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Guitarist Stan Ayeroff Shares His Thoughts On Arranging

Thomas Amoriello Jr.

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Standards make up a significant part of Stan Ayeroff’s repertoire. In this exclusive interview, Stan shares his thoughts on arranging.

The California native created popular arrangements published by Warner Brothers that have occupied the shelves of many public and personal music libraries thus inspiring countless guitarists to study jazz, boss nova, classical and other hybrid fingerstyles.  

JGT: You are known among guitarists for your fingerstyle arrangements of standards.  These books were quite popular in the community.  Looking back, what was that time of your life like when you were organizing and editing this work for publication?

I was on the road as the guitarist in singer Vikki Carr’s rhythm section. We picked up an orchestra with strings and horns wherever we performed. We went from Santiago, Chile to Vienna, Austria. It was a good way to see the world. I contacted Warner Bros. Publications and offered to create books for them from songs in their catalog. The first was Play It Again, Stan – As Time Goes By and 24 Great Standards for Solo Guitar. It was published in 1983.  I had also started my first steady solo guitar gig at Bullock’s Wilshire Tea Room at the top of a historical art deco building. That’s when I really developed my solo guitar repertoire.  I wrote a book or two a year for Warner Bros. over the next five years. I was teaching, arranging and composing for my band “Dr. Jazz”, playing gigs and some sessions as well as occasionally going out on the road. Amongst all that I wrote the books.

JGT: Were these arrangements a part of your repertoire as a gigging solo guitarist?

When I wrote the books for Warner Bros. Publications it was with the understanding that all the songs would be from the Warner Bros. Music catalog. I got to choose the songs from their catalog but I couldn’t use anything that was outside it. Only a few of the songs from the books were in my repertoire. I did the arrangements for the books and then incorporated them into my repertoire. Eventually, I knew a lot of songs in many styles and played tons of solo guitar gigs, 5-7 gigs a week for many years. There was a lot of work at the time for a solo guitarist and only a handful of musicians who could do the job. We all knew each other and would sub out our steady gigs when we were double-booked. I’ve had several interesting moments playing for the composers of songs in my repertoire. I love Randy Newman and my favorite song of his is “Marie”. I played it and his head shot up in disbelief that someone would be playing his song on a solo guitar. He came up to me and said “So you know how to play “You Go to My Head”. Paul Simon and I just spent an afternoon trying to figure out how to play it”. A man introduced himself after I had played “Killing Me Softly” and said, “I’m Charles Fox, I wrote the song you just played”. I had an Aunt Bea who had hung out with Duke Ellington’s band in her younger days. A guy came up to me and said he was a friend of my Aunt Bea and that he wrote the words to “Prelude to A Kiss” which I had just played. It was Irving Gordon. The next year Irving’s song “Unforgettable” became a huge hit when it was recorded by Natalie Cole as a duet with her late father, Nat “King” Cole. I played “Moon River” for Henry Mancini who came up to me afterward to tell me he liked my interpretation.  I had a brunch gig at The Hotel Bel-Air for many years. After playing “Cavatina” from the movie The Deer Hunter a man approached me. I’d seen the movie in England, which was emotional as a yank in a foreign country and had done an arrangement of it for Warner Bros. He said his name was Michael Cimino and he was the director of The Deer Hunter. He thanked me for playing the song. An amusing incident occurred after I had played “Suicide Is Painless”, the theme from Mash. I saw someone acknowledging a crowd as if people were looking at him. Nobody was and I hadn’t noticed him. It was Alan Alda who thought I was playing the theme for him, I wasn’t. More recently an elderly woman asked me if I knew “When You Wish Upon A Star”. I said I could probably give it a shot. She said great, my father wrote it. She went on to tell me she used to lay on the floor under her father’s piano when Cole Porter would come over and play his songs. You never know who might be listening.

JGT: Two of your books are dedicated to the works of early jazz guitar pioneers Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.  Please tell Jazz Guitar Today readers how you came to know their music and your thoughts on the contributions of these icons to the jazz guitar and the genre overall.

