“At that point, you’d think I was a woman just let out of prison. I practiced like a maniac, took classes and private lessons in theory and arranging, joined combos, accompanied singers and played in a college/community big band for a while. I’d play anywhere they’d have me.”Laverne Christie
Laverne Christie is a busy working Jazz Guitarist residing in Las Vegas. In this interview Laverne shares her beginnings, influences and current situation. Her most recent CD showcases Laverne’s dedication and commitment to the mastery of Jazz Guitar which also comes out in her words as well. An enjoyable read.
This interview was conducted via email June, 2008. For more information on Laverne Christie check out her website at www.lavernechristie.com
JGL: If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?
LC: I don’t mind you asking.
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
LC: Las Vegas
JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing?
LC: I played piano growing up since my parents always had some kind of keyboard in the house. I was past college before I picked up anything with a guitar neck. I’ve been playing guitar for 23 years.
JGL: Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?
LC: I remember hearing Erroll Garner records at my aunt’s house and I really liked his playing. “Sing a Song of Basie” was the first album I bought as a teenager. Looking back, I guess that should have tipped it off that jazz guitar was in my future. Garner’s left hand comping was very guitaristic and, of course, Freddie Green played on the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross session. But I didn’t know how to do anything like that. I played by ear, had a few lessons and eventually taught myself to read better by playing ragtime piano. I didn’t try to play whatever the current tunes were on the radio – maybe if I had started on guitar I would have.
JGL: Can you recall that particular moment that first excited you about jazz guitar or jazz in general? The one that made you say “that’s what I want to do”!
LC: That happened twice. While still in college I started taking improv lessons at a piano studio and attended a workshop where teachers and advanced students performed. That’s when I knew that I had to find a way to do what they were doing. It seemed like a monumental task and something very far away from what I could do.
After college, I started playing bass guitar for fun and joined 3 guys who were forming a jazz group to play standards. I could read bass clef but I mostly played by ear on a fretless Fender jazz so I’d have a sound closer to an upright. Once we started to get paying gigs, I got more serious and took lessons from a jazz guitar player that I would accompany. One day I showed up early for a lesson and heard him playing a classical piece on a nylon string guitar. I thought it was the prettiest sound I ever heard and had another gotta go there moment. I left the band and switched to classical guitar at that point. I really went after it and practiced in over-drive for several years and had a chance to give a recital. I especially loved the Brazilian pieces because of their jazz-like harmonies.
JGL: Of course I realize that gender holds no sway over talent, drive or ambition, but I feel the need to ask this question for those who may find themselves in similar situations: Has the fact that you are a woman playing Jazz Guitar ever been an issue, and if so, how did you, or do you, deal with it?
LC: I don’t think it’s been a big issue. There are many exceptional classical guitarists who are women so I took it for granted that guitar was an instrument I could lear to play. Sometimes I have to explain that, no, I don’t sing. I did think I’d have a better chance of playing more often if I led a group.
JGL: Were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice?
LC: Yes, they were very supportive – my Dad was an amateur musician.
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?
LC: My first guitar was an Asturias classical. My first jazz guitar was a Gibson L5 from 1972 that had a super-high action. I was used to thicker strings so I played the L5 with the heaviest strings I could find. Shows you what I knew.
I’m currently playing a 1968 Gibson 175 (with light strings) and a jazz nylon guitar that was made for me by Rich DiCarlo – a wonderful maker on Long Island. Both guitars have necks that are slightly narrower than average.
JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?
LC: Kenny Burrell and Jim Hall early on. Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, Ed Bickert, Emily Remler later. It changes over time.
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
LC: I never tire of listening to Joe Pass. I’m a fan of Ron Eschete, Gene Bertoncini, Jack Wilkins, Doug Raney, Larry Coryell, Gene Harris and Jessica Williams. I put together a Myspace page and am amazed at the number of great jazz players you can find there and on YouTube.
JGL: Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
LC: Emily Remler. When I discovered Emily I hadn’t heard a woman play jazz guitar before. I loved her tunes, she was a master improvisor and held her own with guys twice her age. I was just knocked out by her playing. The first transcription I ever wrote down was her solo on “In Your Own Sweet Way”. I still listen to her all the time.
JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did to make this choice work for you?
