My own personal musical journey has taken me through listening to all types of music intently at different points in my life, but I can say my heart really felt most at home with jazz. That relationship was cultivated in my early teens when I think back to the first time I became aware of the concept of improvisation. What did it mean to play spontaneously?
I grew up listening to the music my parents listened to. The Beatles, Ray Charles, Roberta Flack, Joe Cocker, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Bob Dylan. Tom Waits, Frank Sinatra. My father loved folk music, artists like Woody Guthrie, Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger and the blues duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. I would always pick up my dad's guitar and just mess with it. Strum the strings, making believe I was really playing. It wasn't until 11 that I began to think of trying to play for real. By that time I had developed my own interest in music. Mainly rock bands of the time, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, The Who, Yes, Cream, Van Halen, all bands that had guitar playing at the core of their sound. The importance of my first teacher was to begin to show me the tools needed to play the guitar, not so much the elements of music theory, but the hands on physical playing of the instrument and how to begin to develop my ear, learning to transfer what I hear to the guitar. This happened through exercises for the fingers, learning scales and chord shapes as they apply to the guitar, like any instruments it takes a great deal of time to become comfortable with the techniques. Patience. Getting lost in the excitement of figuring it out. I also began to listen to blues guitarists that inspired the rock musicians I was listening to. I fell in love with the playing of the “three kings,” Albert King, B.B. King and Freddie King. Their playing was accessible and emotional. One sustained note from B.B King and I was transported to another place. Fusion bridged the gap to jazz at the time listening to John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Bill Connors in Return to Forever.
There are so many events that shape a persons life, but if I had to think of a few that really set me on my path I would have to start with Duke. Duke Du Bois was a neighbor of mine who was like an uncle to me, to everyone. He worked for a GRP a Jazz record label in New York. At the time Dizzy Gillespie was on the label along with Chick Corea, Kevin Eubanks, Eddie Daniels and later George Benson. He knew everyone in the Jazz scene and at the time I didn’t realize how important this relationship would be in shaping my life. When he saw how interested I was in music and specifically the guitar, he started having me listen to Jazz guitarists. These sounds spoke to me. Players like Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Raney, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Jim Hall... I could go on and on. Duke was also working with the Impulse records catalogue at the time reissuing all the classic recordings on CD choosing alternate takes to include in the CD release. He turned me on to John Coltrane’s Ballads. Although I didn’t understand what they were playing, it was so over my head at the time, the energy and the virtuosity captivated my imagination. Many of these players lived around New York or came through frequently, and it was my privilege to see jazz guitar legends such as Jim Hall, Tal Farlow, Les Paul, Barney Kessel, Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Mundell Lowe, Larry Coryell, Pat Martino, Charlie Byrd, Jack Wilkins, John Scofield, John Ambercrombie, George Benson, John Mclaughlin on a regular basis. As a kid, I remember going down to clubs in Greenwich Village and watching Kenny Burrell warming up in the green room of the Blue Note before a show or being introduced to the great blues musicians Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee backstage at the Bitter End and sitting listening to them talking about life, laughing and interacting with all different people walking in to say hello. On 97th and Columbus was a great club Mikell’s, where I saw many different players and styles like Cornell Dupree with the band Stuff, Larry Coryell and most memorable, George Benson, who at the time was having huge pop success as a vocalist, playing with Lonnie Smith in such an intimate setting recreating the energy of his early jazz recordings that for me were so inspiring, energetic and unique. Joe Pass playing solo at Fat Tuesday’s. Duke would talk to me about the history of jazz and play me the music while he spoke. I can remember him driving, the whole time drumming on the dashboard and steering wheel. His passion for it was infectious. I was hooked.
When you find something you love in your life, it automatically changes everything. You migrate towards people who have the same interests. I chose to go to school for music attending NYU, where I studied jazz with Rich Boukas, and went on to study with Jack Wilkins at Manhattan School of Music. Rich Boukas opened me up to developing a working knowledge of chord voicings and inversions and how different chords can substitute for one another in harmony and change the color of what you are playing. Always singing what you play. Jack Wilkins was an encyclopedia of the history of jazz guitar. Guitar students from the school would meet down at his apartment in the Village and listen to records chronologically, hearing how different styles developed and how important it was for those early players to listen and emulate different instrumentalist’s like Charlie Parker, Lester Young or Art Tatum. Jack stressed listening to the great vocalists to truly know the melody of a tune and how to shape it by giving it breath, phrasing it like a singer. Sinatra was the go to, and so began my love and respect for the artistry of Frank.
