Memorable music blossoms forth without fanfare when the right creative spirits come together. And such music isn’t always created by Stars — people who win polls, who record CDs for major labels. Two examples from a Saturday brunch gig in New York City follow.
The very perceptive Rob Adkins, string bassist extraordinaire, arranged this session on August 1, 2015 — Matt Musselman on trombone, Kris Kaiser on guitar. And they made lovely music. But then someone came in — new to me but very talented: trombonist / jazz whistler Ryan Snow.
There’s a small tradition of two-trombone teams: Cutshall and McGarity, Johnson and Winding, Vic and Eddie Hubble are the first teams that come to mind. And two trombones lend themselves to trading off: you play eight bars, I’ll play the next, and so on.
Matt and Ryan knew and respected each other, and everyone was eager to hear Ryan play. So they began to trade phrases — on the one horn, passing it back and forth without missing a beat or smudging a note. It was a lovely exercise in jazz acrobatics, but it was more — wonderful music. I thought, at the end, “This is why I carry a knapsack full of video equipment to jazz gigs, because anything can happen and usually does.”
(If you can’t tell who’s who, Matt has a rolled-up long-sleeve white shirt; Ryan is wearing short sleeves.)
OUT OF NOWHERE:
And for the next number, I CAN’T GET STARTED, Ryan proved himself a superb jazz whistler:
Marvels take place amidst the hamburgers and Cobb salads, the gallons of beer and Diet Coke . . .
Since I’d never heard of Ryan, I asked for a brief biography. You should know that his August 2015 visit to New York was prelude to his attending law school at the UVA School of Law in Charlottesville. He will do great things . . . but I hope he visits New York again to play and whistle, to lift our spirits.
Here’s Ryan’s self-portrait:
Born and raised in Stanford, CA, child of two professors and avid music lovers, grew up surrounded by music in the home and going to see live music of all kinds. Started playing piano privately at 9 (hated it), trombone at 10 (loved it) playing in the school band. Parents gave me Blue Train, Kind of Blue, and a J.J. Johnson on Columbia album for my 12th birthday and I began listening to jazz obsessively, buying CDs and spinning them till I knew every note, then going to get more. That and being lucky enough to have a good jazz program in middle school and high school really developed my ears. I had fun playing in small combos with friends. I toured Japan four summers with the Monterey Jazz Festival High School All-Star Big Band, through which I connected with some amazing young players (including Ambrose Akinmusire, Jonathan Finlayson, Charles and Tom Altura, Justin Brown, Milton Fletcher, Ryan Scott, Bram Kincheloe to name a few); I learned a lot and caught a glimpse of professional music life on the road.
I went to Oberlin College and Conservatory to study jazz and political science, earning bachelor’s degrees in both. There I connected with a really strong community of improvisers (including Peter Evans, Matt Nelson, Nick Lyons, Kassa Overall, Theo Croker, Nate Brenner, and our friend Rob Adkins among others) and found myself pulled towards the avant-garde and to Brooklyn, where I moved after graduation in 2005. I knew at 22 that if I ever wanted to do serious work in music that I would need to start right away, and I’m very thankful I made that choice. I spent the next six years playing as much as possible and contributing to a vibrant improvised music community in Brooklyn, including curating and hosting a regular music series in my basement for two years. During this time I also helped found and build a soul-rock-funk band called Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds that quickly gained a strong following and began touring nationally in 2011. Three years, 200,00 miles and over 500 shows in 45 states later I found that my underlying passions had shifted, that I was spending my down time on the road reading about politics and public policy rather than working on my own music and setting up playing opportunities. I was making music that mattered to people, and having fun doing it, but part of me wasn’t fulfilled; however meaningful my music was to the audience and to my peers it wasn’t making a significant impact on their lives and opportunities, let alone those of the millions (billions) beyond earshot. I felt called, I felt at 30 about political action as had at 22 about music, that I needed to immediately begin working in service of my values and towards a government and a society that I believe in.
My dad used to whistle a lot when I was really young. I don’t remember learning it at any particular point, but when I began listening to jazz obsessively in middle through high school I got in the habit of whistling along just walking around with my Discman all day. So it just became natural to whistle bebop. I kind of had a running stream of quarter note swing going through my head in those days (still notice it at times now but it’s further in the background) and I would often start whistling lines out loud, just externalizing what I was hearing in my head. Plenty of complaints from mom and friends. Did this daily through college and while I never really whistled with other people I was whistling a lot. After moving to NYC I had some opportunities to whistle professionally, laying down a few studio tracks as a guest and busting it out every few shows with Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds, and have also done a few jam sessions where I’ve been just whistling. I think the best thing about it actually is being able to sit in credibly and comfortably in a jazz setting even if I don’t have my horn with me, it’s just really fun and freeing, and I’m always thankful for the opportunity to share it with people.
There are a lot of similarities with the trombone in that they’re both fretless instruments and so essentially require some kind of attack (air or tongue) to delineate individual notes, which can get tricky at fast tempos. But they’re also so different it’s fun to have both. I hope to continue to develop my whistling and ultimately make some recordings that I can share.
Thank you, Rob, Matt, Ryan, and Chris, for transforming a Saturday afternoon most memorably.
May your happiness increase!