Doug Wamble’s Folked-Up Jazz
Drawing on blues, gospel, bluegrass, and soul, and playing archtop slide, the guitarist mixes American music traditions to create the distinctive sound of his new multi-album project, 9 for ’19.
Not long ago, guitarist, vocalist, and composer Doug Wamble was cleaning out the contents of an old hard drive when he rediscovered a trove of music he’d recorded beginning in the late 1990s. The bulk of these sessions, in a range of different settings, was unreleased. Wamble says, “Overall, I thought, hey—there’s some good stuff on here!”
It had been a few years since Wamble had released an album—2015’s The Traveler: Live in New York City—so he set about on the ambitious undertaking of organizing the music into a series of nine albums. Then, last April, he rolled out his 9 for ’19 project, a new album each month for the last three quarters of 2019, available through Bandcamp.
Wamble, a native of Memphis who has been a fixture in New York City for two decades, is considered to be a jazz guitarist, but, as 9 for ’19 clearly shows,that label is way too restrictive. While Wamble does, indeed, have an expert command of bebop and modern improvisational styles, he draws freely and deeply from American roots music of all eras, as well as current pop, and he’s also an accomplished singer-songwriter.
In terms of concept and vocabulary, as well as tone production and articulation, Wamble is less informed by obvious 6-string benchmarks than by great jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk. Wamble is equally comfortable with both standard fretting and bottleneck styles, as is evident in his work supporting Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, and other notables, and in his output as a bandleader and singer-songwriter. Wamble’s warm and rootsy concept extends to his scores for a series of Ken Burns documentaries: Prohibition, The Vietnam War, and The Central Park Five.
PG reached Wamble at his home in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. As he restrung an old Kay archtop, he described how, after starting guitar at a relatively late age, he got his style together. He also shared his thoughts on the state of jazz education from his vantage point as a Juilliard professor—and why you should check out music you dislike.
You’re from the South. What were the beginnings of your musical path there?
I grew up in Memphis, which played a huge part in what I would become as a musician. My mother was a pianist in our Baptist church and my maternal grandfather played guitar at home. I grew up being surrounded by his love of old gospel and country songs, and there was always music around in Memphis—the great era of Stax and Hi Records, as well as Elvis, obviously.
My musical life started in the school band. I was a clarinet player and that wound up leading me to the guitar. When I was about 18, right before I started college, I was fascinated by some clips of Benny Goodman’s band that I saw on the cable channel AMC, so I went to the library and got a Goodman record featuring Charlie Christian, and that totally set me on fire. It sounded like all the blues guitar music that I loved, but with some extra sophistication. Around that same time, my mom took me to see Harry Connick’s band, and Russell Malone was playing guitar. It was the first time I’d really ever heard a great jazz guitar player live and in person. I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to do that.”
What happened next?
I enrolled at school in Memphis as a recording technology major, as something about that sounded legitimate to me. At the same time, I just started listening to records and transcribing guitar solos. I dove into it and progressed fairly rapidly. I only knew, like, three cowboy chords before college. They didn’t have a full-time guitar teacher in Memphis, so I studied a little bit with a great guitarist who just recently passed, Calvin Newborn, who was [jazz pianist] Phineas Newborn’s brother. To get more into guitar, I transferred to the University of North Florida, where I studied with Jack Petersen, who was an incredible jazz guitarist and educator. He was the first guitar teacher at Berklee back in the ’60s, and he taught players like John Abercrombie and Mick Goodrick. It was during those years when I was down in Florida that my musical life began to solidify.
Describe how it came together for you.
Well, I’ve always been guided by a love of American roots music. And whether it was Delta blues or bluegrass or old-time gospel, I always heard those elements in the jazz music I really loved. Whether it was Louis Armstrong or Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk, I heard that really strong folk aspect. To me, no matter how advanced or abstract the music got, the stuff that I connected to the most was the music that showed its American roots. But still, I tell my students all the time they need to check out music that they don’t necessarily love.
There’s more than one way to mike a guitar in Wamble’s playbook. Here, he records with one of his archtops. He plays several models, from classic Kays and Gretsches to custom modern instruments.
Why is that?
