Gary Schwartz Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

“Then you know what I’m talking about. That’s what happened…that’s where “Rejoicing” came from. Billy Higgins’ and Charlie Haden… man, come on! This is the real deal. It showed me a side of Pat’s approach which really appealed to me. I remember talking to Abercrombie about that and about the whole idea of releasing and playing free. That conversation really helped me deal with open forms in a more confident way.”

Gary Schwartz

Gary Schwartz is a busy and well respected player and educator in Montreal. In this insightful and entertaining interview Gary shares with us the early years back in the day as well as his informative thoughts on teaching and life as a musician. A definite must read indeed.

This interview was conducted at his home in June, 2004. It’s a long one folks so grab a hot beverage and curl up on the couch! You can reach Gary Schwartz via email by clicking here.

JGL: How old are you?

GS: I’m 53.

JGL: And you reside in Montreal?

GS: Yes.

JGL: Were you born in Montreal?

GS: Yeah…I was born and raised here.

JGL: Let’s talk a bit about the early years. What got you into guitar, and were you involved in Jazz right away or were there other forms of musical interest before jazz?

GS: Actually, I’m not sure why it was guitar. I know there was music on both sides of my family. My mother played violin in high school and I had an uncle who was singing in musical theatre productions… Music Man, South Pacific. There was a scene for that here. We’re talking about the mid to late 50’s.

JGL: You mean like the Pit Musicians…?

GS: Well yeah, I was interested in the musicians but I didn’t relate to it like that. It was more like “Oh look, there’s my uncle”.

JGL: Was there a guitar in the house at that time?

GS: No, there was no guitar in the house. I started on classical guitar when I was 10 years old with a woman named Florence Brown. She played folk style guitar (Odetta, Pete Seeger), had performed at Carnegie Hall and gave classical lessons. Within the first six months she told my parents that she wanted to refer me to someone she knew in Spain who was running the Segovia summer guitar camp. Remember… we are in 1960 so being involved in music was not a desirable career choice.

We don’t realize how much things have changed. Now you can’t imagine people not having some kind of musical instrument or listening device in their homes. You know that joke about how you know that your students grew up in another era… when they have never even seen a vinyl record. Now everybody listens to music. More people are involved in making music because it’s fun. Amateur players get together on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon and have their houses fixed up with recording studios and complete sets of equipment. Well that’s a result of what I just mentioned. The attitude has changed enormously but it was very different when I was a kid. My teacher’s recommendation for Spain was out of the question. I lost interest and my practising went down hill but that didn’t mean I stopped playing. When I was around 11 or 12, the Beatles came out and I was pretty impressed with that.

JGL: Did you see that famous Ed Sullivan show…

GS: Yeah, sure…I bought the first Beatles record that I ever had out of the back of a car …it was a 45… “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” with the picture of them on the sleeve.

JGL: Sure…

GS: That was prior to them coming over to North America. I never owned my own electric guitar until much later but I did my first gig when I was 12, and my first gig in a club when I was 13.

JGL: Wow…

GS: Those were the days when they had music starting in the afternoon and had bands playing throughout the day. There were so many people getting into music… there were gigs everywhere. I actually made more money playing in bands during the time I was in high school than I did sometimes playing professionally early on in my career. I played at my elementary school graduation. Here I am, 12 years old …it was a big deal. I just wanted to play. Of course, somebody else always had the guitar and I borrowed it.

Then when I was 13 or 14 I found Jazz. I was relatively young, but I had an uncle who was into Oscar Peterson. He was a piano player and he had all of Oscar’s recordings. I would listen to them and I didn’t know what to think. I was blown away.

One of the first jazz records I bought when I was around 15 was “Let’s Cook” with Barney Kessel and Leroy Vinegar (bass) and I started getting into them…I was in a band and we were playing arrangements from the back pages of DownBeat. I had taken 6 months of classical lessons and here I was trying to read jazz charts. The band had a piano player who doubled on clarinet, a drummer who doubled on bass, a bass player who doubled on trumpet and I played guitar and baritone horn. The drummer’s father was an old style drummer who liked Gene Krupa and he would turn us on to all of the modern records like Coltrane, Miles, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and even some Ornette. Everybody was playing music…everybody. Throughout high school, I really wanted to go to music school but there was no way that that was going to happen.

