by Barney Quick
Sometimes it takes a circuitous route filled with musical adventures and world travel for a girl to get back to her Brown County swimming pool. That’s how it’s been for violinist Carolyn Dutton, who, after thirty years of life in New York and on the road, narrowed her choices of a place to move to the Caribbean, the south of France, or Brown County. She chose to come back to the land that brought delight to her youth.
“When I was a little girl growing up in Martinsville, two or three times a summer, my parents would load us up and bring us to the state park swimming pool. I remember the fun of that and the magnificent views on the way,” she recalls.
Now she has her own pool at her hilltop home near Nashville, as well as a busy life playing in The Hot Club of Naptown, Bleu Django, and various other ensembles in central Indiana. Her current focus is music patterned after the 1930s and 40s swing played by Stephane Grappelli, the French violinist, and Django Reinhardt, the Belgian gypsy jazz guitarist. The instrumentation for that sound consists of acoustic guitars, violin, and upright bass. She can play a wide variety of other genres as well, owing to the range of experience she had during her years away.
She attended Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio (across the street from Miami University) with the intent of preparing for a writing career. However, the music faculty knew of her talent and skill as a violinist and applied strong persuasion to lure her to a music major. She acquiesced and even played in the Dayton Symphony Orchestra her senior year.
The desire to move away from music was occasioned in part by her creative restlessness. She was keen to find something else to do on the violin, but didn’t know where to look. “Back then, I was a classical snob,” she explains. “The only alternative violin I knew about was country and bluegrass.”
The writing life still beckoned, though, and after college she took an eight-week summer course in publishing procedures at Radcliffe College. “We met all these interesting people from the industry,” she says.
Illness necessitated a return to Indiana, and for two years she was a feature writer for the Indianapolis Times. Then she headed to New York and landed a job as a publicity writer for Seventeen magazine.
By then, her creative energies were seeking yet another outlet, so she took evening acting courses at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. The next step was auditioning for shows. “I realized there was a lot of opportunity for people who could act and play an instrument,” she says.
She got a part in a humorous off-Broadway show about Jesse James called Red Clay Ramblers, singing, acting, and playing violin. Other ventures followed. She joined the Central Park Sheiks, a swing band, replacing Matt Glazer, who went on to head the string studies program at Berklee School of Music. Around this time, she immersed herself in the music of Reinhardt and Grappelli.
Still more outlets appeared. She spent some time in Woodstock in upstate New York. “This was during a period when John Sebastian from The Lovin’ Spoonful, Levon Helm of The Band, Paul Butterfield, Eric Andersen, Happy Traum and the like were there,” she says. “I played and recorded with them in various configurations.” She also toured Norway with a bluegrass band and Germany with an alternative-rock band. She accompanied Meryl Streep and Diane Lane in the Papp Public Theater, for which she also did arrangements and wrote incidental music. She was the onstage violinist in the Tony Award-winning Grapes of Wrath. As a member of guitarist Whit Smith’s Western swing band, she played two years in a row at an ice festival in Jokkmokk, Sweden, above the Arctic circle.
Finally, she sensed a new phase in her life was dawning. “I felt I’d done everything I’d wanted to do in New York,” she says.
She returned to Indiana and auditioned for the graduate program in jazz at the Indiana University School of Music. “While I was waiting to audition, someone in the hallway asked if I were waiting for my child,” she recalls with amusement. The audition went well and she spent many valuable classes studying under the likes of David Baker and Pat Harbison.
She had a full-circle experience at a jazz recital at Earlham College a couple of years ago. Her college violin instructor came to see her. “She was glad to see I’d come back to music,” says Dutton.
She’s glad to be back in the hills of Brown County. “I’m playing the music I want to play in a bucolic, gorgeous setting.”
She will perform at “An Evening with Hoagy Carmichael“ on November 4 and at Chateau Thomas Winery on November 12 and 26.