Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
There’s a reason why the name for the long part of a guitar is “the neck.”
For there are times when one becomes so frustrated trying to play such an unforgiving instrument that one is tempted to strangle it by grabbing it by – you guessed it - “the neck.”
Those who play Jazz guitar seem destined to play it for how else would you explain the choice of an instrument whose sound is difficult to sustain and whose volume can rarely be heard above other instruments unless it is electrically amplified?
It’s also an instrument that can easily get in the way by clashing with the piano as both serve the function of feeding chords and “comping” [accompanying] in most Jazz groups. Unless it is lightly “feathered” to the point of being more felt than audible, many drummers dislike its intrusion as part of the rhythm section because it makes the time sound chunky and/or feel stiff.
As a lead instrument, it doesn’t phrase easily with other instruments such as the trumpet, trombone or one of the saxes.
When it does find a natural category for expression, for example, in combination with a Hammond B-3 organ and drums, it risks disapproval due to the dislike that many have for the organ in Jazz [“sounds comical;” “belongs at an ice show or a circus;” “overbearing or domineering;” “Why doesn’t someone just pull the plug?”]
So what’s a self-respecting Jazz guitarist to do in order to have a place in the music?
One avenue of expression is to quietly and unobtrusively add a “light touch” to the rhythm section as guitarist Eddie Condon did for many years in Chicago-style and Dixieland Jazz groups or guitarist Freddie Green did as part of the Count Basie Big Band.
Another is to match up with other string instruments as did Eddie Lang with violinist Joe Venuti or the legendary Django Reinhardt with violinist Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club of Paris.
In his essay The Electric Guitar and Vibraphone in Jazz: Batteries Not Included [Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz [
/ London , OUP, 2000], Neil Tesser observed of Django: New York
“Acoustic Jazz guitar reached an apotheosis with Django Reinhardt [whose French guitar had an extra internal sound chamber, which helped boost the volume]. Reinhardt founded his vibrant melodies upon fervid folk rhythms and unexpected chord voicings, the latter being inventions of necessity: a fire that damaged two fingers on his left (chord-making) hand forced him to reimagine his approach to harmony. Reinhardt belied the then prevalent opinion that "Europeans can't play jazz"; tapping his experiences as a minority "outsider" (he was a Gypsy), he achieved an emotional power commensurate with that of jazz's African-American inventors, and his finger-picking technique continued to stun jazz and even rock guitarists into the 1960s. Souvenirs (
) remains the best single-disc collection of his work with the Quintette du Hot Club de France, costarring Reinhardt's brilliant alter ego, violinist Stephane Grappelli.” London
Elsewhere in his essay, Neil points out that “Before amplification, the guitar had little impact on Jazz, with a dozen or so important objections. … not until the mid-1930’s – when Gibson and others began fitting Spanish-style guitars with electromagnetic pickups, to amplify the strings themselves did Jazz guitarists have what they needed [to sustain sound and to increase volume on the instrument]. …
Pound for pound, no instrument has been more profoundly affected by twentieth-century technology than the guitar ….”
The Jazz electric guitar was pioneered by Charlie Christian who performed in Benny Goodman’s Swing era small groups as well as with the early beboppers at Minton’s Playhouse in
Harlem before his death at a tragically early age.
Oscar Moore with Nat King Cole’s trio helped make the piano-bass-guitar trio a viable Jazz unit - a tradition that was continued first by Barney Kessel and then by Herb Ellis with pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio which included bassist Ray Brown. Pianist Ahmad Jamal’s earliest trio also included a guitarist, Ray Crawford.
Pianist George Shearing unique sound in the 1950s was made possible by the way in which the now-amplified electric guitar was voiced in unison, but octaves apart, with the piano and the vibraphone.
Tal Farlow with Red Norvo’s trio, Jimmy Raney with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer’s quartet, Johnny Smith with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz’s quartet and Jim Hall with clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre’s trio used “a softer tone and a less pronounced attack to mold the guitar into a cool Jazz voice….” [Tesser]
Hall could also heat it up a bit as he demonstrated with Sonny Rollins’ quartet in the 1960’s and Kenny Burrell used his “exceptionally mellow tone” [Tesser] to raise the temperature in a variety of hard bop settings, including Hammond B-3 organist Jimmy Smith’s trio. Kenny’s work may also have influenced that of guitarist Grant Green “… whose soulful tone and ringing lyricism distilled the bluesy essence of 1960’s hard bop.” [Tesser]
Wes Montgomery also came along in the 1960’s and blew everybody away with his propulsive melodies and his startlingly effective technique based on improvising in octaves.
As Wes explained in a 1961 Downbeat interview with Ralph J. Gleason:
”I’m so limited. I have a lot of ideas - well, a lot of thoughts—that I'd like to see done with the guitar. With the octaves, that was just a coincidence, going into octaves. It's such a challenge yet, you know, and there's a lot that can be done with it and with chord versions like block chords on piano. But each of these things has a feeling of its own, and it takes so much time to develop all your technique.
"I don't use a pick at all, and that's one of the downfalls, too. In order to get a certain amount of speed, you should use a pick, I think. You don't have to play fast, but being able to play fast can cause you to phrase better. If you had the technique you could phrase better, even if you don't play fast. I think you'd have more control of the instrument.
"I didn't like the sound of a pick. I tried it for, I guess, about two months. I didn't even use my thumb at all. But after two months time, I still couldn't use the pick. So I said, 'Well, which are you going to do?' I liked the tone better with thumb, but I liked the technique with the pick. I couldn't have them both, so I just have to cool.
"I think every instrument should have a certain amount of tone quality within the instrument, but I can't seem to get the right amplifiers and things to get this thing out. I like to hear good phrasing. I'd like to hear a guitar play parts like instead of playing melodic lines, leave that and play chord versions of lines. Now, that's an awful hard thing to do, but it would be different. But I think in those terms, or if a cat could use octaves for a line instead of one note. Give you a double sound with a good tone to it. Should sound pretty good if you got another blending instrument with it.”
Following its pronounced appearance in organ trios and on ‘funky Jazz’ records in the 1960s, Jazz guitar seemed to veer off into an area of music that came into existence with the rising popularity of Rock ‘n Roll during the same period.
As Neil Tesser goes on to explain in his essay: “It’s no surprise that the spread of Jazz guitar paralleled the rise of rock. Funk Jazz had dipped into the blues, a guitar-driven music and the primary precursor of Rock-and-Roll. As Rock ascended in the 1960’s, the guitar came to dominate American music; as Rock and Jazz converged, the guitar symbolized the evolving musical fusion.”
The Jazz guitar also fused with other styles of music as well including Indian ragas, country and western music and folk music. These myriad, hybrid styles can he heard in the guitar playing of George Benson, Larry Coryell, John McLaughlin, Lenny Breau, John Abercrombie, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and Pat Metheny.
Of course, there continue to be those Jazz guitarists who play in a more straight-ahead manner such as Joe Pass, Pat Martino, Ed Bickert and Lorne Lofsky, Peter Bernstein, Jake Langley and two, young Dutch guitarists based in Holland – Jesse van Ruller and Martin van Iterson.
Fortunately, when these plectarists grab the instrument by “the neck,” the result is one of the loveliest and liveliest sounds in all of Jazz and one that’s easy for most of us to identify with.
The guitar is rivaled by only the human voice in its universality.
The following video montage pays tribute to some of the many Jazz guitarists who have put a smile on our face and a song in our heart over the years.
The tune is a smokin’ version Freddie Hubbard’s
Gibraltar as performed by Jake Langley on guitar, Joey DeFrancesco on Hammond B-3 organ and drummer Terry Clarke.