JGL: Did you have a particular music school in mind?

GS: Oh yeah. I wanted to go to Berklee, but it was proportionately as expensive as it is today… too much for my means. I was playing clubs and my orientation started to change because I wound up playing solo guitar gigs. Right around that period I discovered Leo Kotke, who had just become popular, Peter Lange and John Fahey. This was the New American folk music in the tradition of Doc Watson and it included the twelve string guitar. I had all that finger style technique down from my classical lessons and I still have it. I was never really a rocker. I didn’t have the feel for it. Actually, I was even a singer in a band for a while (which is why I don’t sing anymore.)

JGL: Was that more of a rock thing?

GS: More like a blues thing. John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon…all that stuff. That was the only time I played in a band and didn’t play guitar. I also loved R & B and I love playing that style to this day. That’s why it was so much fun to see the success of “Standing in the Shadows of Motown”…seeing three guitar players on those sessions playing really simple parts. It’s the perfect description of playing in the pocket. I have always been into jazz though. There was something that really hooked me.

JGL: Was it the obvious improvisational aspect of it or was it the music as a whole…?

GS: It was the sound of the music and everything that went into that. When I started in my mid teens, 14 or 15, I started to look at it more seriously. The song forms were different than I was used to. The Beatles were sophisticated but they were far from the Tin Pan Alley guys who came from a whole other generation and wrote music for shows. This is where a lot of the standard repertoire for jazz came from. Now, there is a new set of American pop song standards. Herbie Hancock released “New Standards” and listen to what’s happening on that record. The Beatles never played Norwegian Wood like that. I did a version of the song in one of my combos. Great reharmonization…just to think, a pop tune could be changed that way and work so well within the Jazz style.

I got into Jazz guitar a little more seriously in my late teens. My first book was the Mickey Baker Method which demonstrated lots of progressions and lines. I never studied with anyone for a long period of time. I would take the occasional lesson from some of the guys in town but I just wanted to work out the changes. Besides, I was working all the time. I always loved harmony. My education in Jazz was much more street than school and even a little left of center because I tried to find my focus using the language I could get to as compared to copying all kinds of solos. I did eventually go back and work on transcriptions and vocabulary.

One of the biggest compliments I have ever received was from a famous piano player here in Montreal who told me that whenever I played, he knew it was me. At the time, I didn’t get what he was saying because I was very insecure about my playing. I eventually understood that he was talking about the development of a musical identity. I try and project that kind of thinking when I am teaching in school and talking to my classes or to my students because it’s real. It is fine to draw on someone else’s playing because we all need models but none of the people whom we admire would be who they were/ are if they didn’t work on sounding like themselves. It’s unfortunate because we are in the carbon-copy era. There are so many killer technical players around and it almost gets to the point where it’s overwhelming but then you realize that it’s smoke and mirrors a lot of the time

JGL: It’s expectations right? People go to see a show or to see a particular guitar player and especially in Jazz, that’s the most impressive thing, generally speaking….

GS: Yeah, it’s always impressive but the really great thing is that there are players on the scene who are going the other way. The best example is Jim Hall. I remember reading something in the New Yorker club listings like, “Jim Hall, the slowest guitar player on earth.’

JGL: Yeah…you read interviews today by the players who are out there now, who are “guitar-slingers”, but they all say, Jim Hall is their main influence.

GS: You know, he changed the things that were the easiest to alter. Remember that Jim’s initial important contributions were melodic. It was a matter of articulation, the development of vocabulary and not being afraid to play the guitar the way that you play it. Man, just listen to the “Bridge”! How can you get two instruments, approaches, that are so completely opposite. I mean, there’s Sonny Rollins who is playing his ass off coming out of the bebop/hardbop thing sounding so comfortable, and there’s Jim, playing what he can and it changed everything. All of a sudden you have this angular, kind of intervallic stuff, and it’s very legato instead of the machine gun thing that the Bebop players, generally speaking, subscribe to. Everything changed after that. So Jim was one of the guys who really influenced me.

