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Then I passed a similar sign on the other side of the same road on my way home.
“Groove,” the noun, comes from groeve, a 14th century Middle Dutch-to-Germanic word for a furrow or ditch. The term seems to have been mashed up with the Old English word grave, which came from the Latin word, grava, which meant an excavation for corpse or coffin. Both words indicated a break in the surface of the ground.
Long before highway engineers started specifying grooves in pavement for safety reasons, the word had another meaning.
Historians might trace it to 1888, the year Thomas Alva Edison produced the first gramophone, a machine that played music or speech. Originally, the music was described as “engraved” (again from the Latin) on soft wax cylinders and revealed when a needle read the engraving and a horn amplified the sound.
Edison refined his machine, first substituting harder wax on the cylinders and then, in 1912, engraving the music on discs made of shellac. (Vinyl came later, in the midcentury.)
Sometime during this period the engravings came to be called “grooves.” A phonograph’s needle was said to read a record’s grooves. (Also the disc came to be described not as a “recording” but a “record.”)
Perhaps it is not surprising that public works officials found the word “groove” handy when describing the new highway innovation. Can you imagine a highway sign that said “Engraved Pavement Ahead”? Of course not. “Engraved” sounds refined. Paving is just paving.
So “Grooved Pavement” it became.
Grooves of Music
For music lovers, the phonograph was life-changing. In all previous ages, if you wanted music around the house, you had to play your own instrument. Now you could listen to anything you wanted, whenever you wanted it.
Records — and then radio — expanded the American music diet, which before had consisted mostly of church hymns, regional music and classics from the European canon.
The music genre that came into its own in this period was jazz. It had its origins in music made by African slaves in the American south, and was refined and improved in the African American isolation of the post-Civil War period. By the 1920s, jazz music anchored the Harlem Renaissance and exploded into an international phenomenon.
One indication of the significance of jazz and recognition of its origins was “The Jazz Singer,” a 1927 movie that was one of the first talkies. The plot involved a young Jewish guy who rebelled against his father’s wishes to perform popular music in blackface. The idea is cringe-inducing to post-millennial sensibilities, but most likely was regarded as an homage at the time.
Jazz musicians were early adopters of the word “groove,” which came from the surfaces of records and which they used to describe their music.
In 1945, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie composed and released “Groovin’ High,” a bebop standard that for many years was part of Miles Davis’ regular repertoire.
Further evidence of the g-word’s association with a cool musical style came in an Oxford English Dictionary definition that included this example of its proper usage as a verb: “the rhythm section grooves in true (Count) Basie manner.”
Then the beats, those hep cats of the 1950s, took up the word. In Richard Gray’s history of American poetry, he wrote that, to Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his ilk, “…the word ‘beat’ suggests keeping the beat, being in the groove. More specifically, it implies the jazz beat, bebop and swing.”
Then came rock and roll, which also was influenced by jazz, but which caused somewhat inapt white applications/appropriations of the groove concept. There was a 1960s pop song called “A Groovy Kind of Love” that you possibly can find online even now if you have the stomach for it.
All was not lost, however. African American musicians kept the word alive with R&B, soul and funk inflections, including King Floyd’s “Groove Me” and Earth Wind and Fire’s “Let’s Groove.”
Through it all, jazz artists and bands kept releasing music that was true to the groove aesthetic. Here is “The Groove Merchant,” which was composed by Jerome Richards and was a big hit in 1969.
This recording seems to have been made to promote the sale of the song’s sheet music, at an affordable price, for middle school and high school jazz bands. Turns out there are lot of kids who like to groove.
While African American popular music has been caught up with hip hop for the last 20 years or so, jazz has maintained its worldwide audience. The music sells well. The clubs are crowded. The annual festivals in Monterey and Montreaux attract many thousands of fans.
Back to Grooved Pavement
Those engineers who put up “Grooved Pavement” highway signs may not have anticipated this, but their verbiage inspired some music.
Here is a song titled “Grooved Pavement,” which appears to have been written after the turn of the millennium. It’s funky and has a good back beat. It offers solo riffs and unison sections for horn groups. It’s a genuine groove.
Jimmy Kimmel, the late-night television host who seems to care about music, posted this arrangement on his Youtube channel.
The composer is Victor López, a now-retired music teacher/school principal in Miami who who wrote the piece with student jazz groups in mind.
If you look on Youtube, you will find dozens of school bands’ renditions of “Grooved Pavement,” starting around 2005. There’s a lot of enthusiasm in those performances, but the sound quality is not so distinguished, alas.
I tried to get in touch with López because I was impressed with his output. He wrote lots of music for student bands, he wrote charts (arrangements) of other composers’ music for student performances, he played trombone and he conducted music for groups of all ages. He’s officially retired now, but he’s lived his life in music and in the process promoted the enjoyment of music for many, many people. The people who made “The Jazz Singer” movie would call him a mensch.
Here’s another song with a similar title, “Grooved Pavement Ahead,” as performed by a pretty good high school band.
This piece was written by Brad Ciechomski, a New Englander who also teaches music in schools.
I got him on the phone and asked him the question I would have liked to ask López: How did you come up with that title?
Here’s his answer:
“I was driving down a road one day and came to a sign that said Grooved Pavement Ahead: Next 4 Miles. I thought to myself, ‘Let’s groove for four minutes.’ ”
After a little back-and-forth with his music publisher, he got he had the title.
Ciechomski also gave some context. Most sheet music sales these days, he said, are to schools. The price of charts for commercial hits is too high for school budgets, and so a certain small number of music teachers, including him, write their own material and rescore music to suit the talents of students in their bands and orchestras. Like López, his range of activities is pretty impressive, which to me indicates not just energy but gusto.
He added that pieces like his “Grooved Pavement Ahead” appeal to students who have been raised hearing rock music in their homes.
For them, he explained, “The groove is easy to grab onto.”
–For six years, starting in 2010, “Grooved Pavement” was the name of a weekly world music show at WMUA, the student radio station at the University of Massachusetts. The timing suggests that the show may have been given its name by a student who played the López song in a high school band. (I’m just guessing, of course.) You still can find the show’s eclectic weekly playlists on its Facebook page.
— Scot Sax, a Philadelphia/Nashville/Los Angeles songwriter and performer released an album titled “Grooved Pavement” last year. Sax, who also identifies as Mr. Chocolate, works in various musical genres. He too seems to have been inspired by street signs. Here’s the album cover.
–There’s also a techno song called “Grooved Pavement” that has nothing to do with jazz but has a thrumming open that perhaps aims to evoke the experience of driving on actual grooved pavement.
The point is that words wander and beget new concepts. What started as a new name for a technical innovation was adopted by musicians to describe a new kind of music and then picked up by highway engineers to describe a new kind of road surface; that latter inspired another subset of music titles and, finally, a jokester in New Jersey.
If you think a “Grooved Pavement” sign might promote some creativity in your household, you can buy one online for less than $100.