Don’t be surprised to see Christian Howes playing his violin alongside street musicians in the French Quarter or the Marigny this weekend. Howes is that rare bird among classically trained musicians. He improvises.
A jazz violinist, Howes will also perform with his Christian Howes Trio Saturday, March 16, at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and teaching a master class for NOCCA students.
A fiddler on a mission, Howes, 41, wants other classically schooled players to expand their horizons, free themselves from the tyranny of the printed score.
“Classical teachers and musicians have had their heads in the sand far too long,” the New York City- and Ohio-based violinist said from Columbus.
“It’s time to wake up and join the party. And it’s not just about jazz. I’m talking about musicianship, stills and knowledge that people obtain to become well-rounded, capable musicians. Musicianship they can use for the rest of their lives.”
Musicians in the New Orleans music community are a great example of what Howes calls “sustainable musicianship.”
“In New Orleans you can feel the life in the music of the streets,” he said. “Music is a human community, an organic social phenomenon. It makes people want to dance. It makes people feel something. It expresses something powerful.
“A lot of the skills and knowledge that I’m talking about are things that the street musicians in New Orleans have but classical musicians don’t, ironically.”
In addition to the master classes he gives at universities, high schools and middle schools, Howes stages an annual Creative Strings Workshop in Columbus.
He also teaches improvisation to string players through his online Creative Strings Academy. The academy has 200 individual subscribers as well as classrooms of students who’ve been enrolled by music teachers.
Howes’ music-loving parents placed him in Suzuki violin method classes at 5. He later got the conventional classical music training that violinists, violists, cellists and bassists usually receive.
A mix of circumstance and motivation led to Howes’ interest in jazz, including high school years of playing guitar in a rock band.
“All the girls were interested in my friends who played rock,” he said. “The girls could care less about the Paganini I played on my violin.”
Beyond the social advantages of playing rock, Howes said, “I realized there was a different musician inside of me. After I went down that road I got more interested in improvisation and understanding how music is put together. I wrote my own music and incorporated the violin.”
Bored with rock, Howes moved on to blues. Then a drug arrest during his freshman year at college resulted in a four-year prison stay.
But Howes continued his music education during his incarceration, learning from rhythm-and-blues, jazz and gospel musicians in the prison population.
Performing during gospel music-filled services staged by church congregations that visited the prison inspired Howes to be a jazz violinist.
“That sense of community, catharsis and uplift was really powerful,” he recalled. “And I thought it was weird that the violin hadn’t been more prominent in that cultural and musical tradition.”
These days, when Howes shows up to a jazz jam session or a church service whose participants don’t know him, he naturally gets some skeptical looks.
“They probably think, ‘What is he doing coming here trying to play music?’ But what always happens is that, once I play, they instantly recognize that I’m speaking a language they can relate to. I think it’s a statement about how we can come together. Music is a way to do that,” he said.