JGL: Who were the others?

GS: Kenny Burrell was always a big influence because of his sound. It didn’t matter what he played. He always sounded like he was just dripping… you know…he was so bluesy. And then…I loved Benson to death…he was so soulful. I had a hard time with all the guys who were dissin’ him about his commercial stuff. Listen to what he’s playing. “Weekend In LA” still has to rate as one of the most kick-ass records, and that band…just amazing. George can play changes anytime he wants, sings great and he can get down and funk you out of your pants too! I was into Martino for a while and Wes and Joe Pass.

I liked all those guys and they are the reason why I started doing transcriptions because I needed and was ready to learn some more language. I seriously got into Clifford Brown. I love the trumpet and I think the language of the instrument is much closer to the guitar than the saxophone. Even though the saxophone is such a legato instrument, I think the way lines are played on a trumpet are closer structurally, to the guitar.

In the mid-seventies I found Jim and Ed Bickert. Ed was a huge influence on me. I went a little deeper and I discovered Lenny Breau. His complete concept of playing is hard to believe. I got to know Ed a little bit when he started doing gigs in town in the mid-80’s and 90’s. I would talk to him every so often. He doesn’t come here any more and I don’t know how much playing he’s doing in Toronto. I heard that he’s semi retired.

I have always been attracted to the guys in another corner. I don’t really care if they are popular or not and John Abercrombie was one of those guys. I eventually met him when he came here to record an album. We hung out and talked and he told me that living in New York was no picnic. I mean he didn’t start making a living until 10 or 12 years after he got there. Peter Leitch, who is a killer player said the same thing. I was interested in Abercrombie because he was a fusion guy, but more from jazz than rock. He would use a jazz mentality but change the sound of the guitar to fit other situations. As a result of meeting John, I started checking out Mick Goodrich and found out that he taught John Scofield, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell. It took me a while to appreciate Metheny and it was “Rejoicing” that did it for me. That was a seminal record.

JGL: Which some people put on the shelf as being one of the lesser impacting Metheny albums…

GS: Perhaps as far as his career is concerned but it shows artistic development from another side of his playing.

JGL: Also the way in which it was recorded. His sound was very dark in contrast to his previous albums where his sound was “happier” and brighter…

GS: Well it wasn’t the Pat Metheny group. In fact, right around that time he came to town and did ten days at Club Soda…

JGL: Yeah I know…I was at all ten shows…

GS: Then you know what I’m talking about. That’s what happened…that’s where “Rejoicing” came from. Billy Higgins’ and Charlie Haden… man, come on! This is the real deal. It showed me a side of Pat’s approach which really appealed to me. I remember talking to Abercrombie about that and about the whole idea of releasing and playing free. That conversation really helped me deal with open forms in a more confident way.

Then after that you have Scofield who basically just blew me away. Here was a guy who was so unlike what my choices had been in guitar players. I mean the sound, the line, the harmonic concept, but the attack was all Jim, totally legato but playing a 335 chorused and Ratted? …and what I loved about him was that he was like loud and proud. He didn’t mind saying “I love Rock n Roll”. Later, Bill Frisell solidified textural playing for me with influences which seemed to come from another world. By the way, just let me mention another guy that I like very much is Brad Shepik, He’s with Dave Douglas and the Tiny Bell trio. I really like the way he plays… very “earthy” to me.

JGL: I’ll be sure to check him out. Now, we have gone from roughly the early fifties to present day, yet you haven’t brought up any of the Fusion cats like Larry Coryell in his Eleventh House days or DiMeola and Return to forever. What was your reaction to that form of music at the time and was it something you got into?

GS: In fact, if we can just take it back a little bit, one of the major influences in my musical life was Miles. You know…look what he did. First of all, it’s his “fault” that there’s fusion…every band, minus Larry Coryell, came out of a “Silent Way”… the Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Return to Forever, (Chick Corea), Weather Report, (Joe Zawinul/Wayne Shorter), Headhunters, (Herbie Hancock) which is the extremely funky part of fusion which is what I got into. I might be missing somebody here.

