Jazz Guitar’s Critical Role

October 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Below is the three-part article I had written on the state of jazz guitar and its future, now published on Jazz.com.   Part One covers the evolution of instructional resources available to budding jazz guitarists.  Part Two covers the  innovators and technical breakthroughs that have helped shape the role of the guitar in jazz, while Part Three concerns the future of jazz and the guitar’s continued impact on this unique, complex art.  Alas, Jazz.com, whose new content has been suspended since January, 2010  seems to be shutting down.  If that is not the case, I will re-post the actual links when they are active.


Los Angeles, 1939:  On the bandstand a slender young black man from Oklahoma wields an archtop acoustic guitar adorned with a magnetic pickup connected to a primitive tube amplifier, an odd looking box slightly out of place on a stage crowded with horns and music stands.  With a sideways glance at the quirky setup, the bandleader brings his clarinet to his lips and swings into the head of “Rose Room.”

Charlie Christian, jazz guitar pioneer

The horn section blares, the drums crash and boom; the guitarist takes his chorus.  Suddenly piercing, bell-clear solo lines spring from the grill of the tiny amplifier as the Gibson ES-150 shouts defiantly over the din of the orchestra in distinctively horn-like phrases: “I am jazz guitar and I have something to say!”  The electronically enhanced soloist, Charlie Christian, would die of tuberculosis a few years later, but his legacy would live on. Of course, Christian was not the first jazz guitar player, nor was he unique in his ability to play intricate single-line solos. Eddie Lang had already forged a reputation for innovative solo technique on the archtop. Across the Atlantic, Django Reinhardt, Oscar Aleman and Pierre “Baro” Ferret were laying the foundation of Hot Club swing and jazz Manouche on Maccaferri-designed Selmers and the not-so-heavy metal Regulators.

Django Reinhardt, on his Selmer petite bouche acoustic

However, Christian was successful in bringing the amplified guitar to the forefront as a solo instrument, opening the door a little wider for subsequent generations of guitarists.

The evolution of jazz guitar continued with legendary players such as Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Johnny Smith, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Raney and Wes Montgomery.  Through their fingers, the inspired elocution of finely crafted ideas defined the parameters of the instrument.  At the same time, the physical development of the guitar also helped define the parameters of jazz. The amplified acoustic guitar could deliver flurries of notes cutting through the loudest horn sections, but it had a limited capacity for wailing; that is, until two musical pioneers, Les Paul and Leo Fender independently produced the next step in the instrument’s evolution- the solid body electric.  Paradoxically, this innovation eliminated the feedback problems associated with the hollow body, while giving the guitar the ability to sustain notes and scream at inhuman decibel levels.  As the solid body came into its own, elements of blues, rock and roll and funk broadened the role of the guitar in shaping the nature of the art.

The legendary Gibson Les Paul Custom

With Gibson’s Les Paul model, British guitarist John McLaughlin added a bold, if slightly metallic voice to the groundbreaking Miles Davis album, Bitches Brew, and an electrified intensity to the first two Tony Williams Lifetime recordings.  His Mahavishnu Orchestra further expanded the boundaries and permanently blurred the line between jazz and rock.  Chick Corea’s Return to Forever ensemble followed suit with the dissonant and occasionally chaotic Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy featuring tortured, heartfelt solo work by guitarist Bill Conners and the white-hot sustain of his Les Paul Custom.  Meanwhile, sixties blues and rock innovators Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter and others had pushed the edge of the envelope for Leo Fender’s Stratocasters, creating new dynamics which would leach into the approaching fusion movement.   But the solid body would not completely dominate: McLaughlin also helped raise the acoustic bar in an unforgettable duet with Larry Coryell on the visionary milestone recording Spaces and featured the transducer-enhanced Ovation flattop on his My Goalotags Beyond. Pat Martino proved that the archtop still held a few surprises with the release of his cultural amalgam, East.

My Mr. Rushmore!

Other mainstream heavyweights like Joe Pass, Jim Hall, Herb Ellis, Bucky Pizzarelli and George Barnes would continue to keep faith with the hollow body jazz box.  George Benson would utilize its warm, bubbly sound to achieve unprecedented commercial success.

