Sunday, May 17, 2009


Let me welcome you to the first installment in my new blog. For those of you interested in music history, you may visit my other blog at For those of you interested in jazz guitar, then here is the place to come!

I will post a variety of short (and hopefully useful) articles on a wide variety of topics related to jazz guitar, including everything from maintenance to jazz theory and history.


I hope over time, that readers might become involved and add their articles. One step at a time, however, so I will let you all know when I have arrived at the point. For now, I will leave the comments window open so that you can add any information that you believe makes an article better, that is, once articles start appearing. You can go to the comments window by clicking on the article title. One rule--play nice.


Also, please visit me at my website and at my You Tube Channel. Thanks!


Brazil is a tune forever associated by most people, especially those tuned into gypsy jazz, as one of Django Reinhardt's finest moments. The tune was also used as the title track in the Terry Gilliam film of the same name.

Brazil, Django Reinhardt

Playing Brazil

The most compelling feature of the music is the unrestrained enthusiasm and its unabashed Latin quality of the piece, though the underlying rhythm does not fit into the basic established patterns of the rumba, tango, or samba. The melody itself is a 'rift' tune in the Swing style, and the Latin feel is created in the head to a large degree by the highly-syncopated secondary chromatic melody from the fifth of the scale to the seventh and back again to the fifth. Hence, the song, at least the head, features not one rift, but two!

Included at the right side of the page is the score of the head. Since there are two independent melodies that run through most of the head, the piece is, at the minimum, a duet, and it is as a guitar duet that the score has been arranged.

The chord symbols are also given over the score, so the melody in the higher part of each paired system and the chords above may be used as a fake book score by a band. Here the secondary melody in the highest voice of the lower part of the system must be played by second player, but the remaining parts of the texture can be filled out by the comping instrument, bass, and drums in the standard way.

To view the score in right column of the article, right click, open in a new window and, to save the score to your computer, right click a second time.

I play with pick-up bands but have no regular gig, and sometimes I play social functions (restaurants, wedding and corporate cocktail hours, private parties, etc.) solo. When I do, I use rhythm tracks that I have made and drive them through my amp from my laptop. I also use rhythm tracks to sharpen my improvisational skills when practicing at home. I have provided two videos, one of me improvising to one of these rhythm tracks and a video for your use for practice that features the second guitar part as written on the score above.

The audio given on the practice video below is slower than the version I use in my improvisation below and my version crawls compared to Reinhardt's, but the practice video is fast enough to be useful in learning your way around the song. The file goes on for four complete stanzas, so there is time to both practice the head and sharpen your skills at improvising. The progression is simple: G and D7 in alternation (major, mixolydian from tonic, major pentatonic, and even minor pentatonic)-E7 (major phrygian, diminished, alt scale)-Am9 (A pentatonic, natural minor, dorian, melodic minor, E major phryrgian continued from E7)-D7 (all the same scales the song started with over the tonic chord pus mixolydian on D and even materials from the diminished chord or scale). The rate of harmonic change is very slow, so there's time to explore! Have fun!

Last, here is my take on Brazil using a slightly modified version of the rhythm track (faster and with bass added). If you decide to use this song in a band setting, once past the head, I would recommend abandoning the secondary melody, as does Django, and add momentum through the use of a walking bass.

Clearly I am not a gypsy jazz player, although that is a gypsy guitar in my lap on the video, but the tune does lend itself nicely to a Swing treatment. This was one of the last pieces Reinhardt recorded before his death, and one could reasonably argue that there are more Swing and bop influences in his playing by this time than gypsy.

Brazil (my version)

Gyspy Guitar, Yet Again

Limehouse Blues
Limehouse Blues
was composed by Philip Braham and was originally sung with words by Douglas Furber. The song has long since become a improvisational instrumental and one, like Brazil, I heard on an old but astounding Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappeli recording.

Reinhardt/Grappeli, Limehouse Blues

The lyrics:
And those weird China blues
Never go away
Sad, mad blues
For all the while they seem to say

Oh, Limehouse kid
Oh, oh, Limehouse kid
Goin' the way
That the rest of them did
Poor broken blossom
And nobody's child
Haunting and taunting
You're just kind of wild

Oh, Limehouse blues
I've the real Limehouse blues
Can't seem to shake off
Those real China blues
Rings on your fingers
And tears for your crown
That is the story
Of old Chinatown

Rings on your fingers
And tears for your crown
That is the story
Of old Chinatown

Here is my version of Limehouse Blues. The guitar I am playing was made by David Hodson shortly before his death, and was a replica of Reinhardt's guitar in the Louvre. I say "was" because a local repairman (a monkey with a can of Krylon and a wrench, as it turned out) took a barely visible hairline face crack and made it into a disaster by forcing the crack open, pouring glue onto it, then sanding it after the glue dried. The guitar's face has since been lovingly and painstakingly restored by someone with the talent and expertise to do it, but there were some really intense moments.

Swing Gitane
Despite his fame as a gypsy guitarist, "Swing Gitane" is one of the few gypsy melodies that Django Reinhardt recorded and kept for a time in his repertory. "Swing Gitane" means "Swing Gypsy." My version is certainly more Swing than gypsy, but it is a very compelling minor key song. It has built in both swing and drive while retaining some of the eastern European flavor of earlier versions.

I am not a gypsy jazz player, instead having my roots more in electric archtop playing, but the allure of these guitars is hard to resist.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Working the Blues 1, Introduction

This series of articles will hopefully help new players come to grips with improvising over the wellspring progression of American popular music, the blues. Many who teach improvisation hold that the major scale is the primary scale and that all other notes not in the scale but which are brought into play are grafted onto the major scale or used to substitute for notes in the scale. While this is correct in the grand scheme, it does not address "blue note" resolutions or help the new player get any closer to a "more authentic" feel in creating melodies. Identifying the notes that can be used is the easy part. Mastering the syntax and grammar in order to make music in the blues and jazz language is another matter entirely. To make matters even more complex, there is a wide variety of "dialects," though basics are shared.

Nearly all of us carry with us our earliest musical training, at the most meager, the assemblies and brief classes we had in grade school. Here we are taught from the European point of view, and the very first item on the agenda is "do, re, mi," the natural major scale. We are taught, as in European music, to sing or play on the beat. We also carry the influence of all the music heard at home and on the media, and much of what we hear has great value but does not help with understanding the blues or how the basic behaviors of the notes within blues informs all popular music that followed it, especially jazz.

To getting a start, an overview of two basic scales, the major and minor pentatonic, and their historical uses as early as the nineteenth century is really important. The foundation of most American popular music was laid in African-American drum song and dance, work songs, British and British-inspired folk songs, the Spiritual and the sorrow song Spiritual, and even prison songs. The two scales represent polarities in that one is essentially major and the other minor, but herein is found the bases of melodic direction, note resolutions, melodic leaps, and the substitutions of some notes for others and when the substitutions are possible, desirable, and even absolutely non-negotiable in their absolute necessity.

Though I would hardly describe myself as a "blues god," especially since my playing is colored for better or worse by decades of classical music training and by an interest in jazz that prompts me to use scale materials that are outside blues but not jazz, I nonetheless would like to start with a sample of my blues:

Twelve Bar Blues in B Flat

Working the Blues 2, The Scales

The two scales that we will explore, given to the right in the key of A, are the major and minor pentatonic scales. Each of these scales has a European counterpart and exists as a "gapped" version of existing scales. A "gapped" scale is identical to an existing scale but is missing notes found in that other scale.

For the major pentatonic scale, the notes are identical to the natural major scale but the 4th and 7th notes are omitted. The spelling of the A major scale is A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A, but that for the major pentatonic form is A-B-C#-E-F#-A. An ornamental note is added between the 2nd and 3rd notes, and this note (C natural in score) is called the "flat 3rd." It exists as one of the defining notes of the minor pentatonic scale but may be incorporated in the major pentatonic scale to very positive effect. The pattern, then, becomes A-B-C-C#-E-F#-A.

