The Amigos Band is guitarist Justin Poindexter, accordionist Sam Reider, saxophonist/washboard player Eddie Ray Barbash, and upright bassist Noah Garabedian, and with roots spread across the United States, they create a genre-defying style of music that combines country, folk, and jazz to make their own unique sound. Between his role in the Amigos Band, his position as Manager for Education and Community Programs at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and his capacity as Artistic Director at the Music Academy of the American South, Justin is a busy man, but I had the opportunity recently to sit down with him to talk a little about the Amigos, American music, and jazz education.
I first asked Justin how he juggles so many projects and how they relate to each other. Hailing from a small town in North Carolina, Justin said he learned to play music in both country and jazz bands at a young age out of necessity to make it as a musician in such a small scene, though he cites Oscar Peteron’s 1962 Night Train as the album that really sparked his interest in jazz. Early in his career, he would compartmentalize these different styles, but now he says he sees it all as part of the same thing. For example, in July and again in November, The Amigos Band will be playing at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center. On July 29th western swing guitarist and yodeling virtuoso Ranger Doug will be joining them, and their show on November 25th will feature bebop/beat generation guru David Amram. Justin also recalled something bluegrass legend Del McCoury once told him when they were playing together: bluegrass musicians and jazz musicians used to not only listen to the same popular music, but also play these same songs. The strict separation between canonical jazz and bluegrass standards is a recent development.
This theme recurred in our conversation, since the Amigos’ music celebrates all kinds of American styles. This is partially why the US Department of State has chosen the Amigos Band as cultural ambassadors for the American Music Abroad program. From February to April of 2014 they’ll be touring the world, presenting their Adventures in American Musical Landscapes. Since they embrace disparate influences from different times and places in American history from bluegrass to bebop, their shows simultaneously pay tribute to American music history and exhibit their fresh, new sound. Justin mentioned a professor in his composition program at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts who expressed a philosophy about composition somewhat akin to T.S. Eliot’s opinion on modern writing, specifically that the most interesting composers don’t focus on new things, but instead study history and the past, which naturally leads them into their own sound. In addition to their unique melting pot style, the Amigos are all stellar instrumentalists and singers, which is evident on their album, The Tres Amigos, available at http://thetresamigos.bandcamp.com/album/the-tres-amigos.
The interconnectedness of American musical styles and intersection of old and new is also a major theme of Justin’s work at the Music Academy of the American South (MAAS), which brings together representatives from all kinds of American roots music as well as other genres like jazz and soul to explore the commonalities and differences of their music and facilitate cultural exchange. Justin noted the importance for musicians to be able to coherently explain the significance of their music and its importance to today’s culture, and the MAAS examines that for many types of American music.
We also talked a bit about Justin’s role at Jazz at Lincoln Center, in which he organizes concerts for elementary and middle school students as well as the elderly in hospitals, medical rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes. He manages the Jazz for Young People concert series, which has groups perform at 75 school in New York three times each year, presenting a production that first introduces the elements of jazz music like improvisation and swing. But he loves returning to the schools for the second and third productions, so the band and the students can delve deeper into the cultural significance of jazz music, like its role in the civil rights movement for example. The real magic of jazz education comes with seeing these young people get emotionally connected to a kind of music they previously did not know. Working with the elderly population, however, has a different kind of magic. Many of these people have known and loved jazz all their lives, so these performances bring them back through the years, especially since Justin has the opportunity to hire some players of their generation, like bassist Bill Crow who can entertain the audiences with his music and his stories of playing with jazz legends like Benny Goodman.
Check out videos of The Amigos with David Amram and Ranger Doug below. You can tell from their smiles how much fun they have making this music.