In the following decades, the once supportive rhythm instrument took center stage as guitar wizards like Steve Khan, John Scofield, Mike Stern, Pat Metheny and Larry Carlton became pied pipers winning over thousands of new jazz fans among young listeners.  Blues men and rockers like Duane Allman, Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana reached across the aisle for brief forays into the jazz genre.  As audio technology evolved and CDs became the delivery system, a wave of new players vied for attention.  At the same time, music trends were rapidly shifting and, although players such as Russell Malone, Mark Whitfield, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ron Afif rose to prominence, there seemed to be less room at the top.

Then, along came the Gypsies.  In the nineties, Sinti musicians such as Bireli Lagrene, Jimmy Rosenberg and Angelo Debarre rode the first wave of enthusiasm for the rediscovered music of Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club Swing Revival took hold.  Gypsy jazz is still growing in popularity, even as some of its major practitioners are breaking away from its tight pompe form in favor of mainstream, bop and cool idioms.  But the Gypsy technique has had a major impact on European players like Robin Nolan, Andreas Öberg and Jon Larsen, and has been working its way into the musical vocabulary on this side of the Atlantic as well, with versatile session players John Jorgenson and Howard Alden and French guitarist Stephane Wrembel as its leading protagonists.

Currently there are so many wonderful jazz guitarists on the forefront that it would take volumes to give them justice.  But the shifting dynamics of a shrinking, interconnected world and the resultant cultural exchanges have created a new synergy, changing the nature of how we experience music.  Just as the last Broadway production of Cabaret had audience members seated at tables onstage as part of the act, today’s jazz audience is assuming an increasingly participatory role as jazz camps, clinics and interactive websites further integrate the separate worlds of performer and patron. The guitar’s unique properties give it a critical role in this increasingly evolving jazz environment.

The ubiquitous guitar has long been an instrument of the masses, comfortable, expressive and familiar to listeners of all tastes and backgrounds, the ideal “gateway instrument” to jazz.  With its unique genre-spanning properties, no other polyphonic instrument is as accessible, versatile or malleable.  Entry-level guitars are available in any price range, and, like the piano, comparatively easy for young fingers to play. Unlike the piano, guitars travel light and take up hardly any room. It has been the de rigueur accessory to the activist folkie, necessary equipment for the leather-clad rocker and a principal voice for the perfervid bluesman.  While the reasons for taking up the guitar are as varied as the styles played on the instrument, there has been a tendency for many guitarists who begin to outgrow the technical limitations of a particular genre to gravitate to the art of jazz.  I was one of those who made the leap.

The Christmas of 1958 was perhaps the most special Santa drop of my childhood.  That morning, under the aromatic balsam with its glowing, oversized lights, shimmering tinsel and German glass ornaments sat my very first guitar, a Silvertone flattop acoustic.

The Silvertone 603 from Sears Roebuck

It was a gift from my older brother Ken, who had promised to buy me a guitar of my own if I ever learned how to play- but until then I was to keep my grubby eight year-old hands off his gorgeous Espana classical.  Taking the bait, I snuck into his room at every opportunity, constructing simple chords by ear until I was able to master the historic “Ballad of Davy Crockett,” much to my brother’s chagrin.  Lionizing the king of the wild frontier in first position triads is hardly an auspicious beginning to a jazz guitarist’s career, but in rural 1950s North Carolina, there was little available inspiration beyond Elvis and Chuck Berry, who I assumed were the defining boundaries of the instrument.  My musical development was haphazard, migrating from folk music to rock & roll, then to R & B.  I was well into my teens before I discovered the unlimited possibilities of jazz, and then only after I had begun playing with older, more sophisticated musicians, mostly university students from other parts of the country.  It was a gradual, meandering progression, crossing the chasm between Louie, Louie and Louis Armstrong. I mention this only because my story is far from unique- it’s the way many aspiring guitar players stumbled into the art of jazz.  But not any more- the digital age has now leveled the playing field.

Until recently there were few educational resources beyond Berklee for jazz guitar other than private studies, the dry, tediously rote Mel Bay method books and, of course, the painstaking analysis of solos from vinyl LP records, which could be slowed to half-speed.  A fledgling jazz guitarist could spend hours deciphering lines, practicing modes and scales, picking the brains of other guitar players.  Fortunately this situation has improved by leaps and bounds.  The advent of affordable digital recording technology and the Internet have opened a floodgate of recording options, instruction videos, student-teacher interaction and connectivity, transforming the way we learn the craft, write the music and the way we do business. Digital music file-sharing allows musicians in different hemispheres to work on recording projects together in the comfort of their homes.  More albums are being released in digital format only, as more music buffs migrate to their iPods.  Record stores, nightclubs, recording studios and concert halls are becoming subjugated by traffic on the information superhighway.  This new techno-musical universe presents both opportunities and challenges, but as new batches of musical larvae emerge from their cocoons, it is the stage upon which the next act will be played.