In the minor pentatonic scale, the 2nd and 6th notes are missing from a natural minor scale. The A natural minor scale is A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A. The spelling of the minor pentatonic form is A-C-D-E-G-A. In addition, an ornamental note, the "flat 5th," is added so that the pattern is A-C-D-D# or E flat (depending on direction)-G-A. This ornamental note is actually a critical blue note. This last form is sometimes called the "blues scale."

It is critical to learn the fingerings for these scales in arrangements in which no open strings are used. This permits the scales to be moved to any key just by shifting positions. There are five positions for each and every scale type including scales other than the pentatonic scales.

As critical is to learn the functions of each note by number, since this will permit the improviser to find the notes in any position without having to figure out the name of every note within every key, though the player should also develop this familiarity. The functions follow and are based on the scales given in the illustration:

Major Pentatonic
A (Tonic) B (2nd) C (flatted 3rd ornament) C# (3rd) E (5th) F# (6th)

Minor Pentatonic
A (Tonic) C (flatted 3rd) D (4th) D# or E flat (# 4th or flatted 5th) E (5th) G (flatted 7th)

Knowing the function of each note in each scale is critical to theoretical conversations, hearing events within the music, correct resolution (addressed in later article) and use within a key, and finding the way around the instrument.

Historical Background
These scales are the stuff of American popular music as it emerged in the 19th century. The major pentatonic scale most likely has its origins in British folk music, especially that of Scotland, and it made its way to America first aboard the ships that transported English colonists and then, in the nineteenth century, aboard British ships that carried goods to America.

The major pentatonic scale is found in a considerable number of American folk songs, many of which we learn growing up. The scale was used to create new songs, but as often British folk songs were fitted with new words to reflect the immediate concerns of the lives of the users. "Shenandoah," which uses the major pentatonic scale, likely started as a sea chanty but is known to Americans with a very different text than the origin and with a text that makes no reference whatsoever to the sea or maritime life!

The major pentatonic scale also found widespread use in the Spiritual as black worshipers abandoned the stock hymns taught them by evangelists and began to form a body of worship music that reflected their lives and beliefs. Major-key Spirituals were encouraged by slave owners fearing that songs in minor could evoke feelings of hopelessness and depression, in other words, of opening the door to the mood of "nothing to lose" and the actual physical dangers that could result.

In application, the major pentatonic scale is essentially a major scale, and that means the direction or "push" of the music is upward. This is a critical point to remember when using it to improvise and with regard to blue note resolutions. In addition, in folk songs, the major pentatonic scale was often colored by the borrowing of the minor or "flat third" of the minor pentatonic scale, usually at the end of a stanza of music, where is is often still found today. In Froggy Went a Courtin', the scale used is the major pentatonic, but the flatted third, the C natural note, of the minor pentatonic scale is inflected in the second measure of the third line.

The minor pentatonic scale likely began in the minor-key "sorrow song" Spiritual. Minor-key Spirituals are not found in great quantities relatively speaking, and most did not come into currency until after the Emancipation. Exemplified on the video is the sorrow song Motherless Child. Pictured at the end of the video are the slave auctions, the possible impetus for the lyrics.

At first the sorrow song remained in minor, then later the minor pentatonic scale jumped tonality and began to be applied over chords in major keys. This is exemplified in the urban blues of Muddy Waters. The video, which one of Waters' urban blues songs and presents it as a guitar duet, demonstrates an adherence to the minor pentatonic scale in the melodies, both the primary melody, the "call," and the response in the second guitar, the "answer."

Again, the minor pentatonic scale is a gapped natural minor scale. Critical to remember in improvising, and especially in resolving blue notes, is that the direction of the minor pentatonic scale is downward.

Here, then, is the basic language of blues, that is, a mixture of two scales with different pitches and directional pull. If one combines the two scales, one gets C-D-E flat-E-F-F#-G-G-B-C, all of the notes in the twelve-note chromatic scale except the flatted second, the flatted 6th, and the natural 7th! That all these notes are available does not mean that they can be used in any combination, and here is where the difficulty lies in learning to play blues.

The impact of the scales upon the blues chords and rhythmic aspects of playing blues will be the focus of the next two articles. How to make all the elements work together will be addressed in the last in this series of articles.

Finally, when you learn these scales, do not use open strings. If you used only closed positions (notes that are fingered) you will be able to move the scales to any key simply by shifting positions on the neck. There are five possible fingerings for every scale, and they lay out end to end in consecutively higher block positions.

Working the Blues 3, The Chords

Chord in Blues

For the most part, the chords used in Blues are the same as those which evolved in European music beginning in the Renaissance. There are two chords which differ, and these are critical in identifying blues and in improvising Blues solos.

Given in the top row is the set of chords that evolved in European music and which are used in nearly all styles of American popular music. In understanding the symbols below each chord, there are several facts you must know. First, each chord is built on a note of the scale, in this case, the C major scale, and uses for it notes those found only in the scale. The lowest note in the chord in the chart is its root. The I maj7 chord is Cmaj7, the ii7 chord is Dm7, the iii7 chord is Em7, the IV maj7 is F maj7, the V chord is G7, the vi7 chord is Am7, and the vii half-dim7 is B half-diminished 7. Half-diminished 7 chords are often written in jazz charts as m7 flat 5, or minor 7 flat 5.

Each chord is numbered according to the note of the scale upon which it is built, the note which is also its root. The "I" chord is built upon the first note of the scale, the "ii" chord is built upon the second note, the iii chord on the third note, and so forth. The use of upper case identifies the chord quality. The upper case Roman numerals are major chords while those labeled in lower case are minor. There is an exception among the set, and that is the half-diminished chord found on the seventh note of the scale. It is not used often in major keys because it is in sound strongly similar to the V chord and hence will be addressed in a later article. A note the interval of a seventh is added to the chords in the chart. These 7ths are not present in many styles of popular music, but they appear on almost every chord in jazz and blues.

The chart has double duty. The reader can remove the 7th from the chord and what is left is the chord that would be used in styles in which 7ths are not prevalent. In Country, for example, the use of Cmaj7 would be unlikely for the tonic or I chord, but the user can remove the 7th to have a C major chord, and this chord would be correct to use in the style.

The 7ths also have quality, and here the symbols can get confusing. The "maj7" label attached to the I chord does not refer to the quality of the chord, which is major, but to the quality of the 7th. A major seventh or "maj7" is most easily reckoned not by counting the whole and half-steps between the root and the added seventh, which is the note stacked highest in the chord. Instead, it is far easier and far easier to count downward one half-step from the root and then add that note at the highest part of the chord. In the case of Cmaj7, the maj7 is B, located one-half step lower than the root C note but placed always as the highest note. The Cmaj7 is actually a major chord with a major 7th added to it.

The symbol "7" is actually an abbreviation. It indicates that a minor 7th is added to a chord. The easiest way to identify or locate the minor 7th is to count downward from the root one whole step then add that note in the highest position within the chord. In the case of the ii, iii, and vi chords, the chords are actually minor chords with minor 7ths.

The case of V7 is a second exception within the set of chords. After the tonic chord, it is the most critical in any key. This chord is called the "dominant 7 chord." It consists of a major chord with a minor 7th, and in terms of actual chord names, this is realized as a plain chord letter name and a plain "7." The numbers 9 and 13 are variant forms of the V7 chord and should be considered and treated in the same way. Just as it is not traditional to write "major" to indicate major chords, using just the letter name instead, we do not indicate that a 7th is minor by putting an "m" before the 7th in a chord symbol. Typical dominant 7 chords are written as C7, D7, E7, F7, G7, etc.