JGL: John McLaughlin…

GS: Right. Mahavisnu. And that was another thing…but you see, I didn’t get into Mahvisnu,. I didn’t get into Return to Forever. To a point, I got into Weather Report but not so much. I got into Lifetime especially because it was organ, guitar and drums.

There was that one live record that I remember…I was playing with a piano player and I we just came back from a gig and I remember putting that album on and…oh man…and then of course there was the very strong R&B period that came out parallel to that. That was the thing about the mid 70’s, Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, Tower of Power and Sly, a little before that…all this was exploding in the 70’s and I was very, very drawn to that because I was very connected to R&B and James Brown, . Man oh man there were all kinds of things happening at the same time. But as far as fusion goes…no…for me, the sound that I was looking for was not so much pyrotechnics, which was in fact what some of that sounded like to me, as compared to a band like Headhunters which was just grooving and very organic. And an album like Return to Forever’s “Light as a Feather”, well that album is in the history books. Beautiful record, but that isn’t Return to Forever.

JGL: Not as we think of them today…

GS: Right. That was a side project. The playing and compositions are wonderful but it is not fusion as we know it. If you are talking about fusiony stuff, and here I go again with the trumpets, Freddie Hubbard, and Benson, and all the CTI stuff (White Rabbit – Benson, Mr. Clean and Red Clay – Hubbard).

When the real onslaught, if you’ll pardon the expression, of fusion came about, that’s where I went with the R&B albums. I would wait for a new Stevie record, I would wait for a new Earth Wind and Fire record, I would wait for a Headhunters record. I looked for “Thrust” and it took me forever to find it CD format. In fact, I play one of those arrangements in my band at school. So you know…this is some serious music. Those are the things I was attracted to and I guess you can pick up on the fact that they are hard edge but not hard edge in a rock way. It’s not Al Di Meola. It’s different… One of the fusion guys that I really like is Scott Henderson, who is a deadly player. He’s actually made something happen with that, with that kind of guitar playing.

JGL: Definitely…let’s talk a bit about your early gigs. Did you devote yourself to strictly jazz gigs?

GS: I never devoted myself completely to that. I always had commercial gigs. I played hotel gigs, shows like “tits-and-ass” reviews which were Montreal’s version of Las Vegas or the Can-Can. After the gig, I would go sit in at clubs, things like that. I played Biddles, and L’air Du Temps, all those clubs. Over the years clubs have come and gone and I’ve played pretty much played all of them, but I never truly devoted myself to become a Jazz player because I was too afraid.

JGL: Really?

GS: Yeah. And these are of course my own personal hesitations but the thing that really put me overboard was going to see Bill Evans in the early 80’s at the Rising Sun and walking in on a Thursday night…and you know…this is Bill Evans…my hero…I mean there are seminal guys in everybody’s life. Bill is one, Miles is one, Jim is one and Ed is one…you know…these people really change you …I go in there after having played two shows, because at that time I was playing thirteen shows a week on a hotel gig. Bill’s trio, with Eliot Zigmund and Marc Johnson is playing and there are only six people in the club. I see Bill Evans get into an argument with the club owner because the piano was supposed to be tuned and it sounds like shit. This is Bill Evans! The man who forever changed the jazz piano trio…this is THE guy…and I’m watching this and I realized that I wanted a life. It got to the point with me that I was so fed up meeting people who validated other people because of the fact that they played well instead of the fact that they were really good people who played music. I just couldn’t believe it and I have a hard time getting into the jive…you know…the elbow nudging and all that. To tell you the truth I don’t even like going out to clubs which became a heavy blow to my career.

JGL: And your paycheck…?

GS: Well no…not my paycheck…and that’s my whole point…it has nothing to do with paychecks because I was always working. I was the one who always took the gigs that my jazz friends didn’t want. In fact it was always those gigs that allowed me to be where I am now, and I love music even more and I like to think that my playing is better now than it has ever been because I am more into it, I practice differently and I cut the crap with myself…I give myself a break. I’m not constantly downing myself or anything of that nature. You’ve got to give yourself a chance otherwise you’ll never allow yourself to go forward. It’s too easy to only hear the bad stuff.

