Tracing Roots (or “How Not to Be a Jazz Snob”)
THE JAZZ BOX
A certain semi-famous (formerly über-famous)
pop star/folk musician recently said in my
presence that jazzers are the worst when it
comes to musical snobbery. “Heyyyyy, wait a
minute…” said I in a mock deeply offended
tone. One of my former students was there
to make the save by quickly saying, “Not you,
Jane.” Well, okay, then. But it seems it might
be a good time to examine that notion.
If you’re a jazz cat yourself, maybe you need
to answer these questions, too: Do you
ever play fingerstyle? That has its origin in
classical guitar. Do you ever use your right-hand thumb for bass notes? That’s kind of
a country thing. Do you strum an acoustic
steel-string sometimes? Folkie. Do you play a
nylon-string? Classical and bossa nova.
I like the word “fusion.” I especially like it as a
description of a musical style, including but not
limited to the jazz-meets-rock music from the
mid ’70s. That fusion spawned the work of guitarists Larry Coryell, John Scofield, Mike Stern,
Allan Holdsworth, Larry Carlton, and a much
longer list of players that followed their lead in
their own way—some more jazz than rock, some
more rock than jazz. There’s also the fusion of
jazz and folk. Singers/guitarists Kenny Rankin,
Janis Ian, and Joni Mitchell come to mind, along
with the instrumentalists Alex de Grassi, Pierre
Bensusan, and for heaven’s sake, Chet Atkins.
Bossa nova is the result of the folk music of
Brazil fusing with American jazz. Check out João
Gilberto, Laurindo Almeida, and Gene Bertoncini
for their individual statements on that. Bluegrass
and jazz have fused all over the place. Guitarist
Tony Rice embraces jazz on a steel-string flattop and was an integral voice in the “Dawg
Music” created by mandolinist David Grisman.
An update on that fusion has come by way of
contemporary music from mandolinist Chris Thile
and banjo virtuosos Béla Fleck and Alison Brown,
the latter of which also adds guitar to her blend.
day was reserved for my repertoire practice,
but the classical piece kept me centered on the
instrument, inspired by the guitar arrangement,
and physically ready to play.
My old jazz box has one pickup. It’s my main
axe. I have a smaller version—my secondary
jazz box, if you will—that I use for teaching.
That, too, has just one pickup. I’ve had, at various stages in my playing days, guitars with two
pickups. I really tried, honest. I just couldn’t get
comfortable with any sounds other than finding
that one right place to leave the switch and the
controls. So, I found my guitar niche. But that
does not prevent me from pretending to be
Larry Carlton playing the solos to Steely Dan
recordings while I’m driving (I also pretend to be
k.d. lang and Barbra Streisand sometimes…).
to music, I wanted to know all about the artists that I looked up to. I was a pop-culture
child in the ’60s. Singer-songwriters spoke of
Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett.
So there I was, in the dusty record stores on
beautiful summer days, finding the vinyl history of jazz standards to learn and memorize.
Before Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, or Jerry
Garcia took extended, spiritually gifted solo
statements in the moment, John Coltrane was
speaking his truth through his saxophone.
Credit: Katy Cone
What we play and what we listen to are not
always the same. I’ve found that if you talk to
jazz guitarists and ask what they like to listen to,
you’ll be surprised by the diversity of styles that
comes up. Find out what they’ve practiced over
the years, and a similarly wide range of material
comes to light. A few summers ago, I prepared
for a solo guitar recital (played entirely on
my nylon-string, by the way) by working on
a classical piece every day—first thing in the
morning and last thing at night. The rest of the
If, in fact, we jazz guitarists have created a
reputation for being snobs, then it’s time to
outgrow that image. Anyone playing honest
music with their whole selves in it, devoted
and sincere, deserves our ears, encourage-
ment, and applause.
It is getting harder and harder to find musicians
who have not been touched in some way or
another by at least a few styles of music. Music
appreciation is a form of diversity awareness.
If you trace our roots back far enough, we’re
all related. Trace back our musical roots and
you’re likely to find Louis Armstrong, blues,
George Gershwin, Mozart, Bach, African drumming. In my early days of learning and listening
Jane Miller is a guitarist, composer, and arranger
with roots in both jazz and folk. In addition to leading her own jazz instrumental quartet, she is in a
working chamber jazz trio with saxophonist Cercie
Miller and bassist David Clark. The Jane Miller Group
has released three CDs on Jane’s label, Pink Bubble
Records. Jane joined the Guitar Department faculty at
Berklee College of Music in 1994. janemillergroup.com