In traditional music, the dominant 7 chord controls harmonic and melodic direction. It contains the least stable notes in the scale. The root, 3rd, and 5th of the chord all pull to the tonic note for resolution. The 7th pulls downward to the 3rd of the tonic chord. In this key, the G (root), B (3rd), and D (5th) of the G7 chord all need to move to the tonic note C to resolve. The C note is the root of the C or tonic chord. The F note (7th) of the G7 chord moves downward to the next lower note in the scale to resolve, the E note, and the E note is also the 3rd of the C or tonic chord. The motion V7-I is the closing signature chord progression that identifies closure in Western music, and the appearance of these two chords marks the ending of nearly every piece of Western music since the early 16th century. There is only one "real dominant 7 chord in a key, and it is always found on the fifth note of the scale.

Blues differs from the European system in use in much of popular music in that it admits more scale notes than those found in the basic major scale. The additional notes are found in the minor pentatonic scale illustrated above. Many of the notes of the minor pentatonic scale and the major scale are shared (C, F, and G). Some notes found in the major scale are missing entirely from the minor pentatonic scale (D and A). What remains are two notes which are different from the notes of the major scale, and these notes are E flat, the flatted 3rd, and B flat, the flatted 7th. These two notes are the fundamental "blue notes" found in wide variety of American popular music styles. These notes are certainly the first blue notes and the minor pentatonic scale the first blues-based note sets that most young players learn.

These two notes have an effect on the basic chords used in Blues. The flatted 3rd of the minor pentatonic scale clashes terribly with the 7th of the IV maj7 chord. The flatted 7th of the minor pentatonic scale clashes terribly with the 7th of the I maj7 chord. The result is that in blues the two chords are altered to accommodate these blue notes. IV maj7 is altered to become IV7, a chord with the same note pattern as a dominant 7 chord but in the position on the fourth note of the scale, not the fifth. The I maj7 chord is altered to become I7, a chord with the same note pattern as a dominant 7 chord but on the first note of the scale.

Although these chords are "spelled" as dominant 7 chords, they do not function as dominant 7 chords, instead being simply altered chords that coincidentally resemble the dominant 7 chord. There is the suggestion, however, that I7 might imply or contain some of the function of the "real" dominant chord. In the simple blues progression below, notice that if the key were considered to be F and not C and all but the first two chords were ignored, the progression of C7 to F7 could be viewed or heard as V7-I in the key of F major.

||: I7 (C7) | IV7 (F7) | I7 (C7) | Iv 7 (F7) V7 (G7) :|| C7 ||

In listening to blues, there is a sense that music moves not just to a new chord but also to a new key whenever there is motion from I7 to IV7 or vice-verse, and it. This sense of shift is the result of the dominant-tonic relationship between the I and IV chords, and this is an element of the music that makes the music particularly potent. The relationship will be explored in greater depth in a subsequent article.

Those reader who are particularly observant have doubtless noticed that the flatted third of the minor pentatonic scale does not alter the third of the I chord. Here we have an aural phenomenon or tradition. The insertion at certain places in a melody of the flatted third, even over the I chord, does not create an unacceptable dissonant clash. In the evolution of American folk song, the flatted third of the minor pentatonic scale heard through the 19th century and earlier in black work song simply crept into the American style as an acceptable alternative, under certain circumstances, to the natural 3rd found in the major scale. The flatted third is traditionally introduced in popular melody late in the musical stanza, often over the last few chords before the stanza concludes. An example of the use of the flatted minor pentatonic third as an alternate note to the natural third of the major scale can be heard in "Froggy Went A Courtin'," a media file in a preceding lecture.

The chords in the graphic above appear here in the key of C major, but the chords, their qualities and the qualities of their added 7ths, and the Blues alterations described transpose literally to any major key since they remain the same regardless of the key, as long as the music is in major.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Working the Blues 4: Basic Chord Charts for Jazz and Blues Guitar

There are two basic types of chords used in Blues and these two types, and the fingerings given in the chart, are found as well in jazz. The first is the dominant 7 chord. Like the regular major chord, we use their names in abbreviated form. We rarely call a "C major chord." Instead we call it a "C chord" and assume that it is a major triad with a C note root. Similarly, we do not call a G7 chord a "G dominant 7 chord." That it is a dominant 7 chord is understood. Any chord, then, that uses a plain letter name and a "7" is a dominant 7 chord. For example, neither "Cmaj7" nor "Cm7" is not a dominant 7 chord, but "C7" is.

The chords used in jazz and blues differ from the chords used on guitar in most music in that they do not contain doubled notes. In a standard first position G7 chord, the notes are, from highest to lowest, G-B-D-G-B-F. There are three G notes and two B notes. While this sound of a chord this dense is appropriate, necessary, and satisfying for many styles of music, it is not desirable in the more open textures of jazz and blues.

Jazz and blues chords for guitar usually contain no doubled notes, that is, only one of each of the different notes. This arrangement gives jazz and blues chords greater flexibility to be used to create a wide variety of effects through alteration or placement in different positions. The two chords given are the preferred basic configurations for this style of music. In the charts above, strings that are not given a finger assignment are not played. In each chart, the lowest note in the configuration is the root of the chord.

The 9 chord is included here. It should not be applied indiscriminately in place of dominant 7 chords since not all dominant 7 chords will accept this type of 9th, but it can be used in the posted progression where indicated to add the "hot" factor.

The minor 7th chords are straightforward with the exception of the fingering on the second chart that appears as on open or uncolored circle. This fingering should not be part of the the standard fingering since it will create voice-leading problems from the chord preceding it or to the chord following it. It is a note that can be added under certain circumstances, however, and so it is given so that the user is aware of it. In the first m7 chart, the 3rd finger bars the three notes on the same fret marked "3."

In notation, minor 7 chords contain the name of the root and the symbol "m7." Hence Gmaj7 or G7 are not minor chords, but Gm7 is.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Working the Blues 5: The Twelve Bar Blues Progression

The twelve bar blues progression first appeared in the prints of W.C. Handy and began to stabilize as a preferred progression in the music of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. By the late 1930s, it had become associated with Chicago bluesmen such as Tampa Red. It has since come to be known as "Chicago Blues."

This stanza form contains three, not four lines, and the form itself can be traced to the 19th century Spiritual. In the example, each chord gets four beats. In the cases in which more than one chord appears in a measure, the front slashes tell how many beats each should receive. There are also possible chord substitutions given below each line. These substitutions do not have an impact on the melodic improvisation of the lead play but, in fact, add an immeasurable and invaluable interest to the accompaniment and the overall piece. The player can choose his set of substitutions, but the substitutions are restricted to the measures under which they appear.

Notice that in the last line the progression is Bm7-E7-A7. Originally, Bm7 would have been an E7 and the progression would have been E7-E7-A7. In some blues and in rock 'n' roll, this same line would be played as E7-D7-A7. The problem for the improviser in this last progression is that the D7 requires the minor pentatonic scale while the other two progressions accept either the major or minor pentatonic scale. The D7 will require the improviser to stop what he is doing and switch back to the minor pentatonic scale regardless of whether or not it fits the melody that he has been building.

In playing these chords, at least until you develop advanced comping skills, there are conventions that extend back to banjo playing in New Orleans jazz and extend through Swing and modern blues. Each chord is strummed downward on the downbeat. There is no upward strum between the beats. The chords on the second and fourth beats are accented by being played slight louder, and they are played staccato, that is, cut off as soon as they sound. The role of the rhythm player is just that--he supplies the chord and the rhythm. As such, he is not the soloist and busy rhythms of complex strums encroach upon the lead players territory.

Finally, the progression is given in A major, so all the fingerings learned for the major and minor pentatonic scales will have to be moved on the neck to match the key. The key of A was chosen since it is an excellent guitar key and offers available notes for soloing in positions on the neck both higher and lower than the mid-neck location where most of the progression is played and the easiest scale fingerings are found.