I was aware of Charlie Christian pretty early on as a teenager. I had read that Wes Montgomery started out by memorizing Charlie Christian solos. There was one album available, the one on Columbia records. I liked him a lot. I read the liner notes and had an awareness of his importance as the first great electric guitarist. I was introduced to Django later on. I went to the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) as a composition major in the initial class of 1970. The dean of the music school was Mel Powell. Mel had been Benny Goodman’s boy wonder pianist and arranger in the 1940’s. He gave up the jazz world and became a classical composer and educator. There was a record in the Cal Arts music library entitled Paris 1945 – Django Reinhardt and The American All Stars. It was Django accompanied by a number of musicians who were over in Europe as members of Glenn Miller’s Army Airforce Band. Mel was the pianist. When I listened to the record I thought this is the stuff I’m hearing in my head, but he’s doing it. The next year I joined The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. The leader of the group was Rick Elfman, Danny’s older brother. Rick gave me a reel to reel tape of Django and The Hot Club of France. I think the first song I heard was “Georgia On My Mind”. Rick asked me to arrange “After You’ve Gone”, the version with Freddy Taylor as the vocalist. It has a great solo and I started really diving deep into Django’s music. I had a student who was a fine acoustic guitarist but wanted to learn some theory. His name was Peter Lang and he was a recording artist on Takoma Records, John Fahey’s label. Peter suggested me to do the lead sheets that Takoma used for copyright purposes. Guitar Player Magazine was starting a publishing wing and their first book was on John Fahey. I was hired to do the transcriptions for the book. By then I had done a number of Django transcriptions and thought they would make a good book with transcriptions and an analysis of the music. I sold the book to Guitar Player. Unfortunately, their publishing venture went bust and the book, though completed, never saw publication. I sent the manuscript to the Music Sales Corporation in New York and they agreed to publish it as is for their Jazz Masters series. It was first published in 1978. I believe it was the first serious book on Django in the US at the time. I went on to write books on Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman for Music Sales. Many years later I was contacted by Bill Bay of Mel Bay Publications to write even more in-depth books on Django and Charlie which I did.

I think Django was a genius. I don’t use the term loosely. Like another musician I would call a genius, Ray Charles, Django overcame a severe physical handicap, the loss of two fingers on his left hand, to create a unique, creative style that still resonates today. It’s been interesting to witness the growth in popularity of Django and Gypsy Jazz all over the world. I think that rockers, shredders, as well as Western Swing and bluegrass musicians relate to Django’s exciting playing. Many who say they don’t like jazz like Django. Django is a uniquely important musician. A whole style of music, Gypsy Jazz, is based on the music of one man, Django Reinhardt.

Charlie Christian is a different story. A brilliant musician who unfortunately died at a young age, Charlie was in on the development of bebop and is considered the father of the electric guitar. It’s hard to imagine the impact he must have had – hearing an electric guitar for the first time – and it’s Charlie Christian! It must have been mind-blowing. Charlie showed the way for all the great jazz guitarists of the 1950’s like Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, Herb Ellis, Tal Farlow, Wes Montgomery, Howard Roberts, Kenny Burrell and many others. His playing was more idiomatic, what he played fit easier on the guitar than Django’s unique style. He was easier to copy. I would liken it to Clapton and Hendrix. Clapton was easier to copy, Hendrix was more unique. Because Charlie and Eric were easier to copy, their impact became somewhat lost in the proliferation of those who copied them. Their initial impact was blunted. Reflecting back, I know that their impact was just as great at the time. Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian are the fathers of jazz guitar and both had a great impact on musicians of the time. Their music still sounds fabulous to this day.

Do you have any advice or recommended approach you can offer an aspiring guitarist when it comes to creating their own unique arrangements?

I’ve done hundreds of solo guitar arrangements. It’s always a challenge. I view it like solving a puzzle. The song will be in a specific key, have a melody with a range of notes from the lowest to the highest and a set of chord changes as the accompaniment. Those are the ideas you have to address.

I would suggest anyone who would like to get into solo jazz guitar learn to read music – at least to the point where you can read a basic lead sheet. The guitar is a transposing instrument (it sounds an octave lower than written) so the next step is to learn to transpose up an octave. You want to try and get the melody on the first and second strings so that there’s room underneath for some accompaniment harmony and a bass line. That means that if you see a written middle C below the staff you wouldn’t play it on the third fret of the 5th string, you’d play it on the 1stfret of the 2nd string – an octave higher. It would still sound like middle C. It’s a skill, like typing – you see a letter and respond with a finger on a typewriter key. After a while you don’t think about it. Over time it becomes automatic. 

Then you have to pick a key. This takes further transposing skills. When I start working on a song I attempt to play it in the original key. If it doesn’t work out I transpose it into a different key. A lot of standards are in the flat keys of Eb and Ab. In Eb you lose an awful lot of your low E string. Transposing up a half step to the key of E allows the full use of that open string. You also get the bass notes of the progression I to IV with the open strings E and A. Transposing down a half step from Eb puts you in the key of D. This gives you the open bass strings for the common IIm7, V7, I progression – E, A and D. Going from Ab to A gains a lot of open strings. The common chord progression I, IV, V would have the open bass strings A, D and E. These keys also make it easier to find and play idiomatic open string chord voicings. These are unique voicings that incorporate open strings. Close voicings and clusters are easy on piano but difficult on guitar. Voicings that use open strings are a good solution. There are exceptions, particularly songs that have bridges that lay well on the guitar. An example is “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The main part is in Eb, but the bridge is in G.  It works well in the original key. 

