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Jazz Guitar at the Seat of Government, Washington DC



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

To many, the Washington DC area is the seat of power, politics, and persuasion not only for the United States but as a place of influence for the Western world.  Washington DC is also filled with culture, as documented with their famous newspapers (i.e.: The Washington Post). 

When you think of Washington DC, the Smithsonian and Library of Congress also come to mind. The Smithsonian Institution celebrates its 175th anniversary in 2021 and houses some of the greatest collections of not only American but of Western civilization’s historical artifacts.  The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world and now is available to everyone through the digital world.   

The Washington Metro area is rich in its hometown musical arts.  Jazz music has long been a large part of this cultural scene in its nightclubs, educators, and performers.

The U Street District of Washington DC was once the central point of the urban African American community growing up in the nation’s capital.  So rich in African American culture, when singer Pearl Bailey performed there, she dubbed the U Street area as the “Black Broadway.”   In the 1920s the Howard Theatre, at 7th street and T Street NW was the largest African-American theater in the world. The great pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington grew up in this neighborhood and performed with his legendary jazz band on this stage. A statue of Duke was even erected outside the Howard Theatre.

In the 1930s and 40s, the Lincoln Theatre on U Street NW hosted such jazz greats as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday to name a few.  Ben’s Chili Bowl, next door, was the place to catch late-night performances of such jazz luminaries as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and many others. 

Charlie Byrd (1925-1999) was born in Suffolk, Virginia, and served in the army during World War II. In 1945, he met and played with the great gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt in France. Returning from Europe, he lived and performed around the New York City area. In 1950 he moved to Washington DC to study classical guitar with Sophocles Papas and later occasionally with Andres Segovia in Italy. In 1959 he toured briefly with the Woody Herman Orchestra. He settled in the DC Metro area and played nightly with his trio that featured bassist Keeter Betts and drummer Bertel Knox. Embed from Getty Images

In 1961 he went on a U.S. State Department “goodwill ambassador” tour of South America and discovered Bossa Nova. In 1962 he recorded the album, Jazz Samba, with Woody Herman saxophone alumnus Stan Getz, which made the Brazilian beat of Bossa Nova popular to the United States audiences. The single from the album “Desafinado” sold over a million copies.  In 1973 Charlie formed the group Great Guitars with jazz guitar giants Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis.   Even though collectively they performed bebop at the highest level it was Charlie featured on Bossa Nova tunes that stole the show. In his later years, he made many recordings for the Concord Jazz label in California.

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Danny Gatton was born in 1945 in Washington DC and took up the guitar at age nine and was playing jazz professionally by age fifteen.  He was a virtuoso in many musical spectrums, for a time working in the recording studios in Nashville, his greatest visibility came as guitarist for country singer Roger Miller, and as rockabilly’s greatest guitarist.  He was labeled the “Telemaster” and dubbed the world’s greatest unknown guitarist. In the early 1990’s he focused more on jazz and recorded with organist Joey DeFrancesco on Joey’s Relentless album. Sadly, in October 1994 we lost this master of texture and technique as Danny passed away from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Bethesda, Maryland resident Steve Herberman (b1966) graduated from Berklee College in 1988.  Because of the George Van Eps books, Steve became a committed 7-string player. He says “Working through all the George Van Eps’ incredible books gave me the tools to approach the instrument like it was a string trio or quartet. I enjoy creating arrangements on the spot, and hopefully, they will be on the level of well-composed arrangements.”  Along with being a performer in the DC area, Steve also teaches at Towson University and the Sidwell Friends School. Steve’s newest CD is an album of solo guitar standards and originals entitled Counterbalance.

Steve Herberman

Steve Abshire was a career guitarist for twenty-four years in the United States Navy.  For eighteen of those years, he was the guitarist for the Commodores, the Navy’s premier jazz ensemble. Having grown up in the Silver Springs, Maryland area he was stationed not far from home in the Annapolis area.  Steve comes out of the classic jazz guitar tradition.  Along with Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, and Steve Jordan, his greatest influence was Herb Ellis.  Steve says “The first time I heard Herb was in a duo with Barney Kessel.  There was supposed to be a rhythm section but something came up and the bass and drums couldn’t make it. I had heard Barney live before but never Herb.  The sound of Herb’s guitar just went through me. Where this guy was placing his notes, the depth of the time, and the way he would sing his lines when he played just all connected with me.  He was always swinging so hard.  At the break, I went up to him and said ‘I can’t believe how much I am enjoying you. Do you have any time during the week for a lesson?’  Herb said to me ‘Yeah, I noticed you in the audience because you were really listening and connecting with me as I was playing. After the show come on up to my room with me.’ I went up and was with him for about an hour or so. I told him about what I was doing and he showed me things on the guitar and would hand his guitar to me and say ‘Now you try this.’”  Steve’s most recent CD is an album of live duets called Between Friends with guitarist Steve Herberman.

Another career military guitarist in northern Virginia is Rick Whitehead, who served the Air Force’s Airmen of Note for twenty-two years. Originally from Miami, Rick was playing professionally at age 18, working with artists like Connie Frances, Jayne Morgan, and Glen Campbell. Today, guitarist Geoffrey Reecer is both guitarist and flight superintendent for the Airmen of Note ensemble.  Geoff studied with Jim Hall and Walt Weiskopf and can be often heard freelancing around town when he is off duty. Shawn Purcell is a Pittsburgher who served fifteen years in military jazz bands including the Airmen of Note and is currently the guitarist for the US Navy Band “Commodores” jazz ensemble.  Shawn, an alumnus of the Duquesne University, can also be heard around the Metro area performing with world-class musicians.