IMPORTANT: In the current graphic, the second A7 chord in the second line should be placed over the G7 of the first substitution. This error will corrected shortly.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Working the Blues 6: Melodic Characteristics of the Blues, Choosing the Correct Scale, and Reconciling the Scales to the Chords

Melodic Characteristics

The melodic structures found in blues and many jazz styles derive directly from the work songs and musical practices brought from Africa with slavery. The features of the music were incorporated into nearly all American popular music styles.

The following features can be used in forming and shaping improvisations:

1. Melodies tend to consist of short fragments. In Swing, these short fragments evolved into the riff.

2. These fragments tend to be rhythmically very busy and tend to move at a much faster rate than the accompaniment.

3. In the beginning, the melodic fragments of an improvised melody should start and end on either the tonic note or the fifth. Later chord tones may be used as starting and ending notes.

4, Motion through he scales tends to be stepwise, that is, regardless of the scale used, if one starts on the tonic note and wishes to play to the fifth note of the scale, then he must play all the notes in-between.

5. Stepwise motion through the scales can be relieved and interest created by repeating notes or by changing directions.

6. Leaps, at least for beginners, are restricted to tonic to tonic, tonic to fifth, fifth to tonic, and fifth to fifth. Later chord tones may be added to the list of possible leaps. The leaps often occur not in the motive, but between motives.

7. Vocal ornamentation can be carried into guitar improvisation. Ornamentation comes in two varieties. The first is the glissando or slide. Here one can place his finger one note lower (half-step, whole step or more depending on the time available to execute) than the position of a note in the scale, pluck it, then slide his finger to the note that actually exists in the scale. The approach to the scale note is nearly always from below. Any note in any scale may be given this treatment and the ornament may be applied at any time.

A second ornament is the "bent" note. This is created by pulling or pushing the string upon which the note is fingered. There are only two notes that should be bent in the beginning of your study--the fourth and the flat fifth. When bent, these become notes that already exist in the scale. If you bend other notes, notes that are not in the scale or key are introduced, and these notes do not create good effects.

Scale Choice and Shifting Between Scales
The scale that you choose to use over a given chord is actually very liberal. Either pentatonic scale and any combination of these scales may be used with great success and musical interest over any chord but with one CRITICAL exception: the major pentatonic scale may not be used over the IV7 chord. The scale contains the natural3rd interval but the IV7 contains as its 7th the flatted third. The result of simultaneous sounding of these two notes is a musical train wreck.

In blues, the "safe" scale is the minor pentatonic. It may be played over all chords effectively. Here the quality of the melody is wholly dependent upon the cleverness of the improviser and not a function of having to match a particular scale to a particular chord. The use of the minor pentatonic scale frees the improviser to concentrate on creating melodic motives since he does not have to follow the chord changes. Anything he plays within the scale will match the chords. The benefit of using only the minor pentatonic scale does have its downside, and the downside can be for most huge. It is very difficult to create engaging solos using on this scale and there is a redundancy and limitation to melodic possibilities. In brief, it all sounds the same in a very short time. Professional musicians who use successfully but exclusively the minor pentatonic scale have a very special gift.

The major pentatonic scale, then, is essential in expanding the possibilities of the improviser by expanding the palette of notes that are available for use. The major pentatonic may be played over all chords except, as emphatically noted, the IV7 chord, and it may be mixed freely with the minor pentatonic scale for relieve and maximum effect.

For the listener, the use of both scales offers surprise and relief. Both scales share the tonic and the fifth but otherwise use different notes (the major pentatonic scale contains the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th; the minor pentatonic contains the flatted 3rd, 4th, and flatted 7th). The listener cannot anticipate the notes he will hear in the improvised solo, and the surprise at hearing keeps him engaged. Interest is also added in that the scales are derived respectively from the major key and the parallel minor (the minor scale from the same tonic note), and so the use both scales in combination or alteration effectively creates a continual switching in the melody from the major to the minor mode or key.

Changing from one scale to the other can be problematic, especially for beginners who have not yet learned all the locations of all the notes in the chords. The most effective way to start is to use either the tonic or the fifth of either scale, since they are shared notes, as the "switching stations." Bear in mind the tendencies of scale motion described in earlier articles. Examples of switching are illustrated in the graphic above. Remember that you can click on the image to enlarge it.

In gaining mastery, you are encouraged to use a recording program (Audacity can be downloaded for free if you don't have a recording program loaded already). You should make a good rhythm track of the chords over which you can experiment improvising melodies. This step is essential to hearing what works but also in internalizing the changes of the progression so that your reactions when improvising are instinctual. Once the fingers react without the mind having to search out notes, the improviser actually begins to hear in his head the melody he wishes to build before he plays it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Rise of the Guitar in Jazz from Swing to the 1960s

The First Generation of Jazz Guitarists: Charlie Christian, the First Electric Guitar Jazz Soloist

Charlie Christian was born in 1916 in Bonham, Texas, but he grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Both his parents were musicians. After his father lost his vision to disease, Christian and his brothers performed as a buskers to support his family. At first Charlie entertained by dancing; later he learned to play the guitar. He was encouraged at school in his music, but his instructor insisted he learn trumpet instead of the tenor saxophone. Charlie soon quit the school band to pursue his other passion, baseball, at which he excelled.

By the time Christian was twenty, he was performing throughout the Midwest, traveling as far as Minnesota and North Dakota. By 1936, he had acquired his first electric guitar and had begun to establish himself as a one of the most prominent musicians in the region. Important musicians passing through Oklahoma City would stop to hear him including Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. In 1939, pianist Mary Lou Williams heard Christian and told John Hammond, Sr., the Columbia record executive who scouted talent for the "race" records division, about him. Hammond, in turn, alerted Benny Goodman to this new talent.

Benny Goodman played a significant role in the career of guitarist Charlie Christian, who in return helped to assure the timeless quality of Goodman band recordings. Together they were the first to admit the electric guitar into jazz, establish the electric guitar as a viable and powerful instrument and musical force, and set the precedent for every electric guitar solo to follow in every genre of American popular music. Christian was the first to place the electric guitar on a par with the primary solo melodic instruments in jazz, and Goodman was the first bandleader to accept the guitar as an equal.

From the description above, the story would seem to be a happy, history-making collaboration of two geniuses. The fact is that Goodman was not in the least interested in the fancy, new electric guitar, which he regarded as a curiosity, and he initially didn't much like the flashy-dressing Christian.

Goodman was first made aware of Charlie Christian by John Hammond, who had heard Christian playing in Oklahoma City in 1939. Goodman chose to ignore the advice. Hammond was persistent, however, and, during a break at a Beverly Hills concert, Hammond moved Christian into the band. Upon returning from break, Goodman, who was very strict with his musicians, was incensed to find Christian onstage. To destroy Christian and stop Hammond from hounding him, Goodman called for an obscure tune, thinking that if Christian didn't know the song, he surely wouldn't be able to play along. Christian responded with a brilliant forty-five minute long improvisation. The moment was historic; as the Carnegie Hall concert had brought jazz into the American mainstream, Christian's solo brought the electric guitar into American music.

Christian's musical abilities converted Goodman on the spot, and Goodman immediately absorbed Christian into his musical organization. Henceforth Christian composed many of the "head" arrangements (the accompaniment to the basic song), took solos in many of the songs in performances and on recordings, and was an inspiration to the musicians with whom he worked. Christians playing was forward-looking in its offbeat accents and altered chords. The job gave Christian a steady income and a public platform, and he used the years spent with Goodman (1939-1941) to refine the instrument, its popularity, and his playing, often by sitting in on jam sessions on off-nights at Minton's jazz club in Harlem. Christian died in 1942 of tuberculosis.

