Ukulele aficionado Jon Pult believes there is nothing wrong with a novelty instrument. He's seen the damage that inappropriate gravitas can wreak. In fact, at a recent ukulele festival in New York City, he was moved to protest. 'I said to James Hill [a man once referred to as the 'Wayne Gretzky of the ukulele"], I found your playing upsetting," says Pult, who estimates that out of the 200-plus attendees and players at the festival, he was the worst player in the building. That's an estimation he is not uncomfortable with because to him, it seems that elevating the humble ukulele to the level of serious musicianship is missing its point altogether.
'Here's the thing," he says, 'All these talented guitarists, they pick it up, and all of a sudden, they're among the top ukelele players because the intervals are the same. But virtuosity for virtuosity's sake isn't always entertaining. That part of it, I'm uncomfortable with. That part of the ukulele community is, to me, grotesque."
At the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse on a Monday night in September, undue proficiency is being blown an enthusiastic raspberry by a small crowd of ukulelists, each taking their turn to strum while Pult, with the genial wackiness of a vaudevillian master of ceremonies, directs the proceedings. This is the Uke Joint, a ukulele free-for-all dreamed up by Pult and Neutral Ground owner Philip Melancon, and it's approaching its fifth year of serial stringed mayhem. The monthly party was born of mutual enthusiasm for the instrument on the parts of Pult, Melancon and a small group of other friends who, Pult says, have made up the bulk of the Joint's roster since 2002. Melancon, better known as the cabaret-style piano player at the Pontchartrain Hotel, rediscovered the ukulele and found the instrument was magic to a staid crowd.
'When you play piano, people are expecting a certain kind of music out of you," he says. 'Not serious music, that's not the right term, but a certain quality of music. But I found out very quickly that when I pulled out the uke, it was a big icebreaker. I'd walk around the Pontchartrain and everyone would light up."
'It's evidently the easiest instrument to play," Pult muses. 'Two chords and you can fake your way through anything." Which leaves all the more room for showmanship. At a recent house party in the Bywater, ukulele lady Allison Gorlin (known professionally as Missy Meatlocker) smiled sunnily through ukulele renditions of the Ramones' 'Blitzkrieg Bop" and Herbie Hancock's '60s jazz number 'Watermelon Man." At the Neutral Ground, a public school teacher named Phil picked his way through a Flaming Lips cover; Pult took the stage and sang self-penned odes to a Costa Rican bar, Coney Island and his dog. Judith Brown, a founding Uke Joint participant, strummed Sam the Sham's 'Little Red Riding Hood," then a vintage novelty number titled 'Fickle Flo From Kokomo."
'It's like a vaudeville instrument," says Pult, a definite fan of the past; he's an organizer of the monthly trad-jazz Nickel-A-Dance parties at Café Brasil, and is often seen in a straw boater and/or bow tie. 'When I play a whole hour with a bass and clarinet, I bring out all these old joke books, and it doesn't matter. It's a fun thing."
The aesthetic of the ukulele, with apologies to its virtuosos, is overwhelmingly vaudevillian " kitschy, bawdy, a bit naughty and a bit low-rent, bringing to mind Marilyn Monroe's ukelele-playing character in Some Like It Hot, or Joanne Woodward strumming in a speakeasy as Warren Beatty's wayward flapper sister in Splendor in the Grass. It lends itself to the simple novelty songs of the '20s as much as to fake-book renditions of rock 'n' roll, which both pay tribute to the instrument's endearing silliness. And it's overwhelmingly portable for easy transit between speakeasy and stage.
In the very near future, Pult will release an album of uke-led original songs with his Genial Orleanians uke-bass-and-clarinet combo. He'll also continue the Uke Joint for as long as he's permitted " but will not be pursuing anything like an untoward level of skill.
'That seems antithetical," he says, 'to the nature of an instrument which should be used for comedy, or attempts at said." The Uke Joint fifth anniversary
7 p.m.-9 p.m. Mon., Oct. 8,
Neutral Ground Coffeehouse, 5110 Danneel St., 891-3381
- John Pult (center) leads the Genial Orleanians uke assault.