A brief history of one
instrument in jazz
I take it as given that rabid music fans harbor some kernel of desire to become musicians
themselves. Take the notion and turn it on its head: every musician I know, have known or
ever will know is, has been or will be a music fan.
Once a budding musician enters the enchanting kingdom of scales, modes and textures and
learns the fine art of musical storytelling, he will be confronted with many divergent
paths. He can stay on the main road or in the middle thereof; he can find a vein of
musical experimentation in a particular style and mine that ore for an entire career; he
can become a multi-instrumentalist, an arranger, a composer, a soloist, a master on one
axe; a journeyman sideman; a star.
But the common factor here is a fanatical devotion to music and a tolerance of all its
forms. What type of unit, for example, would the Modern Jazz Quartet have been had its
member not been steeped in the European classical tradition? Or how about Joe Zawinul and
the later Herbie Hancock without the introduction of electronics into the main mix?
I have been playing guitar for about 35 years now, and I still haven't come to terms with
all its possibilities. I am a self-taught guitarist, stealing licks from records, other
musicians and transcriptions in guitar magazines and other instruction manuals. The depth
of my ignorance of this old instrument is breathtaking. I learn something new each day
when I sit down to run my scales.
Still, I don't expect to ever become a "name" player. It is enough that my
efforts give me pleasure and I look forward to my practice sessions as a relaxing and
enjoyable part of my daily routine.
Let's stick with the guitar for a moment and see where its paths of possibility have taken
us in jazz.
Though he was not the first, Django Reinhardt is almost universally recognized as the
instrument's shepherd into the fold of solo jazz. When the woefully short-lived Charlie
Christian added electricity to the mix a few years later, jazz had for itself a new voice
on the bandstand, one that added to the textural pallette of the idiom.
With the advent of a the Brazilian influence came a rank-and-file of heavy-duty names,
among them Bola Sete, Laurindo Almeida, Charlie Byrd and Joao Gilberto.
Swing and bop brought to us the talents of such luminaries as Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel,
Herb Ellis, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell and Jim Hall.
The style of the 1950s and '60s were dominated by the self-taught Wes Montgomery, Grant
Green and Jimmy Raney and then, as jazz moved out of its moribund period, the smoother,
quieter acoustic jazz brought us Larry Coryell, John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, Paco DeLucia,
Bucky and John Pizzarelli, Lenny Breau and Earl Klugh.
With the cauldron of rock 'n' roll at an experimentational rolling boil, Jimi Hendrix
rained his influence on rockers and jazzers alike, and it wasn't long before virtuosos
with names like Stanley Jordan, Frank Zappa, Allan Holdsworth, the aforementioned Coryell
and McLaughlin, John Scofield, Sonny Sharrock and Lee Ritenour were taking control of the
bandstand with the fusion that Miles Davis spied in the musical future long before anyone
Avant-garde, soul and modern jazz guitarists on the order of Pat Martino, James Blood
Ulmer, Bill Frisell, Phil Upchurch, Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale were adding their spice
to the mix.
And that brings me back to the bachelor scribe who sits in his living room each day and
runs his scales, listening to recordings and stealing the licks that may someday turn into
something worthy of others' hearing.
In the meantime, I know, there are thousands of music lovers like me who are traveling the
same path. I'd like to hear them all.