Remembering Johnny Gimble, jazz and country violinist

Johnny Gimble at Jazz Fest 1985. Photo by Norman Vickers.

The following Johnny Gimble Memorial Video crossed my screen recently. Johnny was a great friend to me personally and to Jazz Pensacola. Early in the history of Jazz Society of Pensacola, 1983, we had a jam session on a Sunday afternoon. This gentlemen with a prize-winning smile introduced himself to me, “Hi, I’m Johnny Gimble.” My reply, “I certainly hope you brought your fiddle!” He returned to the car and played on the bandstand the rest of the approximately two-hour session.

Johnny had discovered Pensacola and the Fort Pickens campground when he was living in Nashville, same time as his longtime friend Willie Nelson. Johnny had seen our announcement of the Jazz Society event in the newspaper and this attracted him. He was subsequently invited to our 1984 and 1985 Pensacola JazzFest, held at that time under the auspices of the Arts Council of Pensacola with WUWF-FM and Jazz Society in supporting roles.

One musical feat was to turn his bow upside down. This allowed the bow-hairs to touch all four strings. Normally since violin strings are arranged in an arc, normal bowing allows only two strings to sound at a time. Then all four fingers are used to make sound the four individual notes, like four-part harmony. Only certain songs can be played this way as it’s all first-position. What a Friend We Have in Jesus is a standard tune for all four strings. (I’d seen Joe Venuti do this on TV but never before, or since, in person.)

Johnny knew all the good jazz tunes and was a great ensemble player as well as soloist. The first year he came to Pensacola JazzFest, 1984, we also had Brazilian-American classical and jazz guitarist Laurindo Almeida. Almeida had ridden the Kenton bus for three years and was skilled in both the musical and verbal lingo of the American Jazzman. One of the photos shows Laurindo telling a parrot joke (he had hundreds) and Gimble countered with many musical and country jokes.

In 2007, after the beach and Pensacola had recovered from 2004’s Hurricane Ivan, Johnny came to Pensacola Beach with his wife, son (a guitarist) and granddaughter (a pianist) and her husband (a bassist). They constituted the Gimble family band and performed for a Jazz Gumbo event.

Also we got them a gig at the Opry House in Chumuckla; it was a roaring success. Johnny had previously suffered a stroke affecting his frontal lobe. He said he could remember the tunes but needed someone to travel with him because he might forget his violin. I asked him if he could still perform the four-string songs and he replied that he couldn’t because it was too taxing for him. But, otherwise he looked fine, performed well and has his same charming personality.

Johnny and wife lived in a suburb of Austin, Texas, Dripping Springs. And likely many readers have seen Johnny as a regular on the PBS- TV show “Austin City Limits.” And, because of Johnny’s longtime friendship with Willie Nelson, Johnny was invited to be in every movie in which Willie starred.

The attached memorial video, approximately 26 minutes, was shown at a gathering at Luckenbach, Texas, at a celebration of Johnny’s life. It shows him performing, among others, with Pete Fountain (see Pensacola guitarist Lloyd Ellis in that clip, too) Chet Atkins, on the Garrison Keillor Show and also with Willie Nelson. A brief clip from a movie with Clint Eastwood also is included.

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