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Guitar in the Birthplace of Jazz, New Orleans



Jazz Guitar Today guest contributor Joe Barth spotlights the prominent place guitar has in New Orleans culture.

Coffee with chicory, beignets, shrimp gumbo, a leisurely stroll down Bourbon Street are things that people want to experience when in the “Big Easy.”  The birthplace of jazz is another thing that sets New Orleans apart.  Even though the clarinet and trumpet are dominant instruments in traditional jazz, the banjo then guitar have had a prominent place in New Orleans culture.

Early innovators like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong who grew up in New Orleans have produced deep roots in the history of jazz.  

That depth is well beyond the purpose of this article.  I would like to focus on the guitar and its place in the music of this great city.

Lonnie Johnson and Johnny St. Cyr were two of the early pioneers of jazz guitar.  Johnny St. Cyr was born in New Orleans in 1890 and devoted himself equally to the banjo and the guitar.  He was a member of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven ensembles as well as Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers.  Interestingly, he supported himself as a plasterer and always did music on the side.  He lived in Chicago for a time working with King Oliver and others before returning to New Orleans.  In 1955 he moved to Los Angeles and for a while played in the Dixieland Band at Disneyland.  He died in 1966.

Born 1899 in New Orleans, Lonnie Johnson is considered by many as one of the greatest jazz guitarists who ever lived.  

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As a young teenager, he played in cafes around New Orleans and soon was working on the riverboat bands. He lived for a while in St. Louis and Cleveland working with various ensembles including Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and the Duke Ellington orchestra.  What brought him the greatest recognition were the duet records he did with Eddie Lang.  Both Lang and Johnson pioneered single note improvised lines.  In this duo, Lang often would use the name Blind Willie Dunn to disguise his ethnicity.  These duet recordings would influence jazz guitarists for generations to come.    

Danny Barker started on the ukulele then moved to the banjo and then the guitar.  

For a time, he worked in New York and was a successful guitarist on both coasts of the United States.  Steve Masakowski of the University of New Orleans says, 

I would consider Danny Barker to be one of the most influential guitarists who had an impact on the development of numerous young jazz musicians in New Orleans such as Leroy Jones, Wynton Marsalis, and Shannon Powell. Danny was considered one of the greatest rhythm guitarists who performed with Cab Calloway and Benny Carter. Like many of the jazz guitarists of the day he also frequently played the 6-string banjo. But one of his most prized instruments was the Gibson Super 400 which I’m most honored to say was bequeathed to me after his passing in 1994.” In 1965 Barker returned to New Orleans where he devoted himself to New Orleans Jazz Museum.   Embed from Getty Images

Ron Eschete, born in 1948, in Houma, Louisiana just outside of New Orleans.  His influences were Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, and Howard Roberts.  As a high school student, he began performing in the cafés and clubs of the area. In 1969 he moved to Las Vegas to work in Buddy Greco’s band and then moved to Los Angeles where he worked with pianist Gene Harris for a number of years. Ron prefers playing seven-string guitar.  He especially is happy how it blends with his regular bass player, Todd Johnson, who plays a six-string bass.  Eschete continues to divide his time between teaching in community colleges in the L.A. area and local and national concerts. A little “fun fact,”  Eschete was the first musician to ever cover Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here” from the Charlie Brown specials.

Lesser-known Nappy Lamare was born in New Orleans on June 14, 1907.  Playing first local banjo gigs then as a guitarist in 1930 joined Ben Pollack’s band and went on to the Bob Crosby band in 1935.  In 1942 moved to Los Angeles to work in the recording studios.  His banjo and guitar playing can be heard on the soundtracks of many of the early Walt Disney films. In his later years, in addition to traveling the world and performing, he led the Dixieland band in New Orleans Square at Disneyland. Lamare died in 1988.

Ted Ludwig was born in New Orleans in 1974 and studied jazz at the University of New Orleans under the legendary pianist Ellis Marsalis.  In addition to his performing around the “Big Easy” Ludwig premiered the Concerto of jazz Guitar and Orchestra entitled “Katrina” by D.J. Sparr with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.  

Check out Ted Ludwig’s Jazz Guitar Lick of the Week

Hank Mackie is the “Dean” of jazz guitar in New Orleans. All the jazz guitarists of the New Orleans area have either studied with or been under the influence of Hank.  For years Mackie worked out of a small instruction studio called “The World of Strings.” A humble man, Mackie is as supportive of accompanying a solo instrument on the guitar as he is in helping a young guitarist move on to the next level in their playing.

