Jim D’Ville didn’t take up the ukulele until he was 42. But today, a decade later, he’s a self-described “itinerant, couch-surfing ukulele instructor,” who has headed workshops on the four-stringed instrument around the world.
For the former radio disc jockey with a passion for figuring out how songs work, the gig is a dream come true.
“There’s the old saying,” D’Ville said. “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
D’Ville, of Los Osos, had tried music a couple of times before, beginning with a chorus class in high school.
“The first day of class, they made me stand at the piano and sing the scale,” he said. “But I didn’t know what a scale was. It was an embarrassing moment, and the people that did know how to sing scales laughed at me. And so the next day I dropped the class.”
As an adult, he took up the banjo at 34, but it just wasn’t connecting. But he was still curious about music. So while he had gotten out of news radio, he hosted a radio show on bluegrass and old time music, and he led workshops on music theory.
“Being a disc jockey, I remember being on the overnight shifts, sitting in the chair, spinning records and thinking, ‘How do they do this? How do they put these songs together?’ ”
Eventually, he acquired a 1920s ukulele that had once belonged to his wife’s grandmother. And while he initially gave it away, he asked to have it back — and started playing it.
“It’s easy to start to play and also to accompany yourself singing,” he said. “And it’s a pleasant-sounding instrument. So it helps people like me — adult beginners — to start to play music quite quickly.”
Once he had the uke, he began incorporating the instrument into his workshops. Then, as he honed his craft, D’Ville began to refine the workshops, em-
phasizing how to learn to play by ear.
By analyzing thousands of one-, two-and three-chord songs, he said, he was able to figure out an easy way to teach players to learn songs just by listening. Most people in ukulele groups, he said, are tempted to use printed chord sheets.
“What they do is they all get together in a room, and they get out a music stand, and they put a book in front of them, and everybody has got their nose in a book,” he said. “Nobody’s looking at anybody else.”
While on the faculty at the Portland Ukulele Festival in 2009, D’Ville encountered several uke enthusiasts from other countries, who gave him the idea to expand his workshops.
“One Australian guy came up to me and said, ‘You know, mate, you’ve got to come down to Australia and teach this,’ ” he said. “And I’m like, sure — I’m gonna go 16,000 miles round trip and teach a ukulele workshop. But it got me thinking about the approach. And I thought, maybe I could go to Australia and teach this. And so I really started thinking about travelling to do workshops, and the next thing you knew, I was in Australia on a six-week ukulele tour.”
On that trip, D’Ville found his calling and decided — along with his wife — that he needed to move from Oregon.
“After going to Australia for three months, waking up every day and seeing the sun most of the time, it changed our attitude to want to go home to where it rains pretty much nine months out of the year.”
They moved to San Luis Obispo County, where D’Ville had once purchased a guitar from uke maker Ron Saul. And soon after moving to Los Osos, D’Ville—who will teach workshops in California before heading to the East Coast for a series of fall workshops — established a ukulele social club in Baywood Park.
During its first get-together earlier this month, two dozen uke players showed up at the Back Bay Café, where D’Ville led them through songs such as “Little Sister,” “Pressure Drop” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
“That’s one of the great things about being here in San Luis Obispo County,” he said. “There are so many ukulele players — right in Baywood.”