In the Swing of Things
By James Reel
Classical violinists don’t play Western swing. Dang! Someone must have forgotten to tell Damian Green.
Want to find out Damian Green’s musical hero? The 16-year-old fiddler likes to tell a joke about Jascha Heifetz, the most famous classical violinist of the 20th century. “There’s this story that Heifetz was trying to get his dog into his hotel room,” he says. “The manager stopped him, and the violinist puffed up and said, ‘But I’m Jascha Heifetz.’ The manager said, ‘I don’t care if you’re Bob Wills, you’re not bringing that dog in here.’”
Sure, Green knows his way around the classical violin; he has a lot of concertos in his fingers, and he plays in an orchestra in his native Texas. But at heart, he’s less of a Jascha Heifetz fan than a keeper of the flame of the great Texas swing fiddler Bob Wills. Wills and his Texas Playboys played country dance tunes as if they were jazz numbers. Wills didn’t invent Texas swing in the 1930s, but he pretty much perfected it, and he’s Damian Green’s hero.
In fact, Green keeps getting compared to Wills, both in his playing and his stage presence. That’s how Green wants it.
“Yes sir,” he says with his polite Texas accent. “I like his overall charisma, the way he moved on stage, the way he got the audience going. I collect a bunch of Bob Wills recordings, and I listen to those a lot, and learn a lot, and I even get to play with the Texas Playboys and learn from them in person.”
That’s right. He hasn’t even graduated from high school, but Green already has played with the old Bob Wills band, not to mention his touring with the famed Texas swing group Asleep at the Wheel in a tribute show called A Ride with Bob. The subject, you might guess, is Bob Wills. When Green, the band, and the show’s other participants played at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., a few months ago, Green even got to shake hands with a big fan of Texas swing: President George W. Bush.
None of this exactly happened overnight—Green got what you might call an early start. “I wanted to play the bass when I was two and a half year old,” he says. He’d seen what that instrument and others could do because his aunt was a high-school orchestra teacher. “But I was too little for the bass, so they gave me an 1/8-size fiddle and I started with a Suzuki program.”
When he was seven, Green attended a western-swing camp, where he got his first real introduction to the style. “It combines the blues, the jazz, the country, and the big-band swing all into one,” Green says.
He couldn’t resist.
“I love the classical stuff for the technical training,” he says, “but I really enjoy playing the western swing and country jazz, to be on stage and to hear the audience—it’s a different reaction.”
Says Green’s teacher, Bill Dick, “The thing about Damian that’s most impressive to me is that he has a sense of the moment. By that I mean when he’s onstage he’s got the costume, he’s got the moves, he’s got the showbiz part of it down, but it doesn’t seem cheesy. He’s doing a great show and having fun doing it. But then, at his lessons, he’s matter-of-fact, and he’s not resistant to criticism or change. Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it 100 percent and honestly. As a student he’s receptive and not insecure, and onstage he’s struttin’ with the best of them.”
He can switch styles easily, too, says Dick. “This semester he played the 16th Paganini Caprice for All State, and he’s good about adjusting his bow stroke so he’s not swinging Paganini. He can address whatever music’s in front of him, like there’s a little needle that goes wherever it needs to go whatever the repertoire is. And he’s such a friendly, happy kid. His parents certainly raised a very secure kid without his being an arrogant jerk.”
If anybody has reason to be arrogant, it’s Damian Green. Success came to him early. When he was still a chubby-faced preteen he was called Fiddle Boy, which was also the title of his first CD. The CD cover depicted him dressed like Superman, flying through the air with a fiddle under his arm.
Like fellow Texan and teen concert violinist Caitlin Tully, Green was a Texas Cultural Trust Council Young Master, an honor he received in 2006. The year before, he won the American String Teachers Association alternative-styles award in his age category. Now he’s got his own band, and he goes around romping with Asleep at the Wheel and the Texas Playboys. Why wouldn’t he be a little full of himself?
But, like his teacher says, he’s not. And he knows the next few years are going to be tricky for him. Before long, he’ll be too old to get by as your friendly neighborhood child prodigy. He’ll have to establish a place for himself amid all the other great adult Texas-swing fiddlers out there.
He’s homeschooled now, which gives him time to play gigs without missing out on his education. In a couple of years he’d like to be studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, which takes alternative styles as seriously as most conservatories regard classical.
According to Bill Dick, it’ll be a combination of being “discovered” by the right people, and proving that he can do more than emulate his hero, Bob Wills.
“The sound he’s producing is going to have to be innovative,” he says. “Right now he’s a great mimic, but I don’t think he does his own material yet. In Texas swing, I don’t think he can just cover songs the way classical violinists cover the Mendelssohn concerto. If someone comes up just playing Charlie Daniels tunes, that won’t make it.
“He’s got the show side, and if he can spin that off into something original, that’s what it would take to get him to the top of his field. He’s very hardworking and very gifted; he’s got things to learn, but once he picks up enough music theory to write his own stuff, the career is basically in his pocket.”
That’s why Green wants to go to Berklee, to develop that musical foundation. And he wants to keep learning secrets from all kinds of violinists, classical and jazz, living and dead—Itzhak Perlman, Stéphane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, and Stuff Smith all are in his iPod. “I try to keep myself well-rounded,” Green says.
And, he points out, even though he’s gotten famous around Texas pretty fast, he’s had to work at it. “I never take time off from practicing,” he says. “If I’m getting ready for something special, like a concert or a competition, I spend four or five hours a day working on it. If I’m just maintaining, I spend two-and-a-half to three hours a day. Bill Dick gives me a bunch of exercises for speed and accuracy, a lot of arpeggios and basic scales, and then sometimes different etudes like the Rode and the Paganini caprices; those help me maintain my technique.
“Before a concert or a competition, we get the guys in the band together and have a rehearsal. We play a couple of hours and run over all our tunes and make sure we know everything and don’t get nervous. Usually in a show I feel a lot more loose than in a competition, because in a show I feel like I have more control over what I’m doing. In competitions I have to follow a more structured pattern.”
So he’s got all the right habits and strategies. Bill Dick repeats that there’s just that one more thing he has to develop.
“He needs theory,” he says. “That’s what’s going to unlock his creative side, and open him up to his own voice and his own music and his own career.”
This article appears in Teen Strings magazine, Aug./Sept./Oct. 2007, No.7