Leo Hickman is one lucky mandolin player, lucky because he has found in Michael Joseph Harris’s Django Jazz Jam Session a very welcoming place in which to hone his jazz chops. Unlike many sessions, where jammers may be allowed to play as few as one or two tunes per night, Hickman is able to play on as many tunes as he wants.
At age twenty, Hickman is now in his twelfth year of playing mandolin, an instrument not usually associated with jazz. He started in third grade with lessons at the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, taught by Laura Norris. Michael Joseph Harris first heard Hickman playing in Norris’s Mando for Kids program. “Even then I noticed how great he was. He’s just got an incredible ear. He can play any style of music, including bebop,” says Harris.
During the jam session’s first set, I noticed that Hickman was very adept at playing chords, melodies, and improvisations on a wide range of tunes, from old chestnuts like “On the Sunny Side of the Street” to the more modern “Blue Bossa.” Asked how he made the transition from classical training to jazz, Hickman credited his education in music theory at Baltimore School for the Arts (BSA), which he says helped him learn chords and intervals. Clearly he has spent a lot of time and effort learning the jazz language and repertoire on his own as well. “In my free time I mostly listen to this kind of stuff,” Hickman told me, adding, “I have a good musical memory. I usually know a tune after a couple of listenings. I’m a good memorizer.” When asked what attracts him to jazz, Hickman answers, “The fun of jamming on the spot is way more fun than playing notes on a page. It never gets boring.”
In addition to Harris’s encouragement, Hickman credits BSA’s jazz director Eddie Hrybyk with “totally changing the course of my music education.” That education included a BSA field trip to Jazz Education Network’s conference in New Orleans, where Hickman played “Dixieland” music on banjo.
Hickman briefly played jazz/rock fusion in a band with high school friends called Déjà Vu. He also played four to five gigs per week around Utah one summer with his grandfather’s bluegrass band. In the fall, Hickman will begin University of Maryland Baltimore County’s jazz studies program.
–By Bob Jacobson
Bob Jacobson plays saxophone and clarinet and leads combos “Sounds Good” and “Swing ‘n’ Samba.” He and Leo Hickman recently played together for the first time at Syriana Cafe in Ellicott City. Bob has written numerous articles for the BJA newsletter. He is a mostly-retired social worker who still dabbles in counseling, freelance writing, teaching, and writing about music. He was vice president of BJA for 12 years