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Is Jazz Guitar Dead? (Hint…NO!)

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Jazz guitarists Victor and Henry Acker provide their perspectives on a topic that unfortunately gets asked sometimes.

My father and I received a phone call recently from the esteemed editor of Jazz Guitar Today, Bob Bakert, asking if we would be up to the task of answering the question “Is Jazz Guitar Dead?” Wow, interesting we thought. Is jazz guitar indeed dead? We agreed to try and find out and remarkably, the short answer is absolutely NOT.  It just seems that way. I assumed he had asked me because I am one of the few young American jazz guitarists out there and I am proof that it is not completely dead.  However, I can see how the common perception is that no young people seem to be taking up the instrument and using it in the jazz context anymore. That perception is partially true but certainly not completely true.  Let me tell you about our experience with the matter.

My father was a Berklee College of Music student in the 1980s and his experience was that Berklee was teeming with budding jazz guitarists. So many, that a majority of the student body makeup was indeed jazz guitarists in the making. “Berklee was awash in jazz guitar players!” he would say. “And really good ones!” he would add. Berklee had always been that way and there always seemed to be these monster jazz players emerging from the college. Al Di Meola, Mike Stern, Kevin Eubanks, John Scofield, and the list goes on.  Pat Metheny was teaching there at eighteen years old!  However, Kurt Rosenwinkel, who graduated in 1990, seems to have been the last major jazz player to make some real noise. Why is that? I know there are still plenty of guitar players at Berklee but they no longer seem to adorn the covers of DownBeat or Jazziz Magazine on a regular basis.

Musical tastes have definitely shifted since the 80s and it seems as if Jazz Guitar players were slowly disappearing. What I think happened is that attention spans started to shrink. Gaming and iPhones seemed to be young people’s priority.  Jazz is not a popular genre with young people and it requires those who have chosen to study it, a ton of discipline. It’s really hard. Improvising over changes is not for the faint of heart. You have to love it. And those big expensive jazz boxes! Young guitar players were turning more towards the blues. There is no shortage of Blues Guitar players. Easier genre. Three chords and a pentatonic scale and you are good to go. Even Bluegrass players were becoming hugely popular.

When I was just beginning, there were no other young players out there. Or so I thought.  Frank Vignola called to propose we do a show in Salt Lake City called “The Next Generation”.  On that bill was Olli Soikkeli, Julian Lage, Andreas Oberg, Vinny Raniolo and Jan Knutson. I was the youngest at 11 years old. The playing was eye-opening. Everyone on the stage was a monster. That show was a big success. Frank Vignola is a huge inspiration, advocate, and guiding light for younger jazz players. Frank’s guitar camps and True Fire private lessons are providing young players with invaluable amounts of information that would be hard to find anywhere else. If there is a champion of Jazz Guitar for young folks, it is Frank Vignola.

A year or so later, I was asked to play a festival in Baltimore with two other guys who were around my age – Samuel Farthing and Chris Jenkins. It was called the Django Legacy Band. Three teenagers up there and we tore it up. Sam and Chris were (are) both very advanced players. I was so happy to meet guys my age playing well beyond their years. The show was captured on film and is available to see for yourself on YouTube. The video has since caught fire and comment after comment details the sheer disbelief that three guys our age could dedicate so much time and effort and become that good. “Jazz is in good hands”, is a remark that is repeated over and over. “Shouldn’t they be playing video games?” is another.

A couple of years later I traveled to France to play the big jazz fest in Fountainbleu. Much to my surprise, there were phenomenal players that were my age everywhere. The teenage players in Europe are just amazing! Later that year I got the chance to perform in San Francisco with Antoine Boyer from France and Gismo Graf from Germany. Two young guitar players you should definitely know about because they are two of the very best. Currently, I am playing with The Rhythm Future Quartet which also features Max O’Rourke  – another super guitarist.

I guess my point is, there are not a ton of young jazz guitarists, but what is out there is astonishing. They are, for my money, the best players on the planet and they are virtually unknown to all but those who actively seek out breathtaking musicianship. It is a pretty small club in the U.S. but Europe is alive with players that are just staggeringly good. I wish more people were aware of guys like Olivier Kikteff, Benoit Convert, Adrien Moignard, Jesse Van Ruller, Gwen Cahue, and Gonzalo Bergara. Please check them all out and help support this overlooked community of remarkable musicians! You will not be disappointed.  

Two guys out of NYC that are currently blowing my mind are Dennis Pol from Greece and a Ukrainian player now in New York named Misha Mendelenko. Both of these guys will blow your hair back, they are so good. I was extremely lucky to win five DownBeat magazine Student Soloist awards. There is now a thirteen-year-old American guitarist named Ronnie Elliot who is now winning that award. Milan Angelo Novak is a teenager from Prague who is currently burning it up all over Europe.  You are gonna hear more about these guys very soon I hope.

It is a relatively small group of players internationally and we all mostly know each other.  Jazz guitar has been taken to some soaring heights by all of these players I have mentioned and new guys seem to be popping up every year.  And so to answer the question,  “Is Jazz Guitar Dead?”  Absolutely, positively not.  You just gotta know where to look.

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