Published April 12, 2018

While Virginia is seldom thought of a fertile ground for jazz, the state has produced a disproportionate number of artists who have put their indelible stamp on this uniquely American music. BJ Brown, director of the Richmond Jazz Society, describes how Richmond “was one place that fell hard for the new jazz music coming from New Orleans in the turn of the century. The clubs and speakeasies along 2nd Street formed a regional epicenter, earning Jackson Ward the moniker ‘The Harlem of the South.’” Virginia has produced some of the most celebrated jazz vocalists including Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Ruth Brown, and Keely Smith. Accompanying these vocalists were a cadre of highly influential and revered guitarists. Bert Carlson of Bath County follows in the footsteps of these luminary jazz guitar masters, such as Charlie Byrd, Steve Jordan, and Tiny Grimes. Bert was raised in Illinois, and though not classically trained, he learned in what he calls the old fashioned way, “at the gig—sink or swim.” He has since performed hundreds of dates each year and mentored many students in Illinois and later Washington, D.C. Bert moved to Bath County in 2001, where he met multi-instrumentalist Danny Knicely. Danny is a stellar musician himself, and is a regular performer on Virginia Folklife Program stages; a central participant in our musical exchange programs here and abroad; a 2015 Master Artist in our Apprenticeship Program, mentoring the gifted young mandolinist Jack Dunlap; and a featured artist on several Virginia Humanities recordings. For those who know his playing, the notion of Danny participating as an apprentice might at first seem curious, but in truth Danny and Bert have been learning from one another since they met. “I’ve known Danny for 18 years,” Bert says. “Over that time, he’s stolen my jazz licks and I’ve stolen his bluegrass licks. We haven’t really talked about it. We just steal.” Their unique apprenticeship gives them a chance to finally go legit.


Learning Experience

Virginia History in Song

What can songs teach us about history?