Twenty years ago, no one would have predicted I would someday be pursuing a career playing jazz guitar, least of all me. I didn't even like jazz very much back then. I played classical trombone, and I enjoyed playing in big bands when I had the chance (as long as I didn't have to improvise), but I rarely listened to jazz.
The phrase "jazz guitar career" seems like an oxymoron. There's the standard musician's joke. What's the difference between a rock guitarist and a jazz guitarist? The rock guitarist plays three chords in front of a thousand people. The jazz guitarist plays a thousand chords in front of three people. This is an exaggeration of course, but not by much.
So why do I like jazz now, when it didn't do much for me before? What set me on this lucrative path, where I can make literally tens of dollars a night?
When I first began learning to play the guitar, I started out wanting to sing folk songs and be a fancy picker. I love folk music, especially of the modern singer/songwriter variety. David Wilcox and Susan Werner figure prominently in my iTunes playlist. I had every intention of being a folk musician with fast fingers, but my first guitar teacher, Bob Shaw, was a jazz guitarist, and a mighty fine one at that. From him I learned how to unlock the entire fretboard. I'm sure I still own a capo, but I'm not sure where it is! From Bob, I also learned how to arrange some of my favorite jazz songs for solo guitar. As a trombonist, I frequently wrote arrangements for trombone quartet, and I was thrilled to be able to apply my arranging skills to my new instrument. So, part of the reason I play jazz guitar is that Bob Shaw turned me to the dark side.
I think I also am drawn to jazz for the mental challenge. I enjoyed music theory in college, and I briefly toyed with the idea of pursuing a graduate degree in music theory. I eventually gave up that idea, because I realized the only thing I could do with that degree would be to spend a career torturing undergraduates who didn't like theory as much as I did. I like puzzles, and I've found jazz to be an endless, fascinating musical puzzle of substitute chords and voicings.
Much of jazz is flying by the seat of your pants. There's a heavy improvisational component that you won't find in classical music. Sometimes you'll hear a little bit of improv in folk music, but it's usually very brief. As a classical trombonist, the thought of improvising petrified me. As a jazz guitarist, improvising excites me. Sometimes I come up with something brilliant, sometimes I come up with pure schlock, and most times it's somewhere in between. When you're improvising with others, there's a shared energy among the musicians and listeners when things are going well. You never quite know what's going to happen when the group starts improvising. I often think of jazz as stepping off a cliff and trusting that a bridge will appear.
I don't like all jazz, just like I didn't like all classical music. When I was a trombone player, I never enjoyed Bruckner or Wagner, which is ironic because they wrote some particularly juicy trombone parts. There is some jazz that I don't like as well. It doesn't mean it's bad. I just don't enjoy it. For example, I don't especially enjoy Coltrane. Blasphemous, I know, and I can't wait to hear comments on why I should love him. Yes, he was a genius and a musical pioneer, but I just can't get past his sound. It's abrasive to my ears, and genius or not, I have trouble listening to an entire album when I have to hear that tone quality. (Short tangent: I find it ironic that some musicians who say they enjoy the freedom of jazz also tell me that I must love Coltrane or I'm not a true jazz musician. So much for freedom.)
Everyone has their own tastes. My tastes run toward lyrical, singable music, even if it's instrumental. This is reflected in my own playing as well. My technique has improved leaps and bounds over the past year, yet I still prefer to play lyrical, singable lines when I improvise. If music has lyrics, I like to hear a clever turn of a phrase. Some of the lyrics from the Great American Songbook are pure poetry. Maybe it's my folk aesthetic coming through, but I'll probably never be a truly adventuresome jazz explorer. I'll always be expanding my technique and searching for ways to become a better player, but it'll be in the service of a lyrical style of playing. As a trombonist, I tried to emulate the style of a singer, and I guess that I'm doing the same thing with the guitar.
Twenty years ago, I never thought I would be pursuing a career as a jazz musician. It might be interesting to read this blog in another twenty years to see what else has changed.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995 and have been music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation since 2011.