After college I worked with Jazz guitarists Gene Bertoncini and Steve Lamattina. Steve is out of the school of jazz guitarist Barry Galbriath and tenor saxophonist Ted Brown who was one of the original students along with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh who studied under Lennie Tristano. Gene studied with the legendary guitarists Johnny Smith and Chuck Wayne and developed as a jazz musician on the traditional arch top guitar using a pick, but his true stylistic break through came being inspired by the artistry of classical guitarist Julian Bream. He developed the fingerstyle technique and began writing his own solo arrangements of standards on the classical guitar and developing a very signature harmonic concept of playing as much inspired by the impressionist compositions of Ravel and Debussy as the jazz musicians that elevated them to standards.
Inspired by Gene’s use of the classical guitar I decided to start studying the technique. I began working with New York based classical guitarists Fred Hand and Jerry Willard. After reading Ricardo Iznaola’s On Practicing, I moved to Denver to begin studying with him privately. This was like starting all over in a way, new techniques, new repertoire, new listening. I worked with Ricardo and Jonathan Leathwood before eventual attending Metro State University of Denver and studying under Alex Komodore earning a degree in classical performance and performing in master classes with David Russell, Ricardo Iznaola, Pepe Romero and Paul Galbraith. I did my first long recital on the classical guitar in May of 2008 and my senior recital in November 2009, which included my own transcription of Bach’s Violin Sonata no. 1. I also continued studying with jazz guitarist Dale Bruning who is a dear friend, mentor and true inspiration. Dale studied with the renowned teacher Dennis Sandole, who is noted for having many famous students including John Coltrane. Dale’s systematic break down of music and how it applies to the fretboard is the most organized and functional way I know of introducing material to a student. Learning to play what you hear, what the music needs, painting a sonic picture. Searching for a few good notes. What I learned most from Dale was the art of listening.
The guitarists I listened to when I began to get into jazz are still my favorites. Although I'd say now I listen mostly to other jazz instrumentalists for inspiration. Saxophonists like Lou Donaldson, Hank Mobley, Charles Mcpherson, Jimmy Heath, John Coltrane, Lee Konitz, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker; pianists Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Lennie Tristano, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Thelonious Monk; trumpeters Miles Davis, Art Farmer, Donald Byrd, Chet Baker, Kenny Durham. The rabbit hole is endless and I'm always learning. I still learn from the first lessons I took. I can still hear Duke.
I mentioned the people my teachers studied with because that’s really how it works. You become pat of a lineage, you recognize sources of inspiration and how your appreciation for different styles evolved based on the people you chanced to work with or meet. Lately I have been studying the theoretical concepts of jazz pianists Barry Harris and Lennie Tristano along side the guitaristic concepts of Chuck Wayne, Dale Bruning and Gene Bertoncini. Lennie’s idea of singing and transcribing great classic solo’s and writing you own solos and then learning them working at half speed gets you in touch with your inner musical voice. Barry’s Diminshed 6th voicing vocabulary opens up so many interesting possibilities. Each one of these musicians has their own unique look into the harmonic language of jazz and I enjoy organizing these ideas to further formulate my concept of harmony and improvisation. I am working on a series of transcriptions on standards as examples of different ways to approach the same tunes. Recent transcriptions include Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz, Hank Mobley, George Benson, Charlie Christian, Warne Marsh, Lester Young, Lee Konitz, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Jimmy Raney. Exploring their common foundation and discovering how the jazz language is manipulated and interpreted to make styles so unique.
Since moving to Chicago I continue to develop my own teaching studio helping students cultivate their own love for different styles of music and prepare auditions for entrance into music schools. As a musician I enjoy playing the classical guitar and jazz as well as doing studio work for local musicians contributing guitar parts to their compositions and have written program notes for the 92nd street Y in New York and published in Just Jazz Guitar magazine “ Evolution of an Artist”. Growing each day as a musician to me is a gift that I cherish. Music touches each aspect of my life. I study it, wrestle with new ideas. I listen to music for pleasure, for inspiration. I share my life with people through teaching and playing. The beauty of the world is that each person’s interest is different. Everyone is valid. We need people to explore their individual interests in order for society to flourish. Just thinking of the guitar, for me Bob Dylan is as important a stylist as B.B. King for blues or Wes Montgomery for Jazz or Julian Bream for classical guitar. Without all these styles drawing from very different depths of knowledge, very different skills sets, the world would be bland. Art is style. Music is to be shared, whether it be through teaching, playing, listening, it is the undeniable transmission of emotion, which is the cornerstone of life.