One of the things one can say about Mainers, with myself being one of them is that they are people who prefer to maintain a certain variety of life. Upon entering the state in fact, there is a sign greeting the visitor on the highway stating “Welcome To Maine-The Way Life Should Be”. It is primarily a rural,woodsy tundra region-filled for the fertile months of the year with a great deal of grass and pine trees,for which the state is actually named as “the pine tree state”. From the lobster catchers and painters living in the coastal areas to the industrial blue collar workers and even farmers living in the middle of the state,these are people who would just assume keep the ongoing technological and sociological process of the rest of the nation at bay. While very democratic in many ways socially this particular way of life leads often to unremittingly conservative behavior and ways of looking at the world. This essentially means,much as they may dislike admitting it, many Mainers are not particularly progressive and do not much care for the idea of improvisation.
Improvisation is key to one very important form of music that was part of my upbringing-jazz. Historically the roots of the music are in the blues,which was started by liberated slaves in the city of New Orleans. Them and their parents were often new arrivals from Africa or the West Indies. For these individuals, improvisation was a necessity for everyday survival in America at that time. Imagine for a moment that your forcibly shipped as property to labor for someone else’s profit. When you arrive on the new land, you won’t speak the language. You would be eating unusual foods you weren’t used to. And most importantly, you’ll have an entirely different political and religious system to deal with. If such a person couldn’t improvise they are going to be in a lot of trouble. They could not afford, as a stereotypical Mainer would today, to embrace laws and values for themselves that excluded them from progress. Not only were choices mostly made for these un-free people of New Orleans but they had to adapt and chance to survive. Somehow though, there has always been a small yet thriving live jazz subculture in this state. Some of which I’ve personally experience.
In the early 1990’s my parents would take me some Sundays to see cornettist Don Stratton’s jazz band play. Shortly after we’d go to the University Of Maine to see Perennial Jay Breggman and his Be-Bop Devine play Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington numbers. On a visit to the city of Portland once, we rather spontaneously decided to see Doctor John play songs from his tribute to Duke Ellington at the State Theater. During the turn of the millennium I went with my family to my birth town of Waterville to see first Billy Bang and his band,which included an interesting backstage encounter with drummer Michael Carvin, and later the saxophone player Sonny Fortune. While my parents had to travel to New York decades ago to see Bobby Hutchinson at the Village Vanguard, rather obscure artists such as Billy Harper began to come to Maine regularly during the 1990’s and beyond. While the economy of the area,suffering as it has in much of the nation has limited the amount of live jazz in the area somewhat, that vital subculture still exists and somehow manages to carry on fairly successfully.
There are many local clubs and night stops regularly featuring jazz the whole year round. The Nautica Pub in Gouldsboro. The Havana in Bar Harbor. Annabella’s in Lubec. Nocturum in Bangor. And of course the Stonington Opera House, where a Deer Isle Jazz Festival is held every summer-bringing in jazz from across the country. Even though it is likely a select group of people, mainly centered around jazz radio show hosts and their admirers who attend these events, jazz music is a wonderful thing for a fairly conservative and religion state like Maine. New Orleans,the city where jazz was created, was also an extremely non progressive environment in the decades leading up the creation of jazz. It was at one time a major center of the slave trade, crime was rampant and even today that city is insistent on maintaining its own unique lifestyle. Yet America’s improvisation musical art of jazz was born there. And has helped its society get through much-from Civil War in the 19th century to Hurricane Katrina in the 21st. If you ask me, there’s no reason why the Mainers cannot move to the rhythms of improvisation in the same way