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Reflections from Jazz Guitar Maestro Mark Elf

Thomas Amoriello Jr.

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JGT talks to sideman, bandleader, author, clinician, label owner, home video guitar instructor, and jazz guitar maestro, Mark Elf.

New York’s jazz guitar statesman Mark Elf has authentically worn a variety of hats as a sideman, bandleader, author, clinician, label owner, and home video guitar instructor during his career spanning five decades.  The dexterous Elf who turned 71 in December was was all ears to the classic recordings of Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney as a 17-year-old.  Later studies at Berklee and sittin’ in at the smoky clubs of yesteryear were his primary education later going on to perform or record with Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard, Buddy Rich, Billy Mitchell, and  Jimmy Heath just to name a few.  Jazz Guitar Today would like to thank Mr.  Elf for this exclusive interview.

JGT: When do you feel the most creative? Are you a morning coffee player or the late night “noodling” when in the comfort of your home studio? 

I get the most out of a practice session when I’m relaxed and working on some specific stuff. I get the most out of a practice session when I’m fresh and well rested of course and that is usually just after breakfast. But I have to say, to be perfectly honest, I sometimes get up in the middle of the night and play and sometimes in the evening lately work on stuff to get away from the BS on the TV. 

Over the last several decades with the advent of play along software I can practice tunes with a solid band behind me. Of course it’s never the same as a real rhythm section but it’s a great way to enjoy the practice session and try new things that I’ve been working on. It’s also a way to push myself and get ready for a live performance. Junior Cook used to tell me “Elf, you gotta keep that blade sharp.”

JGT: The DeCava Custom Classic Guitar has been your companion for some time.  

Jim DeCava has made me two great instruments. I asked him if he could make me a knockoff of my 1981 D’Aquisto so that I wouldn’t be taking something completely different on the road. I wouldn’t take my D’Aquisto on the road unless the venue was willing to pay for a plane ticket for it. That rarely happened so I needed a good guitar that would play close to Jimmy’s guitar. He did a great job on both. He got the body and neck very close to what I was used to and for that I am very grateful to him. He is still creating great instruments and I would recommend him to anyone looking for a quality carved archtop.

JGT: In addition to the your playing,  you started your own label before it became the norm and also lectured many times with your “How To Succeed As An INDIE” lecture.  Any words of wisdom in the music business department for the player about to embark on a career?

Don’t sell yourself short! Don’t give up your publishing to get a record deal. If a record company is not going to pay you for your master and promote it to both press and radio then put it out yourself. We are in a different world now. It used to be the major record labels and big indies controlled the market place because they had the machinery in place and the big hurdle, distribution! But that’s not the case now. When most of the major record companies pulled out of the Jazz market, it was because they were over spending and sales were dropping off, it was the little guys producing their own products that stepped in. I always say, “And the meek inherited the earth.”  

Now, any musician can produce a record and get distribution too. With the advent of digital distribution, a cd can be distributed around the world! There are a number of companies like CD Baby that can accomplish this. All I would say is make sure you got your stuff together. You’re competing with some killer players and in order for you to make a name for yourself your cd has to be saying something. Make sure you are ready.

Mark Elf plays Donna Lee 

JGT: Is your “scat & play” style something that you worked on or what feels natural to you?  I guess you fill in those altered chord extensions and then some?

That’s something that I do unconsciously. There have been times (rarely) when I’ll step up to the mic and scat the lines I play but mostly when I’m playing it’s something that I’m not doing consciously. 

JGT: You have had a 60 year love affair with the instrument.  Do you remember those pivotal moments where you felt you reached new plateaus?

 I remember sitting in with tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell (Count Basie, Al Grey, Dizzy Gillespie and his own recordings through the years) in the late 60’s and I didn’t have my stuff together as I had only be exposed to the music about a year earlier. I asked him years later when I worked with him why he let me sit in when I couldn’t play a good solo. He said, “because you had a good comping concept and I knew you had something.” The truth is, I was a late bloomer. 