In the many of the recordings from the period, notice the vibes (essentially an electric xylophone), another instrument new to jazz, and the arrangement and feel of the music. The unison playing of the melody to open and close the piece (called the "head") anticipates hard bop practices. There is no compromise to the decidedly "hot" quality of the music. Goodman's brand of Swing, at least in the peak years, always stayed closer to jazz than to commercial music (Sweet) and did not make the same commercial concessions for popularity as those made by Glenn Miller. In that respect, this music is a suitable platform for later bebop. Many recordings made between 1939 and 1941, both using the sextet, feature Lionel Hampton and Charlie Christian and their new instruments.

Charlie Christian live at Mintons, 1941, "Swing to Bop"

The Second Generation of Jazz Guitarists: Johnny Smith

Like many of his contemporaries, Johnny Smith’s story is one of struggle from poverty, self-instruction, and incredible natural talent. Unlike his peers, Smith’s talents were extensive and not limited just to the guitar--he was equally at home on the trumpet.

Smith was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1922, the son of a foundry worker with modest five-string banjo skills. Home jams with friends were Smith’s earliest experiences with live music, and the only opportunity he had within the home to try his hand on his father’s friends’ guitars.

When the Great Depression closed the foundries, his family migrated first to New Orleans, then to Chattanooga, and finally to Portland, Maine. Smith still did not own a guitar but managed to gain access through a deal he made with the local pawn shop owners—he would keep the guitars in tune in exchange for being allowed to hang around and play. By the age of 13, he had progressed in his self-guided study to the point where he had adult students coming to him for lessons. Smith got his first guitar when one of these students bought a new guitar and gave him the old one.

Within a short time Smith was playing six nights a week in a band called “Uncle Lem and the Mountain Boys.” This was a hillbilly band, complete with costumes, which traveled across Maine doing pop songs, folk songs, polkas at social events ranging from square dances to fairs. He earned $4 per night—big money for the Depression.

Around this time Smith discovered jazz, and his efforts changed to copying the big band music he heard on the radio and on records. By age 18, he felt he was ready to take on the jazz world, and he left the Uncle Lem to form the Airport boys, a jazz trio consisting of two guitars and a stand up bass. Smith arranged the music for the group, emulating the styles of his heroes Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and Les Paul.

By 1942, his plans to storm the jazz scene abruptly change when the war required that every eighteen year old male deliver himself to the selective service office. Smith had always been interested in aviation (hence “Airport Boys’). So he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, the forerunner of the Air Force, with the intent of storming instead the enemy.

His less than perfect vision in one eye changed his life path in a very different direction. Instead of flying, he was assigned to the band. Since the military bands of the time had no guitar, the band leader handled him a cornet and an instruction book and told him to get busy or face the prospect of mechanics school.

Remarkably, Smith was able to progress to the point in two weeks that the band kept him. In short order Smith advanced to first chair cornet in the 364th Air Corps Band. In 1943, he was reassigned to the 8th Air Corps and ordered to assemble a jazz band. Finally he had a chance to use his guitar. Glenn Miller heard one of the performances and was so impressed that he tried to “requisition” Smith for his own band. Miller’s aircraft was lost over the English Channel a short time later, so Smith stayed where he was.

After the war, Smith secured work as a staff musician at the NBC radio affiliate in Portland. At night he played guitar in the local nightclubs and trumpet in a vaudeville theater pit orchestra. His reputation as a musician already began to extend far beyond Portland. Eugene Ormandy invited Smith to be the guitarist for the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. At the same time, his station manager sent some demo tapes to NBC headquarters, and the manager in New York was so impressed that he offered Smith a position as staff musician and arranger.

The job at NBC in New York put Smith at the top of the professional music world. A staff musician was expected to play any style of music practically at sight and hence carried terrific pressures, but the pay offset the stress. Smith played as many as thirty five radio and later television show per week for NBC including Highways in Melody, The Arthur Godfrey Ford Road Show, Star Time with Benny Goodman and Frances Langsford, The Patrice Munsel Show, The Dave Garroway Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and NBC Fireside Theater. Smith also carried outside engagements including appearances with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Symphony under Ormandy, and the NBC Symphony under Toscanini, as well as numerous gigs in New York’s world-class nightclubs.

Smith’s primary interest remained jazz and, after recording with Goodman in 1951, he formed his own jazz combo. The combo was in high demand, often playing engagements at Birdland that lasted as long as twenty-two weeks. Here Smith and his group shared the stage with jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner and Charles Mingus. He recalls that Parker would often come into the club on the nights that he played, sit at a table closest to him, and just listen. The original lineup of the Johnny Smithy Quintet included Stan Getz, another NBC musician, and sometimes Zoot Sims on saxophone. The affiliation with Smith launched Getz’ career.

The quintet’s 1952 recording for Roost Records of “Moonlight in Vermont” became one of the best-selling single in the jazz genre of all times, and established Smith once and for all at the top of the jazz world. It also made his trademark style of playing—smooth chord-arpeggio solos with incredibly fast runs interspersed—instantly recognizable to the general public. The opening chords of Smith’s solo on “Vermont” demonstrate how he weaves his lines around arpeggio shapes.

Johnny Smith, "Moonlight in Vermont" (with Stan Getz)

Another innovation in treating solos and chords is heard in "Lover Man." Near the end of the piece, it sounds as if there are two guitars--one holding the melody note and the second playing chords. It is in fact only Smith, and the effect is created by holding a finger on the high, sustained melody note while playing chords on the lower strings with his remaining left hand fingers!

The lure of jazz ultimately required Smith to rethink his employment, and he renegotiated a contract as freelancer at NBC so that he could play engagements with his quintet, and tour as featured artist, first with Stan Kenton’s band and then with Count Basie. In 1955, Smith composed a jazz ditty that would later and inadvertently become one of the best known of all surf anthems of the 1960s, “Walk, Don’t Run.” Those of you who play jazz standards will recognize the song as a reworking of "(I Leave You) As Softy as a Summer's Morning."

Johnny Smith, "Walk, Don't Run"

Ventures, "Walk, Don't Run"

In 1958 Smith's second wife died, and he became the sole guardian of their four-year old daughter. Faced with the choice of a music career or his daughter’s well being, he chose to quit the business and care for his child. Within weeks he moved into a modest house in Colorado Springs and away from his frantic life as one of the century’s top jazz guitarists. Throughout the 1960s, he intermittently returned to New York to record and play engagements at the Birdland, effectively keeping his jazz career alive. After the decade, he decided that he was actually happier staying home and retired from the road.

Mundell Lowe and Johnny Smith, "Seven Come Eleven"

Barney Kessel

Barney Kessel was born October 17, 1923 in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He first encountered the guitar in the window of a music store that he passed on his paper route, and from first glance fell permanently in love. His skills, which were self-taught and based upon the guitar work he heard on the radio in contemporary Texas Swing, were substantial at an early age.

Kessel’s professional career began as a teenager. By 1937, he quit school at age fourteen to play in dance bands in Oklahoma, most notably Ellis Ezell’s. Here he stood out not only on the basis of his young age and remarkable talent, but because he was the only white member of all-black bands. The experience also brought into his musical awareness the developments in Kansas City jazz, the run-you-over attack and the type of melodic lines that were later so instrumental to the formulation of bebop. The aggressive tempi of Kansas City jazz also affected the jump bands at the end of the 1940s and the rock ‘n’ roll styles of the 1950s.

He soon abandoned in his playing the emphasis on vibrato found in the pedal steel/guitar Texas Swing (later country western) he heard growing up. In place, he started to develop a style marketed by clear and aggressive lines similar in structure to the lines hear in the playing of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and others who showed the way to the Bop style brought to full fruition by Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie.

Charlie Christian, another native of Oklahoma, was also among Kessel’s musical models. Christian had not only already made the giant step of reconciling idiomatic horn lines to the guitar, but also was the first to have established, as part of Bennie Goodman’s band, the electric guitar a viable front line (solo) instrument. The two met in a jam during one of Christian’s visits home, and Kessel had, as the result of the session, the revelation that he had unconsciously absorbed from records into his own playing every tenet of Christian's style.

