JGT contributor Jonathan Ross interviews jazz guitarist, Grammy nominee, and Associate Chair of the Music Department at Columbia College Chicago – Bill Boris.
I’ve known Bill since 2003 when I enrolled as a very green Jazz Studies Major at Columbia College Chicago. He was teaching private lessons then, and leading ensembles. He still does that, but now as the Associate Chair of the Music Department. In a very storied career, he has been across the globe, played professionally in many different groups, and played on Grammy-nominated Jazz recordings with The Mike Frost Project.
I cannot tell you how much I learned from Bill over the years, especially my time at Columbia College, which were challenging years for me. Bill is on a shortlist of teachers I’ve had over the years that made all the difference in my development as a musician and educator. I spoke with him about his career and personal background, why Columbia College is the place to be, and the future of music and Jazz guitar.
Jonathan Ross: What got you into playing the guitar? Who was the first guitarist that steered you in the direction of Jazz?
Bill Boris: I had been playing in Rock bands, and really liked Blues guitarists, and Jimi Hendrix, of course. The first guitarist I heard that moved me in a Jazz direction was George Benson. There was a radio station in Chicago that had all-female DJs, and they played Benson, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, and all kinds of eclectic music on it. I had a job back then where I’d listen to the radio all day while I was working, and one day they played “White Rabbit” by George Benson. It was on Creed Taylor’s CTI Label. There were string sections in it, and made it more commercial, but it made it appealing to an audience that otherwise may not have ever heard it. The rhythm section was Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter! So on top of the string arrangements, they had this incredible band. But I also listened to a lot of different things like Earth, Wind and Fire along with Charlie Parker records from the 1940s. It all sounded good to me.
JR: So you played in Rock bands before playing Jazz?
BB: Yes. But I also played bass, oddly enough, in some big bands in high school, and played upright bass for one year. I also played bass drum in the marching band. The first band I was in we did songs by Cream and Jimi Hendrix. Then in Junior High we did music by Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago, and a lot of stuff with horn sections. We would just learn things from records, which really helped my ear.
JR: You grew up in Indiana?
BB: Yes, in Michigan City, Indiana. I lived in Munster before that.
JR: What was the music scene like in Michigan City at that time? How did you get your music other than the radio station?
BB: There was a really good record store in Hegewisch. I don’t remember the name of the record store, but I’d hear something on the radio and would go there to buy the record. The first Jazz record I bought might have been “White Rabbit” by George Benson.
JR: You are based in Chicago now, but you had some interesting detours along the way. How did to come to live and play music in Japan?
BB: When I was in school, they had an exchange program Sophomore year. I chose Japan for several reasons. One was that it was a different place and would be a great experience since I knew nothing about Japan. You could also learn your courses in English. So I didn’t have to learn Japanese to such an extent. They also had a Jazz Club! They had a Jazz Club in the college that you could join, which made me realize there was an interest in Jazz music in Japan. I stayed there for a year and loved it! After I graduated, I moved back there and lived there for about 2 years after that as an active musician.
JR: I’ve heard that Japanese audiences are particularly polite and appreciative.
BB: They are polite and quiet. They only applaud at the end. They’re very attentive.
JR: Do they applaud after solos?
BB: Not so much, but they applaud mostly at the end.
JR: Were there any experiences there that changed you musically or helped shape you as a person?
BB: I played with one of the greatest bass players in Japan, who played for years with Sadao Watanabe, who is one of the best sax players in Japan. And he had done world tours and things like that. I played duos with him and a singer, and I was really just learning how to do that. Firstly, I learned how much of a task that was, and he had confidence in me that I could do it. And I played in a band with Brazilian musicians who were on a visa and living in Japan for 6 months. I was teaching English Conversation as a means of having a visa myself. They played in a restaurant downstairs from where I taught. Playing with them was a powerful experience. I played with them for 4-5 months. One of the musicians in the band knew the Brazilian percussionist, Guilherme Franco, who was in McCoy Tyner’s band. So our group had the opportunity to play with McCoy Tyner’s band when he was Tokyo.
JR: Brazilian music is very rhythmically strong.
BB: The rhythm was very strong in the music, but the thing about Brazilian culture is that all the children learn how to play. They have these huge Samba bands that they get to play in, like 100 people in these bands marching in the streets and playing this music. So rhythm was a huge part of their culture. It was interesting being around musicians who came from a culture where rhythm was such an important aspect of music as well as the culture. I learned a real lot from that.
JR: Could you tell me about your time at Berklee and at Notre Dame?
BB: I graduated from Notre Dame, and I spent some time studying at Berklee. I took a semester of classical guitar lessons from a priest there. I also took lessons in South Bend, and his name was Bill Krump. I went there because a friend I knew from Notre Dame, his brother went to Berklee, and Bill Krump was his teacher. He had really structured lessons and was a wonderful guy. We went over position playing and reading music. He had tons of Xeroxed copies of sheets to study from. I studied a lot out of the Berklee books before going there, to get me ready to study there regularly.
JR: I actually taught myself how to read music on guitar using “A Modern Method for Guitar” by William Leavitt.
BB: Me too!
JR: I thought it was a simple system to understand. That really helped me.
BB: They had a really good system. It helped me when I got there. I’ll tell you a story. When Berklee opened for a little while, it might have started in the 60s. Pat Martino was one of the first people they asked to teach there. They told him he could teach there and learn their system but also talk about what he wanted to talk about. However, he didn’t want to do it.