JGL: So it was a positive move to distance yourself from the scene…

GS: It wasn’t even a matter of distancing myself, it’s just the way it was….

JGL: For survival…?

GS: No…because that’s the way I was…I mean I have been playing in clubs since I was thirteen years old so I’m definitely not going to hang out at a club unless there is someone I really want to see. I just don’t go to the clubs to shoot the shit…it’s not my idea of a good time. It’s weird…I’ve been a musician for forty years and I’ve never really hung out at clubs for any length of time. People tell me that I should hang out more but it’s my choice and now I can play with people that I want to play with who want to play with me. When I want to get a gig I go and hussle one. It runs in cycles. Now it’s getting harder to find work but I’ve never had a problem with gigs when I had a project to present.

JGL: Do you think that this way of thinking has isolated you?

GS: Yeah…for sure it has, but I’m trying to live my life in a way that I’m ok with. Plus, I’ve been teaching at the University (Concordia) for a long time. So in a way I have had the luxury to live my life with greater control so I wouldn’t be stuck in a corner and forced to take shitty work. For me a bad rock gig, or a bad blues gig, or a bad funk gig, or a bad jazz gig are the same thing…I mean when it starts to take your taste away from playing, then you know it’s time for reorientation and I want to be playing when I’m eighty.

JGL: Let’s talk a bit about your thoughts on institutional learning. I guess the obvious question would be if a school is the place for students can learn how to improvise in?

GS: As far as improvisation goes, you can be shown basic things like chord/scale relationships, rhythmic concepts, ear-training, critical listening techniques but I don’t think you can be shown how to blow. This part of the process is completely personal and it differentiates one player from another. What I have found is that confidence levels are low and this is what educators really have to work on. The classroom should be a place where students put their egos aside and just play. I encourage them to allow references and personality to come out because that’s what great improvising is. However, instrumental skills and stylistic direction have to be solid in order for continuity to take place. I always have to deal with a broad range of levels in my classes and as a result, the material must be presented in a very flexible way. This can be a very positive thing because it stimulates creative thinking which in turn helps to develop individualized approaches to blowing concepts.

JGL: The guitar duos that have come out of your improv classes seem to work rather well.

GS: There have been some pretty good groups of all combinations in that class. One year, I had a group that was made up of drums, piano, tuba and clarinet and they sounded just great. The guitar duo is a sensitive situation but it can sound absolutely spectacular. Guitar players like to play together for some reason.

A classic record is “Grace Under Pressure” with John Scofield and Bill Frisell. The thing is to get two people who don’t play the same way. In this instance you couldn’t ask for more opposite approaches than Scofield and Frisell. Then there’s “I Can See Your House From Here”, the Metheny-Scofield duo album and way before that was the Abercrombie-Scofield album, Solar. Ed Bickert did a duo record with Oliver Gannon for CBC. Then there’s the famous Jim Hall duets record “Dialogues” and he also did a record with Metheny. I think Joe Pass and Herb Ellis also did one.

JGL: Well that’s the cool thing about guitar players. They love to play together. It is not a competitive thing but rather out of mutual respect. One thing I would like to ask for the benefit of the younger readers is information on auditions for a music program in University or College jazz studies?

GS: Ok…well… they should definitely have their tunes prepared and they should project as much confidence as possible under those very weird circumstances. As strange as it sounds, they should have the gear that they need, like working guitar cables or play along records. Basically you must project self sufficiency and focus. You’re coming in and showing that you are in control… that you have your shit together and that you are there for real!

JGL: Ok…

GS: I’m not saying that it can’t happen the other way, where people come in and they are completely scattered but are “knock-outs” when they play. Generally speaking, auditioners see a lot of people and their interest gets peaked when they meet someone who is focused.

JGL: As you’re sitting in those chairs watching someone do an audition, what are you looking for as an educator? What will excite you about one student over another?

GS: I am looking for focus, direction, depth and intention. If those things are there it’s going to show. The student tells us what they need from the school… most people don’t know that. It’s hard to do auditions for both sides. I am very sensitive to the fact that some people may not function well in this type of situation. Even though people get very nervous, I can still hear if they have some music in them.

