Connect with us

Artist Features

Jazz Guitar in the City of Brotherly Love



JGT guest contributor Joe Barth takes a look at the many great jazz guitarists and musicians from the Philadelphia area.

Philadelphia, known as the “birthplace” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is also rich in its cultural history. Along with Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the Betsy Ross House, there is a richness in all expressions of the arts, especially music.  Along with enjoying this history and culture, you’ll want to also allow time for a cheesesteak sandwich at Tony Luke’s or John’s Roast Pork for lunch.

A number of jazz musicians were born in the Philadelphia area, such as saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson, trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist McCoy Tyner as well as bassist Christian McBride to name a few.  Philadelphia is also a place where numerous musicians came in from the south and elsewhere to practice, perform and hone their jazz skills before moving on to New York City or elsewhere.  A few of these temporary residents are trumpeter Clifford Brown, drummer “Philly” Jo Jones, pianist Kenny Barron and most famously the great jazz pioneers Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane.

Philadelphia has produced or been the home to a number of jazz guitarists. Pat Azzara (who we know as Pat Martino) was born on the southside of Philadelphia in August of 1944.  Studying with Dennis Sandole Pat sometimes would go out for a hot chocolate with another Sandole student, John Coltrane, and talk about music.  At age fifteen Pat moved to New York and began playing professionally.  He befriended the great guitarist, Les Paul, and even lived for a while in his home.  Early on he worked with saxophonists Willis Jackson and Eric Kloss as well as most of the organists of the day such as Jack McDuff, Don Patterson, and Charles Earland.  In 1967 Pat made his first of many recordings for the Prestige label.  In 1980 he almost died of an aneurism that affected his memory and was not able to play the guitar for a year.  It took another three years of rehabilitation to play professionally but Pat came back even stronger as a player than before his illness.  Up until a couple of years ago, Pat continued to travel the world as a major force in jazz music, until a couple of years ago where additional health reasons have caused him to curtail his performance. 

Pat Martino

Joe Beck was born in 1945 and moved from Philadelphia to New York as a teenager and soon was playing six nights a week in the city.  By age eighteen he had worked with fellow Philadelphian Stan Getz and by age twenty-two had worked with both Miles Davis and Gil Evans. In an interview with Jazz Guitar Life Joe said, 

My career happened because I happened to be in the right place at the right time in a very unique time of jazz music. …when I would finish a gig around two in the morning I would go around the corner to the Playboy Club and sit in with Monty Alexander and let Les Spann take a breather and I would finish the gig for him. Then we would go and listen to Kenny Burrell play around the corner or we would go up to Minton’s and listen to Wes Montgomery and sit in with him.

To get the sound he heard in his head, Joe developed the alto guitar. In Jazz Times he describes it as…

“It’s pretty straight-ahead, really. Take your whole guitar and tune it down a fifth to the key of A, and then tune the middle two strings up an octave. What I’ve done is take the normal tuning of the guitar and changed it so that I have bass strings for my thumb; sort of a banjo register for my first two fingers, and then a low melody register for my other two fingers. […] So you don’t have to change any of your fingerings; it’s the same intervals as in normal tuning, just in the key of A, so it’s A-D-G-C-E-A.”

Joe worked with a “Who’s Who” of jazz and pop music artists sometimes bringing his well-behaved dog to recording sessions with him. His love for animals and the land led Joe to farming as a diversion from the busy music scene.  Jimmy Bruno who recorded a duet album with Joe, says he “had the most advanced harmonic vocabulary I ever heard.”  Joe Beck died in 2008.