LC: Not at all, I’m still surprised I wound up doing this. I have a degree in math and an advanced degree in statistics. All I knew was that I just loved playing and listening to jazz and did it all the time around the day job or even on the job. I used to listen to Pat Martino on headphones while on the computer doing statistical analysis – he probably helped me think quicker.
By the time I realized that I absolutely had to play, I had some money problems, so I purposely went after a promotion to pay off my debts faster and drop down on my working hours. It took about an extra year working before I was debt-free.
At that point, you’d think I was a woman just let out of prison. I practiced like a maniac, took classes and private lessons in theory and arranging, joined combos, accompanied singers and played in a college/community big band for a while. I’d play anywhere they’d have me. My first solo jazz gig – still on a classical guitar – was in a St. Paul coffeehouse where I played for 3 hours and got $11 in tips and a pound of coffee. I was pretty delighted with this new life – not everyone gets to be 14 years old twice.
When I moved away from the midwest, I took a lot of classes at the Jazz School in Berkeley (which has a great playing faculty) and played in many formats there. I formed my first trio and we played all over the Bay area.
I can focus solely on music these days largely because I am lucky enough to have a patron of the arts at home – my husband who supports what I’m doing 100%. I know I’m in a special place – I met a guy once whose wife broke his guitar by smashing it against the bathtub (they’re divorced now).
JGL: You play many styles of Jazz, from Bossa and Contemporary to BeBop and Swing. Is there any one style you feel particularly strong in and what prompted you to explore these genres?
LC: I play mainstream jazz for the most part so I should know how to play tunes in these styles, although a great tune from whatever era might slip into a set. I spent some extra time on Brazilian music and took some lessons from a couple of guys from Brazil when I was transitioning from classical guitar back to jazz.
JGL: You are currently playing in a trio format and you also play solo engagements. Is there a type of musical situation (ie: duo, trio, solo) you enjoy the most or does it matter?
LC: My favorite format is guitar, bass and drums. I like the energy and the interactions. I think this situation gives me the best mix of freedom and responsibility.
JGL: According to your online bio you have studied with “classical guitar master Jeffrey Van and noted jazz professionals Mimi Fox and Randy Vincent”. How influential were these artists in establishing your playing style and what experiences did you end up walking away with?
LC: I think all really good teachers allow your own sound to come out and they all did that. Jeff Van helped me improve my right hand ability to bring out the sound of the instrument. Since I don’t play with a pick, I think this is no doubt why I’m often told that my sound is calming.
I spent a lot of time on the vernacular of jazz with Mimi Fox and did plenty of transcribing (Wes and Joe Pass and Pat Martino in particular). I also transcribed some of her own solos from an early CD. I helped her with the arpeggio study book that was published by Mel Bay. Going over that material in great detail was very eye-opening, like the transcribing, in getting me away from too much inside playing.
Randy Vincent (who taught Julian Lage from an early age) showed me all kinds of harmonic possibilities with chord structures. I started working out of “Harmonic Mechanisms for Guitar” by George Van Eps while studying with Randy. I think this especially helps every time I approach a tune to play solo.
JGL: Having studied with Classical Guitarist Jeffrey Van, how do you incorporate what you have learned with Jeffrey into your everyday playing style?
LC: Jeff Van has been the classical guitar goto guy at the University of Minnesota for a long time. Sharon Isbin was one of his students. He took me on as a private student after I played for him in a master class. He led me through lots of technical studies, including Sor studies. One very important thing he showed me was how to find my own fingerings on compositions. I still play classical guitar.
JGL: When you were developing as a Jazz Guitarist what kind of studies did you work on?
LC: I was used to playing Segovia scales but had to work on the other common scales used in jazz. And I was used to playing the melody, bass and inner voices playing classical pieces all the time, so I had to spend a lot of time getting away from reading notes and learning about chords. Then later I had to learn rootless voicings to play with a bass player. I went through the David Baker books on how to play bebop.
I used to approach a chord chart like a theorem to be proved. Weaving a line through the changes was a solution and with each chorus I got a chance to solve the puzzle a different way. Improvisation seemed to me to be a lot like the work I had been doing in math and statistics.
JGL: What is your practice routine like these days? Do you work on specific things or just play tunes?
