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Jazz Guitar In The Desert – Phoenix, Arizona



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

Phoenix is usually thought of as a beautiful desert paradise to go to in the winter.  Its sunny skies and year-round warm weather have made it a desired destination.  People will find it exhilarating hiking up Papago Park, which is a Phoenix Point of Pride with its red-rock buttes, or one can take a quiet stroll through the beautiful Desert Botanical Garden, or enjoy Frank Lloyd Wright’s historical 1937 winter home, named Taliesin West.  For the history buff, there is the American Indian art at the Heard Museum, the Hohokam culture’s 1929 Pueblo Grande Museum, or the 1350 C.E. prehistoric Casa Grande ruins with their rich Native American history.  Phoenix is also the home to an active musical nightlife including great jazz music. 

In the early and mid-part of the twentieth century, Phoenix was a stopping place for musicians traveling from Texas to Los Angeles “Clubs were everywhere then,” says Texas transplant Big Pete Pearson, who moved to Phoenix and started singing there in 1955. “Most of the bands that were working then were working six to seven nights a week, and there was always a lot of people at all the clubs. Every night!”  The Riverside Ballroom and Supper Club on Central Street hosted all the national jazz headliners through the 1940s including Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Fats Domino, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.

Jazz trumpeter Art Farmer, though born in Iowa (1928), moved to Phoenix with his grandparents at age four after his parents divorced. Taking up the trumpet in school he and his brother moved to Los Angeles in 1945. Drummer Lewis Nash was born in Phoenix in 1958 and is one of the most recorded drummers in jazz history. Though born in Rochester, New York, and building his career in the New York City studio scene, drummer Steve Gadd lives in the Phoenix area, from Philadelphia organist Joey DeFrancesco has made Phoenix his home for over twenty years.

Howard Alden grew up in Newport Beach, California, and lived many years in New York City. He now lives in Phoenix and loves it there. Howard has played virtually with a “Who’s Who” of jazz artists and recorded a number of albums for the Concord record label.  A unique project that Howard worked on was that he was contacted by filmmaker Woody Allen to coach actor Sean Penn on the guitar, it is Howard we hear on the guitar solos in the 1999 film “Sweet and Lowdown.” Guitarist John Jorgenson says about Howard “Howard has his own sound. But he also has a deep respect for the traditions of jazz guitar.  He can play like Eddie Lang when he wants to.  He can play Django when he wants to and others as well.  He knows and respects the players but he is still himself.”  Guitarist Jack Wilkins says “Howard is one of my all-time favorite players.  I know, because I played with him a lot.  He knows a million songs.  His technique is stunning.  He doesn’t do traditional things.  I’ve heard him do Chick Corea tunes.  He has tremendous ears, he knows all the inside chord changes.  He has a great tone.  I’ve never seen someone play so relaxed.  He is like a Cadillac smoothly going down the road.”

Eric Bart grew up in New Jersey and moved to Phoenix in the late 1980s. He studied with New Jersey guitarist Harry Leahy.  Jazz is his first love, but Eric can be seen playing a range of styles of music around the Phoenix area.

George Benson grew up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. At age seven he made a few dollars playing ukulele at a corner drugstore, a year later he took up the guitar, and by age nine he was performing and recording. In 1963 he was hired by organist Jack McDuff, and by age twenty-one, George was recording for Columbia Records, and of course, he became a superstar in 1976 with his album Breezin’. 

Guitarist Bobby Broom comments: Early on in my studying, I wanted to find out who was the Herbie Hancock or Grover Washington Jr. on the guitar.  Who was the contemporary jazz guitarist that bridged the gap between all black music, soul, rhythm & blues, funk and jazz?  So I asked the sales guy at the record store and he handed me the album, Bad Benson.  That record was exactly what I was looking for.  The thing I heard in George is all of what I have been talking about.  The ability to make notes sing, and to articulate melodic phrases with fluidity, and levels and variety of emotion, the way that a singer would.  His technical prowess, Oh my, no one can play the guitar like George.  But then add to that the sense of taste that he has.  He has an unparalleled command of the instrument and seems to immediately play anything and everything that comes to his mind.  My goal was to do that.  Not to play the guitar exactly like George Benson, but with the command and freedom that George has.  I would like to follow what I hear and follow my heart with similar command.  This is what jazz is all about.  

Listen to what he is playing right there, (Bobby pauses and listens) that is so deep.  There is so much there.  George has done it all.  Go back to his Columbia recordings with his organ group.  Then go to his burnout days with C.T.I. where he would play on a vamp for a half hour and just keep rising and rising in intensity and you would think that there was a ceiling that he would hit.  But he could just keep taking it higher until he wanted to stop, or the volume of the track faded.  Unbelievable burnout playing.  On the record Body Talk and the tune “Plum” he plays over the changes of one chorus and constructs such a supremely musical solo melodically, and then he continues to solo on the two-chord vamp for 10 minutes!  Every 16 bars he takes it up a notch and keeps going up notches.  It is the greatest solo in terms of construction.  I have enough George Benson jazz guitar to listen to for at least two lifetimes.  

George has made Phoenix his home for many years.

Smooth jazz guitarist Nick Colionne made his home in Phoenix until his death on January 1, 2022, in Elgin, Illinois. Known for his stylish suits and ever-present hats Colionne had number one hits on Billboard’s smooth jazz airplay eight times.

