The ukulele is not a novelty instrument. The late Tiny Tim may have thought otherwise, using the ukulele as the musical vehicle to back his falsetto singing, and it may be an instrument you buy a child for them to bang on, but as of late, the ukulele has earned its rightful place in the world of music.
Eddie Vedder released a solo record that found the Pearl Jam front man picking out aggressive folk with a ukulele, while a little internet digging will reveal scores of people using the ukulele to play anything from traditional folk to jazz fusion. It’s an instrument with more diversity than you think.
It’s captured the musical heart of some Durangoans as well, as there are weekly jams for ukulele players of all levels.
The ukulele will be a featured instrument this weekend, as duo Jack Maher and Victoria Vox aka Jack & The Vox, will perform a virtual show Saturday via the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College website, sponsored by the local organizers of Rocky Mountain Uke Fest.
“I always thought of it as a very legit instrument. I was first handed a ukulele in 1999. There was a kid in college who would play perverted funny songs on his uke, and he gave it to me to try and I handed it back a bit discouraged because I didn’t quite understand, I was thinking bass not guitar,” Vox said. “But I had a thought that wouldn’t it be cool if a songwriter took this instrument and just made real songs, not funny songs, not comedy. I forgot I had that idea, and fast forward four years and someone gave me a ukulele again, and I just ran with it, not thinking about that. But so many people have done that because of YouTube and social media, and it ignited it all over the world, and at this point you can’t stop it.”
Jack & The Vox are a Southern California-based duo who perform folk, dream-pop and rock. As they dispel the myth of the limitations of the ukulele, their music also moves into a world of jazz because of Vox’s abilities on the mouth trumpet, a musical trait that dates back decades to early groups like The Mills Brothers.
“I was writing a song in the car, and the ukulele lends itself really well to A-A-B-A songwriting structures. Jazz standards, and I was writing a jazzy tune and there was room for a solo,” Vox said. “So I was driving and thinking, ‘could I make a sound with my voice that would emulate another instrument?’ So I just tried something – I was alone in the car, I took a deep breath and (made a trumpet noise) and I thought ‘that will do!’ so I kind of ran with it.”
Virtual shows are nothing new to the duo; since the pandemic hit, Vox and Maher challenged themselves with an online series titled “The Best Medicine Show,” where they would play two songs, an original and a cover. They did 100 consecutive days of those performances, writing originals and playing a variety of covers, which could be a cut from the film “Dirty Dancing” to a ripping version of “Sultans of Swing.” Their series and other virtual shows like Saturday’s have kept them at the top of their musical game.
“This whole project has been a lifesaver,” Maher said. “We’re keeping our chops up, we’re communicating and interacting with the audience even though this is virtual, and we’ve built up quite a following.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.