Mentorship and oral tradition are essential parts of jazz’s lasting vitality.
I recently had the pleasure of hearing Jazz Is Dead at the Newport Jazz Festival. Led by bassist Ali Shaheed Muhammed (A Tribe Called Quest) and composer/producer Adrian Younge, the band was formed to draw inspiration from such greats as Gary Bartz, Henry Franklin, Doug Carn, Roy Ayers, Jean Carne, Lonnie Liston Smith, and others in creating new compositions and fresh arrangements of their work. The irony behind the name and ethos of this band, though, is that jazz is certainly not dead!
The Newport Jazz Festival, founded in 1954 by jazz philanthropist Elaine Lorillard and artistic director George Wein, is one of the world’s oldest jazz festivals. Its stages have been graced by many, from John Coltrane to the Allman Brothers. Since 2016, Philadelphia bass luminary Christian McBride has served as the festival’s artistic director.
Anybody who has recently attended Newport or any other major jazz festival, such as the North Sea or Montreal Jazz fest, would probably agree that the rumors of jazz’s untimely demise are greatly exaggerated. But the music is changing. If that sounds contradictory, it’s just because the very nature of jazz—or “creative music,” as I prefer to call it—is change. Some of this music’s greatest exponents—Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Nina Simone—were responsible for bringing about some of its most significant shifts. They not only changed the music from what it was when they arrived, but, as in the cases of Coltrane, Miles, and others, also completely changed their own sounds every few years, to the point of being unrecognizable to their earlier fans.
Much of the meat is not in what is written or said but in what is experienced. We must put the next generation in front of the real elders and actual players as much as possible.
The big change in jazz is an overall change in culture that affects the way this music is learned, enjoyed, and passed on. For the vast majority of its existence, jazz has been a community-based music that arose primarily from African Americans. It was a music central to Black culture, which informed art, writings, philosophy, fashion, clubs, dance, etc. for decades. And like many Black musical traditions, jazz persisted as an oral tradition, where the next generation learned from the last in close proximity, and then, in turn, taught the next generation in the same way. This is not to say that some Black jazz musicians did not study formally. But even in these cases, the real jazz education took place through mentorship outside of the classroom. Young musicians often got their start by listening to recordings of the masters, following them around to clubs, and finally spending years playing in their bands before getting the opportunity to lead their own, where the cycle began anew.
In the case of musicians such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk, their bands were the universities. They all formed part of a thread that ran from Louis Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis, Elvin Jones to Marcus Gilmore, or Jimmy Smith to Joey DeFrancesco. But that thread has been frayed as mentorship was displaced by formal education.
University education, with its regimented methodology, standardized curriculums, statistics, rules, entrance requirements, privilege, certification, and, of course, associated tuition costs, quite literally changed the face of jazz, much like the gentrification of Harlem, Philadelphia, and Chicago now pushes inhabitants out of their own communities. Young children growing up in historically Black neighborhoods in the U.S. today, for the most part, feel very little connection to jazz and may never experience it live or even ever hold a musical instrument! So, maybe more primary-to-high-school jazz education would be a good thing.
But at the higher-education level, what can be done? Formal education has its place and excels when the goal is to distribute standardized information to a large group of people at one time. In the case of creative music, where the goal is to express oneself in a unique and recognizable way that is imbued with one’s personality, the mentorship approach once typical of the jazz community is vital. Much of the meat is not in what is written or said but in what is experienced. We must put the next generation in front of the real elders and actual players as much as possible. Let the younger generation see the elders play, tell stories, interact … and maybe some of the young musicians will even get to sit in. Foster the development of real relationships and exchange.
The jazz community has sadly lost many very important players—most recently guitarist Monnette Sudler and organist Joey DeFrancesco. But these players’ legacies live on through those they mentored, like a torch being carried forward. In the post-lockdown era, the scene may not be at its most vibrant, but it is coming back and there are plenty of players who are doing some really interesting things. Jazz is not dead.
A mini masterclass in effortless swing, futuristic fusion, and dirty blues.
- Develop a deeper understanding of phrasing.
- Dig deep into the Lydian dominant scale.
- Learn to navigate tricky harmonic passages.