Jimmy Bruno started playing guitar at the age of seven following in the footsteps of his guitarist father.  Two recordings had a profound effect upon Jimmy, Hank Garland’s “Jazz Winds from a New Direction” and Johnny Smith’s “Moonlight in Vermont.” At age nineteen Jimmy was playing in the Buddy Rich band.  His career led him to Las Vegas and Los Angeles for a while.  Arriving in Los Angeles Jimmy tells of leaving a phone message with great studio guitarist Tommy Tedesco about “recording sessions.” When Tommy returned his call asking what session Jimmy wanted to hire him for, Jimmy responded “You? I’m calling about you helping me find some work as a session guitarist!” Tommy sent some gigs Jimmy’s way and a wonderful friendship followed.

jimmy bruno
Jimmy Bruno

Working steadily, Jimmy became disillusioned with the monotony of session work and moved back to Philadelphia to concentrate on playing jazz and recording some wonderful albums for the Concord label.  These recordings included one with organist Joey DeFrancesco and another the “Concord Jazz Guitar Collective” that included guitarists Howard Alden and Frank Vignola.  Jimmy still does the occasional gig, runs an online guitar school, and teaches privately from his home in Abington, which is just outside of Philadelphia. 

(Joe Barth – author, Jimmy Bruno, Joan Negri, Joe Negri, Howard Alden, unknown woman)

Kurt Rosenwinkel was born in 1970 and attended Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts before going on to study at Berklee College.  Before Kurt graduated from Berklee, he toured with Berklee’s dean, vibraphonist Gary Burton. Kurt moved to Brooklyn and played with Paul Motion, Joe Henderson, and Brian Blade.  In 2003 he moved to East Berlin, Germany to teach at the Jazz Institute Berlin from which he recently retired.

Kurt Rosenwinkel

In 2016 Kurt formed his independent record label Heartcore Records and started producing, as well as performing.  An accomplished pianist as well, Kurt keeps himself busy performing, recording, and producing as a leader and as a sideman.

In the mid-1970s Larry Coryell and his then-wife, Julie, lived on a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania which is about twenty-five miles north of Philadelphia.  This was about the time he was getting his fusion group The Eleventh House together, featuring trumpeter Randy Brecker, and recording his albums for Vanguard and the Arista labels.  Their guitarist son, Murali, still considers his roots in Bucks County. 

Kevin Eubanks was born in 1957 to a very musical family.  He started on violin, trumpet, and piano but soon discovered that the guitar was his first love.  He studied at Berklee College in Boston and later moved to New York to begin his career performing with some of the major jazz artists of the day.  In his mid-twenties, Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen offered Kevin (who was only in his mid-twenties) a seven-record contract with their newly formed GRP Records.

In 1992 Bradford Marsalis was offered to lead the NBC ‘Tonight Show’ band with Jay Leno and Bradford hired Kevin as his guitarist.  This, of course, meant that he needed to move to Los Angeles.  When Bradford left the show three years later, Kevin took over as music director. He worked with Jay Leno until 2010 when he left to pursue other musical endeavors.  Kevin continues to travel the world with his band and has recorded many albums for Mack Avenue Records.

Tiny Grimes was from Virginia and during his life lived in many locations, including Philadelphia for about ten years in the 1950s.  Tiny had a swinging, bluesy style that appealed to such greats as Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday with whom he worked.

Marty Grosz (born 1930) was born in Germany but his family moved to New York City when he was three.  Committed to the art of comping on the guitar and banjo, he is one of the last guitarists that prefers not to use an amplifier. His chordal solos and comping bring back the sound of guitarists like Carl Kress and Dick McDonough.  Marty has devoted much of his adult life living and working in both the New York and Philadelphia areas.

Billy Bean was born in Philadelphia in 1933 and also studied with Dennis Sandole.  He gigged around Philadelphia then in the mid-1950s moved to New York and to Los Angeles in 1958.  In L.A. he worked with such greats as Zoot Sims, Bud Shank, Buddy Collette, and others. In 1959 Billy joined Tony Bennett’s band for about a year.  He also worked with Stan Getz, Herbie Mann, and John Lewis.  In 1986 he returned to Philadelphia and basically retired from playing. Billy Bean passed away in 2012.

