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A Jazzman Turned Builder Says That In Both Fields, The Good Stuff's Made To Last

Jamie Masefield made a name for himself leading the Jazz Mandolin Project. When the life of a working musician started to wear on him, the Vermont native became a certified dry stone mason.
Angela Evancie/Vermont Public Radio
Jamie Masefield made a name for himself leading the Jazz Mandolin Project. When the life of a working musician started to wear on him, the Vermont native became a certified dry stone mason.

Vermont musician Jamie Masefield has been improvising on the jazz mandolin for decades. He's recorded six albums, including one with Blue Note Records, and brings everything from folk and funk to the literature of Leo Tolstoy to the stage. But some years back, his eclectic creativity brought him to an unexpected second career.

When I meet Masefield at work, he's chipping away at some pinkish stone with a small hammer. "In the industry we call it 'rainbow stone,'" he offers. "It's very nice to work with."

When he's not making music, Masefield is a professional dry stone mason. This means he builds walls and foundations and sculptures that support themselves, without any concrete smooshed between the cracks. Today he's building a retaining wall.

"The first concern is longevity," he explains. "We want to build something that lasts a long time, that has real functionality, that's not just there to please a homeowner for 15 years."

Another word for this is stability — which is exactly what Masefield was looking for when he got into masonry. He'd been living on the road with his band, the Jazz Mandolin Project – "driving around the country in a van, playing over 100 shows a year, sleeping in funky motels alongside the roaring highway," as he describes it. He was ready for a change.

"I was feeling more of a need to have a vegetable garden and eat good food and be healthy and be outside," Masefield says. "And so I contacted an old friend of mine who had a well-established landscaping company, and the first day I went to work for him, he had me building the corner of a stone wall. And I loved it."

Andrew Louden, a master craftsman with the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain, says he's not surprised that someone with Masefield's background would find their way into his field.

Masefield at work.
/ Angela Evancie/Vermont Public Radio
Angela Evancie/Vermont Public Radio
Masefield at work.

"I think anybody who comes into dry stone walling, it's helpful if you've got some sort of artistic leaning or background," Louden says. "Because unlike building in any other medium, the stone's completely irregular."

It takes creativity and discipline. Louden's association runs a series of tests to certify professional builders at different levels. He judged Masefield's intermediate test, which ran seven hours. "For me, the timed element's one of the more important parts of the test, because the craftsman has to prove that he's economically viable," Louden says.

Masefield passed. But because he also wants to stay musically viable, when he's on the job site, he's compulsive about protecting his hands. "I wear gloves all the time when I'm working," Masefield says. "Going to the bank and saying, 'Yeah, this is on my business account; I'm a stone mason,' sometimes I walk away thinking, 'That guy doesn't believe me. He doesn't think I'm a stone mason. My hands are too soft because I'm wearing these gloves all the time.'"

"He puts himself into whatever it is he's doing pretty sincerely," says Phish drummer Jon Fishman, who has played with Masefield on and off since the two were in college, most recently in an outfit called Masefield Perkins Fishman Bolles. From the beginning, Fishman says, he recognized a kindred spirit.

"Jamie was one of those people — like, 'Oh, this guy's pretty dedicated.' This is another human who it's not just a hobby for," Fishman says. "And to be perfectly honest, when he started to go down the stone building route, I was actually a little jealous."

It's tempting to think that Masefield inhabits two totally different creative worlds. However, he says jazz and masonry have something fundamental in common, and points to a musical practice known as "playing changes."

"When we're playing changes, we're soloing over those harmonic changes in that particular tune — and so you're very quickly making decisions about what you're going to play," he says. "When I'm doing stonework, I often feel like we're in the midst of playing changes, because every stone you place needs some consideration. But you can't dwell on it all day long."

Just like improvisation. And yet, he adds, both crafts are also about the pursuit of timelessness.

"At the end of every day of doing stonework, I can look back and hopefully say, 'That looks good, and that's what we've done today, and that's going to last a really long time.' It's similar in music. If you're lucky enough to play some really great music one day, you can look back and say, 'Well, we've got that.' That's recorded, or the audience has heard that. Hopefully that's had an effect on them in some way that they're taking home with them.

The task is monumental, so to speak: make something for this moment, and at the same time make something for the ages — for everyone. How many of us are trying to do that?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Angela Evancie
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