Ex. 1 is about as Scofield as we can get without consulting a patent lawyer, though a good case could be made that he took this idea from pianist Thelonious Monk. You can hear this descending whole-tone-based lick in many of Sco’s solos. The notes impart a strong Bb7#11 sound and the final note is pushed off the fingerboard and returned in a vibrato-like motion. That’s another great Scofield-ism that just can’t be ignored.
Turn up that chorus pedal and hone your string-skipping chops with Ex. 2, a 1980s-style 16th-note funk lick. The basic sound is G7, but with a host of alterations. The G half/whole diminished scale (G–Ab–Bb–B–C#–D–E–F) is clearly important, but it doesn’t explain everything Scofield plays. As Scofield has mentioned regarding playing over vamps like this one, “I’m not really sure what I’m doing. It’s just an in-and-out bop style.” Feel free to include chromatic approaches and blues licks as done here as well.
The IIm–V–I lick in Ex. 3 shows how Scofield could extend basic bebop mannerisms into something distinctly original. It’s clear that the thinking is F Lydian dominant (F–G–A–B–C–D–Eb) over both the Cm7 and the F7 chords. Scofield would occasionally “summarize” both chords as simply F7.
Scofield’s now-classic albums with Medeski, Martin, and Wood have garnered mass appeal among funk and jam band enthusiasts over recent decades. Most of his playing on these records is roots-based and you’ll hear plenty of straightforward, blues-inspired licks like this one (Ex. 4) in B minor.
The B Dorian (B–C#–D–E–F#–G#–A) lick in Ex. 5 is a good example of how Scofield develops a simple motive and answers it with contrasting material. Pinch harmonics can always be used in Scofield’s style. Don’t be concerned with these harmonics generating a specific pitch or even getting them to sound perfect—the randomness is all part of the charm.
Superimposing ideas in novel ways is important to Sco’s approach and a great way to generate interest over static harmonies. Ex. 6 begins with a simple root/fifth figure in Bb that’s shifted up a half-step to B, and finally resolving back to Bb at the end. It’s an effective way to establish tension and release in a line.
In recent years, Scofield has embraced a cleaner tone on some of his straight-ahead recordings. Think Vox amp and no RAT. Ex. 7 is an ever-flowing line that he might play over the first phrase of an F blues. Notice how the pickup bar is a G7 idea over the C7 and the first part of measure 1 is actually a C7 line over the F7. This kind of “misalignment” is something that intermediate players often miss, trying to faithfully match the chords all the time. Before long, the music is back on track and matching the chords in a more predictable manner, at least until the eclectic use of an A major line leading into the Bb7. Finish everything up with a Sco trademark major seventh double-stop.
Ex. 8 is a particularly guitaristic way to play over the second phrase of an F blues. Even though the line is fingered in the 6th position, why not use an open string? The open high E (a #11) gives us the opportunity to get a cool angular sound to the Bb7 line that would otherwise be impossible.
This phrase (Ex. 9), which begins in the 8th measure of the blues, shows Scofield’s mastery of bebop language. The D7b9 lick pushes into Gm7, which begins the final phrase of the 12-bar form. The IIm–V is clearly a simple sequence from C Lydian dominant (C–D–E–F#–G–A–Bb). The big lesson here is the importance of knowing your bebop fundamentals.
Now that we’ve broken out the nuts and bolts of this lesson, let’s listen to few essential Scofield tracks to get our ears right. Even jazzers were making music videos in the 1980s.
John Scofield Protocol
“Protocol” from Still Warm, has a classic fusion groove thanks to drummer Omar Hakim and bassist Darryl Jones (both of whom played with Scofield in Miles Davis’ group). Sco’s tone is wide thanks to his signature chorus sound, an often-imitated element of his style.
When Enroute landed in 2004 it instantly became a classic guitar trio album. Recorded live at the Blue Note, it featured Sco’s longtime trio of drummer Bill Stewart and mentor/electric bassist Steve Swallow. “Wee” is a “rhythm changes” tune, which isn’t that groundbreaking, but the playing takes Denzil Best’s most well-known composition to another planet.
In 1998, Scofield teamed up with funk-jazz stalwarts Medeski, Martin, and Wood for A-Go-Go, which is a standout in Sco’s discography. This was the album that introduced him to the jam band scene and informed many of his more recent albums.
As a protégé of the jazz legend, Forman spent a lot of time with his mentor’s Gibson ES-350. He’s now the owner of that instrument and is paying tribute on a fun and fantastically swinging album.
