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Why Our Masters Matter

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Guitarist Fareed Haque shares his thoughts on why the ‘Masters’ are so important and still talking to us.

With love and respect to Larry Coryell, Bucky Pizzarelli, Jim Hall, Pat Martino, Joey D., Ramsey and so many more

It is and will continue to be for the next decade or so, a sad time for jazz…

We’ve lost so many jazz greats recently, many of them jazz guitarists, and will certainly lose more of our elder statespersons in the years to come. So Bob and the folks at jazz guitar today asked me to write something of a tribute, not to the artists themselves, but to what they represent and what they mean to the jazz community.

Our elders, the Masters of our music are very much keepers of the flame and guardians of our tradition.

We’ve come to feel that Jazz, now that it’s found its home in the academic world, is an intellectually complex music that relies on musical literacy and theoretical knowledge. And while that may be true of some jazz music, the heart of jazz is a rhythmic conception, a melodic approach, and a cultural experience.

And these concepts can’t be written down. But they can be felt! And passed on, from person to person, musician to musician, at the jam session, in a lesson, maybe on a recording, but mostly this tradition has to be passed down, aurally and orally,  in real-time. I know this only too well, as I have been blessed with lessons and friendships, and guidance from so many music mentors.

Early on I was blessed with good guitar teachers – and crazy parents.

Now that I’m the father of five, I’m convinced that they were out of their freaking minds.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My mom went to the local record store and asked the clerk for three guitar records for her son who is just learning how to play the guitar. Shit…

Whoever that person was recommended:

Elegant Gypsy Al DiMeola 

Bright Size Life Pat Metheny 

Joyous Lake Pat Martino

Any article on my guitar playing could pretty much stop right there, cuz that’s basically who I am, a combination of those three (with a little curry on the side!)

Thanks Mom. 

But it doesn’t stop there. I got a D in driver’s ed. I’m pretty sure I ruined a couple of lawns and scared the bejesus out of my classmates and my driver’s ed instructor. Still, Somehow my parents felt I should inherit my dad’s old Chrysler New Yorker. And at age 16 my parents let me drive an hour from Glen Ellyn all the way to 75th and Martin Luther King Dr. 

Uh, by MYSELF. At midnight. Returning home at 4 am. On a School night. Well, I wasn’t alone really. I had an expensive Gibson 330 and a Mesa Boogie amp. Idiot.

And the only reason I didn’t get rolled walking down the street with my amp and my guitar, was because (Tenor Sax legend ) Von Freeman would come out and walk me to the club. He would even carry my Mesa Boogie amp (which was so heavy, it gave birth to his nickname for me, ‘Boogie Woogie’). Years later I realized, that he would see me coming down the street and must have been thinking ‘That damn fool’! 

Fareed with Vonsky at Tone Zone Recording Studio, circa 2000.

But I came down to the Tuesday nite jam session as often as I could. Mostly I didn’t know any of the songs, but Von would tell me to sit in the back and just play along, real soft. I got a call to play with the great Eddie Johnson; same thing, “Just turn your amp way down, kid, and play along”.

People think about that experience today and they think it’s about learning tunes and learning chord changes and learning licks. But it’s not really that. It’s about learning how to play with the rhythm section, how to comp, when to lay out, what the right rhythm parts are, and ultimately, how to swing.

As a young, cocky, up-and-coming player, I got a lot of good lessons, the hard way: A few years of study into jazz, Von was hosting the jam session at the Jazz Showcase. By this time we knew each other a bit and he graciously invited me up to be featured on a ballad. At that time I could play chords, scales, chord scales, arpeggios and licks. Pretty much anything but the freaking melody!

Von asked me what tune I wanted to play, I chose Stella by Starlight. But to my shock and dismay, in front of a packed house, he put down his saxophone, and mozied over to the piano. He wanted me to play the melody. Which I was okay with just as long as I could play my chords too. I played the first note and had to really concentrate because Von was playing the melody along with me. On the piano, Melody in the right hand, FOREARM and ELBOW in the left hand!

A young Fareed Haque with Von Freeman in 1995 or so.

I got over the shock and dissonance and I made it to the end of the tune. After which Von whispered something to the effect of, “Boogie Woogie, you got to know the melody, with or without your chords”  I learned that lesson that day, real quick.

But the other lessons were more subtle. I play my fast shit and nothing would happen, then I play something that swung a little or something that was fun, and somebody in the band would smile, Give me a shout-out or something. And I would know. “Okay, that’s the good shit. Keep that and throw out the other stuff.”

I also learned that swinging was something that happens with everybody together, no one person can force the other musicians to swing. It’s a collective concept, as indebted to African rhythms as it is to Western Harmony. And if it ain’t swinging, you can’t make it better by forcing it. 

As a young whipper snapper, I had the honor of being invited to play a gig with the great Kenny Burrell. 

Back then, I always dug Kenny but thought he was pretty sloppy, and I didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. And then we got a chance to play together. Shit. That man gets more groove and tone out of three notes than I’ll probably get to in my entire life. You could feel it, and you had to deal with it and that meant learning how to respond and connect to his rhythmic drive, which was really his music lesson to all of us.

Bobby (Broom), I think you were there too? In Uruguay, at that jazz festival. We all played our asses off but we had to stand back when Kenny took over.

Later on, I was invited to play with the great alto saxist Arnie Lawrence. On every set, we would play some blues. I knew the chords, I knew the scales; I did not know the blues. So he asked me to play a blues intro, and that shit was so corny he started to laugh. And not with me, either. For the whole rest of the tour, he’d announce (In a classic 1950s announcer voice) at dinner, on the bus, anywhere, “Hi! My name is Freddy Haque and I’m going to play you one of my favorite songs, it’s called ‘The Blues’! And then he would just crack up, laughing at me. It hurt my feelings a little, but I eventually began to understand that the blues was a feeling, not a scale or a chord. And not just an emotional feeling, it was a rhythmic feeling; repetitive, pulsating, phrasing that was hypnotic, erotic, and earthy.

And then there was the time when I was at a recording session with Von and we were going to play Donna Lee. And he played it for me, and it was a little sloppy and pretty different from what was in the Realbook. And I was stupid enough to tell him that that’s not how it goes…Von was always gentle, and his response was, “Well, that’s how Charlie Parker taught it to me…” I shut up pretty quick.

These are just a few of the hundreds of lessons I got from Masters.

And I know for a fact that that’s how most of our true jazz artists learned. Not from books, but from the Masters. So go down to that jam session and hang with your elders. Play with them, study with them and know them, before they’re all gone. 

Jazz is not dead. It is a living tradition. Not a tradition of songs or chords or scales, but rather a tradition of collective groove and collective improvisation.

Being a master jazz musician doesn’t mean knowing all the chords and scales and tunes. It means knowing the tradition, this living tradition, that grows and changes and morphs under our very ears, defining and informing the music around us, to this very day and beyond.

Jazz is definitely in Tower of Power in Earth, Wind and Fire in the Meters in Vulfpek in James Brown in Questlove in Aretha and Ray and Stevie in BB and Lucille and in queen in the Beatles and in Led Zeppelin and Zappa. You may not recognize it, but it’s literally everywhere around us, and if you really, really listen, you can hear our masters, still talking to us.


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