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Jazz Guitar in the Windy City

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Jazz Guitar Today guest contributor Joe Barth takes a look at the jazz guitar scene in Chicago.

Even though Al Capone ordered the famous gang violence in 1929’s Valentine’s Day Massacre, Chicago has always been an interesting place to visit.  Whether enjoying a slice of Chicago-style pizza at Lou Malnati’s or Burt’s Place or catching a Cub’s game at Wrigley Field, Chicago has plenty of things to do, including listening to world-class jazz.  

In the early 1900s people were drawn to the Chicago area for its manufacturing, railroad, and meatpacking industries which brought musicians and their Dixieland or “hot jazz” music from New Orleans.

Stars of the Chicago jazz scene were cornet player King Oliver and pianist Jelly Roll Morton.  In 1922 King Oliver brought Louis Armstrong to Chicago to perform at the Dreamland Café’ with his Creole Jazz Band.  Between 1925 and 1928 Louis Armstrong had made a number of historically significant recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands.  This Chicago “hot sound” emphasized a number of significant jazz developments. These musicians preferred four-beat meters instead of two (which would later lay the recurring pattern foundation) for the swing style.  They enjoyed faster tempos and also soloed for an entire chorus of a song structure, rather than just a solo break. Lastly, they preferred the string bass and guitar over the traditional rhythm of tuba and banjo in the New Orleans sound.  Chicago has a massive history with the blues as well, which is relevant to jazz’s history here on account of the fact that many jazz musicians backed blues singers and artists from the 1920s on.      

Born on the southside of Chicago in 1921 George Barnes learned guitar first from his guitarist father.  In 1931 his brother made a pickup and amplifier for him and George claimed he was the first to play an electric guitar (though Les Paul also makes the same claim).  In 1938 George was first to record playing electric guitar in a session with Big Bill Broonzy. This session took place fifteen days before Eddie Durham recorded on electric guitar with the Kansas City Five.  By age seventeen Barnes was working as a staff guitarist, arranger, and conductor at the NBC Studios in Chicago.  George Barnes held this position for five years until he was drafted into the army.  In 1951 Barnes moved to New York to work as a session musician for such artists as Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and others.  

In 1961 Barnes formed a guitar duet with Carl Kress where Kress would comp and George would play these flowery melodic lines. Being a tremendous musician, Bucky Pizzarelli told me in an interview “George and I became great friends and did a lot of record dates together. With George on the session, we all knew who would be sitting in the first guitar chair (laughter). No one in the world played the guitar like George. He held the guitar like a classical player and used all down picks. He would finger some of his chords using his thumb.” Barnes had strong opinions about guitar construction. He felt that the archtop guitar should not have “F-holes” and also a high “A string.” Guild Guitars made instruments in this way for him. For the last few years of his life, George lived in Concord, California where he died in 1977.

Chicago has a number of “A” list guitarists on the scene today. 

Bobby Broom (1961) was born and raised in New York but has made Chicago his home since 1984.  He could be heard playing in clubs around New York as a high school student and was even invited to play Carnegie Hall with Sonny Rollins and Donald Byrd at age sixteen.  Broom would then tour with the Sonny Rollins band.  Later Kenny Burrell would select Bobby and Rodney Jones for his Jazz Guitar Band.  Bobby continues to travel internationally making world-class music.

Fareed Haque (1963) was born to a Pakistani father and a Chilean mother and grew up in Chicago.  As he traveled the world with his parents, he absorbed many musical characteristics from the various cultures he visited. While studying at Northwestern University Fareed met to clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera who became a lifelong friend and mentor.  In the 1980s Rivera introduced Haque to the pop star Sting, with whom he recorded with and toured briefly.  Fareed has always been interested in the association between jazz music and dance.  He told me in an interview “When you take jazz (which is basically dance music) and put it on the concert stage, you take the life out of it.  It is like taking a butterfly and putting a pin through it and putting it in a glass case.  You take it out of its natural environment, you watch it, and you control it. That’s what happened to some classical music. It’s now happening to jazz music… I am playing so much for dancers.  We’ll go and play a funk, then an Indian piece of music, and then a Standard.”  

Henry Johnson (b1954) started on the guitar playing gospel and rhythm & blues at age thirteen.  His first road gig was with organist Jack McDuff.  Henry went on to work with saxophonist Sonny Stitt, pianist Ramsey Lewis, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and singer Nancy Wilson to name a few.  When not traveling the world as a performer, Henry teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

Neal Alger grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago and graduated from Northern Illinois University studying with Fareed Haque.  Neal is known worldwide for his work as Patricia Barber’s guitarist, and along with working with other Chicago musicians.  As a leader, Neal is also known for performing Brazilian music.