Jazz education and jazz guitar in particular are entering a new, exciting era – YouTube, MP3 portability and a plethora of Internet networks supporting jazz guitar are increasing the exchange of ideas and accelerating the learning curve.  Interactive online instruction websites have increased the free exchange of knowledge making top level instruction a mere mouse click away.  A guitar student in Bucharest, Mexico City or Osaka can interact with and study under the same cutting-edge instructors as the kid in Brooklyn- assuming he has a decent computer, a digital video recorder and high-speed Internet access.

There are a number of jazz guitar instructional sites on the Internet, but I would like to mention three interactive courses I feel offer the most bang for the buck.  For a mainstream, thoroughly technical approach, the Mark Elf Guitar Conservatory [http://markelfguitarconservatory.com/Default.aspx] and the Jimmy Bruno Guitar Institute [http://www.jimmybrunoguitarinstitute.com/public/main.cfm] offer richly detailed, methodical lessons on theory and guitar technique, along with valuable tips extracted from their considerable experience.  Both are highly acclaimed virtuosi with impressive professional pedigrees.  Elf has been a university instructor, frequent clinician for Clark Terry’s jazz camps and has recorded or performed with a Who’s Who of jazz legends, from Dizzy Gillespie to Jack McDuff.  Bruno’s credentials include a world tour with the Buddy Rich Orchestra and long stints with Frank Sinatra, Doc Severinsen, Anthony Newley and Lena Horne, as well as an impressive discography.  Both guitarists’ sites offer incentives for improvement and individual master class video feedback, along with extensive accompanying sheet music with tablature.

But the website that I find the most intriguing is from Sweden’s fiery young guitar phenom, Andreas Öberg.  Andreas Guitar Universe [http://alpha.andreasguitaruniverse.com/], is a user-friendly interactive site offering a fast-track, streamlined method incorporating Öberg’s aggressive technique with a common sense, ear-oriented approach to playing.  “I want you to learn to play what’s in your head, not just what’s in your fingers,” he says in one of his introductory lessons- and quite convincingly shows us how its done, no tricks, no secrets.  I love his logical, no-nonsense approach- utilizing the fretboard much the same way the Gypsy players do, relating modal phrasing to the underlying chord structure without being overly concerned over positions. “I try to get the students to hear everything they play and learn how to visualize the whole fretboard instead of just learning different positions.”   This site is also unique for its comprehensive instruction on Gypsy jazz, blues, funk, rock and special techniques like harp harmonics, bass line-chord comping and sweeps.  Barely in his thirties, Öberg hasn’t accumulated the same decades of road work as Bruno or Elf, but in terms of knowledge, technique and versatility, he is very much an old soul and his playing speaks volumes- solid technicality seasoned with street-smart, monster chops.

As jazz completes its first decade of the millennium in a boiling cauldron of new technology, migrating tastes and shifting markets, the old, woody sound of the archtop is enjoying a resurgence of popularity among young players.  The buoyant, crunchy swing of Django Reinhardt has a growing mob of jazz Manouche enthusiasts, the lines between jazz, blues and R&B continue to meld and new generations of guitarists are helping to keep the fires of bebop, fusion and mainstream burning.  But live venues are closing, working musicians are competing with synthesized gadgetry and recorded music revenues are shrinking.  The transition to a digital universe has increased musicians’ capacity to study, write, record and communicate, but has also created a bit of collateral damage.  To be fully realized, jazz needs to be played and heard live and, unfortunately, at least here in the United States, the size of the audience is shrinking.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­The “audience factor” can no longer be ignored; we are fast approaching a period in which jazz musicians may outnumber the people who want to hear them play.  When that happens, we will no longer have a living, breathing art; we will be left with a hobbyist-driven artifact, the musical equivalent of Latin, a dead language spoken only in lecture halls and courtrooms.  So the questions remain: Who will save performance jazz?  As much as I’d like to suggest that a few caped “jazz guitar heroes” will swoop down from the sky, dazzling stadiums full of newly-enraptured jazz Moonies, we know that’s probably not going to happen.