Steve Masakowski

One of the finest players in the New Orleans area, Steve Masakowski, is Professor, Coca-Cola Endowed Chair of Jazz Studies at the University of New Orleans. Steve reflects on his development, “with respect to the guitar, I can remember falling in love with an LP that we had called “Mr. Guitar and Mr. Y – Soft Guitars” which featured Don Arnone and Al Caiola. The sound of the electric guitars and harp and the beautiful arrangements really mesmerized me and sparked my interest, at an early age, in the guitar.

But it wasn’t until many years later, in my late teens, that I became serious about the guitar and music in general. The guitarist in a rock band that I was in turned me on to the LP “Spaces” by Larry Coryell who he believed was the best guitarist he had ever heard. I was blown away by Larry too, so I tried to learn everything I could from that recording. But without any formal musical training, I sought out the local jazz guitar guru/teacher Hank Mackie to help me understand what he was doing.”  Masakowski later attended Berklee College where he befriended Chuck Loeb and Emily Remler.  After hearing Bucky Pizzarelli, Steve began playing a seven-string guitar. In addition to his teaching, Steve can be heard performing at a number of venues local, national, and international.

Originally from New Orleans, Davy Mooney moved to New York City for six years after Hurricane Katrina then moved back to New Orleans to work on his doctorate at the University of New Orleans where he was also an adjunct professor. In 2017 Davy was appointed professor of jazz guitar at the University of North Texas.  Davy’s dissertation at the University of New Orleans was on Joe Pass’s album “For Django.”  Davy says of this 

“…his early Pacific stuff and especially “For Django” are masterpieces as well. I wanted to analyze all the songs on “For Django” and discover the motifs he would develop in his solos.  I discovered that he would state a motif and then in his phrasing answer it.  Then (he would use) … this question and answer approach in developing his solo.  Other musicians do that too, such as Wes.  Joe’s solos are so compositional.  He wasn’t just playing licks.”

Check out Davy Mooney’s Advanced Improvisational Concepts

Snoozer (Edward M.) Quinn was born in Mississippi in 1906 but worked in and around the New Orleans area from 1925.  Though the only recordings we have of Snoozer that focus on his playing were recorded later in his life when he was not in good health, he must have been an outstanding player because the great clarinetist Bix Beiderbecke thought so very highly of him.  He recorded with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra but on those recordings, he can’t be heard.  When he was working with Bing Crosby in the 1930s he was given the nickname “Snoozer.”

Though she grew up in New Jersey, in 1976 Emily Remler moved to New Orleans, with her then-boyfriend and fellow guitarist Steve Masakowski, to begin her career after graduating from Berklee College in Boston. In New Orleans, she worked with Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, Nancy Wilson, and Rosemary Clooney. While playing in New Orleans, Herb Ellis heard her and invited her to join him for his performance at the Concord Jazz Festival in California. Her career really took off from there.  Remler moved to New York, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles during the rest of her short life.  Sadly, she died at age thirty-two of drug-related heart failure while on tour in Australia.

Bud Scott was born in 1890 in New Orleans and played professionally there, including as a teenager Buddy Bolden’s band, until 1912 when he moved to New York to play with a large traveling show.  It is believed that Scott was the first person to use a guitar in a modern jazz orchestra. It was with Dave Peyton’s group accompanying singer Ethel Waters in Chicago.  

Space doesn’t allow me to go into detail on current “Big Easy” guitarists such as Phil Degruy, Detroit Brooks, Brian Seeger, and Carl LeBlanc, all fine players with their own individual style and musical personality.  A guitar builder in the area, Vincent Guidroz, of the New Orleans Guitar Company, is a fine luthier who builds semi-hollow body, chambered, and solid-body guitars.

Performance Venues

For traditional jazz, the place to go in the French Quarter is Preservation Hall. Its legendary band is a taste of musical history and always a satisfying listening experience.

At the Palm Court Jazz Café on Decatur street, one will experience quality French Quarter cuisine and an excellent traditional New Orleans jazz show.  

Situated in a historic 1831 building in the heart of the French Quarter, Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub is a mecca for jazz lovers.

Located just outside the French Quarter, Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro is a place for great regional cooking and a little more modern approach to jazz.

There are many clubs up and down Frenchman Street that have music including the Spotted Cat, Masion’s, and D.B.A.

University Jazz Programs 

The University of New Orleans under Steve Masakowski’s direction is an excellent program for jazz guitar.  Steve says, 

…students learn from and perform with leading professionals, gain hands-on experience, and acquire life-long critical thinking and entrepreneurial skills from our renowned faculty and through a variety of performance experiences.

Loyola University has a smaller but very good jazz guitar program directed by Don Vappie.  Jazz guitar can also be studied at Tulane University.  

This article was written with research assistance from Steve Masakowski and Davey Mooney.

Check out more Joe Barth ‘City Wrap-ups’

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