Jazz Guitar Today’s Wayne Goins interviews Pennsylvania’s jazz guitar mainstay Mark Strickland.
Wayne Goins: Pennsylvania’s jazz guitar mainstay Mark Strickland has been hiding in plain view. This loyal historian truly represents the “old school” values of the legendary roster of Pittsburg jazz musicians, and he’s damn near seen and heard ‘em all—from George (Benson) to Jimmy (Smith). Strickland still recalls where all the classic jazz venues were located during the golden era, and he’s paid his own dues on the gritty streets as an up-and-coming musician. He now shares his stories with JGT readers in this epic reflection of the great legacy and reputation of Pittsburg jazz guitarists.
JGT: You’re from Pittsburgh—describe that environment that is so rich in jazz guitar culture.
MS: From my viewpoint, the town was very blue-collar. Many folks here worked in the Steel Mills. My father was a general contractor, and my mother did what was called “day’s work” for the rich people. People went to the many clubs available to visit on weekends, such as the Hurricane the Crawford Grill the Lowendi club. There was a guy that used to play music on his porch, and we would go and check him out …this is around ’63-’64.
JGT: You once said in an interview a few years ago, “I started playing in 1963” and that you signed up for guitar lessons at a local community program. Can you discuss a bit about this?
MS: There was a place called The Neighborhood House that had music lessons for youngsters. And my friend, Luther Dejarunett, would go there and take these lessons. For me, I wasn’t getting much from those lessons, so I stopped going and began to go to Luther’s house and he would “show me stuff.” Luther went on to play with [organists] Richard “Groove” Holmes and Jimmy McGriff and others. I got to meet some of those cats with him and would sit in and play with them.
JGT: You also mentioned that your favorite experience was a jam session with Pete Henderson, Spencer Bey, and saxophonist Dickie Lilly—who were they?
MS: Pete and Dickie were older cats that I met at a jam session that they would have at the Horoscope lounge sometime in the ’70s. Pete played in the horn section of vocalist Pearl Bailey, and Dickie was a Texas tenor man. I believe that he went to school with a couple of the Jazz Crusaders, he was also a neighbor of my parents. He and his wife Vernell Lillie were involved in music and the arts. Vernell taught theatre at Pitt University, and I was in one of her plays called Billie Holiday at the Crawford Grill, and I played the role of Freddie Green! [laughs].
JGT: I read somewhere that you used to have a shoeshine job where you met local guitarists Larry McGee and Adolphus Bell?
MS: When I was a youngster my friend and I, Pete Peterson, used to hustle on the streets shining shoes until he hipped me to going in the bars and shining shoes. He came to my house one day with about forty dollars in his pocket and told me “you’re doing this all wrong!” That was a lot of bread back in ’65! In a couple of those clubs, they were playing music with organ trios and small combos which included Gene Ludwig who was playing at Chappie’s on Pennsylvania Avenue—he was a great organist. Many years later I played with him and recorded an album called Love Notes.
Larry “Butch” McGee was a local legend when I was growing up. He took George Benson’s place in Altaire’s singing group when Benson left to play with Brother Jack McDuff. Later, Butch also played with McDuff. He later played with Lonnie Smith and recorded an album called Move Your Hand with a local drummer Sylvester Goshay. I would frequently go to McGee’s house, and he would wear me out playing tunes ‘til the wee hours of the morning. This was around ’68 or ’69.
JGT: And what about Adolphus?
MS: Adolphus Bell was like a one-man band—he somehow played the drums with his feet while playing the guitar and singing. I’d never seen anything like that except maybe on the Ed Sullivan show! [laughs]. He played at a club around the corner from my house called Don Chico’s on Fulton Street. There was a cat in the Hill District named Chad Evans who used to teach at the Halfway Art Gallery that I would go to take lessons. He supposedly taught George Benson and Larry McGee music theory.
JGT: I understand you play a bit of piano?
MS: I started taking lessons from a guy I met in the music store when I was a kid. And many years later at the age of forty, I took piano lessons from him. Bob Doak was a great gentleman who taught me music theory which up to that point was mainly just playing by ear and stealing licks from recordings.
JGT: Did you do some playing with Ken Karsh?
MS: I do not recall doing a whole gig with Ken—who is a fantastic player—but when I would play, sometimes cats would come into the club and I would call them up to play. It was great fun. Sometimes Jimmy “Fats” Ponder would come in and light the place up. Once, Mark Whitfield came in and tore it up! Jerry Byrd—who played with Freddie Cole—came in and played! Pittsburgh has some monster players; you never knew what to expect, but it kept you sharp!
JGT: Discuss your endorsement with Benedetto guitars.
MS: My deal with Benedetto guitars is more of an ambassador. I believe that I am one of the first guys in Pittsburgh to play a Benedetto. Since then, I’ve purchased four of them! So, fast-forward a couple of years: We did a gig together with a local vocalist, Jessica Lee, and in 2019 we played a show in Pittsburgh featuring these great Benedetto players: Howard Paul is the CEO of Benedetto guitars; Dan Wilson an unbelievably gifted young man; “King” Solomon Hicks is a young blues phenom; Marty Ashby, who heads the music program at MCG Jazz, is also a great player; Beth Marlis who teaches at GIT, and myself. So, our association led to my being an ambassador. Whew!
JGT: Discuss your career as a recording engineer and how that came about?
MS: I’ve always had a fascination with sound and the technical aspects of music aside from playing. My brother, Bill Strickland, asked me to record these great legendary artists at the MCG Jazz Facility. I said that I would give it a try—I had a small recording studio in my home that I would use to record my friends. So I learned from watching other sound engineers. My dear friend Ken Tibbs who knew a lot about recording was there as my “right-hand man” and it was great!!! We recorded such artists Dakota Staton, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Tommy Flannagan, Donald Byrd, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others—it was truly unreal!