LC: I work on new tunes and changing keys. I work on trying to execute things I hear in my head. I work on what I need for the next trio gig and I work on adding classical pieces to my repertoire. If I’m working on a new jazz tune I haven’t played before, I’ll record myself comping for many choruses and use that as a backing track and record myself soloing. Then I mine my own playing for ideas I like. If there’s enough there, I feel I’m ready to add it to our trio book.
JGL: Do you teach, and if so, how does one go about studying with you?
LC: I tried teaching one of my kids when she was little but I was too overly concerned with her progress and killed off her enthusiasm. So I haven’t pursued teaching. I refer people to good teachers if I’m asked.
JGL: Could you describe some of your best musical situations or experiences and/or the worst?
LC: I had this out-of-body experience once when I was playing bass on a gig and listening to the band as if I was in the audience. I’m waiting for that to happen again but this time while I’m playing guitar. The worst situation is when it becomes clear to me that we can’t hear each other in the trio and we’re not together and the wheels are coming off anytime now.
JGL: What kind of gigs are you doing these days and do you find that you need to be more of an entertainer than a Jazz artist or does it depend on the gig?
LC: The trio plays restaurant and corporate gigs, private parties, wedding receptions and the occasional concert. We have a concert coming up in July for the City of Henderson and another for the City of Las Vegas ahead. We play jazz standards, but sometimes we’ll get a request for a special tune and we’ll do our best.
I also play for wedding ceremonies at Caesar’s Palace and at Paris which is across the street from Caesar’s on the Las Vegas Strip. For these I use a nylon string guitar and play a combination of classical pieces with jazz standards and some pop tunes. Lots of times there is little warning about requests, so it helps to know how to improvise.
I do feel that you have to be aware of your audience – fortunately, the kind of music I like to play is accessible and I hope it can be enjoyed by those who think they don’t like jazz. Maybe we can bring a few people over to Jazzland this way.
JGL: What have been the one or two weirdest gigs you had to take to “make the rent” so to speak?
LC: For my Bay area trio’s first gig, we were hired to play at a bar where they had the ballgame on the whole time we were playing. I think maybe 2 people were listening to us but the rest of the place was packed with people into the game. I have no idea why they wanted us there that night. My husband showed up midway through and later commented that we did a nice job and that occasionally the audience cheered.
JGL: How many tunes do you have in your “book” as a solo guitarist and how do you approach the role as a solo guitarist?
LC: My solo book is divided between classical, jazz standards and a few pop tunes – I try to keep about 60-70 tunes at the ready. I get tired of playing the same tunes over and over so it’s not a static repertoire. And yes, that means that I may have to relearn tunes I played before but they usually come back fast.
I play classical pieces I’ve learned from sheet music or from my own arrangements. I continue to add to this list to be ready for weddings. There’s always another gorgeous piece I haven’t played yet.
There are some tunes, including jazz standards, that I’ve been playing for a long time and because I’ve worked on them so long, I’ll play close to what I’ve played before.
Then there are the tunes that are new to me or tunes where I’m trying to find something new to say. Without a bass player, you’re completely free to play whatever you want. This is the kind of playing where I can just see where the tune leads me, but I try not to go out so far that an average non-jazz fan would think I’m playing a bunch of run-on sentences. Most of what I’m working on now comes from this group.
JGL: Are there any tips you would like to share regarding how to set up a tune for solo guitar playing?
LC: All on guitar, I try to be singer, guitarist and bass player. Sing the melody, maybe with just some chord fragments to suggest the guitar player. Play a guitar chorus starting with chords and answer with lines or vice versa. Trade fours with the singer or bass player. Don’t start the chords with walking bass thing too early and then have nowhere to go. Remember that there are lots of possibilities for inner voices. Listen and mimic the masters of this style, especially for intros and endings. Simply playing a line in a new position may suggest other chords to keep the harmony interesting.
JGL: You have one CD as a leader (“East of the Sun, West of the Moon”). Could you talk a bit about how this CD came to be and how has it helped your career?
LC: Within a month of moving to Las Vegas, I formed a new trio with bassist Mark Ruben and drummer Mike Candito. I felt lucky to find these guys. Mike is a great drummer and has played with many jazz and pop luminaries. Mark is as lit up about jazz as I have been. The three of us had great communication right from the start and I found I had a lot more to say on tunes I had been playing for a while. We put the CD together as a snapshot of our sound and as a big calling card.
