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Jazz Guitar in the City of Technology, Airplanes, and Coffee



JGT guest contributor Joe Barth takes a look at the many famous musicians, clubs, and universities from around Seattle, Washington. 

Jazz was a part of Seattle’s history from the early 20th century.  Jackson Street in downtown was like a mini 42nd street in New York. All of the great players of the day came through town and worked the two dozen nightclubs and dancehalls around the corner of 12th and Jackson. It was there that some up-and-coming artists like trumpeter Quincy Jones, vocalists Ray Charles, and Ernestine Anderson cut their musical teeth.  Not thought of as a jazz guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, would push jazz guitarists into the fusion era with his virtuosic use of distortion.  Miles Davis, who could read the “winds” of where jazz was going, wished deeply to get Hendrix in his band.

Though isolated from New York, Seattle has been the home of a number of great guitarists.  Born in Phoenix and working in the studios of Los Angeles, in later life Howard Roberts lived and played around the Seattle area. Millions heard his guitar every time they tuned in and that haunting theme would begin the Twilight Zone television show.

Born in Texas, Larry Coryell’s family moved to Richland, WA so his father could work at the Hanford project.  Larry moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington before going on to New York.  I remember his high school guitar teacher, John LaChapelle, telling me “Larry had so much talent, I could have put the phone book in front of him and he would have made great music.” Larry is credited as one who ushered in fusion style jazz. Embed from Getty Images

Though born in Baltimore and growing up in the Denver area, Bill Frisell moved to Seattle in 1988 living on nearby Bainbridge Island.  During his Seattle era, Bill recorded two of his early acclaimed albums, Have a Little Faith and This Land.  Also, during this time, he became good friends with The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson who himself plays jazz guitar as a hobby. Gary studied with Remo Palmier and Herb Ellis and provided the cover art for Ellis’ Doggin’ Around album.  Bill Frisell has since relocated to Brooklyn, NY but returns to the Seattle area to occasionally lecture and perform at the University of Washington.

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Seattle’s Brian Nova was mentored by and toured with Herb Ellis and Joe Pass. In fact, Joe Pass “adopted” Brian as kind of a musical son. When very sick, the great guitarist and his wife wanted Brian to be with Joe when died in Los Angeles.  Brian has performed with the likes of Stanley Turrentine, Tom Scott, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, and Jimmy Smith.  Brian is heard often around the Seattle area.

Tim Lerch is another first-call guitarist in the Seattle area.  Comfortable in different settings, Tim’s Telecaster playing comes out of the Ted Greene tradition.  Then, Tim can be seen playing outstanding gypsy jazz with Seattle’s Pearl Django.

Wonderful player and vintage guitar owner, the late Michael Biller started the Seattle Jazz Guitar Society that promotes jazz in the Puget Sound area.  The Society is now run by Matthew Benham who is a fine player in the area.  Dave Peterson has been on the scene for over forty years and has taught at the prestigious Cornish College of the Arts. Tacoma guitarist, Neil Andersson, though retired from Pearl Django, a Hot Club Swing group he founded and recorded fourteen albums with, continues to be active playing duets with fellow guitarist Peter Pendras.

The Seattle club known around the world is Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley where one can hear artists like Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, or Chick Corea to name a few. The Royal Room and The Triple Door also present world-renowned artists on their mainstage and the Triple Door also hosts local musicians in its lounge area.  Grumpy D’s, Café Racer, The Owl and Thistle, and Egan’s Ballard Jam House all feature local jazz artists. My own community of North Bend has Boxleys and the Jazz Clubs Northwest which features Seattle’s best as well as the occasional world-renown artist.

Every Fall the Earshot Jazz Festival brings world-renown jazz artists as well as the best of local musicians to numerous stages around the Seattle area.  Tacoma, Port Townsend, Bellevue, and many other Puget Sound communities have their own annual jazz festivals.

The University of Washington has an outstanding jazz department the guitar student will study technique with Michael Partington and have the occasional opportunity to study with Bill Frisell. 

Milo Petersen who is an excellent jazz guitarist in the area oversees a great guitar program along with Jim Sisko at Bellevue College.  Seattle Pacific University’s guitar program is led by Julian Catford.

This article was written with research assistance from Kirk Painter and Matthew Benham.

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