Your Door to Jazz Guitar?
Jazz music is a very large house, but getting into it can be daunting to some. Back
in the day, jazz was pop music. People
danced to it, sang it, played it on the radio
and in movies, and heard it every day.
Then bebop came along and the emphasis
changed from jazz as pop and dance music
to jazz as a virtuoso vehicle. The jazz tree
has many branches, and I don’t mean to
oversimplify things, but in a short column I
need to cut to the chase.
I grew up in the ‘60s living with a mother
who was a jazz fan and former bobbysoxer (yes, she screamed for Sinatra). I was
addicted to AM radio, which was bubble-gum, Motown, and a pretty wide variety of
things—unlike today’s radio which is targeted to specific demographics. Along with
the Beatles, the same station would play
Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and instrumentals like “Theme from A Summer Place”.
Because of my love of pop and my desire
to be a Beatle, I started playing guitar, and
shortly after that I started buying records at
the little mom & pop store near my home.
The first record I got in the hope of
expanding my guitar knowledge was called
The History of Eric Clapton. The blues
stuff on that led me to my next purchase,
B.B. King’s Live in Cook County Jail, which
pretty much set my world on fire. King’s
playing on that thrilled me (and still does),
with the way he bends notes, the singing
quality of the guitar, and just his whole
soulful way with music.
Right around that time, I went digging
through the records in the attic and found
Howard Roberts’ H.R. is a Dirty Guitar
Player. This is an unusual jazz record in that
all the tunes are very short. Yes, this record
was made when stuff like this could actually
get airplay. Some may at first be put off by
the roller-rink sound of the organ, but what
I heard was Roberts’ wonderful pickin’. He
bent notes and phrased in a very funky way,
which really appealed to me. I still think his
tone is among the best ever, and I could go
on and on about why I love his playing—
but the point is he was my door into jazz.
I don’t remember the order I bought them
in, but my next three jazz records were Pat
Martino’s Live!, Jim Hall’s Jim Hall Live! and
Joe Pass’ Virtuoso #2,—three very different
albums. Martino’s Live! has some fairly wacky
outside stuff on it that didn’t grab me right
away, but it closes with a burning version
of “Sunny” which had been an AM radio hit
for Bobby Hebb (so I knew the melody). His
stream-of-notes style was both exciting and
baffling to me. I was awed by his technique,
You will always
be made richer by
expanding what you
listen to... if you
want to play it, you
better listen to it.
and while I had some idea that he was moving through different tonal centers and playing changes, I really had no clue what that
involved. In time, the way he played allowed
me to dig into more of his outside stuff.
Jim Hall Live! was another cup of tea,
quiet and introspective with a great deal
of give and take between all the players,
and yet not lacking for chops. I think it was
this album that brought home for the first
time how much the guitar’s tone mattered
to me. Jim uses a large dynamic range,
so his tone alters somewhat depending
on that and his attack, which was another
whole different thing from what I had heard
before. This album is one I still listen to,
and it always seems fresh and current.
Joe Pass’ Virtuoso #2 is a solo guitar jazz
album. At the time, there was no such
thing as far as I knew. The sound was very
intimate, as though he were just playing
for himself in the corner. The art of solo
jazz guitar exists today in no small part
thanks to Pass.
Around the same time that I was getting
into those records, I went back to digging in my mother’s attic and found Ella
Fitzgerald’s Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife.
This was important because it made me
appreciate how the words affect the way a
song is phrased. I much later learned that
sax great Lester Young was a strong advocate for knowing the words to a song.
From these records, I moved on to
discover John McLaughlin and the
Mahavishnu Orchestra, which brought rock
‘n’ roll sounds into complex song forms.
Mahavishnu was perhaps a bit difficult to
listen to, but I persevered because I was so
in awe of McLaughlin’s chops, which at the
time were unprecedented.
Jazz is such a broad music, with so many
styles and flavors: ragtime, stride, swing,
bebop, Latin, avant-garde, hard bop, chamber, regional, jump, fusion... The artistry of
people like Pass, Roberts, Hall, Martino,
Fitzgerald and McLaughlin always inspires
me to try to be a better musician. It’s a
never-ending path with many twists, discoveries and adventures. You will always be
made richer by expanding what you listen
to—not just jazz, but any style. And, as with
any style of music, if you want to play it,
you better listen to it.
Pat Smith founded the Penguin Jazz Quartet and played
Brazilian music with Nossa Bossa. He studied guitar
construction with Richard Schneider, Tom Ribbecke
and Bob Benedetto, and pickin’ with Lenny Breau, Ted
Greene, Guy Van Duser and others. Pat lives in Iowa
with his cats Emmy and Squeeky, and plays in a duo
with bassist Rich Wagor.