Eventually you will have to transpose into more distant keys. I play many songs in the key of C. That can lead to tricky transpositions. It’s a great mental exercise to be able to transpose on the spot in your head. This can happen frequently working with singers. You have to play things in different keys until you find one that suits their vocal range. Finding the best key for a song is like casting the right actors in a film, it’s more than half the battle.

You have to know a lot of chord voicings. Ted Greene’s Chord Chemistry was very helpful in showing me what was possible on the guitar. It’s an overwhelming book, but If you take it slow and are selective, you will discover some really cool chord voicings that might open your mind to new possibilities. Since then I’ve mainly learned by necessity. The bass note is here, the melody’s on top and I need these notes to fill in the harmony. I find it fun and fulfilling to come up with a creative solution to a tricky problem. Again, it’s like solving a puzzle.

I also suggest learning some classical pieces. Using classical right-hand technique will allow you to play more like a piano player. I learned “While You’re Young” off a Wes Montgomery album. I believe it’s his only solo guitar piece. His block chord voicings can be played by a thumb or a pick, the notes of the chords are contiguous. This works for some pieces, or at times within a piece that uses all your right-hand fingers. Playing fingerstyle allows you to skip strings. You can play a bass note on the 6th string, the melody on the 1st or 2nd string and fill in the harmony or some counterpoint on the 3rd and 4th strings using all your fingers except the pinky (which was used by a few like Laurindo Almeida). There are many right-hand studies and exercises. I try to play a few classical pieces to warm up. I start with “Etude #5” in Bm by Fernando Sor. It’s from the book of 20 Etudes by Fernando Sor edited by Andres Segovia. I then go on to Bach’s “Prelude in D minor”. It has a consistent right-hand pattern throughout and is the first classical piece I learned how to play.  I read somewhere that before he went on tour, the guitarist John Williams would play Villa-Lobos “Etude #1” over and over to get his right-hand in shape. It’s one of my warm up pieces. The last one is “Etude #17” by Fernando Sor, also from the Segovia book. This is a beautifully composed etude that is great for the right-hand. After playing these pieces I am usually ready to go.

Once I have the key it’s time to look at reharmonization. This is the secret knowledge of the jazz world. Reading from the original sheet music or The Real Book is not what good jazz musicians are playing. I now like to find my own set of chord changes for a song, but when I was starting out I’d listen to a good singer with a good arrangement. You can’t go wrong with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee or Rosemary Clooney. They’re all very musical singers who had respect for the melody and used top notch arrangers. I’d listen to the singers for their phrasing and variations from the written melody and check the chord substitutions the arrangers used. I learned a lot about harmony, creating intros and endings and coming up with great counter lines from arrangers like Claus Ogerman, Don Sebesky, Nelson Riddle, Johnny Mandel, Gil Evans and others.

Arranging has so many possibilities. You can change the mood – play a fast song slow or a slow song fast. You can change the feel – play it as a rhumba or a bossa. Reharmonize it in your own way. You can compose a cool intro and ending and interludes between sections. You can modulate at some point. These are all devices in the arranger’s toolkit.

Last, you should know how to get a good sound out of the guitar. This means finding the best string to play a note or phrase on, how to finger a chord to get a certain note or notes to sustain, how to voice a chord that so it resonates with the guitar.

These are things I learned along the way. Basically, I just started doing it – a lot. Fortunately, I had a knowledge of harmony, some classical technique, and I was a composer. It’s been a very rewarding journey that I’m still on, finding new tools and concepts and making my guitar sound good.

JGT: How are you doing during this time of Covid?

My wife is a classical musician (bassoon and contrabassoon) who plays in several orchestras. Over the course of a weekend in mid-March both of us had all of our work canceled. Our son lives nearby and does our shopping and errands for us. We are very fortunate compared to the pain and stress that so many have suffered. I started going through boxes of memorabilia I hadn’t looked at in decades and started posting things of interest for my Facebook friends. I hadn’t posted anything before. Music has been a great source of solace for me during the pandemic and I started recording live solo guitar videos. This is something I’ve meant to do for many years but never got around to doing. I’ve recorded about 70 videos at this point. I also set up a new website and YouTube Music Channel to be able to share my music during this challenging time. We can all use some comfort and I hope my music can provide that to others. 

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