Ludi Hinrichs:  Redefining American Jazz
By David Laurence Wilson • June 8, 2000

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It seems like you can never overestimate the value of a classical education or the power of a well-tuned trombone. A few years ago the versatile musician Ludi Hinrichs (appearing Saturday for a 7 pm performance at Downieville’s Yuba Theater) had a problem concerning his chickens and a hungry bear. After a while he came up with a system that seemed to protect his fowl, both of the laying and non-laying variety alike, since the Hinrichs family allows its chickens to die of old age. 

The way things turned out -- and this took some rigging --  the bear (a) would push his way through the Hinrichs’ gate, rustling tin cans which woke the dog (b), who would bark, which would wake the wife (c), who would wake Ludi (d), who would grab his trombone, point it out the window and play a solo that sounded like a big, hungry elephant.  The bear (a) would figure that the elephant was bigger and hungrier than a bear and therefore needed the chickens even more.  He’d leave the scene promptly Ludi lives in a forgiving community but eventually he heard criticism of his choice of tunes.  The next day he played “Sweet Georgia Brown” and the bear decided to stay.

The bear was not the first “customer” to stop, listen and hang around for an encore. Hinrichs is a trickster, seducing audiences with unlikely combinations of trombones and tamburas, tape loops, pianos and scat-singing.

Hinrichs is also presenting his music in Loyalton this week for the Multicultural Day at Loyalton Elementary School.  Recently, for a high school appearance, Hinrichs took the scat-singing one step further and began articulating rap-style syncopations through his trombone.  “It was great,” he says.  “After that, I had them in the palm of my hand."

Hinrichs takes on the persona of a magician and storyteller in his performances, though he could just as easily buckle on a zoot suit, or sometimes even a cowboy hat.  He has at least 150 pieces in his repertoire, mixing originals with classic jazz and a twist of humor.  In his Downieville concert, sponsored by the Sierra County Arts Council, Hinrichs will be presenting his “World Tour.”

Hinrichs is a musical eclectic, a multi-instrumentalist or one-man band who hums on an Australian didjeridoo instead of a kazoo.  He is an instinctive artist.  He’ll make up a song on the spot, if the mood is right.  That’s the loose, improvisational side of his nature, though he also locked up the “right” side of his brain and spent years studying music at the St. Louis Institute of Music and the Berklee College of Music, in Boston.


Hinrichs is a musical purist, with little interest in Electronic music (“You can do so many wonderful things with natural sounds”) or even listening to recordings (“They’re good, I guess, for documentary purposes”).  Hinrichs can be a lot of things to audiences without straying from his own musical path.

He delights in trying new things, even employing three feet of galvanized rain gutter from the side of his house to get just the right twanging, gonging, jew’s harp kind of sound.  A didjeridoo, he notes, is really just a trombone without a slide:  “It all comes from the voice,” he says.  “If you can sing something, there should be a way you can play it on an instrument.”  And then he goes further:  Researchers have shown that every cell in your body vibrates when you sing!”

One of his sidelines (and there are a few of these, too) is as the Musical Director of the Ridge Glee Club, a twenty member, non-auditioned chorus that practices every Wednesday night at the North Columbia Schoolhouse.  Every three months a new group forms and then dissolves at the end of the term.  In this setting Ludi is a twenty-first century Mitch Miller, who instructs and composes for the group.  Instead of “On Top Of Old Smoky” he’s likely to lead the group in a jump-boogie piece for choir or a Balinese-influenced composition.  This year the choir will perform at the Sierra Story-Telling Festival, July 22, at the North Columbia Schoolhouse.  “It’s like a college semester,” Hinrichs says.  “It’s people’s music, a people’s choir.”  Hinrichs, 51, is a self-sufficient looking-- and self-sufficient in fact -- individual who spends much of his time teaching.  He  about 25 private students ranging in age from six to 73, most of them  studying the piano.  His grandmother was a concert pianist, a tradition that his father followed, though not on the professional level.  Ludi (short for Ludwig van Beethoven Hinrichs) played his grandmother’s Steinway but his first formal instruction was on the bugle, in junior high, and then the trombone, in High School.

At sixteen and seventeen he was playing in integrated rhythm and blues bands in north St. Louis.  At eighteen he was arranging the parts for a five-piece horn section in “Jerry J. and the Sheritans”, a thirteen-member band which also included Michael MacDonald.  The band performed as a warm-up act before performances by Cream, the Doors, and the original Blood Sweat And Tears.  On other occasions they backed up Chuck Berry and Mel Torme.   The band went on a tour that started out in the sleazy bars of Boston’s “Sailor’s Row” and quickly fizzled out, leaving the band with no money but a great desire to get back to St. Louis in any way possible.

