by Paul Smith
On first glance, Ajay Shughart might be indistinguishable from most 15-year-olds. His clothing sense and apparent focus on the moment would lead one to believe that his priorities in life are like those of his peers. However, a few words with Ajay open up a vast knowledge of all aspects of music.
His love of music started at home with his Mom’s favorite blues musicians like BB King, and rockin’ blues from the likes of Eric Clapton. In fact, the 2000 King/Clapton collaboration was a major early influence in his musical tastes—though at the time, his parents figured that his interest was a passing fad.
“When I was about nine, my brother was probably 13. He was at a friend’s…who knew how to play guitar and the friend started to play Smoke on the water by Deep Purple… My brother taught me how to play it on ukulele. Then my Dad’s…<saying> ‘Take guitar lessons.’ Ajay’s Mom and Dad purchased a cheap Fender guitar to accommodate his “passing fad.” “There were some kids in my neighborhood… One played base… one had like a fake cardboard drum set….and we’d just fool around …None of us sang…but they were in like punk rock…and at the time, I was into skateboarding and stuff and I liked punk rock too and we’d play a bunch of <that>”
“When I started playing, I just did it as a hobby. After like two years of playing guitar, I realized that I was actually really into it. And I was starting to play a lot of the songs I heard. At the time, I wasn’t singing so I wasn’t writing lyrics. But I was writing some riffs…fiddling around and creating songs that sounded kind of cool so I was trying to find people to play with and it just kind of escalated from there.”
“I started taking music theory from Beth Trez. We saw an ad for her jazz workshop. She was impressed with my guitar playing. ‘You are really good at guitar and you should learn how to do all of that stuff and then you’ll be good at that too.’ And so that’s when I started taking theory with her… It kind of drove me more into it.”
Escorted by his parents, Ajay began appearing at local open mics, blues jams, and live music venues. But he wasn’t initially taken seriously by older blues musicians who assumed that his youth did not give him adequate exposure to the usual topics of blues music. But Ajay soon encountered his own source of the blues. Over the course of a few weeks, the 13-year-old experienced the loss of his beloved dog in a fire followed, shortly thereafter, by the loss of his grandfather and uncle—both to cancer. Two of his songs, “Leave It All Behind” and “Grim Reaper Knockin”—both included in his solo set “Tied Down”—share the feelings he experienced during that time.
While taking lessons at Trez Music, Ajay was invited to the Trez Music’s All Star Jazz Band, followed by the Dickinson College Jazz Band. Then came Minor 4, a homegrown jazz band with Ajay leading with vocals and guitar, Greg Gavazzi on base, T.J. Hummel on drums, and Kevin Carlsen on trumpet. “It was…straight up jazz and standards and…but then I guess I kind of got out of that.”
To accommodate Ajay’s interest in rock and blues, the band evolved into Rhythm on Main. ROM’s blend of original music and covers has landed them in many local venues. But Ajay’s interests go beyond Jazz and Blues. His recent foray into country, with The Oddbaws, is one more stop on his whirlwind tour of music.
Lately, he’s been playing old funk jazz and 1990’s hip-hop. “Really meaningful stuff… It doesn’t sound so processed… Mainly, I’m into old school hip hop because the popular stuff was pretty much all good because it was a new style of music… They were still trying to keep it real and stuff… Now they’re just like trying to buy into what people want to hear and it’s just all about money and women and Lamborghinis and drugs…”
Jimmy Hendrix is also a major inspiration. “…After he died, everyone started like trying to copy what he did…and when Stevie Ray Vaughn came out and did like a new thing he was very heavy, like Hendrix… After the 80’s…<many> blues guitarists were just SRV clones”
One exception to that group is Johnny Lang, a guy with similarities to Ajay. “His first album, he was a 15 year old white kid but sounded like a 50 year old black guy… I love Curtis Mayfield… All that music connects to each other… You look at BB King and you sing the straight up blues but like he’s got that… soul element… like obviously somehow that relates to… Otis Redding… but that gets into…funk, and funk leads to hip-hop. All of that stuff just really runs together.”
Ajay’s path has undoubtedly been steered by his meeting BB King at age 13, “There was a line of people to get at on this bus and the doors were closing before we got on but there was this one band guy looked out and he saw that there was a kid and I who wanted to see BB and so we got on and had a sit-down and it was like 10 minutes and I was telling BB how much I like blues and such and <BB said> ‘well don’t just get stuck on Blues…play other kinds of stuff’ And that’s how I am but now it’s like two years later and I’m seeing that and it’s like, yeah… don’t get stuck in that rut.“
That sentiment has led to more recent influences include Frank Ocean, John Mayer, and Corrine Bailey Rae. “l love her… Her sound is like a bridge between modern <and classic> R&B and it still has real instrumentation and has a lot of soul to it also has a kind of beat that younger kids can get into. It doesn’t sound too old school.”
Ajay has shared local stages with Mark Focazio, Erica Everest, Jeff Calvin, Gary Brown, and Madmen. A recent endeavor is his jamming with Jason Smith, basest with Madmen, who’s music he describes as “a bluezy, hip-hoppy kind of groove… kind of jazz funky… a little more like that R&B John Mayer kind of sound. Madmen has an in-house rapper named Jamar Tyler, and… a soul singer… hip-hop meets funk meets jazz”.
He might collaborate with Madmen on his next album, in which he hopes to incorporate “…a lot more jazz funky hip-hop … One of my songs have I’ve written <has> like a reggae influence … Some others are more like John Mayer…not the pop but more like what would he did at the Crossroads festival…, John Scofield meets The Roots…, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest … They’re like really all jazzed influenced and keepin’ it real.
Keepin’ it real…that’s a pretty good description of Ajay’s mindset. “At this point, a lot of people know who I am…certain places…lf I go to like Harrisburg and bigger venues, ‘Oh there’s some kid here’ and then when I play, they go, ‘oh, that was really cool.’ But…like Carlisle, at Market Cross Pub…it’s just people sitting at the bar and they go ‘What’s up Ajay?’…’Nothing much man’…you know just like hanging out.”
Ajay is advancing his formal music studies at The Perfect 5th Musical Arts Center located at 6240 Carlisle Pike, Mechanicsburg. He is pursuing private lessons with Eric Wirsing and Rod Goelz. He is also consulting with Terry Selders on music business and marketing. Ajay has been selected to play in The Perfect 5th Student All Star Band.