JGL: So how bad do you have to be to not be accepted?

GS: In order for me to reject someone, preparation is lacking and attitude is not focused. As well, their desires have little or nothing to do with the style(s) that are going on at the school. One of the things that really kills me is when someone comes in and we say “ok, what are you going to play?” and what I hear is: “Well, there’s this little thing that I just wrote.” That’s not a good signal for me because eleven times out of ten it’s nothing. It’s some progression with a lot of theatrics involved. I try to make the person as comfortable as I can so that they will be able to play as well as possible. This is not an easy situation and it could just very well be the turning point in someone’s life. Acceptance also depends on the general level of all the people auditioning. Strong players might be rejected because of a lack of space.

JGL: True. This leads me to my next question. Do you think that there is a greater benefit going through an academic institution rather than doing it on your own through private study or other means?

GS: Oh yeah, sure…there are benefits…but any way you cut it, it starts with the person. If you want to do it, you’ll find a way. Many universities allow auditing and that pretty much says it all. They realize that people want to take advantage of the resources but not necessarily register in degree programs. So there are ways to do it if you don’t want the paper. The degree will allow you to obtain more paper. It will not necessarily make you a better player. If you do not have the desire, the regimen, the outlook to work and focus on your playing, then going to school for 99% of the people will not be that beneficial. Taking courses means following a cross-section of information which is not necessarily directly related to your field of study.

Sometimes my students come for their lessons and they say that they couldn’t do the work because they had other class assignments to finish. The motivated student will take advantage of the background courses without sacrificing his goals. When does the point arrive when those classes become more important than your instrument? It is important for students to understand that instrumental studies are organized and demanding as well. That’s the reason why I put conditions on certain basic things in my lessons For example, if you don’t finish the reading book, you fail…

JGL: Really!? What book is it?

GS: The Berklee book…Melodic Rhythms. It’s basic reading and the studies are prepared. At the very least, students will go through it and come to terms with the real basic rhythmic figures that they are going to meet in their musical lives. Will school make you a better player? Not necessarily. School, for some people, has actually made them worse players and they admit it. School has actually taken them away from their desire to play their instrument. My whole life is focused around performance and I can’t accept that you constantly have other situations to use as excuses to stay off the instrument. If this is the case, it means your priorities are not there, so don’t complain when I push you. If I didn’t push you, I would get bored…you do not want me to get bored. I’m not so nice and I don’t project a caring attitude when I get bored. “So you didn’t do all your work. What did you do? Did you at least think about the stuff you didn’t do?” It’s amazing how many people don’t think when they practice about what they are practising.

JGL: Can you expand on that statement?

GS: Sure. You should be practising what you can’t play, not what you can play. There seems to be a big ball of confusion about this. There could be a warm up period whereby you do exactly that, warm up the muscles in your hands and forearms. It’s a physical instrument that we are touching and we use muscles in varied and precise ways. It’s like any other workout that you need to warm up to. Otherwise you may cramp up or worse, wind up with tendinitis, which had happened to a few of my students. They over-practised and didn’t pay attention to the signs their bodies were giving them. You can warm up in all kinds of ways playing with scale forms, connections, arpeggios or whatever.

I think a strong practice routine is something adhered to, not something which is necessarily super long. I don’t think people should practice for long periods of time without breaks. I’d say the maximum amount of time, especially if you are doing chops things, should be twenty minutes to half an hour because then your mind starts to wander and you stop paying attention to what you are doing. The whole idea is to pay attention! Don’t force. I think you should creep up on things. Break things down into small parts… small units. If you are very focused, working on something for a minute can seem like an hour. So take breaks and of course, be organized.

You have to know what to practice. Your routine doesn’t have to be the same everyday. Changing what you do for some people is probably a good idea but it should revolve around the same things. In other words, don’t drill the same key everyday. Break things up. It’s just a matter of realizing that when you sit down, you are progressing. So when you get up you can honestly say “I’m doing this a little better.”