Eddie Lang was born in 1902 on the south side of Philadelphia and is known as the father of jazz guitar.  He grew up with violinist Joe Venuti with whom he recorded duets and those duet recordings were a huge influence upon Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in France.  In 1929 Eddie joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and became very close friends with the band’s singer Bing Crosby.  When Crosby went out on his own he took Lang with him for his band.  At that time Bing Crosby was the most popular singer in the country.  Bing would have Eddie sit next to him on a stool when he sang.

Eddie was one of the first guitarists to play single-note melodies on the guitar rather than just comping.  When arrangers heard Lang’s lines they began writing solo lines for the guitar in their arrangements.  Banjo players hearing Eddie’s lines would quit the banjo and switch to guitar in order to play melodic lines themselves.  Eddie recorded guitar duets with Lonnie Johnson (under the name ‘Blind Willie Dunn’) to hide his race. 

In the years from 1924 to 1933, Eddie Lang laid down the path of jazz guitar both in comping and as a soloist that guitar players would follow for years to come. Lang suffered from throat problems and died during surgery to remove his tonsils at the young age of thirty.  

Thornel Schwartz was the original guitarist with organist Jimmy Smith’s trio.  He was born in Philadelphia in May of 1927 and died there in 1977 at age fifty.  Thornel worked with Jimmy McGriff and other organists and was a leader in the soul-jazz movement.

Born in 1947 in Chicago, Chuck Anderson, began playing the guitar at an early age.  After a move to Philadelphia he studied with Dennis Sandole whose other students included John Coltrane and Pat Martino. In 1969 Chuck became a staff guitarist at the Latin Casino just across the border in New Jersey.  There he performed fourteen shows a week working such artists as Bobby Darin and Peggy Lee. Since the mid-1970s Chuck has been able to focus mostly on jazz. 

Chuck Anderson

Additional active guitarists in the Philadelphia area are Jake Kelberman who keeps himself busy playing, teaching, producing, and film score work.  Matt McCloskey is active in the Philly area and has worked with Lou Rawls, Chuck Mangione, and Scott Henderson and is active in the Philly area.  Monnette Sudler (born 1952) has worked with Hugh Masekela, Grover Washington Jr., Kenny Barron, and Dave Holland.

Performance Venues

There are still a few places to hear good jazz in Philadelphia such as South on Broad Street. They create a relaxed southern atmosphere and jazz can be heard most nights.

 Chris’ Jazz Café on Samson Street is the oldest jazz club in Philadelphia that is still in operation and produces over 500 live shows a year.

Jazz can be heard nightly at Time on Sansom Street.  It is like a multiplex theater for a drink and music lovers.

Relish on Ogontz Avenue has jazz on the weekends.  They are a mixture of modern southern cuisine with traditional live jazz.

Heritage on 2nd street and the Paris Bistro & Jazz Café are both places for great food and Philly’s hottest jazz musicians.  These are a few of the places one can go for great food and music.

Philadelphia is the home of luthier Bill Comins. Bill has built guitars for artists such as Rick Stone and Vic Juris. A native Philadelphian he first desired to be a professional player but soon his love for building guitars engulfed him.   He lives and works not far from the neighborhood where he grew up.  

Just north of Philadelphia is of course Martin Guitars and also another fine luthier, Dale Unger and his American Archtop guitars.  Dale has built instruments for Bucky Pizzarelli, Andy Summers, and Vince Gill. Dale regularly holds luthier classes where every student builds a guitar.

University Jazz Programs 

In terms of jazz guitar education in the Philadelphia area, The University of the Arts has an excellent jazz guitar program.  Their primary faculty member, Matt Davis, also a student of Dennis Sandole, performs throughout the greater Philadelphia, New York City, New Jersey areas and beyond.  Jake Kelberman oversees the jazz guitar program at Temple University. At the University of Pennsylvania, Matt McCloskey teaches jazz guitar.  Along with teaching popular musical styles, Gregory Wright at Drexel University has a special passion for Dixieland and traditional jazz music. The Curtis Institute has a fine classical guitar department.

This article was written with research assistance from Jimmy Bruno and Kathy Parker.

Continue Reading

Featured Luthiers