Phil Upchurch was born in Chicago in 1941 and started on the ukulele at age eleven, then switched to guitar at thirteen, and as a young man – he worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and Ramsey Lewis. In 1961 he had a blues hit instrumental called “You Can’t Sit Down” that sold over a million records.  After being drafted into the army and serving in Germany he returned to Chicago and worked with saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and Grover Washington Jr among others.  He became a close friend of George Benson by working and recording with him frequently, including Benson’s hit album called Breezin’.  Although busy in the Chicago studio scene, in 1977 Phil relocated to Los Angeles to work in the studios there.  Phil Upchurch has appeared on over a thousand albums and has led twenty-five albums of his own.

Stanley Jordan was born in Chicago in July 1959, and he grew up in the San Francisco bay area.  He has devoted himself to the  “touch technique” (two hand tapping on the strings of the neck) to produce pitch.  Though Jack Bland used tapping in the 1920s and rockers like Eddie Van Halen utilize it in his playing, but no one has mastered it like Stanley Jordan, who was a pianist before he was a guitarist. His album Magic Touch was a huge success on the Blue Note label, Jordan has explored other interests including a BA in digital music composition at Princeton University and music therapy at Arizona State University.  He currently lives in Sedona, Arizona, and maintains a worldwide performance schedule.

Marvin Sewell was born and raised in Chicago. Bluesy in his approach, he has worked with such great jazz artists as Jack DeJohnnette, David Sanborn, Joe Lovano, George Benson, and others.  In 1995 he began working with singer Cassanda Wilson which brought him greater recognition.  In 1990 he moved to New York City where he currently resides.  

Born in New York in 1975, Andy Brown moved to Chicago in 2003 and can be seen in many of the Chicago venues most nights of the week.  He has worked with such great jazz artists as Scott Hamilton, Harry Allen, Ken Peplowski to name a few.  He even worked with the great Barbra Streisand when she appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show.  Since 2009 Andy has co-led a quartet with jazz guitar master Howard Alden.

John Moulder is a mainstream jazz guitarist in the Chicago area, who embraced being a jazz guitarist, a teacher, and a Catholic priest.  Moulder brings together the secular and the spiritual through events for charities.  He has also made a name for himself with singer Jackie Allen.  John also records and performs with Paul Wertico, Steve Rodby, and Gwilym Simcock, all Pat Metheny Group alumni.    Mike Pinto is an in-demand guitarist and arranger who enjoys playing in larger ensembles as well as small combos.  Steve Suvada is equally comfortable playing a jazz gig in a Charlie Byrd style as well performing the Tedesco Guitar Concerto with one of the great orchestras of the world.  In addition to jazz guitar, Bob Palmieri enjoys playing a wide variety of styles of music. He has studied and worked in Rochester, Miami, and New York City before moving to Chicago in 1985. He also is an excellent photographer. 

Michael Allemana is another great player around the Chicago area.  He studied at Northern Illinois University and Northwestern University and currently is a teaching fellow at the University of Chicago.  Michael’s Organ Trio has been busy around the Chicago area for over twenty years.  Michael also has worked a lot with prominent Chicago saxophonist Von Freeman before his death in 2012.  Dave Miller has been carving out his unique place in the Chicago jazz scene exploring new avenues in jazz.  Miller’s music has been described as exploring “themes of nature, spiritually and the human condition through the lens of an instrumental psychedelic garage band.” Curtis Robinson grew up on the south side of Chicago and started playing the guitar at age eight.  Curtis plays the top jazz clubs in Chicago and occasionally tours internationally.  Michael Ross also plays the best jazz clubs in Chicago and occasionally plays the Broadway shows when they come to Chicago. I’m sure there are other fine jazz guitarists in Chicago that I have yet to discover.

Though born in New Jersey, Nick Lucas (1897-1982) lived in the Chicago area in the mid-1920s.  There he was known as the “Crooning Troubadour” and then the “Singing Troubadour” on the nationwide WEBH radio.  Lucas was so popular that Gibson Guitars’ first artist’s model was designed and named for him.  Lucas would accompany himself on the guitar. Lucas’ records have sold over eighty-four million copies. Though a capable jazz soloist on the guitar, he rarely recorded his solos.