I don’t really love Miles Davis’ music of the 1960s with Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter]. It does not resonate with me, and I don’t enjoy listening to it. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t need to know it. It’s still very, very important. What that group did was crucial. I know aspiring jazz musicians who don’t like [Thelonious] Monk, but he’s still someone they need to check out. You have to be able to get what you need to learn from music you don’t like. And I’ve always been very cognizant of that. But definitely, as far as what resonates with me, it’s always the music that is connected to folk tradition.
Does that come from your upbringing, from where you grew up?
I really don’t know. There’s certainly a lot of people from my generation who don’t like any of that [American roots] music. I think it was just a matter of finding something that made a lot of sense to me once I’d heard it. And I kind of followed that path. I think that if you get on a path you try to find the people who are speaking your language. And certainly meeting people like Wynton—that was a big thing for me, to meet someone whose work definitely had a folk tradition. Even before I met him, his music guided me to embrace the more traditional side of things.
There’s a lot of music that insists on being called modern, which basically gives the performers license to absolve themselves of all responsibility to any tradition whatsoever and just do whatever they want, like a bunch of 19-year-olds playing math problems on the bandstand. I’m not a fan of that approach: abandoning all of our culture, and all of our norms, and saying that we have to just be new and disconnected from everything. Whether it be music or a tradition of people maintaining some modicum of presidential behavior, you see what happens when you say, “Let’s throw all that out the window.”
How did you begin working with Wynton Marsalis?
When I arrived in New York in 1997, Wynton immediately got me some arranging work, recommended me for a ton of gigs, and put me on a record of his [Big Train]. It was definitely a dream come true. And then, a couple years ago, he brought me onto the faculty of Juilliard. So, for 25 years he’s been giving me opportunities and believing in my abilities. In fact, I’m playing with him next week. We’ve been working on all these arrangements for this concert we’re doing to celebrate a new Ken Burns movie called Country Music. It’s going to be the Lincoln Center band with Emmylou Harris and Marty Stuart, and some other country musicians.
The guitarist is a believer in compulsory listening as part of a musical education. “You have to be able to get what you need to learn from music you don’t like,” he says. “And I’ve always been very cognizant of that.” Photo by Kat Hennessey
How has working with Marsalis impacted your guitar playing and conception of music?
Well, at first I noticed that there are a lot of great jazz players, but that Wynton tended not to hire any of them. So, I sort of tried to listen for what he seemed to be looking for in a musician, because I really wanted to play with him. That’s advice I give my students all the time: If you want to play with somebody, just learn their music. Learn as much as you can about what he or she is as a musician. So, I just did that. I learned a bunch of Wynton’s music, and it changed the way I played. And then listening to what Wynton said about music changed the way I played even further.
Just the way Wynton talked about Louis Armstrong made me want to learn a lot of Louis Armstrong music. So I did. I learned a lot of Duke Ellington. I learned a lot of Jelly Roll Morton. I explored these things largely because of Wynton’s influence, and because he put so much importance on it, and because I love what he did so much it just seemed to make sense that I should try to follow a similar path. Wynton had me sitting down and learning Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet solos note for note. So, I was like, I’m going to explore the work of these musicians and see what I can get from them.
Learning Wynton’s music also changed the way that I played, because it made me think about things differently. It made me think about the way a jazz band is supposed to sound, the balance of a band, how it shouldn’t sound like a rock band. The bass shouldn’t be the loudest thing. I’m so sick of hearing bass—I was ranting about this yesterday. My wife and I went to see this Aretha Franklin documentary [Amazing Grace]—by the way, Aretha’s Amazing Grace is my favorite album of all time. In any case, they got all this Aretha footage from ’72 and made this film of it. But the whole thing is remixed. It’s like they buried the keys and guitar, and it’s just tons of kick drum and bass guitar, which doesn’t sound anything like the original. It’s just maddening to me. But I digress.
What does it look like for you to get inside a Louis Armstrong solo? Do you first transcribe it, and then try to discover all the nuances and how they translate to the guitar?
I sit in a room and really try to bend the universe to make my acoustic guitar sound as much like a trumpet as I possibly can. I think a lot about timbre—on which part of the string I’m going to hit a note to get a particular color. I think that’s something that doesn’t really occur to people.
What’s it like teaching at Juilliard?