Billy had a steady gig at a place in Roosevelt, Long Island called the Steer Inn. Billy had Thursday nights and I think it was 1968 that I first went down with a friend who introduced me to Billy. I was 18 years old. I asked if I could sit in and he said yes. After that I’d go every week and sit in with him. One night the band was playing Anthropology, it was Joe Carol, Billy Mitchel, Dave Burns, Earl Williams, Charlie McLean and a local guy called Gene on the bass..  After that set we were all standing around outside and Billy was telling everyone how great they played and when he came to me he said, “except you m****r f****r, you’re not playing anymore solos till you learn how, go home and practice.” Well, that public embarrassment was well deserved and as I look back on it now the best thing that ever happened to me!  So I packed my stuff up and left and didn’t come back for 3 months. During that time I worked on just playing some blues and rhythm changes.  I came back and I asked Billy if I could sit in and he said, “sure but no solos until I say you can.” So I comped and stayed out of the way until we got to a blues and he gave me the nod and I played a few choruses. After the set was over I went back into the kitchen and was talking to the cook and I felt a tap on the shoulder and I turned around and there was Billy in my face. I thought to myself, “oh no, here it comes”. He says to me, “three hundred percent improvement!” “Now you can play solos when I say so.” So that story is one of the pivotal points but there are others. I was with Lou Donaldson and we were in Philly in the middle 70’s. In the band was Billy Kaye, Lonny Smith and I and we were playing What Is This Thing Called Love. Lou was pretty hard on musicians and I was certainly included. He never acknowledged players much in those days as far as I remember. Well that night I took a few choruses on that tune and he turned around on the bandstand and said “yeh man, all right!” 

 Another memorable experience I remember is the time I offered to give the great drummer Oliver Jackson a ride into New York because he had a gig with Clark Terry. We had just come back from a European Jazz Cruise.  When we got to the gig Oliver introduced me to Clark and Clark asked me if I’d like to sit which I did.  After the set I was starting to pack up and Clark said,  “ You’re welcome to stay.” Of course I did and ended up playing the rest of the night. After that he started to hire me for gigs. He was great guy and I loved him as a person, for his musical prowess and was thrilled to work with him. I remember playing with Dizzy Gillespie 1988 and he was vocal about some solos I took yelling “yeh” What a feeling that was! I worked just briefly with Diz, just 11 concerts in Europe but it was the thrill of my life to play with one of my heroes and one of the original creators of this music! To hang with him on the bus, in the hotel and on the gig is something that I will always cherish. I was blessed.  Around 1996 Jimmy Heath asked me to play a gig with him at the Blue Note. It was a one night gig for a private party and after that gig he asked me to join the band, both his quartet and when the Heath Bros performed – Jimmy, Tootie and Percy. What a great gig that was! Right around that time I started my recording company and started releasing my own albums. 

JGT: As a teacher, you have authored books, recorded instructional videos and have taught lessons since 1970 at various locations.  You have communicated with 5 decades of students.  What notable changes have you observed over the years?

I’d say there’s too many books! LOL and one asks why? Well, the reason is books sell better than the music itself! There’s money to be made in music books! Many students of this music are looking for answers to help improve their playing and they think it’s in a book! But really, it’s not in any book! It’s in your favorite players recordings. If you could study with Charlie Parker you’d run over to his house and take lessons if he were giving them, right? Of course, but really you CAN study with Bird. All you got to do is learn his solos and the best way to do that is transcribe. That’s the real deal and the truth of it. You might get his solos from a book if the transcriptions are accurate but the best way to retain, remember and assimilate is to do the work yourself. 

My conservatory website (https://www.markelfguitarconservatory.com/) is based on exactly that. Some of my students want to learn how I do what I do. I teach them what I do by playing solos on tunes and then helping them transcribe what I played by slowing down the video so they can see and here exactly what I played. There are some sheet music pdf files of the solos that go along with some of the videos but I encourage them to transcribe the lines themselves so they can retain and benefit from them in a deeper way.

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