In reality, the future viability of jazz is dependent on two radical changes in our cultural environment.  First, music education must become a priority in our public school systems, with emphasis on jazz and classical music in elementary school curricula.  Like foreign languages, complex musical concepts are more easily assimilated if taught early and have the additional benefit of increasing a child’s right brain-left brain connection. Second, musicians must be willing to communicate more and connect with their target audiences.  This would be a cultural compromise of sorts- ‘opening up’ the public ear, with a bit of ‘sweetening up’ from jazz artists.  After all, even the boldest pioneers knew when to pitch camp and dig in after opening up new territories.  John Pizzarelli gets it- with an aura of urbane charm and the judicious use of comfortable, flowing bop lines he has made a career of repackaging the Great American Songbook.  George Benson has been climbing the charts for years, though his prowess as a player is sometimes kept in the background by his vocal finesse.  It’s no accident that Herbie Hancock has sold millions of records and filled concert halls, revitalizing his audience base by incorporating elements of hip hop, funk and techno into his compositions and utilizing guitarists like “Wah Wah” Watson and Lionel Loueke along the way.  After winning a Grammy for Album of the Year for his interpretations of Joni Mitchell tunes and his projects with vocalists Elvis Costello and Christina Aguilera, Herbie is the closest thing we have to a popular jazz superstar.   His music has enough broad appeal to reach the neophytes; they may not understand it but it still makes them want to dance.  “Horrors,” you say? Well, if you happen to be in Paris, pay a visit to the Caveau Huchette.  You will see an ancient cellar full of young people dancing to bebop, swing and cool jazz.  Huchette is not exactly avant-garde, nor is it the hippest jazz salon in Europe, but its patrons are having fun. What’s wrong with that?

Caveau Huchette, Paris

Today jazz guitarists are in a position to effect positive change as trailblazers of the next wave, nujazz or whatever you wish to call it.  These frontiersmen may choose to dazzle with pyrotechnics and shatter existing tenets of music, or they can choose to communicate with clarity.  I don’t suggest that we ‘dumb down’ the music.  There is a world of difference between vapidity and clarity.   What we need is deeper simplicity, a value often embraced by guitar virtuosi like Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Pat Metheny and Earl Klugh.  Playing it safe never factored into the equation for any of these artists- in their hands, simplicity is merely the thoughtful restraint of brilliant ideas.   In the wrong hands, simplicity is nothing more than mediocrity with the safety on, banality disguised as taste.  By the same token, we can’t force the public to listen to angry, strident, chaotic exhortation in the name of Great Art.  There must come a time when jazz once again enjoys a broad appeal, without losing its soul, when people everywhere no longer feel threatened and intimidated by its complexity and have no qualms over dancing joyfully to its boundless energy.  If we play it, they will come, but only if they can hear it- and if they dig what they hear.  As Thoreau famously said, “It’s not enough to be busy. The question is what are you busy about?”  It is high time we redoubled our effort to find common ground with the public ear.

Jazzers don’t have to be the victims in this technological revolution.  The tail has been wagging the dog much too long- we must use mass media and technology in a proactive, intelligent way, striking a balance between art and commerce.  Imagine multi-media events where a growing legion of young, musically savvy fans dance a superlocrian dervish generated by hypnotically rhythmic world-beat newsion guitarist ensembles.  Just as Charlie Christian changed the playbook with his use of the tube amplifier, the next generation of digitally supercharged jazz guitarists can forge a future limited only by its collective imagination.


Jazz Guitarist Bill Barnes at Moonstruck Cafe’

April 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

Greetings and welcome to my blog, where I will be discussing jazz in general, jazz guitar, gigs, jams and other music-related subjects, along with life experiences.   Please check in later, as this blog is new and still under construction.  Meanwhile, here’s a brief montage of a recent gig in the Boston area I did with bassist Jonathan Wilkins.

You may also check out my articles, track reviews and features on Jazz.com.  an entertaining, informative and occasionally provocative website, featuring an international staff of writers, including Ted Gioia,  Marissa Dodge, Alan Kurtz, Nat Hentoff, Bill Kirchner, Scott Albin, Thierry Quénum and  many others.

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