JGT: Are you still teaching at the University of Pittsburgh? What was that like?
MS: I’ve been teaching at Pitt for about three years. After many years of his teaching there, the great Joe Negri retired—I believe he was in his nineties. I was asked to replace him in that capacity—but no one can replace Joe. I’ve really enjoyed sharing my knowledge and experience with the youngsters—some of whom are quite good. They challenge me as much sometimes as I challenge them!
JGT: Who are your main musical influences?
MS: Of the local guitarists, there were guys like Luther Dejarunett, Larry McGee, Eric Johnson, Gerald “Shotgun” Haymon, and Jimmy “Fats” Ponder. When I was young, a cat named Donald Smith taught me how to play “Chitlin’s Con Carne” by Kenny Burrell. Man, I thought that I died and went to heaven—because Burrell was one of my favorite players and still is! I loved Wes, of course! Joe Pass and Grant Green were also both great influences. Grant Green’s lines were so pure and clear that they just drew me in.
Now, George Benson influenced all the guitar players of my generation. He’s like nine years older, and he would be playing around in the city and occasionally I would get to see him play. It was great. It made me think that if that’s what guitar players were like, then there is no chance that I would ever become a professional musician.
I was sitting in down at The Crescendo Club one night—I had just purchased a GB10 guitar [George Benson model] and I was sitting at the table and in walked Benson! I panicked and shoved my guitar under the table. My friend still laughs at me for doing that. By the way, the owner (Jerry Betters) of that club had a pet lion that he kept in the basement and would sometimes bring it out! [laughs].
JGT: You said in an interview that George Benson “used to live on ‘The Hill’” –where is “The Hill?”
MS: The Hill District was the epicenter of jazz music, located uptown just above downtown Pittsburgh. All the great jazz clubs were located there including the Hurricane, The Loendi Club, The Aurora club, and The Crawford Grill, and they were still going but at a lesser degree after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in ’68. I was a youngster and had just started driving. I was able to see the shift [in the neighborhood] right before my eyes. While the music continued into the 70’s there were far fewer of the legendary players that used to come. The older guys would tell me about when [Hammond B3 organist] Jimmy Smith came to the Hurricane Lounge in ’57. I saw Grant Green in the Crazy Quilt in downtown Pittsburgh back in the seventies!
JGT: I recently saw a YouTube video where you had a great solo playing over Wes Montgomery’s “Four On Six” on the Tuesday night jazz trio gig with drummer Thomas Wendt, pianist Cliff Barnes, and bassist Jeff Grubbs—can you share a few details of that group?
MS: I really felt blessed to be playing with these fantastic musicians. Tom Wendt is one of the finest drummers that you will find anywhere. The list of people that he’s played with and interviewed is extensive! Cliff Barnes, in my opinion, is a genius as he can listen to a song once and create the most elegant solos and accompaniment on organ or piano as well as electric bass! Jeff Grubbs plays with the esteemed Pittsburgh Symphony and doubles as a world-class jazz bassist—a fantastic player!
JGT: In December 2021, you played at Scratch for a jazz brunch with Tom Wendt on drums, and Tony Depaolis on bass, located at 1720 Lowrie Street?
MS: We are on a temporary hiatus from Scratch. We have been playing there for about three years and it’s a great place to play, with great food—and best of all they love jazz! Tony Depaolis and Tom Wendt are some of Pittsburgh’s premier players and you can consider yourself lucky if you get a chance to play with them! They are both younger cats at least from my perspective, but their collective knowledge of jazz history is monumental. Tom Wendt also does a regular podcast where I was featured on the “Vinyl Report” episode.
JGT: Let’s talk equipment—what amps and axes are you in possession of?
MS: My Instruments have changed over the years. When I was really starting out, I had a Harmony Rocket later I purchased a Gibson Les Paul Custom, black with gold hardware. Then I had a GB10, followed by a Gibson ES-175 which was stolen, and I bought another one. THEN I moved on to a Gibson Super 400 and then a Gibson L5. I ended up trading or selling all of those and purchasing a Benedetto Bravo, then a Benedetto Americana and a Heritage Eagle Classic. I also have a Godin nylon string, a Breedlove nylon, and a Taylor steel string. My amps are currently the original Henriksen Bud and a new Henriksen Bud.
JGT: Have you created any original compositions?
MS: I have written in collaboration with a vocalist a number of tunes. I was thinking that at some point I may put out an album collection. It may sound counter-intuitive, but recording is my least favorite thing to do for myself. I get too immersed in the technical aspects of recording and, as a consequence of that, the playing on my recordings do not reflect my playing on the stage. I never seem to be satisfied with the sound quality of my guitar when I record myself. I hope to have a change of heart in that regard before I’m too old.
JGT: Are there any questions we didn’t ask you that you would like to address?
MS: I would like to give you a short list of some of the legendary players who called Pittsburgh PA home: Ahmad Jamal; Errol Garner; Earl Fatha’ Hines; Billy Eckstein; Billy Strayhorn; George Benson; Roger Humphries; Dodo Marmarosa; Mary Lou Williams; Tommy Turrentine; Stanley Turrentine; Gene Ludwig; Eddie Jefferson; Joe Harris; Eddie “Rabbit” Barnes; Roy Eldridge; Dakota Staton; Art Blakey; Joe Negri; Jimmy “Fats” Ponder; Ray Brown; Bobby Boswell; Nelson Harrison; Alphonso (Pete) Henderson. There are too many name them all. But it can give you an idea of what the Pittsburgh jazz scene was like. And now there is a new crop of young monster players. I am cautiously optimistic about the future of jazz music!
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