There’s also a thing about how to practice pieces. What many people do is practice errors. They reinforce their mistakes. If you are playing something, and lets say we are starting from the beginning and we’ll call the beginning bar number one, you could play all the way to bar nine and then you have a problem with bar nine, you don’t go back to bar one. First thing you do is you isolate the problem, you “pull out” bar nine and do it really slowly. You should always practice at a tempo you can make because that’s what’s going to encourage you to go on. Not failing, but succeeding at what you are trying to work on. No one really tells us this. They just give us things to learn but they don’t tell us HOW to learn. Or we don’t ask “ok…but how do you do this?” It’s not rocket science, its playing guitar!

JGL: True. But I think the expectation of it is that what we have in front of us, the music, concepts, or whatever, should be enough to…

GS: Enough to do what…?

JGL: Well we should have enough intrinsic sense to…

GS: Make our way?

JGL: Yes…

GS: But what happens if you don’t know how to make your way?

JGL: Well that’s the thing…we have a ton of resources to “make our way” with, but no real sense as to how to use it fully to our advantage as players…speaking generally of course.

GS: I won’t get into my philosophies on the education system, but suffice to say we are left to our own devices far too often within the system. If “they” taught us how to do things, we could do more things more effectively. Our education system is not that. The education system is stuck on quantity, not quality. It’s band-aid stuff. Those are the kinds of things I talk to my students about. A lot of people don’t want to hear that because they don’t understand how important it is. They think I’m just talking to waste time yet they come back time and time again playing the same mistakes in the same places. Then they get it. I mean c’mon…I’m not showing you anything you can’t figure out for yourself.

Actually, I feel that the most effective teachers are the ones who make their students independent. In fact, you should be training your students to not need you. You don’t need a teacher to tell you to play a G altered on a G seventh chord. That’s baby stuff. This is kind of what’s happening in our education system and I have had to change my approach a little bit, in order that I establish connections with my students that they understand. I refuse to go all the way because I cannot subscribe to the approach of passive, inactive, learning. I refuse to do it!

I had an attitude about school that had to do with this very subject all my life although I didn’t know it was that until I was old enough to understand what was happening. Universities have become nesting places and people go there for any number of reasons… the least of which is to actually learn something.

When I was a kid you went from high school to university and upper level education was considered a privilege. The music has come off the street and into the university and in a way it has become legitimized because of that. Good! If we are going to legitimize the music, then let’s also organize the instruction and the attitude. Let’s do that. I mean I would love to go to music school. I’d love to sit in music classes all day. I think it’s a special opportunity and unfortunately, I think most people really don’t take advantage of it.

JGL: That’s a lot of stuff to think about Gary and I thank you for discussing it with me. To wrap up this interview would you mind talking a bit about what you are up to these days? I hear that you have recently been on tour and that you have put together a new group playing some of your own tunes?

GS: As a matter of fact, I have a new quintet called Between The Lines and our radio show was aired on Jazzbeat (CBC) Sunday, September the 4th. The line up is trumpet-Andy King, tenor-Phillipe Poirier, guitar, bass-Zack Lober and drums-Jim Doxas and we are playing my tunes.

Another project which was very exciting and rewarding was my combo at Concordia University. I organized a 31 piece jazz orchestra, which included 12 strings, for a project called Themes and Impressions of the Wizard of Oz. I commissioned arrangers from Montreal who so graciously wrote charts for minimal amounts of $. We had three months to mount the programme and it was presented on April 1, 2005. I mentioned earlier on that I don’t like being bored. I extend the same courtesy to my students. The arrangements ranged from straight ahead to free and there were even dramatic elements with dialogue. It was a blast. The concert went well. It’s too bad that we were only able to play it a single time.

JGL: Maybe this will open up another opportunity to expand that particular programme? Well…let’s wrap it up. Thanks so much Gary for participating on Jazz Guitar Life. It is greatly appreciated.

GS: Thank you Lyle.

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About Lyle Robinson 350 Articles
Lyle Robinson is the owner/creator/publisher and editor of Jazz Guitar Life, an online magazine dedicated to the Jazz Guitar and its community of fine players worldwide.


  1. It’s always a joy to stumble upon content that genuinely makes an impact and leaves you feeling inspired. Keep up the great work!

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