The experience gave the Kessel two critical gains: he resolved to find his own voice by developing his own style and he made a new friend in Christian. To the end of realizing himself, he followed Christian’s advice and moved in 1942 to Los Angeles to find a different kind of work and exposure to different kinds of music. Soon after arriving, he found employment with Chico Marx’s band, at the time led by Ben Pollack, and he recorded his first tracks within a year for this band.

By 1944, Kessel left the Marx band to join that of Charlie Barnet, and that summer he was featured on the bands commercial hit recording “Skyliner.” Barnet was a bandleader friendly to the guitar, and later he would have another young star in his organization, Joe Pass. In the same year Kessel was cast in a short feature, “Jammin’ the Blues,” produced by Norman Grantz and nominated for an academy award. Hence Kessel participated in a musical video decades ahead of when music videos became a common commercial tool. As the only white member in the all-black band, Kessel had to sit in the shadows so that his face could not be seen.

By the fall of 1944, Kessel added to his employment a seat in Artie Shaw’s orchestra. Between joining and 1946, Kessel record for Shaw no fewer than 70 tracks, and several of the gentler swing tracks are reminiscent of the playing of his friend and mentor, Charlie Christian, who had died in 1942 of tuberculosis.

In 1946, Kessel had also joined Benny Goodman’s band, taking the seat once filled and indeed innovated by Christian, and this period was split among the bands of Barnet, Shaw, and Goodman. Kessel’s musical activities, then, placed in squarely in the Swing genre, made him well-known in musical circles, and even gave him the chance to accompany some of the great jazz legends, including Billie Holiday.

The melodic structures idiomatic to the guitar that Christian and he had absorbed from Texas Swing and the clarity of line, aggressive attack, and killer tempi absorbed from Kansas City jazz predisposed both Christian and Kessel to be able to make the leap into bebop. Christian experimented in private jams with Kansas City jazzmen but remained stylistically true to Goodman’s brand of hot Swing in public performances. Kessel played the Swing tunes required of him in his various band jobs and built his reputation on Swing. Even so, the Bebop possibilities are inherent in the playing of both men, even in the Swing recordings.

Bop stylistic traits were inherent in Kessel's playing throughout his career and across most of the different styles in which he played. These traits were manifest in his long lines, modeled upon those of Hawkins and other Bop pioneers, with their unusual pause points and characteristics that seemed more idiomatic to the sax and horn than the guitar. Although generally regarded as a bridge between Swing and Bop, he astounded the music world in 1947 by actually playing Bop on four songs with the Charlie Parker All Stars. The Charlie Parker All Stars were actually headed by Lionel Hampton, a colleague from Kessel's days with the Benny Goodman Band. The L.A. Times jazz critic, Nat Hentoff, assessed Kessel as "a guy who could sit in and play with everybody. He had what jazz players call 'big ears,' meaning he had a great capacity to listen and to respond musically to what he was hearing." From 1948 to 1951, Kessel’s music represented yet another complete stylistic change in direction, and he devoted these years to studio work backing crooners and commercial jazz singers such as Mel Torme, among others.

In 1953, Kessel joined what would become one of the music important groups as far as jazz guitar was concerned, the Oscar Peterson Trio. The trio also included bassist Ray Brown, a frequent sideman to Charlie Parker and later to guitarists Joe Pass and Herb Ellis. The Oscar Peterson Trio served a variety of functions, standing alone as a trio but also serving as back-up, often augmented by other musicians, for notables such as Billie Holiday, Ben Webster, Lester Young, and others. During this time Kessel also began to record with small bands (combos) that he put together for each of the sessions. Kessel's indebtedness to Django Rheinhardt is also evident in some of his recordings. Here the use of guitar and violin is conscious homage to the Stephan Grappelli-Django Reinhardt duo.Kessel, Ellis, and Pass were also friends, and Kessel and Ellis undertook duet projects similar to those found on the now famous Ellis-Pass recordings such as 7 come 11.

Kessel wore many professional hats. To remain financially afloat, he had parallel careers as arranger and studio musician. He is the first to have produced an album in which only guitar and bass were used to accompany a singer. He arranged and played in 1955 and 1956 on Julie is Her Name, a record featuring Julie London. The record became a huge commercial success and one of the tracks, “Cry Me a River,” is found on this record in its definitive form. Kessel’s studio work was not limited to jazz, and he is heard on commercials and television and movie soundtracks, as well as records outside the jazz genre backing singers such as Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, The Monkees, Liberace, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sam Cooke, Low Rawls, and hundreds of singles for Phil Specter.

Kessel died in 1992 in San Diego of a brain tumor.

Julie London with Barney Kessel, "Cry Me a River"

Barney Kessel plays "Gypsy in My Soul"

Herb Ellis

Herb Ellis was born in 1921 and grew up in on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas. He is rumored to have heard his first electric guitar played on a radio program by George Barnes. Unlike all of the other significant guitarists of this period, Ellis had the benefit of a formal training. He majored in music at North Texas State University. Although he had already become proficient on the guitar before matriculating, he focused on string bass since the music department did not have a guitar program.

Ellis shortly ran out of funds, dropping out of school in 1941 to tour with the University of Kansas jazz band. By 1943 he had joined Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra, and in this role received some small recognition in jazz magazines.

Soon thereafter, Ellis got his first big break, joining the Tommy Dorsey band, where he remained until 1947. It was this with this band that Ellis made his first recordings. Another break followed in 1953, when he replaced Barney Kessel in the Oscar Peterson Trio. The remained until 1958, longer than any other guitarist. It is in the trio that Ellis would meet bassist Ray Brown, someone who would turn out to be a long term friend and musical collaborator. As in Kessel’s career, Ellis’ position in the trio was somewhat controversial since he was white.

Oscar Peterson’s trio had, by this time, become a significant part of the house band for Norman Granz’s Verve Records, and the work afforded Ellis the chance to play and record with some of the most important musicians of the time including Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Sweets Edison, Buddy Rich, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong. From 1958 to 1960, Ellis toured with Fitzgerald.

His earliest musical influence was Jimmy Giuffre. His musical direction was cemented forever by hearing Charlie Christian. Ellis recounted in an interview with Leonard Feather Christian’s impact: "... the first time I heard Charlie Christian I thought he really wasn't so much, because I felt I could play faster than that. Then after a few more times it really hit me, and I realized that speed wasn't everything. I got quite emotional -- put my guitar away and said I'd never play again. But the next day I got it out and started to try to play like Charlie." Christian’s influence is everywhere evident in Ellis’ playing to this day, but also so are the blues and Texas Swing he heard growing up.

Ellis is still very much alive.

Herb Ellis Medley

Joe Pass

Joe Pass was born Joseph Passalacqua in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1929. He was raised in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, however, where his Sicilian-born father was able to find work in the Steel Mills. Pass was inspired to play the guitar not by any member of his non-musical family, but by Gene Autry’s performances as the singing cowboy. By age nine his father recognized the boy’s abilities and encouraged him to play a wide range of music, including music by ear.

By age fourteen, Pass began playing with dance bands including one led by Charlie Barnet. From dance bands he jumped to traveling with small combos, and the business ultimately led him to move from Pennsylvania to New York City. Here he quickly developed a heroin addiction, losing most of the 1950s to drugs.

After two and a half years in Synanon, the drug rehabilitation center in California, he began to rebuild his career, recording in 1962 his first album, The Sounds of Synanon. In 1963, he received an important career boost in the form of Downbeat Magazine’s presentation to him of its “New Star Award.”

Throughout the 1960s Pass toured with blind jazz pianist and composer George Shearing, but the majority of his jobs came in the television and studio recording industry. He appeared as part of the band for The Steve Allen Show, Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and The Merv Griffin Show. In the recording studio, he served as sideman to Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Della Reese, and Johnny Mathis, among others.