“Does an instrument really contain or possess a part of the person’s soul who plays it?” ponders guitarist Bruce Forman. “Probably not … I don’t believe in that shit.”
With his ever-present cowboy hat, and radiating a mustachioed grin, it’s hard not to get swept up in Forman’s skepticism-laced enthusiasm for the question. He’s been meditating on the idea since May 2020, when he purchased the Gibson ES-350 that belonged to his mentor, the one and only Barney Kessel. “The instruments can tell stories,” Forman preaches. “The instruments can tie generations together and they can bring people together. That’s basically what our soul is.”
If any guitar has a soul, Kessel’s guitar is it. Despite popular—and snazzily outfitted—signature models that were once offered by Gibson, Kay, and Airline, he stuck by his beloved ES-350, playing it almost exclusively on stage and in the studio. In one short YouTube video, “Barney Kessel talks about his guitar” (an excerpt from the DVD Barney Kessel: Rare Performances 1962-1991), he speaks briefly about what makes his ES-350 so special, pointing out the “high-quality” cobalt and copper in its 1939 Charlie Christian pickup, highlighting its bridge, which he says was made custom “along the principles of a fine violin bridge,” and praising the exceptionalism of the replacement knobs he took off a record player. Off camera, an interviewer asks Kessel how he feels when he plays this guitar, and he responds, “Pretty close to being in heaven.”
Kessel’s career was nothing short of legendary. In addition to his extensive and exemplary work at the forefront of the jazz world, where he advanced technical expectations and the vocabulary of the instrument, his membership in the Wrecking Crew found him recording countless pop hits and film soundtracks, making him one of the most recorded guitarists of all time. Given his close affection for his ES-350, it’s probably not overstated to say that the sound of this very guitar is embedded into our collective consciousness, which makes it a treasure.
But for Forman, the ES-350 is so much more than that. It’s a living artifact of his mentor.
“Barney was really funny. He had a great sense of humor, and so did Ray and Shelley. They could have been standup comedians.
Putting On the Gloves
Forman’s relationship with Kessel goes back to the mid-1970s. The Texas-born guitarist was a jazz-obsessed teen, which he says made him a bit of a “Mr. Magoo” once his family moved to San Francisco, where he was disinterested by the city’s thriving rock ’n’ roll culture. Rather, he attended jazz concerts and workshops frequently enough that Kessel began to take notice. Forman was eventually able to impress the older guitarist with his playing, and by 1978, Kessel hired the young devotee, who was just 21 or 22 years old.
“The first official gig where I was hired to play with him was in San Francisco,” he explains. “We played duo, then we both played solo, then there was a rhythm section, so we’d each play a trio tune. Then, he chose me to go on the road with him for a European tour of established master and upstart young guy—that was a big thing in the ’70s and ’80s.”
Kessel didn’t just choose Forman because he was a young talent that he wanted to support. He was looking for a sparring partner, and Forman had proven himself a worthy adversary. “When you play with him, it’s like a knife fight. He’s there to compete in a very cutthroat manner,” says Forman. “He wants to win, even though he appreciates you when you play great. He doesn’t want to make you play bad, but he wants to push it to the edge of his ability.” Forman insists he rose to the occasion and says, “It wasn’t easy for him, and I got him a couple of times. I knew what we were doing, and I was there for it. I think he liked that about me, as much as he might have hated me a couple of moments in the middle of it.”
TIDBIT: While Forman and company would have loved to work in the studio where the Poll Winners recorded their albums, the Contemporary Records building in Los Angeles no longer exists. Instead, they chose guitarist/producer Josh Smith’s Flat V Studio, in San Fernando Valley, and found photos of the original sessions in order to approximate miking techniques.
The two remained close as Forman’s career blossomed. Soon, he was playing alongside other jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, and Shelly Manne, simultaneously building an extensive discography, which includes releases on the Muse and Concord labels. He also became a committed educator through his work as a professor at University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, where he’s become a mentor to countless students—most notably guitarist Molly Miller.
In 1992, Kessel—who was born in 1923—suffered a stroke that left him unable to play. Forman says that he would visit him and his wife, Phyllis, at their San Diego home and he would play the ES-350 for them. “Phyllis would bring it out. I don’t know if Barney really wanted me to play it for him,” he remembers. “He had a stroke and it was hard to read his emotions. She really wanted to hear it, and she wanted me to make sure it wasn’t falling apart sitting in the case.”