Additional early masters, although born in New Orleans, Johnny St. Cyr lived in Chicago from 1923 to 1929 and played on a number of historically significant recordings during this time. He performed and recorded as a member of Louis Armstrong’s Hot-Five and Hot-Seven bands as well as Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers.   In 1937 the great guitarist Lonnie Johnson moved to Chicago and worked with Jimmy Noone and Johnny Dodds.  Growing up in Arkansas Big Bill Broonzy (born Lee Conley Bradley) moved to Chicago in the early 1920s and recorded for Paramount Records and worked with numerous artists over the years until he left Chicago in 1950. Eddie Condon (1905-1973) grew up in the Chicago Heights area and became a professional guitarist at age 15.  Not known for his playing he made a name for himself as a great bandleader who surrounded himself with extremely talented musicians and gave them room to shine.  His groups helped define “Chicago Style Jazz” which was more ensemble orientated than “New Orleans Style.”  He played a 4-string guitar all his career. In 1928 he moved to New York City.

Born in Wisconsin in 1916, Les Paul moved to Chicago in 1933.  In the Chicago area, he was busy playing country-western under the name of ‘Rhubarb Red’ and jazz under the name of Les Paul.  As a jazz artist, he performed with pianist Art Tatum, trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and other leading jazz artists.  In 1938 he moved from Chicago to New York and his contributions to the development of the electric guitar and multi-track recording are well known.

Jimmy Raney (b1927) moved to Chicago from Louisville, Kentucky as a teenager.  Still a teenager, he worked for a time as guitarist with the Max Miller Quartet at Elmer’s in Chicago, his first paying gig. At age seventeen he was working with the Jerry Wald Orchestra.  Jimmy became a close musical associate with the pianist in the Wald Orchestra, Al Haig.  After the Wald Orchestra, Raney joined the Woody Herman band that included saxophonist, Stan Getz.  Because of his smooth soft tone, Jimmy Raney is thought of as “the Stan Getz of the guitar”.  Even though subdued in approach, like Getz, under the surface there is a lot of controlled energy and heat that could be released when desired.  In 1949, Raney took up residence in New York.

Chicago was the temporary home to a number of other great jazz guitarists. New Orleans guitar and banjo player Bud Scott moved to Chicago in 1923 to join the legendary King Oliver Band. He performed in the Chicago area until 1929 when he moved to Los Angeles. In the late 1940s, guitarist Marty Grosz (b1930) spent some time in the Chicago area. He and an old school buddy, Hugh McKay, started hitchhiking from New York for Los Angeles and only got as far as Chicago. In Chicago, they worked odd jobs and played music every time they had the opportunity. By the early 1950s, Marty was back in New York having never made it to Los Angeles as that trip intended. Grosz would later play in Chicago from time to time in the future. An architect who played jazz guitar as a hobby, John Defauw, started the “Jazz at Noon” at the Boat Sari-S in 1966 and later at Andy’s Jazz Club. John’s father was a violinist and conductor of the Chicago Symphony and his mother was a concert pianist. John’s focus was rhythm guitar and his hero was the great Freddie Green.

In terms of guitar builders in the area, Dan Koentopp is a luthier in the Chicago area who makes fine archtop and electric Telecaster style guitars. His Amati and Chicagoan Standard and Oval-Hole archtop models have been played by a number of great guitarists including Diana Krall’s Anthony Wilson. 

The Green Mill in Chicago’s North Side Uptown neighborhood is where all the best of the jazz greats have all played.  Some say The Green Mill is the oldest running jazz club in the country and is a great place for classic jazz every night of the week.

It is said the at the Jazz Showcase on Plymouth Court is “Where Jazz Lives in Chicago.”  Founded in 1947 it is known as the oldest historic jazz club in Chicago.  The greatest jazz musicians have graced the stage at the Jazz Showcase.

Andy’s Jazz Club on Hubbard Street started as “Andy’s Lounge,” serving drinks and pub grub to the workers in the newspaper industry in the area. In the 1960s they started having live ‘Jazz at Noon,’ then later added a show at 5 pm and later added another show at 9 pm.  The ‘Jazz at Noon’ is no longer offered but the ‘Jazz at Five’ and ‘Jazz at Nine’ are very much alive.

Winter’s Jazz Club on McClurg Court is a stylish place to hear classic live jazz music.  The room has a great feeling of intimacy and wonderful acoustics.

Loyola University has an excellent jazz program with Neal Alger, Mike Pinto, and Steve Suvada on the jazz guitar faculty. Roosevelt University has a fine jazz guitar department with Henry Johnson, John Moulder, and Neal Alger on its faculty. Bob Palmieri oversees the jazz guitar department at DePaul University. Neal Alger also teaches at Elmhurst University. Bobby Broom teaches jazz guitar in the excellent program at Northern Illinois University. John Moulder also leads the jazz guitar department at Northwestern University. Michael Allemana is a professor of jazz guitar at the University of Chicago.

(This article was written with research assistance from Neal Alger, Henry Johnson, and Kathy Parker.)


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