During the 1960s, Pass performed frequently at Donte’s nightclub in L.A. with his friend Herb Ellis, and the collaboration led to two legendary recordings in 1970. These recordings also featured Ray Brown on bass and Jake Hanna on drums.

In the early 1970s, Pass signed with Norman Granz’s new label, Pablo Records, and under this umbrella Pass would continue with several other legendary collaborations. Pass recorded four albums with Ella Fitzgerald. As a part of the Pablo “stable,” he also performed with Benny Carter, Milt Jackson, Zoot Sims, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and, of course, Herb Ellis. Pass continued to record with some of the top jazz artists through the 1980s.

In 1974, Pablo released an album called The Trio featuring the Oscar Peterson Trio but with Pass now in the guitar chair. It won the Grammy that year for “Best Performance by a Group.” Finally, Pass worked with Bill Thrasher on a series of music instruction books called the Joe Pass Guitar Style, and these books have since become the mainstay for student guitarists.

Because Pass’s father encouraged him “not to leave spaces” between the notes of the melody, he developed playing skill unlike any of his contemporaries. Pass was exceptional as both a lead guitarist in ensembles and as a stand-alone soloist. Hence his style not only included straight melody, but also sophisticated harmonic interpolations, polyphonic linear fills, two-voice textures, and rapid changes in the speed of the figuration within leads. He often superimposed his solo style of playing onto ensemble textures. Pass plucked with both his right-hand fingers and a flat pick. Pass cited as his primary influences the music of gypsy guitarist Django Reinhart and saxophonist Charlie Parker.

Pass died in 1994 from liver cancer in Los Angeles but is buried in the family plot in New Brunswick, NJ.

Joe Pass plays "All the Things You Are"

Tal Farlow

Talmadge Farlow was born in Greensboro, N.C. in 1921. His household was a musical one. His father played the guitar, banjo, ukulele, violin, and clarinet. His mother played the piano. When Farlow was eight, his father showed him a few chords on a mandolin tuned like the top four strings of the guitar (but an octave higher). Farlow’s father liked to tinker with electronics, and the boy also became interested.

Apart from these few chords, Farlow received no formal musical training. He did not begin to play the guitar seriously until he was twenty-one, when he first heard Art Tatum on the radio. Tatum’s jazz music fascinated Farlow, who grew up hearing and playing the country or hillbilly music favored locally. His exposure to the music of Benny Goodman and especially Charlie Christian and the electric guitar he played galvanized Farlow’s childhood hobbies into focus. Farlow was fascinated with the possibility of playing sophisticated harmonies and melodic horn lines and with the sound of the new electric guitar. He collected every Christian record and learned every solo from them, note for note. The radio also gave him access to the music of saxophonist Lester Young. Young was influential in the evolution of Kansas City, Mo., jazz, with its relentless, high-energy attack and its new, extended lines, both elements that would be mainstays of bebop. At this time Farlow’s other childhood interest, electronics, came into play, and he built his own guitar pick-up from a pair of old radio headphones and ran it through a $20 Sears and Roebuck amplifier.

Farlow had been trained to paint signs, and so he became the early part of his professional life, painting signs during the day and playing with various dance bands in the Greensboro area at night. As often as not, he was recruited to play not only for his ability to play advanced chords and lead solos, but also for his ability to play bass lines. This skill developed in response to professional necessity, but it would help to shape the solos of the mature musician.

Many of the musicians who passed through the Air Corps basic training facility in Greensboro heard Farlow at the USO dances and many, including guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and pianist Jimmy Lyons encouraged him to move north and pursue a jazz career. A 1944 tour with singer/vibrophonist/pianist Dardanelle Breckenridge’s group brought Farlow to Baltimore, Philadelphia and, finally, New York. A six month gig at the Copa Lounge gave Farlow the opportunity to hear great jazz first hand including that of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Oscar Pettiford, and Bud Powell, among others.

Farlow returned to Greensboro and his sign-painting business in 1945 but, by 1947, was back in New York again, painting signs to feed himself while he waited the activation of his union card. During this time he got his first big break, replacing Mundell Lowe in vibist Red Norvo’s trio, which included Charles Mingus on the bass. His relationship with Norvo lasted from 1949 until 1953, and made Farlow famous in the jazz world. Farlow’s large hands and his ability to play lightning fast lines earned him the nickname “Octopus.” After Norvo, Farlow spent six months with Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five band before forming his own band.

Norvo had been absolutely critical in Farlow’s musical development. Every mindful to draw the best results from the trio by creating the greatest variety of context and interest from the songs, he pushed Farlow to greater exploration but also to greater speeds in his linear playing. Like so many of the musicians who grew up under the influence of Charlie Christian, Farlow had favored a more relaxed approach to attack and speed. He struggled first with the new demands but rose to the challenge, in the process developing new plucking techniques that included using the upstroke as well as the down stroke. When Barney Kessel heard Farlow’s speed, he recalls that it forced him, and nearly every other guitarist, to rethink his right-hand technique. Farlow recorded 21 tracks with Norvo and several more with Shaw, but it was the recordings with his own band that established Farlow on the national scene. These recordings, for Blue Note and Verve, made between 1954 and 1959, which also represent the treasure trove of his legacy.

In 1958, Farlow retired to Sea Bright, New Jersey, and from performing. Tired of the music business and the jazz world, he simply returned to the peaceful life as sign painter. Although not performing, his star would hit its zenith in recordings in 1962, when the Gibson Guitar Corporation enlisted his expertise in designing the guitar named for him. He would make only one appearance to record in the years between 1960 and 1975. From 1976 to 1984 he recorded somewhat regularly for the Concord label, and then largely disappeared back to New Jersey.

Farlow was known as much for his reluctance to perform as for his superlative abilities on the guitar. He is closest stylistically to the quintessential bop guitarist, a tall order on an instrument not well-suited to play horn-like lines at horn tempi. His technique was unorthodox as were the unusual voicing and inventive structures of his solos, which invariably utilized the full range of the instrument, and his chromatic chords. The sum of his music style bespeaks the sum of his experiences and the size of his hands, beginning with the “thumb-over” left hand technique that stayed as a vestige of his early days playing the mandolin, to the full use of range that reflected the necessity to learn to play bass lines in the early dance band days.

Farlow died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York in 1998 at age 77.

Tal Farlow plays "Autumn Leaves"

Wes Montgomery

John Leslie "Wes" Montgomery was born in 1923 in Indianapolis, Indiana. His family was a musical one. His two brothers were both jazz performers, Monk on string and electric bass, and Buddy on vibraphone and piano. Montgomery started to learn the guitar at age nineteen and, like so many of his contemporaries, taught himself by learning by ear every note of every solo of Charlie Christian from records. The undertaking led him to his first musical job with no less than Lionel Hampton, who hired Montgomery because he knew and could play all the Christian solos and because he had the remarkable capacity to learn almost instantly complex solos and chord structures by ear. Montgomery never learned to read music well. Hampton, of course, was a Goodman alumnus and recorded with Christian. Like Christian, Goodman had helped Hampton to introduce and establish the vibraphone which, like the electric guitar, was new and not accepted in the jazz world.

Montgomery toured with Hampton’s orchestra from 1948 to 1950. He is heard on many of the orchestra’s recordings made in this two-year span. After leaving Hampton’s organization, he returned home and did not record any significant music until 1957, when he participated in a jam session that included his brothers and which introduced a new figure to the trumpet world, Freddie Hubbard. He continued to record with Hubbard and his brothers through 1959.

Back in Indianapolis, Montgomery struggled to support his family of eight. He worked in a factory during the day and played in local clubs until late, effectively living for years on two or three hours of sleep a night. Cannonball Adderly heard Montgomery in one of these clubs. He was so impressed that he arranged the meeting between Riverside Records executives and Montgomery.

