Musicians hold a mesmerizing and often mystical appeal. Onstage, in the club, even walking down the street – they are the rock gods, the jazz greats, the punk queens. They are also real people.
While you’re not thinking about that as you fist pump or sway awkwardly side-to-side at their shows, if they’re not winning Grammys, most of them also have day jobs. Sure, you get it. Your best friend’s boyfriend who plays bass is also a barista at the local café, and the drummer from that one band that you follow too closely on Facebook is the bike courier who delivered flowers to you that one time and you wanted to ask for his autograph but you thought it was weird.
But in DC, the meaning of “musician with a day job” is a little different. Here, I’ve run into people playing sick riffs on the weekend only to roll into the DOJ in suit and tie Monday morning. Or picking a banjo and kicking an ankle tambourine in-between interviewing people as a journalist for Science Magazine. Or, you know, mixing hip-hop records after getting home from the IT department at NASA.
All real people.
Take, for example, Steve Jabo. Have you been over to the National Museum of Natural History to check out the brand new dino hall yet? Well, we’ve got Jabo to thank for that. At NMNH, he’s a preparator of vertebrate fossils, which means he puts dinosaurs together.
He’s also been playing in bands since the seventh grade, and for the past 22 years with local rock cover band Consider the Source (a.k.a. The Woodford Reserve when playing without one member who is now based in Georgia). Jabo and his bandmates get together every Thursday to practice in his Arlington, Virginia basement where he has a full setup.
“It’s kind of just unspoken and we really take pride in the fact that everyone shows up,” he says. “There’s no drama. We’re good friends who really like music. Our number one priority is the music, and that makes everything more enjoyable.”
The band has played lots of classic local spots, including the late Bangkok Blues and Luna Park Grille. These days, they’re semi-regulars at Clare & Don’s in Falls Church where they play literally everything you could imagine – from Elvis Costello and Tom Petty to Patti Smith and Bowie.
“It’s hard to find new stuff [that is appealing to lots of people]. I like to do our own take on things and change it up.”
Wondering what the dinosaurs listen to? As far as music in the Paleo Lab at the museum, Jabo says he starts the day listening to “something mellow, like classical music or jazz.” Then, he works his way “up to something with a little more energy,” which can mean almost anything.
“My music collection is 12,000-plus tunes of everything from Gregorian chant…to hip-hop…to punk rock. I’ll usually just hit the ‘Shuffle All’ button and let it ride. If I’m doing something really delicate under the scope, I’ll put the earbuds in and listen to Miles Davis or Puccini arias to get in the zone.”
That said, Jabo generally subcribes to a “gotta keep ’em separated” mantra when it comes to his career and his passion for music. Alex Dent, on the other hand, tries to find as many ways as possible to merge the two. When not writing music and performing with his punk rock band Weird Babies, Dent is an enthomusicologist at George Washington University.
Dent uses linguistic theory to explore the influence of music in cultures. Prior to joining the world of academia, he had an “ah-hah” moment while working as an Outward Bound instructor with at-risk youth.
“This thing happened where the kids started talking to me a lot about their music, and I became a lot better at working with them when I was listening to what they were listening to,” Dent says. “At that time, it was a lot of Public Enemy.”
When he realized music was the language he most wanted to understand, Dent traveled to South America for his dissertation on policing and the DVD pirating history of Brazilian punk rock. When he returned to the States, he started playing a lot of his own music under a small Chicago label – but was somewhat restricted in terms of his research work. These days, however, as a tenured professor with a couple of books under his belt, Dent is done with boundaries.
“The more I can integrate my academic work and teaching with my music, the happier I am,” he says.
Right now, that looks like collaboration with a composer to teach a class on sound, researching cell phone use in local teenage populations, studying the resurgence of punk in DC and, of course, playing with his band Weird Babies.
“Shows I like playing the most are benefit shows,” he says. “We recently did one for gun control at St. Stephen’s and for [DMV immigration services organization] Ayuda at Rhizome. I’m wondering what it would be like to create a kind of pedagogical instrument for helping students think about the relationships between arts and community activism and civic engagement.”
Taking musical pedagogy and activism to another level, Adele Marie – whose hauntingly beautiful voice stopped me dead in my tracks at a show last winter – is a board-certified music therapist at the John L. Gildner Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents.
“In high school, a friend asked me, ‘What do you want to study in college?’ and I replied, ‘All I know is I want to do something where I can help people,’” she says. “I didn’t hear the words ‘music therapy’ until the beginning of my community college enrollment, but as soon as I did, I never seriously considered any other career path.”
The artist works with adolescents and young adults ages 10-21 who experience various manifestations of emotional and/or behavioral issues caused by a broad scale of traumas, mental illnesses, autism spectrum disorders and other diagnoses.
“My two favorite parts about my work are communicating with my clients through music and sharing a musical space with them, and witnessing their growth and progress,” she says.
But the intense adversity many of her clients face is challenging.
“Music therapy is not always pretty. It does not always involve beautiful music-making – in fact, it may involve complete chaos.”
In terms of her own musicianship, like Dent, she has found DC to be a hotspot for musicians looking to share creative processes. She cites the DIY community as being especially supportive, opening up gig opportunities at spots like Boundary Stone, Songbyrd Record Cafe and Music House’s Vinyl Lounge, Dwell and FRESHFARM Markets, among others.
Catch folk-rock project Adele Marie & The Milkweeds at Velvet Lounge on August 28, and learn more about these unexpected musicians and their bands below.