From Classic To Cool With The Violin

Posted: September 01, 1989

John Blake figures that one of the most important points he can make when talking to youngsters is: Don't give in to peer pressure. Establish your goals as early as possible, he says, and go for it.

Blake knows something about such matters. At age 12, residing in a tough part of South Philadelphia, Blake took up the violin and the study of classical music.

Is this a cool move for a kid to make?

In Blake's case, it certainly was.

"I guess in a lot of neighborhoods - and I don't think it makes any difference if you're black or white - the violin is looked on as a, well, sissy thing," said Blake, who will appear tonight in the final concert of the free summer jazz series at Penn's Landing.

"It might not make much difference from the first to the sixth grade, but when you get into junior high, if you want to be cool, you play the sax or the trumpet or the drums. It's just part of all that nonsense about what it is to be a man, to be cool."

Blake didn't pay much attention to such pressure. "I was too busy most of the time," he said. "I was involved in taking lessons, practicing, playing in the school orchestra and all-city orchestras. The Philadelphia public- school system had a very good music program back then."

Blake's parents, in fact, purchased his first violin through the school system. "They paid $33 for it, and you could make installment payments," he said with a chuckle.

His prowess on the instrument was such that Blake subsequently took on additional studies at the Settlement Music School. Later, he was awarded a full scholarship to West Virginia State University and then attended the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Montreux, Switzerland.

All along, his interest was classical. Then he heard a Duke Ellington record featuring violinist Ray Nance. "I didn't even know that the violin was used in jazz," Blake said. "But when I heard that record, I said, 'Wow!' I had to check that out."

What he discovered was that the violin could be used for improvisation, placing it on a par with the saxophone. As a result, his first jazz influences were sax players - such performers as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Grover Washington Jr.

Blake, 42, first gained a measure of prominence during the early 1970s, playing with saxophonist Archie Shepp. In the mid-1970s, Blake joined Washington's band and toured with the group for three years. He then hooked on with McCoy Tyner's band and stayed four years, before leaving to form the first of his own groups. It was a somewht unsettling decision.

"Before that, all I had to do was show up," he said. "When it was time to play, I played. McCoy warned me about the headaches of the business side, but considering the rewards of being able to develop one's own direction, I'm happy to take the weight."

For Blake's concert tonight, he'll be surrounded by some of the finest musicians in the business - Sumi Tonooka and Sid Simmons on keyboards, Pablo Baptiste on percussion, Leon Jordan on drums and Gerald Veasley on bass.

As he did last year, Blake will conclude the Penn's Landing jazz series, and Penn's Landing program director Bill Royston has declared it a tradition. Blake's appearances in 1987 and 1988 broke attendance records for the series. ''As far as I'm concerned, they were the biggest shows and the best shows we did," Royston said.

Incidentally, going into tonight's finale, which will be the 17th concert in the series, Royston has estimated this summer's attendance at 112,000. That includes 15,000 at last Friday's performance by Tuck & Patti and Kit Walker.

John Blake at the Great Plaza at Penn's Landing, Delaware Avenue and Chestnut Streets, at 7:30 tonight. Free. Phone: 923-9267.

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