Montgomery signed with Riverside Records in 1959, and remained until the company went bankrupt in 1963. The recordings made during this four-year span are regarded as Montgomery’s best and most influential. Nearly all the settings are for small ensemble, usually a trio, quartet, or quintet and most often with piano, bass, and drums as the other instruments. The playlist invariably alternated between driving upbeat numbers and soft ballads, and the playlist included many of his compositions. The personnel often included his brothers, Melvin Rhyne, an Indianapolis organist, and various other musicians such as Adderly and the Wynton Kelly Trio, Miles Davis’ previous back-up band. John Coltrane asked Montgomery to join his group after a jam session but Montgomery chose to remain the leader of his own groups.

Montgomery signed with Verve Records in 1964. The contract resulted in a stylistic shift that many regard as a decline in Montgomery’s creative talents and importance. Many of the records used an orchestra and ratcheted down the edge that made Montgomery important in the first place.

Montgomery’s work from Bumpin’ (1965) paved the wave for the formulation of a new style of music, “smooth jazz.” Although Montgomery continued to play hard driving jazz in public appearances, including his European dates, and his entries in Verve’s catalog included a few pure jazz albums, Bumpin’ represented a huge step away from jazz and toward commercial music.

“Smooth jazz” was a sub-genre, then, of jazz which drew upon other contemporary styles to make the music more accessible. The majority of tracks featured a much stronger melody than jazz but not than commercial music. The tempi of jazz were slowed to an easy, laid-back pace. The backgrounds tended to become more predictable, more formulaic, almost like canned music, and the edge of these backgrounds was blunted by the use of strings or other orchestral instruments. The favored instruments in this style were first the soprano or tenor sax, with the guitar coming in second places. Montgomery’s increasingly mellow and commercial music opened the door to musicians such as George Benson and Kenny G, and the ensuing style called adult contemporary.

Montgomery’s work, especially in three albums produced by Creed Taylor for A&M Records beginning in 1967 showed an abandoning of jazz in favor of a purely commercial style. The songs on these records were drawn not so much from his compositions or the jazz repertory, but from the commercial radio genre. The result was a “hip” but diluted jazz guitar rendering by Montgomery, against an orchestral background, of hit songs by various pop artists such as Dionne Warwick (“Say a Little Prayer for You”), Simon and Garfunkel (“Scarborough Fair”), the Beatles (“Eleanor Rigby”) and the Mamas and the Poppas (“California Dreamin’ ”). His part was little more than recitation of the melody, with little or no improvisation at all. These commercial recordings did earn him considerable wealth and recognition and, perhaps more important, lead a newly interested public to his earlier, purer recordings.

The recordings were a huge commercial success, but Montgomery would not live to reap the rewards. He died in June 1968 of a massive heart attack, doubtless the fruit of years of functioning without sleep and his two-pack per day Lucky Strike habit. The various periods of his music left a lasting mark, influencing such musicians as Pat Martino, George Benson, and Pat Metheny, as well as a host of truly mediocre musicians.

His playing style was an unusual one in that he did not pluck with his fingers and he never learned to use a pick. Instead he plucked with his thumb, with the fingers of his hand splayed on the guitar face for support and balance. Since he worked late hours and often practiced between the end of the gig and the beginning of his early morning shift at the factory, he played with his thumb instead of a pick in order not to wake his wife. The use of the thumb gave a bassier, mellower tone than that of his contemporaries. Hs thumb was double jointed and he could bend it back to touch his wrist, and little carnival trick he loved to use to make people uncomfortable. Even so, Montgomery did not like the brittle treble sound typical of acoustic guitars or of electric guitars played with a pick. He usually adjusted the settings on his guitar so that the treble pot was closed completely, that is, so that the bass was favored in amplification. It is a sound much emulated by today’s players. Note right hand in pictures below.

Critics have noted that his approach to soloing was multi-tiered. He followed the combo tradition of playing the head (melody of the composition) in single notes for the first and last stanzas, grounding he piece. The usual improvisational treatment of the first stanza or two was to use single-line melodies. In the subsequent stanza or two, Montgomery usually played his improvised in parallel octaves, a device first used by Christian but developed to its apogee by Montgomery. Both the single-note and octave passages heavily utilized sequences. The stanza in octaves would usually culminate in chromatic chords.

Montgomery’s work did not go unnoticed by the music industry. He was nominated for two Grammy Awards for Bumpin' in 1965; received a Grammy as Best Instrumental Jazz Performance by Large Group or Soloist with Large Group in 1966 for “Goin' Out of My Head”; nominated for Grammy Awards for "Eleanor Rigby" and “Down Here on the Ground” in 1968; and nominated for Grammy Award for “Willow, Weep for Me” in 1969. His album, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, earned him Down Beat magazine's "New Star" award in 1960. In addition, he won the Down Beat Critic's Poll award for best Jazz guitarist in 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, and 1967.

Wes Plays "Jingles" duing 1965 tour of Belgium

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Principle Tool Behind American Popular Music from Mid-Century: the Electric Guitar

The evolution of the electric guitar is a story of advances that occur as needed to meet the latest specific need. The banjo of New Orleans Jazz was loud enough to be heard in small ensembles, but it was not capable of playing the sophisticated chord structures that emerged as jazz moved from simple I-IV-V harmonic progressions to include other chords in the key, chords borrowed from other keys and, most importantly, chords expanded by the addition of 7ths, 9ths, and 13ths. The number indicates that a note has been added to the chord and that the added note is the indicated number of scale notes higher than the root of the chord. A C7 chord, then, is a C chord with a note seven scale steps higher (here, B flat) added to it.

The guitar could play these advanced chords, and soon the banjo was supplanted by it. The great shortcoming of the guitar, however, was that it was not loud enough to be clearly heard in orchestral settings. The "wump, wump, wump" that is clearly audible in Swing recordings is the guitar playing the chords. The sound of the guitar is akin to someone sawing wood, but that is the greatest level of loudness that pre-electric guitars could muster.

As a result, the guitar strummed chords in Swing orchestras and that's all it did. The use of the guitar as a melodic instrument was confined to groups that consisted entirely of other strings, as you can hear on the recordings of blues musicians such as Tampa Red. These groups often did not feature drums but did include a singer (or two), a bass, and usually two guitars.

Two advances emerged in response to these shortcomings. First, the conventional guitar, with its flat face and round sound hole was modified in body configuration to have the face and back of the violin--a carved arch shape. This experiment in applying violin technology to the guitar was the work of Lloyd Loar, an employee of the Gibson String Instrument Company from 1919 to 1924, and his initial experiments were actually intended to improve the sound of the mandolin. The re-configuration reduced sustain, a feature undesirable in fast-moving jazz to avoid the over-ring of unwanted notes, and bolstered the higher registers of the instrument.

The second advance was the electromagnet--a coil of thin wire wrapped around a metal rod--and its application as a microphone or, in modern terminology, pick-up, built into the face of the new archtop. There are varied histories regarding who was first to do this, and the claims of the invention of the electric guitar range from the Dobro Company to the guitar immortal and multi-track recording pioneer, Les Paul. The first viable commercial electric guitar, however, appear in 1936 as Gibson's archtop ES150 (ES=Electric Spanish).

The electric archtop guitar saw wide use in Swing and in other genres. The expanded capabilities permitted the guitar to step forward as a solo instrument, as you have read in the section on Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman. The "sound" of the electric archtop guitar tends to remain somewhat true to the sound of the acoustic guitar, though the sound is often described as "sweeter." Probably the most important of all jazz archtop guitars, as it appeared first in the 1950s and does to this day, since it is still in production, appears above. It is known as the Gibson ES 175, and it is the guitar that you can hear on the recordings of a significant number of jazz guitarists through the 1950s and 1960s. Guitarists include Joe Pass and Herb Ellis, both of whom used single pick-up versions.