I came on faculty in 2016 as an ensemble coach, and this year I have taken on a couple of private students. I’ve been very impressed by the level the students have. They’re very advanced in many ways. They can play almost anything, they can hear, they can learn things … the speed at which they learn is unprecedented. And I believe it has a lot to do with the way that they are consuming music at such a rapid rate, thanks to YouTube and streaming. However, one thing I’m noticing is that people know a lot of things on the surface, but they don’t have the real deep understanding of music that only comes from listening to one record for hours, weeks, or months on end.
I had a student come in and blaze through this [John] Coltrane solo on the guitar. So I said, “Okay, now let’s get to the rest of it.” He said, “What do you mean?” I replied, “Well, you just played the notes and kind of the rhythms. But you hear how this note is brighter and this note’s darker? You hear how the accents are totally different, and all your accents are exactly the same?” And later he said, “I’m kind of mad at you because now when I listen to music, all I hear is this other stuff I didn’t know was there before, and now I can never go back.” And I said, “Welcome to the real world, son.”
But the students are great, and I love being around them. They inspire me, they make me practice more. I love their attitudes, and they really want to play. They know how to play. They’re all sponges, you know.
Describe some of the inspirations behind 9 for ’19.
Well, for one, I went through a really fertile period of songwriting that kind of coincided with a divorce and a horrible midlife-crisis-rebound relationship, ending when I met my current wife, [vocalist] Morgan [James]. I got so much music out of that whole experience. Part of the songs came out of this thing that [New York City-based guitarist] Adam Levy started called the Song Club. I wrote a song every week for a year. Now some of them were absolute garbage, but I did get some good ones out of it, and a few of them on this big nine-record thing come from that.
In a different direction, I found some old recordings from the late ’90s when I had this steady gig in Midtown [Manhattan], and I would record pretty much all of the gigs on a MiniDisc recorder. It’s pretty low-fi, and it’s kind of like a guitar version of the Ahmad Jamal trio stuff.
I really enjoy the track “Sleepy Time”—aka “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”—with your octet. Please tell us a bit about your arranging process.
That’s one of two selections with Wynton’s band on that recording. Wes Anderson and Wycliffe Gordon, they played in all those great Wynton septet records in the early ’90s. I went to Blue Note’s office and I met with [the late Blue Note Records president and CEO] Bruce Lundvall and he was like, “All right, we’re going to give you a little money to make a demo. And then if we like it, we’ll make a record.” So, I probably chose the wrong selection to get a record deal because Blue Note didn’t sign me.
The tune has such satisfying ensemble colors. What was the arranging process like?
Basically, I just sat at the piano or with the guitar and came up with the chord voicings that dictated the arrangement—voicings I learned from transcribing Wynton’s septet music, as well as Duke Ellington’s small-group stuff. I would just use those voicings, assign them to the horns, and try to create a palette that the guitar could fit on. And I thought for that one it would be kind of cool if I played some slide guitar, because slide was something that I also didn’t come about in the traditional way.
I started playing slide not as a result of listening to blues guitar players, but listening to early jazz players like Johnny Hodges on saxophone and Trummy Young on trombone. I was trying to emulate those early jazz sounds on slide. And I would play standard tuning when I was learning things. I wasn’t even into the open-tuning thing that I got into later. So, yeah, I was just trying to combine those sounds: a classic jazz septet and some slide guitar.
There’s also some great slide on your song “My Love.” What kind of guitar were you playing?
That was done on a style-O resonator guitar made by Amistar, which is no longer a company. I met this lovely guy from the Czech Republic some years ago at the NAMM show, and he gave me an endorsement with Amistar, who made this beautiful resonator guitar for me. He passed away a couple of years ago and the company is now called Leewald. They’re based just outside of Prague, and they make really nice instruments. I have that one still, and, more recently I’ve started playing Mule Resophonic Guitars, made by Matt Eich, out of Saginaw, Michigan. Those are my favorite guitars of all time. They’re incredible.
What do you love about them and which model do you play?
I have a brass tricone cutaway. It’s just the warmest resonator I’ve ever played. When you plug it in, with the pickups he makes, it kind of sounds like a cross between Son House and Kenny Burrell. It’s the coolest sound ever.
This performance of composer John Lewis’ “Two Degrees East - Three Degrees West” beautifully underscores guitarist Doug Wamble’s thoughts about playing from tradition, which both he and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis, do artfully. Wamble’s solo starts at 2:10.
For a close-up look at Wamble’s slide playing, check out his performance on luthier Ken Parker’s archtop named “Lucky.”