up deciding what the rest of the world calls it. I don't believe Reverend Gary Davis ever called his work "Piedmont blues;" I doubt Robert Johnson ever billed himself as a "Delta blues" artist and Muddy Waters probably didn't consider what he was doing "Chicago blues" at the time. Even Bill Monroe, who is universally acknowledged as the creator of bluegrass, spent most of his life insisting that whatever the Stanley Brothers, the Osbornes or even Flatt and Scruggs were up to, it couldn't possibly be called "bluegrass," because bluegrass was whatever was being played by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, and nothing else.

But they call it a handle for a reason; a name for something makes it easier to carry around your thoughts about and responses to a given thing. I know the majority of what I do in an alternating-thumb style has very little direct connection to the playing and compositions of Merle Travis, but "Travis picking" is the best name I've got for it. I know what I mean, other people know what I mean; we can all agree we're talking about some specific grooves and techniques and not others. "Ragtime guitar" is similar. It's got almost nothing to do with the music of Scott Joplin and his compositional colleagues' through-composed, multi-sectioned, modulating piano pieces, but we all know it means fleet-fingered pickers like Blind Blake and chord progressions like the one used for "Rag Mama" and "Black Dog Blues."

As I get further into teaching a specific approach to fingerstyle guitar, I find myself working to consciously articulate aspects of my own creative process, sometimes for the first time. Whether I developed these ideas intuitively or worked them out consciously, they now need a handle, the definition and shape to communicate them to the outside world. Some of these have begun to creep into my Youtube lessons, all of them are now in heavy rotation over at The Fingerstyle Five and in the monthly workshops. Case in point: in order to help clarify how to assemble the rub-your-stomach-while-patting-your-head dilemma this week's Youtube lesson presents, I took the time to walk a whole chorus of the blues through a process I now call the Horizontal 3-Step. You can find this week's lesson, all about how to play blues in A over a walking bassline, at the link below:

Blues Licks Over A Walking Bass