As a college musician in LA, one of my favorite weekend activities was driving to the Lighthouse, a legendary jazz club that admitted underage customers.
There I heard many of the great musicians of the time—Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Sarah Vaughan, Lee Morgan, Mongo Santamaria, Carmen McRae, Freddy Hubbard, Wes Montgomery, Joe Williams, and on and on.
It was thrilling to hear those musicians take familiar tunes and improvise, stretching the bounds of harmony and rhythm while expressing joy and pain, rage and whimsy.
Years later, long after I left music, my wife Yvonne and I moved to Nashville. One evening we found ourselves in the Ryman Auditorium, formerly home of the Grand Ole Opry and now a beautifully restored music venue with hard wooden seats and impeccable sound.
Onstage was Ricky Skaggs. He was playing bluegrass music, and I was amazed to be transported back to the Lighthouse.
I had expected to hear a quaint variety of country music, but Skaggs and his band were ripping through the tunes with jaw-dropping improvisations. Their flights of imagination, ferocious and note-rich, were quite different from those I had heard at the Lighthouse, but they were nevertheless masterful.
It reminded me of something I’d been told by my friend Tony Plog. It seems that in Sweden, where Tony lived for several years, the term they use for country music, translated literally, is “horse jazz.”
Following that remarkable evening, Yvonne and I bought tickets to the Ryman’s annual six-concert series, Bluegrass Nights, which we have attended ever since. I love that high, lonesome sound and the tight vocal harmonies, but it’s the instrumentalists I most enjoy—including musicians such as Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent, Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas, and the two wildly talented fiddle players we heard last week, Maddie Denton and Brittany Haas.
We’ll be at the Ryman again next Thursday night, sitting on those hard wooden seats and listening to horse jazz.