Took a recent ramble to Spokane Valley and dropped in on one of the region’s most accomplished musicians.
Meet JayDean Ludiker, three-time national fiddle champ and unsung treasure.
No big thing if you haven’t heard of her. For decades now, JayDean, 55, has stayed pretty much on the down low, preferring to teach and mentor aspiring fiddlers of practically all ages. She does this out of her home, 120 students each and every week.
“I believe I can take a student from zero to intermediate faster than anyone,” JayDean said with confidence. “Yeah, I’m exhausted by the end of the day. But I don’t feel I’m doing anything extraordinary.”
Here’s another thing you probably aren’t aware of. So many of JayDean’s students have done well in regional, state and even national competitions that this area has built a reputation as a rich mine of fiddling gold.
That sounds funny, but it’s no joke.
Say some bigtime act needs a fiddling ace to fill out the lineup. More often than not, JayDean will get a call for a recommendation.
Take the case of a hard luck kid I know named Aaron Castilla.
I’d met Aaron years ago when he showed up at my annual Street Music Week.
(This year’s event takes place during the noon hours of June 10-14 on the sidewalks of downtown Spokane, the historic Garland District and Sherman Avenue in Coeur d’Alene. Or donate now at www.streetmusicweek.com. All proceeds go to the Second Harvest food bank.)
Aaron was barely 8 back then, short and stocky, and so shy he refused to say a word or even look you in the eye. But with a fiddle in his hands – wow! This little lad started ripping into a tune with a tricky fast melody.
“How long has he been playing?” I asked Frank Wagner, the man who’d hauled him downtown.
“Six months,” Wagner replied, enjoying the astonished look on my face.
A dozen years and many lessons from JayDean later, Castilla bloomed into one of the best fiddlers around.
“Aaron’s the kind of kid that it doesn’t matter who he’s playing with. Does. Not. Matter,” she said, putting emphasis on each word. “He’s just happy to play.”
Then one of those aforementioned calls came to the 509. Soon, Castilla was enjoying the break of his lifetime: a permanent gig playing with longtime touring band, “The Doo-Wah Riders.”
Can we pause a moment, please?
Before going any farther, I feel a journalistic compulsion to explain the subtle nuance between a “fiddler” and a “violinist.”
It’s true that both use the same instruments. Plus both demand equal gobs of practice in order to master the same long-established techniques.
Yet while violinists suffer from migraines from struggling to decipher the works of some long dead cat like Antonio Vivaldi, you’ll find fiddlers having a blast playing “Arkansas Traveler” or “Whiskey Before Breakfast.”
Fiddle “tunes are American history,” JayDean once told a friend of mine. “Fiddling is the Scots and the Irish and everyone coming over. It’s the slaves who had to play on the plantation. It’s the melting pot.”
Pulling to a stop outside her home, I grabbed my prized ’54 Martin D-28. JayDean met me at the door and then led me downstairs into the large space where she logs 50 hours of teaching time a week.
I took a chair. After a bit of chit-chat, JayDean picked up the 200-year old Maggini violin she dubbed Warner after Lloyd Warner, her late father. She cuddled the instrument under her chin like an old friend and we were off and running through that classic of Americana, “Faded Love.”
I miss you darlin’ more
And more every day.
As Heaven would miss
The stars above.
With every heartbeat I
Think of you,
And remember our faded love.
Gorgeous. The lush tone JayDean manages to coax out of a carved piece of wood could wake the deceased.
She certainly came by it honestly.
“I’m a fourth-generation fiddle player,” JayDean said. “My grandfather played fiddle. My father played fiddle. My mom’s grandpa played fiddle. Family gatherings. Holidays. Sunday dinners. When I grew up, playing fiddle is just what you did.”
So, what makes someone a musical prodigy?
An extra gift of talent, obviously. But talent alone will get you living in a van down by the river. Or playing underpaid bar gigs on weekends.
Couple talent with discipline that borders on compulsion, however, and something extraordinary can happen.
Number 11 of 13 children, JayDean said she was attending grade school when the fiddle began to consume her. She’d skip dinners and sometimes even school as she immersed herself in a world of applying bow to strings and fingers to fretboard. Soon she was pitting her virtuosity against fiddling peers in a variety of organized skirmishes. At 16, she won her first championship at the annual National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest in Weiser, Idaho.
“Music is your soul,” said JayDean. “I can’t imagine not doing it.”
Whatever’s going on definitely runs in the Ludiker DNA.
JayDean’s late husband, Tony, was a classically trained fiddling powerhouse who won five national championships. (He died from cancer in 2014.) Their son, Dennis Ludiker, 34, has a fulltime gig playing fiddle and mandolin with Ray Benson’s celebrated western swing band, “Asleep at the Wheel.” Daughter Kimber Ludiker, 33, plays fiddle in Nashville-based “Della Mae,” her Grammy-nominated, all-girl bluegrass group.
It gets better. Last summer, JayDean decided to focus on her practicing and entered five national competitions in her age division. She won them all.
“Music becomes your soul, how you express yourself,” she said. “When he was little, Dennis once asked: ‘What do people do if they can’t play the fiddle?’”
Here’s one last bit of amazement to the JayDean Ludiker saga. She’s as savvy at business as she is at playing fiddle.
JayDean doesn’t merely teach. She operates her own fiddle-centric empire.
She rents the violins that range from tiny to full size. She sells the lesson books she wrote and published. Six high school and college-age former students also teach at her home. And for the youngest, non-reading students, JayDean came up with her own color-coded system.
“It was absolutely jaw dropping to see how she had broken down the task of knowing where to put your fingers,” said Mary Jo Foss, a longtime student with a credentialed background in both special ed and early childhood education.
Completing the package, JayDean leads her students in regular public performances at retirement centers and other venues.
I attended the JayDean jamboree that gathers every Tuesday night in the Valley at the Players & Spectators Event Center. Mary Jo’s guitar-playing husband, Jim, calls the weekly session Adult Group Therapy and he’s right. There’s definitely something therapeutic about 25 or so fiddlers playing through dozens of great old songs.
My pal Scott Cooper is a regular there, adding some thump and rumble with his standup bass. His wife, Mary, has studied fiddle for years with JayDean. She’s also one of her most ardent supporters.
“JayDean is the most creative and hardworking person I know, so giving with her time,” said Mary.
“She’s ingenious, too. If someone’s having a hard time learning, she will literally invent a way for them to get it.”
Mary paused. “I just adore her. She nurtures the entire fiddle community.”
Doug Clark is a Spokane native and lead singer/songwriter for his band, Trailer Park Girls. He recently retired from The Spokesman-Review after writing three columns a week for more than 30 years. Clark’s humor and general-interest commentaries have won scores of local, state and regional honors along with three awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He can be reached at [email protected]