Bo knows the “mando.” That is, Hopewell resident Bo Child knows the mandolin quite well, thanks to decades of playing “the world’s biggest little instrument,” as he likes to say.
A fascination with the folk-rock sounds of David “Dawg” Grisman — who played with the Grateful Dead, the Even Dozen Jug Band, as well as his own quartet in the early 1970s — motivated Child to learn the mandolin.
“David Grisman led the charge to make the instrument more visible in the American roots scene,” Child says. “I first heard the sound of the David Grisman Quartet on the radio, and shortly after I asked my mom for a mandolin as a present. She got me a classical mandolin, which is very different from the bluegrass instrument, with a rounded back and a unique sound — more trebly and twangy as opposed to the sound of flat-bodied mandolin.”
Child’s expertise on the mandolin has helped him blend in perfectly with the retro sound of acoustic and “gypsy” jazz, music embraced by fans of early 20th century geniuses of the genre such as Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli, Eddie Lang, and Joe Venuti.
By happy accident, Child and fellow Hopewell resident and guitarist Mark Hill met up with a handful of other talented musicians interested in acoustic jazz, and, about 15 years ago, founded Stringzville, which they describe as “an acoustic jazz quartet/quintet that brings a crisp, new sound to classic jazz favorites.”
In central New Jersey lovers of acoustic jazz — as well as swing, bossa-nova, and jazz standards — can hear Stringzville perform the third Saturday of each month at the historic Hopewell train station, including October 17, November 21, and December 19. The music starts at 7 p.m. and lasts until “9-ish,” Child says.
It’s a small venue with interesting acoustics, made even more atmospheric when an actual train rumbles by.
“It happens every time, usually during one of our soft, lilting bossa nova tunes,” he says. “The place, which used to be the men’s waiting room, has amazing acoustics. We can play in there without amplification.”
At the train station, Stringzville often likes to spice things up by inviting guest musicians to sit in, recently including accordion player Ed Goldberg, founding member of Odessa Klezmer, and Hopewell-based saxophonist/flutist Dave Homan.
In addition to Child and Hill (by day a broker at Hilton Realty), Stringzville is made up of Hopewell resident and rhythm guitarist Dennis O’Neal, bassist and Weehawken resident Kathy “Red” Ridl, and violinist Adam Krass of Rutherford. Child says the regular date at the Hopewell train station motivates the two north Jerseyans to travel to central New Jersey to perform. However, the musical compatibility is the biggest factor in Stringzville’s longevity, no matter the geographic distance between the musicians.
It all started at the former 1860 House in Skillman, which used to house the Montgomery Cultural Arts Center, and was home to art exhibits as well as a variety of concerts. There was even a kind of music variety show there for a time, and that’s what brought Child, Hill, and bassist Ridl together.
“Music is about relationships: you have to know what the other person is going to do,” he says. “(With Kathy), I like to make the comparison to dating, and I was saying to myself, ‘will she go out with us, will she play with us, because she’s really good.’ So Kathy agreed to jam with us, and then Mark invited Dennis O’Neal to join, and then we brought in Adam Krass, the fiddle player.”
“There was an immediate joy in both the music and the company when we first played,” Ridl says. “When I first heard Bo and Mark play, you could tell they’d played together for a long time, because their ‘feel’ was so great.”
Stringzville can perform as a trio, a quartet, or (Child’s favorite) a quintet.
The group has performed several times as a quartet for the Lawrenceville Main Street organization, most recently in September for the fourth annual Night in the Village. Stringzville has also played at EarthShare New Jersey’s annual celebration at Grounds For Sculpture, Laurita Winery in New Egypt, as well as numerous intimate gigs at Halo Pub in Hamilton. As a trio, Stringzville has been invited back several times to play at the annual Capital Health Chairman’s reception
“The three of us (Child, Hill, and O’Neal) do a lot of corporate gigs, as well as weddings and private parties,” Child says. “After 15 years, it’s effortless, we know what to do, we love each other, we get together, and it’s magical.”
Child grew up Plainfield in a musical household where both parents played piano. His mother, Joanna, worked as an administrator for the music department of Douglass College, and his father, Roger, was a gifted pianist, organist, and choir director at Plainfield area churches.