Ted Goddard started playing guitar at age eight, inspired by his professional saxophonist father of the same name.  Ted remains active performing in the Phoenix area as well as teaching at Chandler-Gilbert Community College.

Making his home in Sedona, a couple of hours north of Phoenix, Stanley Jordan was born in Chicago and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Jordan’s notoriety is his mastery of two hands “touch technique” which sometimes can sound like two guitars are being played.  He remains active as a performing artist and sometimes would rather focus on studying music therapy at Arizona State University. Stanley has recorded albums for both Blue Note and Arista Record labels.

Jeff Libman is a busy guitarist around the Phoenix area. Having completed his doctorate at Arizona State University in 2014, he continues to teach there.  He is also Vice President of the board of Jazz In Arizona Inc, a 501(c)(3) organization, which promotes jazz music throughout the state.

Bill Moio was born in Maine and studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He spent some time serving as a house guitarist and then orchestra leader for some of the hotels in the Reno and Lake Tahoe area. He currently lives in Paradise Valley, Arizona, and remains active as a guitarist around the Phoenix area. Pete Pancrazi is also a Berklee graduate and active performing in the Phoenix area. Downbeat magazine said of Pete that he is “one to watch” and is a guitarist “deserving greater attention.”

Jack Peterson (born 1933) is a pedagogical architect for jazz guitar and jazz improvisation at Berklee College of Music, University of North Texas College of Music, and the University of North Florida.  John Abercrombie said about Jack What was great about Jack was not only is he a good teacher, but he is also a skillful player and plays great jazz piano as well.  In fact, the first time I heard him play was at this little coffee house, Miles Davis had just released “Kind of Blue,” and as I walked in there was my guitar teacher playing tunes like “So What” on the piano! Talk about inspiration, when I heard him play guitar, I got even more excited.  He played a lot like Barney (Kessel).  He was from Texas and had that “Texas-Oklahoma swing” in his playing and a little bluesy phrasing as well. In 2003 Peterson moved to Prescott, Arizona.

Howard Roberts (1929-1992) was born in Phoenix and worked in the recording studios of Los Angeles, in later life Howard Roberts lived and played around the Seattle area. Millions heard his guitar every time they tuned in, and that haunting theme would begin the Twilight Zone television show.

Dan Sieckman was busy playing in the Phoenix area in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  He then took ten years off from music to work for a global data processing firm.  Now in Little Rock, Arkansas, he returned in 1992 to playing guitar and moved back to Phoenix in 2005 re-establishing himself as a first-call jazz guitarist.  

Because his parents played Herb Ellis recordings, Stan Sorenson fell in love with jazz guitar at an early age.  Stan went on to graduate with a degree in jazz guitar from Arizona State University and maintains a very busy performance schedule around the Phoenix area.

Scottsdale luthier George Leach started working on guitars in 1988, and first went into business under the name of “GSL Guitars.”  In 1994, he changed the name to the Phoenix Guitar Company.  He builds fine archtops as well as steel-string acoustic and nylon string guitars.  In 2021 he moved his operations to Torrance, California.

Luthier Glen McKerrihan built high-quality archtops in his Phoenix shop from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, but he is no longer in business.

Performance Venues

The premier jazz club in the downtown Phoenix area is the Nash Jazz Club on Roosevelt Street. The Nash was founded by drummer and Phoenix native, Lewis Nash, and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.  The Nash is committed to not only providing world-class jazz performances but also educating the next generation of musicians through its rich and varied educational programs.

Char’s Live on 7th Avenue North is the place for jazz, blues, R&B, and funk. New owner David Cameron has transformed this former R&B club into a place of great music and food.

The Ravenscroft in Scottdale is Arizona’s newest concert venue with an amazing two hundred-seat concert hall and intimate jazz lounge. World-class jazz musicians are heard weekly in this unique setting sponsored by Bob Ravenscroft and MSW Ministries.

Another Christian-sponsored venue with high-level jazz is the Sacred Grounds Jazz Coffeehouse also in Scottsdale.  Music is available every Thursday night.

Great beer and jazz music can be found at The Lost Leaf at 5th and Roosevelt in downtown Phoenix.

Lakeshore Music Inc has just moved from the Tempe Center for the Arts building to the Ravenscroft (mentioned above). Bob and Gretchen Ravenscroft have been instrumental in promoting and preserving jazz as an original art form for future generations. Once a month the best of world-class jazz artists can be heard through Lakeshore Music.

The Southern Rail on Camelback Road features their special Jazz & Jambalaya evenings with food with a southern twist infused with a slice of warm hospitality.

The Music Instrument Museum (MIM) has a wonderful Music Theater where world-class artists of all styles perform of whom about forty percent are jazz artists.  The galleries of the museum offer examples of musical instruments from all over the world.  Truly, one of the great musical treasures of the world.

Phoenix has many other venues offering jazz including the Kazimierz Wine & Whiskey Bar, the Westside Blues & Jazz, as well as the MercBar.

University Jazz Programs 

One of the premier jazz guitar programs in the area is with Dr. Jeff Libman at Arizona State University in Tempe.  ASU has doctoral and masters level programs in jazz music.  Pete Pancrazi teaches at Mesa Community College and Ted Goddard teaches at Chandler-Gilbert Community College.

(This article was written with research assistance from Pete Pancrazi and Kathy Parker.)

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