John Blake Jr., 67, prominent jazz violinist

Posted: August 21, 2014

WHEN THE children of the Blake household in South Philly turned 6, they took piano lessons.

"There were no ifs, ands or buts about it," said one of those kids, Charlotte Blake Alston. "You played the piano."

It was an edict from their mother, Carrie Blake, a church organist who knew the value of music to the human soul. Their father was a very literate letter carrier.

Another of Carrie's children was John Blake Jr., who became an internationally renowned jazz violinist. He always acknowledged that his love of music began in the pews of Holy Trinity Baptist Church in South Philadelphia.

He once pointed out to an Inquirer writer the loft above the pulpit where his mother played the organ for more than 20 years.

"I used to love when the choir did concerts," he told writer Eric Fine. "It gave me the desire to really be a musician and to play music that elevated people."

John Blake Jr., who played violin with such notable jazz figures as Grover Washington Jr. and McCoy Tyner in four decades of performing, a much-honored teacher, composer and arranger who found time to be a devoted husband and father, died Friday of complications of multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. He was 67 and lived in Germantown.

Like his two sisters and two brothers, John dutifully took up the piano when he turned 6. It was in elementary school that his life took a new direction. Someone asked the pupils if anyone wanted free violin lessons. John's hand shot up.

He studied piano and violin at the Settlement Music School and graduated from Overbrook High School in 1965. He received a full scholarship to West Virginia University and became the first African-American to graduate from its music program in 1969.

He did graduate work at the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies at Montreux, Switzerland, and received a grant to study East Indian music.

Until college, John's music was almost entirely classical and spirituals. But at West Virginia, he heard a recording by Ray Vance, who played violin and trumpet in Duke Ellington's band.

"And that messed me up," he told Shaun Brady, writing for the Daily News, in 2006.

Early in his career, John played jazz piano in gigs at local night spots. He would take his violin along and play a couple of numbers on it, not always to the liking of the patrons.

"Those guys said, 'Take that crap to the Philadelphia Orchestra, we don't want to hear that,' " he told Brady.

But he persisted, and his playing came to the attention of Philadelphia jazz musician Grover Washington Jr., who hired him for his band. He was later hired by another Philadelphia jazz legend, pianist McCoy Tyner.

John played and recorded with numerous other prominent jazz groups all over the world, and formed his own quartet.

He also made a number of recordings, including his latest, "Motherless Child," featuring jazz arrangement of traditional Negro spirituals.

John lectured on campuses around the U.S., was a member of the faculty of University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the Manhattan School of Music in New York, and was a guest lecturer at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

In 2005, John created "A Celebration of Fiddle Music from Africa to America," which traced the violin's history in African and African-American music.

John also played for prisoners. Once while performing a concert at Holmesburg Prison, where he had taught, a riot broke out and he was trapped in a lockdown.

On another occasion he was to play for delinquents at a North Carolina detention center. The inmates groaned when they saw him produce a violin instead of a sax.

"We started performing and before we knew it, we had won these guys over," he said.

John also was active with Musicopia, formerly known as Strings for Schools, which was formed in the Philadelphia School District when the district had to cut back on its music programs.

"The word that comes to mind when I think of my brother is 'open,' " said his sister Charlotte, a prominent storyteller and narrator. "He made everybody he met feel as if they were his best friend. He was always so glad to see everybody.

"He was funny crazy. He gave out energy and light."

Besides his sister, he is survived by his wife of 38 years, Barbara Irene; a son, Jonathan Blake; two daughters, Beverly Woodson and Jennifer Watson; another sister, Vivian Blake Carson; two brothers, Alan and Elliot Blake; and six grandchildren.

Services: 11 a.m. Monday at Sharon Baptist Church, 3955 Conshohocken Ave. Friends may call at 1 p.m. Sunday at Batchelor Brothers Funeral Service, 7112 N. Broad St., and at 9 a.m. at the church. Burial will be in Westminster Cemetery.

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