After Kessel passed in 2004, Forman continued to visit Phyllis and the ES-350. It was on one of these occasions that he had the notion to pay tribute to his mentor. “I had this idea that we should re-visit the Poll Winners with this guitar,” he explains.
“When you play with him, it’s like a knife fight. He’s there to compete in a very cutthroat manner.”
Then, There Were Three
In 1957, Kessel, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Shelley Manne were at the top of their game and topping the jazz polls that appeared in the magazines DownBeat, Playboy, and Metronome. Confidently assuming the band name the Poll Winners, the trio recorded a series of five albums for Contemporary Records, the first four of which—The Poll Winners, Ride Again!, Poll Winners Three, and The Poll Winners Exploring the Scene—appeared between 1957 and ’60 and helped to usher in the popularization of guitar/bass/drums jazz-trio instrumentation.
“We have to realize those records were Earth shattering,” Forman enthuses. “Before that, there may have been some guitar/bass/drums bands, but not that I know of in the history of jazz. The guitar was in a band with multiple guitars, like Django or George Barnes, or it was in a vibes and bass kind of trio, like Red Norvo and Benny Goodman, or they were in with a piano, like Oscar Peterson or Nat Cole or Ahmad Jamal. The guitar/bass/drums … our instrument had not really grown to that level of responsibility and maturity in jazz.”
The heart of Forman’s concept for a tribute record was that the three Poll Winners’ instruments would be played by their protégés, all of whom were friends and collaborators. “John Clayton, who’s a Ray Brown protégé, has Ray’s bass. I knew that Monterey Jazz Festival had a set of Shelley’s drums, and I knew a guy in Portland who had a set of Shelley’s drums, and Jeff Hamilton, the reason he’s in L.A. is because Shelley brought him to take over [for him] in the L.A. Four. And I played in the trio with Ray and Jeff.”
Bruce Forman’s Gear
The trio that recorded Reunion!, from left to right: Bruce Forman and Kessel’s ES-350, drummer Jeff Hamilton, and bassist John Clayton.
- 1946 Gibson ES-350 formerly belonging to and modified by Barney Kessel
Strings and Picks
- D’Addario Chromes flatwounds (.014–.018–.026w–.035–.045–.056)
- Dunlop Primetone 1.0 mm picks
- Gibson BR-3
- Henriksen Bud TEN
- Morgan JS12 Josh Smith Signature
But this tribute project would require a big favor from Phyllis Kessel, since Forman didn’t actually own his mentor’s guitar. “She said, ‘Boy, that’s great,’ but when she realized I had to take the guitar and play on it for a while, and probably get it set up, that was not cool. She wanted it totally in her possession.”
Eventually, Phyllis decided to sell the ES-350, and Forman suggested the auction house that handled the sale. “We both believed that it was extremely valuable. I didn’t want anything to do with it because I didn’t trust myself. Who knows how that could cloud my judgement in terms of getting the best thing for her,” he explains. But in 2018, the guitar sold for just a fraction of what either of them expected, purchased by “a guy from Oklahoma who loved Charlie Christian,” just like Kessel.
Forman and the buyer soon became email pals, sharing their affection for Kessel’s music. But between maintaining a regular gigging schedule and his teaching job at USC, Forman has a full plate, so he put the idea of the Poll Winners tribute to rest.
“We have to realize those records were Earth shattering.”
A Visit From a Ghost
Everything about this project changed in April 2021, when Forman swears he had a visitation from beyond: “I was playing at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, and I’m driving up there and, I swear to God I’m not bullshitting, there was a moment when he [Kessel] was sitting there next to me. I couldn’t see him—this wasn’t a hallucination. I could just feel his presence. I could even smell his after-shave. He wore this kind of weird cologne shit. The whole drive up there, I’m thinking about Barney. I can’t shake it—didn’t even want to listen to music because I was too deep in all these memories. I get to the club, and I realize I played here with Barney about 35 years ago, but meanwhile I’ve played that club dozens and dozens of times, and I’d never once thought of Barney.
“I get inside of the club, and I still can’t shake Barney. He’s just there. So, I email the guy who had the guitar and said, ‘I’m having this heavy Barney Kessel flashback. I’m in this club we played years ago. Hope you’re getting along with the guitar. If you ever want to let it go, please let me get first crack.’ That’s all I said.