Then I hired a publicist who took a liking to the CD, which turned out to be the smartest decision I could have made to get the word out. Contact Kari Gaffney – she’s the best. The CD debuted at #27 on the Roots Music Chart and has been played all over the country and has been well received with top tens in important markets. I’ve been interviewed on local radio several times. And we have gotten some great reviews at the national level.
JGL: On your CD you have some great head arrangements that freshen up the “old” standbys. How do you work out tunes with your trio so that they don’t sound empty or lacking?
LC: Thank you. As leader, I think I have the main responsibility for suggesting what tunes we’ll play and how we’ll approach tunes. I work with a loop station to try out ideas on my own so we won’t waste rehearsal time. If I have something unique to say, great. If not, I’ll try to play the tune in the style of the composer’s era as authentically as I can. If my ideas are good, my sidemen will have something to respond to and their ideas will give me something to respond to and we’ll have fun. We’ll usually have some kind of arrangement so we won’t sound like a jam band. It always helps to end together.
JGL: Your Myspace bio mentions that you have lived in Minneapolis/St. Paul, the San Francisco Bay Area and now Las Vegas. What motivated you to make the move to Las Vegas and how is it working out for you? And have you considered making the move to larger cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles?
LC: My husband wanted to live in Las Vegas. There are a lot of great jazz players here but not a lot of jazz work. Certainly the majority of tourists aren’t looking for jazz. When the Blue Note still existed here I got to see Jimmy Bruno play there one night. He’s such an incredible player and yet the house was almost empty. So at first I thought “Well, this’ll never work.” Then I discovered that Vegas is a (probably the) town for destination weddings. So I’m trying to make this work in my favor. The big cities you mention are very large ponds. I don’t mind traveling but I’m not the best mover.
JGL: How do you go about marketing yourself? Do you have an agent or do you prefer self-promotion?
LC: I have a website (www.lavernechristie.com), an online press kit and a Myspace page. The CD is available at CD Baby and the digital distributors like iTunes and Rhapsody. We’re listed locally with a couple of talent agencies. I make calls and visits and leave press kits. I’m on the internet a lot trying to find the next possible gig. I’m nothing if not relentlessly persistent. I hope to find an agent, too.
JGL: If you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?
LC: Gene Harris, because who wouldn’t want to join in when you heard his radiant, swinging, joyful playing? I was lucky enough to see him twice in person. He consistently rocked the joint and took the audience with him.
JGL: Have your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?
LC: Yes, I had several opportunities to see the lives of jazz musicians up close before I actually had any aspirations to be a jazz guitar player. Like all of the other arts, you do it because you love it.
JGL: How would you like to see your life unfold musically in the coming years and what do you think would be needed to get you there?
LC: I would like to keep adding to what I know. I’d like to find a home base for the trio. I’d like to gain a wider audience. I suspect that lots of practice and phone calls and taking every gig seriously and playing as well as I can will help.
JGL: Where would you like to see jazz guitar go in the coming years?
LC: In a perfect world, into school programs so kids get to hear jazz from an early age and the potential audience for jazz increases.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
LC: Some of the best advice I’ve heard: learn the vocabulary by transcribing, find a good teacher – not all great players are great teachers, investigate the history of jazz so you know what came before, learn to read music, take breaks so you don’t get tendinitis, be patient and enjoy life, find a way to support yourself, be aware that all gigs come to an end.
If you already play classical guitar, look into Howard Morgen’s books and some of the Japanese transcriptions of jazz tunes you can sometimes find for solo guitar in classical guitar catalogues. Sometimes with the latter, the music is there, but the text is in Japanese and you might find a strange English translation of a title (“I’m Never Falling In Again” comes to mind).
JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.
LC: Evidently, I’ve done this in reverse. I’d be a medical researcher again if guitar playing was found to be the root of all our social problems and outlawed for being addictive.
JGL: Apart from music, what else do you like to do for fun?
LC: I work out at a gym. I go listen to other musicians.
JGL: Nice! Well thank you LaVerne for participating on Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career.
LC: Thanks for including me, Lyle, and for letting me try to explain myself.
Editors note: Sadly Laverne passed away a few months after this interview. RIP Laverne.