One of Virginia’s finest guitarists is Royce Campbell (b1952). A native of Indiana, Royce is located in Virginia because of his wife’s university faculty position.  Royce travels the world with today’s finest jazz musicians. He is also the principal guitarist for the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra. Interestingly, millions of people each day hear Royce’s instrumental compositions… as their recordings are broadcasted to the public in shopping malls, dentist’s offices, and elsewhere.  He is first to say that his skill to write a good melody was influenced through his nearly twenty years of playing in Henry Mancini’s orchestra, and worked with Mancini until his death in 1994. Royce Campbell has worked for many great vocalists such as Marvin Gaye, Nancy Wilson, Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como, Freddie Cole, and Mose Allison. He has released over thirty CDs, either as leader or co-leader.

Paul Bollenback (b1959)  spent his formative teenage years in the Washington DC area. Born in Hinsdale, Illinois, his childhood was in the Hudson Valley of New York, then two years in New Delhi, India because of his father’s work.  Paul is a guitarist whose familiarity with the uniqueness of the combination of organ and guitar is evident in many of his albums.  For over twenty years Paul was the first-call guitarist for the king of the Hammond B-3, Joey DeFrancesco, traveling the world with him.  Paul currently makes his home in New York City. 

Paul Wingo (1946-2014) played every Tuesday night with his trio at Bertha’s Pub in Fell’s Point. There was always a great sense of rapport between the musicians and the audience at the Bertha’s sessions.  His inimitable style and finesse influenced generations of younger guitar players.  

Donato Soviero has been on the Washington DC jazz scene since 1982. He has appeared many times at the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts, Wolf Trap, as well all the major Metro DC venues like Blues Alley and Twins Jazz.  

Paul Pieper is another busy jazz guitarist in the Metro DC area.  Paul is also a creative composer and arranger whose work appears on many different artist’s albums. Dave Sanders is keeping busy in the Metro area as a jazz player. Dave has worked with Renee Fleming, Patti LuPone, Dionne Warwick, and many others. 

Not a guitarist’s household name, Steve Jordan (1919-1993) was a rhythm guitarist par-excellent.  Born in New York and living and working there until the 1960s, when he left the studio scene and moved to the Washington DC area. Jordan worked as a rhythm guitarist with just about every major post-World War II jazz artist.  So accomplished as a rhythm guitarist, Count Basie asked Steve to join his band when Freddie Green was not available to tour with him. And from 1965 to 1972 Jordan had a weekly gig at the Blues Alley in Washington DC.

Dave Manley, who’s worked for Herbie Hancock, was born in Philadelphia and played a bit in Austin, TX, and Nashville, TN before bringing his artistic jazz styling to the DC area.  

Vince Lewis is a veteran jazz performer, composer, and recording artist. He has been a headliner on Jazz Festivals with Dave Brubeck, B.B King, Ellis Marsalis, Lou Rawls, Mundell Lowe, John Pizzarelli, and Melissa Manchester. Vince has been a featured live performer in concert at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. as well as performance twice at the Smithsonian Institute Jazz Bar. 

Vince Lewis

Gerry Kunkel, in addition to his many jazz gigs, is busy when the various symphony orchestras (of the Metro area) and Broadway productions in town need a guitarist. 

Nathan Page (1937-2003) was born in West Virginia and moved to Washington DC after serving in the army.  It was in the army that Page heard jazz for the first time. In 1965 drummer Billy Hart recommended Nathen to organist Jimmy Smith with whom he toured America and Europe for five years and appearing on Jimmy’s most famous album The Boss.  Page worked with many outstanding jazz musicians such as Kenny Barron, Herbie Mann, Jackie McLean as well as two years with Sonny Rollins.  In 1980 Nathen moved to Orlando, Florida, and remained active as a musician until his death.

In terms of guitar construction, up in the Baltimore area, Gary Flowers is an excellent luthier of archtop and flattop guitars. In Berwyn Heights, MD luthier Jeff Knutson has built some nice archtops.

Performance Venues

The Blues Alley on Wisconsin Avenue is the premier jazz club in the metro area. World-class and well as local jazz artists regularly perform.

On Dupont Circle is the Tabard Inn, an elegant hotel made up of three Victorian townhouses and the historic Warner Theater.

The LeRoy Neiman Jazz Café in the Smithsonian has hosted guitar greats such as Howard Alden, Randy Johnston, Jimmy Bruno, and others.

The Basin Street Lounge in Alexandria, VA is another great place for live music every night of the week.

Sadly, Twins Jazz just closed because of the pandemic but we hope it will be able to open again.

 University Jazz Programs 

Towson University in Maryland has Steve Herberman and Dave Sanders teaching jazz guitar and John Lee teaching commercial guitar.   Joshua Bayer oversees the jazz guitar program at the American University in Washington DC. Jay Hammond at Georgetown University teaches jazz guitar from the perspective of an audio producer and cultural anthropologist.  

Jazz guitarist Dave Manley, who has worked with Herbie Hancock, Jill Scott, and a number of national network television shows produced in New York City, is on the faculty of the Washington Conservatory of Music in DC.  Vince Lewis currently serves as an Adjunct Professor of Music and Guitar at Bluefield College in Bluefield, VA. 

Guitarists at the Reva and Sid Dewberry Family School of Music at George Mason University will study with Rick Whitehead and Dr. Shawn Purcell.  Howard University has Gerry Kunkel overseeing their jazz guitar program.  Gerry has worked with Grover Washington Jr., Ron Carter, Aretha Franklin, and many others.

This article was written with research assistance from Royce Campbell, Steve Herberman, Vince Lewis, and Kathy Parker

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