UKEtopia! by Jim Beloff Book Review

3 Major Life Lessons from over 30 years of Ukulele Adventures

If you’ve ever walked into a music store in search of ukulele-related learning material, chances are you’ve seen the face of Jumpin’ Jim. For 30 years, Jim and Liz Beloff of Flea Market Music have been on a wild ukulele ride, pioneering and surfing the “third wave” of ukulele popularity around the world. Their ukulele songbooks (including the Jumpin’ Jim and The Daily Ukulele series) are possibly the most popular and best-selling ukulele books of all time.

Jumpin' Jim Ukulele Books
A (very) short selection of the many ukulele books by "Jumpin'" Jim Beloff

Last month, the Beloffs published their latest book, UKEtopia! Adventures in the Ukulele World, a memoir of their ukulele escapades over the last three decades. Complete with over 200 full color photographs, the author expertly guides us on an entertaining journey through his firsthand experiences during the modern history of ukulele, with anecdotes that weave composer Stephen Sondheim, musical legend Lyle Ritz, the Wallingford Symphony Orchestra, a Tiny Tim near-death experience, Merv Griffin, an inquisitive Tracy Chapman, and an unforgettable house visit by George Harrison of the Beatles (and many more!) into a web of ukulele bliss.

UKEtopia Book Cover

The book is well worth the read from cover to cover (or “down to the staples”) and although it is targeted at ukulele players, or those with more than a passing interest in the ukulele, the themes and broader lessons from the book can be easily applied to music learning and even life in general.

Here are UU’s 3 big takeaways from UKEtopia! Adventures in the Ukulele World by Jumpin’ Jim:

1. Follow Your “Goose Bumps”

At an early age Jim was enamored with music - both listening to and creating it. Learning guitar naturally led him to starting and writing songs for his own band and his love for watching and listening to broadway musicals naturally led him to performing and writing for musical theater. In fact, at almost every stage of his life it seems that by simply following the little sparks of joy that gave him that excited, happy, motivated feeling, Jim was able to successfully parlay that into a wonderful endeavor. In 1991, after stumbling across an old ukulele at the Rose Bowl Flea Market and finding vintage ukulele sheet music from the 1950s, he remembers:

"Perhaps it was the reentrant tuning that made the chords sound surprisingly closed and rich, but I found I was giving myself goose bumps every time I played through some of these classic tunes. I enjoyed it so much that I couldn’t help wondering if there might be other players out there who would appreciate these arrangements."

At the time, printed ukulele instruction was virtually non-existent. But that simple thought eventually led to the publication and distribution of Jumpin’ Jim song books around the globe, helping to kick start the ukulele revolution that continues today.

Your Turn

What gives you that excited/happy/motivated, “goose bumpy” (“chicken skin” for Hawaii locals) feeling? Specifically for music, be sure to take note the next time you hear a part of a song that really moves you in that way*. Working on learning songs like this on ukulele can supercharge the learning process in ways you'd never dream. It doesn’t matter if the song isn’t an “ukulele” song - your goose bumps will always help you figure out a way (and UU is always here to help you out). In a broader sense, be sure to take note whenever you get this feeling about anything in life as well. Follow the thread and you’ll rarely be disappointed.

2. Life is a Puzzle

One framework that has really served Jim in every area of his life seems to be his fascination with puzzles. From his approach to songwriting to his career in advertising to the publication of his limited edition book of original palindromes, One’s Reverses, Reverse. No?, Jim takes delight in figuring out the rules of a situation and working out a solution around the constraints.

This may be one of the main reasons why he became so enamored by the ukulele in the first place. With only four strings and a two-octave range, the ukulele seems musically limited to begin with. But a skilled composer or arranger can still create amazing music, even within those limitations. As Jim points out when talking about arranging classical or jazz music for solo ukulele,

"An orchestra can play an unlimited number of notes at one time. A uke player has a maximum of four they can use … A jazz pianist has ten fingers for ten possible notes to spell out complex chords. The uke player still has only four." He notes, "The fact that the pieces remain as rich as they are is both a testament to the music itself, as well as the craft of the arranger."

When Jim set out on many of his life endeavors, he had no idea how he would accomplish them. He had no idea how he would publish his first ukulele song book, or compile and create The Ukulele: A Visual History, or write the first concerto for solo ukulele and symphony orchestra, or develop a great sounding, affordable, Made in the USA ukulele for the masses. But he approached each situation like a puzzle. He asked great questions and found out the rules from people skilled at the craft. The more he learned, the more he was able to work out his own solutions given the rules of the game.

Your Turn

What do you want to learn or do? If it is to play the ukulele, do you know the rules of the game? One great way to learn is to seek skilled people to help you understand and navigate them (this is fairly easy with internet access today). From there, use your own creativity to find solutions that play within these constraints. Use this process to break large problems into smaller ones and you’re on your way towards achieving your goals.

3. It’s All About People

While UkeTopia! Adventures in the Ukulele World was written as an autobiography, it is clear from the very first page just how important other people are to both Jim and Liz Beloff. The list of cameos is extensive, with a wide range of names from a Rose Bowl Flea Market seller (Lee Silva) and Liz’ friend from college (Cindy Kerr), to ukulele legends like Ohta San and Jake Shimabukuro, to movie stars like William H. Macy and Sam Neill, to music legends like Noel Paul Stookey (Paul of Peter, Paul, and Mary) and Bette Midler. While anyone else in such company might be accused of name-dropping, the way that each character is handled with so much appreciation throughout the book makes it obvious just how important genuine human relationships are to the author.

In their travels all over the world to present and perform, visiting and fostering ukulele clubs, and helping to organize ukulele shows, tours, and festivals, Jim and Liz Beloff have encountered an amazing array of people. The Flea Market Music website was even the home of one of the first successful online ukulele communities (long before Ukulele Underground, Facebook groups, or Reddit came to be). Through it all, they never forgot the many serendipitous connections, the friends who helped along the way, and the idea that relationships are what make life worth living.

From the chorus of Jim’s original song, “Can’t Help But Smile”:

So fine, so fun
When we all play together as one
And life is good for awhile
Can’t help but sing,
Can’t help but strum,
Can’t help but smile!

Your Turn

While the ukulele is a wonderful instrument of musical self-expression, it is also one of the greatest facilitators of human connection. As you learn and progress as a player, take every opportunity to share your music, knowledge, and life experiences in a way of relating with others. Join groups, help others, organize events, share your stories. At our core, we are all far more similar than we are different.

For more about Jim and Liz Beloff, check out their website FleaMarketMusic.com and find UKEtopia! Adventures in the Ukulele World, along with all of Jumpin’ Jim’s music books, wherever music and books are sold.

Aloha,
-UU Staff

*There are a TON of songs mentioned in UKEtopia! Adventures in the Ukulele World - if you're searching to find that "goose bump"-y feeling for yourself, Jim has compiled a UKEtopia! Spotify playlist that includes every song mentioned in the book for your convenience. Read, listen, and play along for even more good vibes.

Comments

  1. I am in a group that meets weekly and only plays from the 2 Daily Ukulele books. We would love a third 36? tome including 80’s and beyond!

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