It was during those years that Hinrichs got a good brush-up against fame, a close-up look at that brand of success occupied by only the highest echelons of rock and roll.  Cream was guitarist Eric Clapton’s band, best known for their classic recording “Sunshine of Your Love”. Ludi thought the band sounded great, with blues roots and a high level of musicianship but there was also a darkness there. He was backstage, watching the gaunt, grizzled Ginger Baker’s solo on “Toad” when the drummer pushed aside one of his drums, leaned over and threw up onto the stage before continuing with the song. After that Hinrichs began to reconsider his prospects as a big-concert rock and roll kind of musician.  It didn’t seem to be the direction he wanted to travel.  “I didn’t know if I wanted to do this,” Hinrichs says.  “I mean, I wasn’t really a hippy.  I was in Boston but I didn’t go to Woodstock.  I tried tie-die.  It just didn’t take.”


Hinrichs tries to offer up a quick list of his musical influences, a task more easily said than accomplished:  “It was Rhythm and Blues and jazz that intrigued me.  I just know that I like Miles (Davis), (Thelonius) Monk, (John) Coltrane and Bach (Johann Sebastian, of course).”  Then he can’t help adding:  “And Raga” ... “And Balinese music” ... “And Asian music and Aboriginal.  ... And I like the great scat singers, like Ella Fitzgerald and John Hendricks, from Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.”

“People will try to stereotype me but I just have so many interests in different fields of music.  ..  People will think that what I was doing five years ago is still happening, and yes, there’s still a part of you that doesn’t change, but there can be so much more.”

For years Hinrichs left music, spending time in various forms of philosophical retreat.  He studied and taught Gestalt therapy and became a follower of the philosopher Gurdjieff.  He lived on Vancouver Island and in Los Angeles.  In 1978 he moved to Nevada City and began working as a finish carpenter, specializing in stairways but too slow, too much of a perfectionist to be a success at framing.  

The music came back to him in Nevada City and he played jazz as a trio and a quintet.  Along with a few comrades from Nevada County’s close-knit jazz population he put together a bebop band called  Boplicity  and  a dance band called Sierra Brass and Electric.  He formed a swing group called Sentimental Journey.   The Ludi Hindrichs Quintet continues today as an occasional but on-going collaboration with musicians from Reno and the Bay area.

Today you’ll find Ludi  just a few miles from the North Columbia Schoolhouse, where he and his wife Karen help with the center’s scheduling.  Their brand of paradise is past the hydraulic pits, down a dusty dirt road near the Ananda community.  You have to watch your mileage if you want to find this oasis.  Karen is a former caterer who paints watercolors of vegetables and produces nudes that look like etchings and prints.  She has introduced figure drawing sessions at the Schoolhouse.


Their home, like Hinrichs music, is a mix, though it is tied together by the common themes of Ludi’s music and Karen’s art.  Ludi is a unusually discriminating collector of found objects and his home, too, was once an orphan, more recently remodeled by the pair.

With a group Hinrichs usually plays trombone and sings.  In his solo concert on Saturday he’ll add less familiar instruments, including an electric piano, a conch shell, a Balinese rangtang, East Indian tambura, a Funnelodeon, a 36” gong, the didjeridoo and maybe the rain gutter.  All the pieces come together to support American forms of music, with finger-snapping scat rhythms.

The Ludi Hindrichs World Tour is an intentional pun that some may miss, accustomed as we are to tales of big-name star-tours that are planned more like military campaigns than musical interludes.  It’s not Ludi who is traveling the world for this series of concerts.  He’s staying put, give or take a few hundred miles.  He’s simply attempting to introduce his California audiences to unfamiliar pathways in World Music.  He speaks of an “itinerary” as much as a “set list”. “What makes this a World Tour is that we go on some of the travels that I’ve gone on, both musically and anecdotally,” he says.  “One of the things I’d like to do is more traveling, so this is my way of doing thatwhile staying in one place.”

Despite all these influences, Hinrichs continues to work within the framework of traditional American musical forms.  “Yeah, I’ll go off on a tangent,” he says.  “If something unexpected happens I’ll follow it out, but I’m not going to leave the audience behind.  I have an ultimate, total respect for my audience.  It could all be very confusing but it’s not, because the voice is home base.  That’s where it all starts.”

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