While Kessel’s ES-350 and Gibson BR-3 amplifier show plenty of signs of wear, they sound alive as ever on Reunion!
Photo by Patrick Tregenza
“Went up and played my set, came back, looked at my emails and I had gotten an email from him, and he said, ‘Bruce, it’s amazing you contacted me now. I just decided it’s probably best for me to sell the guitar. I don’t want to leave it for my wife or my kids. It’s too weird a thing to leave it to somebody else to have to deal with. The reason I bought it in the first place was to keep it from going into the hands of a collector who would take it out of circulation. So, I’d really love for someone like you who had a connection to Barney to have it. If you just give me what I paid for it, if you come and get it, and if you give me a guitar lesson, you could have it.’”
Two weeks later, Forman was headed to Colorado to pick up the guitar. When he returned home, Forman shot his own video with Barney’s guitar (which can be found in the Kickstarter page for the Reunion! project). As he goes over the details of the guitar, we get an up-close look at the finer details and see how it has changed over time. Kessel made extensive alterations to the instrument through the years, from replacing the fretboard and tuners, to painting the headstock black when he “went to war with Gibson.” The trapeze piece is rusty, as is the over-sized replacement jack plate that may be supporting the guitar’s significantly cracked sides. Hearing Forman play it, the ES-350 is alive as ever. It’s a bright and responsive instrument, and the always-smiling guitarist seems to approach every note and chord with pure joy. (There’s plenty of evidence on Forman’s Instagram, too, where he documents his “first chorus of the day.”)
“There was a moment when he [Kessel] was sitting there next to me. I couldn’t see him—this wasn’t a hallucination. I could just feel his presence.”]
The Reunion! Sessions
By the summer, Forman, John Clayton, and Jeff Hamilton headed into guitarist Josh Smith’s Flat V Studio with their respective mentor’s instruments. Forman even brought Kessel’s Gibson BR-3 amp, which a friend gave him as a gift (though he also used a Henriksen Bud TEN and a Morgan JS12). They wanted to pay tribute to, but not re-hash, the Poll Winners albums. “It’s a tribute but it’s not a tribute in the way most people do tributes. It’s really more like kids getting together playing their parents’ instruments,” says Forman.
Rather than taking the most obvious route and covering tunes on the original albums, the trio looked for a more personal way to evoke their mentors. Throughout his arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “This Is New,” Forman uses the intro figure that Kessel played on “Cry Me a River,” which he recorded with vocalist Julie London, as a recurring motif. Forman says that’s “probably the most famous thing he did.” His “Barney’s Tune” is an original based upon the jazz standard “Bernie’s Tune,” where he uses sliding harmonized thirds to recall Kessel’s style. The sole entry on Reunion! that also appeared on The Poll Winners is the jazz standard “On Green Dolphin Street.” But even on that track, Forman takes a different approach, injecting it with the feel of the once-omnipresent guitar showpiece “Malagueña.”
Kessel’s guitar’s case still wears this hand-written luggage tag from its former owner.
Photo by Patrick Tregenza
“Barney was really funny. He had a great sense of humor, and so did Ray and Shelley,” Forman says, and laughs. “They could have been stand-up comedians. And a lot of times in the music, they do silly, funny-ass shit [like that] that was just really cool.”
While the loose and playful feeling of the Poll Winners is always part of the music on Reunion!, Forman’s personality and musical voice plays the biggest role. He’s a fiery player whose deft, energetic chording propels the songs with swinging style, while his zesty melodic lines fly off the fretboard. Much like Kessel, he plays from the gut with a palpable sense of enthusiastic glee. And while Kessel is, obviously, a huge influence, Forman’s playing also reveals a love for his favorites, Charlie Parker and Count Basie. At this point in his long career, though, he mostly just sounds like himself. Hearing him play on Kessel’s gear, the tone of the ES-350 incorporates so well with his style and it just seems to make sense.
”As Forman tells it, that’s what Barney knew all those years ago: “On one of the first days of one of the first tours [with Kessel], he said, ‘Do you ever wonder why I picked you?’ And I said ‘yeah.’ I could name four or five guys I would have expected him to pick. He said, ‘I picked you because you play the way I play, but you don’t sound like me.’ Which is kind of cryptic, you know?” he laughs. “But I got it—he’s right.”