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Americana Meets Jazz: A Listener's Guide

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The cover of Hillbilly Jazz by Vassar Clements from 1974.

Jazz and Americana share a common origin point in the blues, and while they are separate sectors of the music marketplace today, artists have been blending and mingling them for decades. This survey of some key crossover artists and albums - a companion to my new feature on the schism between jazz and Americana - offers some onramps into a vast and rewarding world of American music.

Many of the examples are included in this playlist.

The two Americana schools or genres that implicate jazz most consciously are Western swing and bluegrass. The first was popularized by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys,  which played radio shows and dance halls in the 1940s with the musicians and the improvising spirit of the pre-War big bands. The music swung like jazz and was grounded in the blues, with much repertoire drawn from African American sources. It relied on a bunch of important soloists, such as guitarists Junior Barnard and Eldon Shamblin. Pedal steel guitar had its big bang in Western swing and produced legions of superb musicians whose careers pushed country music in a jazz direction for decades: Speedy West, Leon McAuliffe, Juaquin Murphy, Curly Chalker and the GOAT Buddy Emmons. Bob Wills was a fine fiddler, but the real giant players of the style include Johnny Gimble, Joe Holley and Jesse Ashlock, who said explicitly that “I try to do the same thing on fiddle that jazzmen do on a trumpet.” Today, Nashville’s 10-piece Time Jumpers travel the same country crossover territory with brilliant musicians who’ve made their careers in country but who’ve studied jazz formally or informally.

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David Grisman

Bluegrass, born a few years after the heyday of Bob Wills, is even more diverse and devoted to the jazz mindset. The original music as conceived by Bill Monroe forged a new alloy of traditional blues of Appalachian (British and European) dance and party music, with a focus on improvised soloing. From the beginning, bluegrass bands played a lot of instrumental tunes, setting the stage for bluegrass-based artists who leaned into that side of the music from the 1960s on with original composing and virtuoso bandcraft. One such giant is David Grisman, the mandolinist who’s played progressive bluegrass with Jerry Garcia and created his own string band take on gypsy jazz that Garcia dubbed Dawg Music. His band and scene included other top jazz-oriented musicians such as fiddler Darol Anger, mandolinist Mike Marshall, and Tony Rice, the late flatpicking idol who spent most of his downtime blasting and studying classic jazz on his home studio speakers. Also in Grisman’s orbit was Vassar Clements, an uncategorizable fiddler who released numerous instrumental albums, including one whose title implied the genre he pioneered called Hillbilly Jazz. That’s not to be confused with the great but tragically late DC-based Danny Gatton who conceived the Redneck Jazz Explosion, featuring some of the hottest electric guitar ever performed.

In the 1950s and 60s, Nashville studio cats stretched beyond their day jobs playing on country records by playing jazz or jazz-adjacent music. Chet Atkins was America’s most famous instrumentalist for a time, and he both played and enabled many jazz sessions, including The Country All Stars with steel player Jerry Byrd and swinging hot mandolinist Jethro Burns. Chet’s most famous Nashville colleague was jazz/country guitarist Hank Garland, a Music Row session man who was on the cusp of joining Wes Montgomery as a household name before he was disabled in an automobile accident in 1961.

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One of his high spots was a session on the road with Nashville A-Team at the nation’s premiere jazz festival. The vital 1960 album that resulted, After The Riot At Newport, included Atkins, sax player Boots Randolph and vibes player Gary Burton, who was then only 17. Burton made several country/jazz projects during his formative years in Nashville, including Tennessee Firebird, which featured jazz drummer Roy Haynes alongside bluegrass star Sonny Osborne on banjo. It’s remarkable, with both easy listening and somewhat challenging interpretations of country tunes. Two other alums of that album - fiddler Buddy Spicher and pedal steel genius Buddy Emmons - pursued jazz and country throughout their careers, including their 1977 collaboration Buddies. Emmons also made Steel Guitar Jazz as a leader in New York in 1963 and the marvelous Minors Aloud with jazz guitar great Lenny Breau in 1978.

These days we find a lot of bass players in the vanguard of Americana/jazz fusion. Jeff Picker, known for his work with Sarah Jarosz and Ricky Skaggs, has recently released Liquid Architecture, which he says “reimagines the contemporary string band, drawing on the harmonic, metric, and improvisational intrigue of (my) jazz background, while never straying too far from the front porch.” Bassist Geoff Saunders, who’s toured with Sierra Hull, leads a band from time to time called the Jazz Grass Association and released the graceful instrumental album Geophonia in 2021. Their forebear is Nashville’s Edgar Meyer who has been involved in numerous jazz/roots crossover projects, including some as a leader, and one of the seminal string band improv projects of all time, 1989’s Strength In Numbers with Douglas, Sam Bush (mandolin), Mark O’Connor (guitar/fiddle) and Béla Fleck (banjo). As for Fleck, he founded The Flecktones in the late 1980s, one of the greatest explicit roots/jazz crossover bands, and then he won Best Bluegrass Album at the 2022 Grammy Awards for his double LP My Bluegrass Heart, which is by any fair definition a jazz album, made by masters of bluegrass instruments. And Jerry Douglas rebuilt his touring band in the 2010s to investigate the rock/jazz fusion of Weather Report and Return To Forever that he fell for in the 1970s. The result was the exciting jazz-grass hybrid album What If in 2017.

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Then there’s the jazz world, where crossovers into American roots music might be a little less common, but they’ve been exceptional. Bass player Charles Mingus was one of deepest composers and band leaders of the 20th century, with plenty of dense and difficult music to his credit. But his classic 1958 album Blues & Roots comes off true to its name, starting with the strong gospel overtones on its opening track “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.” Just a year before, Sonny Rollins issued the five-star classic Way Out West with its opening track “I’m An Old Cowhand” from the cowboy music catalog. Singer Cassandra Wilson explored and uplifted Black roots music on Blue Light Til Dawn, released in 1993. Nora Jones broke out playing her original lyrical jazz, but before long she was drawing deeply on country roots across several projects, including a duo album of Everly Brothers songs with rocker Billie Joe Armstrong.

Pat Metheny has always been distinguished by a pastoral quality drawn from his Missouri origins, and working with modernist bass player Charlie Haden, they recorded country or country-leaning songs on their beautiful 1997 album Beyond The Missouri Sky. Haden played in a family country band growing up and he returned to the pure form with his daughters and guest country/bluegrass artists on 2008’s Rambling Boy.

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Bill Frisell

But no jazz guitarist has taken country music’s themes, songs and feeling farther than Bill Frisell. His album Nashville, released 25 years ago in 1997, with Jerry Douglas, Ron Block (banjo) and Adam Steffey (mandolin) was a landmark, but Frisell has included country songs in his work ever since. The bass player from the Nashville session, Viktor Krauss has his own deep history of Americana-tinged ambient jazz. His two solo albums for Nonesuch Records (Far From Enough in 2004 and II in 2007) represent this remarkable composer’s mind when he’s not playing bass with Lyle Lovett or his sister Alison Krauss. In 2017, jazz piano star Brad Mehldau collaborated with Nickel Creek founder and Punch Brothers mandolinist Chris Thile on a co-composed album under their own names. Yet another great guitarist, John Scofield released Country For Old Men with interpretations of Hank Williams, George Jones, Merle Haggard and others in 2016. And there’s more where all this came from.

For further reading, this 2008 piece by Geoffrey Himes is interesting and provided inspiration for some of the titles in this list.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org