“My mother ran the rehearsal hall at Douglass, so I knew many of the music professors there — even later when I went to college at Rutgers,” Child says. “It was such a rich musical environment, and I got to hang out with some amazing musicians. I think, though, that my dad was the more accomplished musician, and a lot of my talent comes from him.”
“Although I grew up in a household with a piano, I had an aversion to the keyboard, although now I wish I had learned,” he adds. “I played the clarinet in elementary school, and then when the Beatles hit the music scene and every kid had to have a guitar, I got one.”
Child describes his “folkie” high school years, gathering in friends’ basements with black light posters on the walls, singing songs by Bob Dylan, Donovan, James Taylor, the band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and then, thanks to Grisman’s influence, experimenting with bluegrass.
“I played bluegrass for a while, and then I hit a plateau and picked up the bass guitar. That started me on a journey of playing bass in blues bands for about a dozen years,” Child says. “I was playing every weekend at places from Philly to New York City, primarily in two bands, the Herd of Blues and the Chuck Lambert Blues Band.”
“Quite a few years later, I had an epiphany on Route 33 in Twin Rivers at 3 a.m., just asking myself, ‘How long can I keep doing this?’” he says. “So I put the bass down and picked up the mandolin, but this time I did something that had frightened me: I started studying jazz charts, fought that dragon, and won. I actually taught myself to read jazz charts. About six months later I ran into my old buddy Mark Hill, and we realized we were both interested in jazz, so we got together and started jamming, and were doing a lot of gypsy jazz.”
Earlier in his life, Child had studied mandolin with Dan Gelo and continued with the renowned mandolinist (and member of Hot Tuna) Barry Mitterhoff. He also attended a number of classical mandolin workshops with renowned Italian classical mandolin virtuoso Carlo Aonzo.
Aside from music, Child majored in English at Rutgers, graduating in 1982, after a stint in the Navy, as well as taking some time to travel across the United States, “and grow my hair long,” he says.
Child pursued a career in technical and proposal writing and editing, worked in marketing, then in human resources, noting that his last corporate position was with the Highland Park Cultural Resource Consulting Group. He left that job after his wife, pastry chef Karen Child, purchased the former Village Bakery in Lawrenceville.
“About 10 years ago I became the ‘bread guy,’ selling bread at farmers’ markets and whatnot,” Child says. “For a while, we had these wonderful ‘Friday Night at the Bakery’ music events, and we gathered a group of mandolin players to get together just to play the mandolin. We called it the Maidenhead Mandolin Society — who would have thought there were so many mandolinists in the area? We even had Barry Mitterhof come down to ‘conduct’ us. Everyone did this as a labor of love, and it was one of the coolest things in my life to see it grow, and have people look forward to it.”
“We did that right up until Hurricane Sandy hit in October, 2012,” he says. “We didn’t have power for a week, and we had all this food we had to get rid of because it was going to go bad. So we put the word out to our friends, saying ‘folks, we have all this food, and we invite you to bring wine, beer, acoustic instruments, and flashlights.’ We had more than 50 people show up to play music and eat.”
Unfortunately, Sandy hit the couple’s business at just the wrong time, and the Village Bakery had to close.
“My wife said, ‘I’m done.’” Child says. “Now, my day job is with Small World Roasters in Rocky Hill, who makes the coffee for Small World in Princeton. My wife just got a job with Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, for Parkhurst, the dining service for the university, as the head baker for the college.”
Meanwhile, Child is involved in more and musical endeavors, including two country bands, Dark Whiskey and the Barncats, and a jazz ensemble, the DBB Jazz Trio. He is also a frequent guest with the Ragtime Relics, an American-roots bands based in Princeton.
“I am fortunate that my wife is understanding and very tolerant of my playing music,” he says with a chuckle. “Although if I join one more band I might be in trouble.”
Stringzville, Hopewell Train Station, 3 Railroad Place, Hopewell. Third Saturday of the month, including October 17, 7 p.m. Suggested donation $5. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. www.stringzville.com.