Jeff Barone Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

“I’ve been fortunate to have both forms of education.  I feel there is a kind of wisdom you get from both the “old school” and academic forms.  I’ve had very good teachers over the years and I believe they helped me to learn proper technique early on.  I also have played with experienced players that were not schooled and those players helped me realize that the academic approach does not help you to necessarily make great music.”

Jeff Barone

Jeff Barone is a wonderful New York Jazz Guitar player who has a killer swing and an adventurous spirit. In this interview, Jeff shares with us his insights into being a professional player/performer, his association with Jazz Guitar legend Jack Wilkins, and how he divides his love between Jazz and Classical. A great read with a great player.

This interview was conducted via email in 2010. You can find out more info on Jeff by visiting his website at http://jeffbarone.com/

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JGL: How old are you?

JB: 39 years old.

JGL: What geographical area do you live in?

JB: New York.

JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing?

JB: My parents bought me a guitar at age 7 and I started lessons at 8 years old.

JGL: Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?

JB: My first lessons were from a relative that owned a music store.  He had me mainly working out of method books.  After a couple of years of lessons, he put together an ensemble with some of the other students.  This group included three guitars, bass and drums and we mainly played arrangements of Beatles songs.  There was also a period of time where I listened to rock groups such as the Police, Led Zeppelin and The Who, just prior to hearing my first jazz recording.

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”!

JB: In seventh grade a friend convinced me to sit in on a jazz ensemble rehearsal.  The director put a guitar part in front of me that had a performance note that said “play ala Joe Pass”.  Pretty funny considering an arranger would write that on a seventh grade stage band guitar part.  Yeah, sure just play it like Joe Pass.  No, problem. [Laughter] Following the rehearsal I went out and bought a Joe Pass recording, and the only one they had was the Virtuoso album.  I couldn’t really make sense of it but I knew it was something great and from there I sought any jazz guitar recording I could find.  When I entered high school I continued to play in the school jazz ensembles.

Around this time I auditioned for a city run youth all-star jazz ensemble.  We would rehearse through the spring and then we would work just about everyday throughout the summer in a wide variety of venues.  I also had a good friend named Dave Solazzo who is an excellent pianist.  We would play all the time.  He was really into Oscar Peterson, so naturally we hit it off really well since I was a big Joe Pass fan.  Dave’s father Mike is a great jazz bassist and he would play with us as well.  Around this same time I was playing around my hometown with small jazz groups, big bands, wedding bands, R&B and Funk groups, oldies groups and local productions of Broadway shows.  Within days of finishing high school I had my own teaching studio in a local music store called the Music Center.  I also had opportunities to work with national acts that would come through town such as Bobby Vinton, Steve Smith (of the group Journey and Vital Information) and a national tour of Will Roger’s Follies that had come through town.

In regard to jazz I was fortunate to have two seasoned jazz musicians call me for work around this time, bassist Bernie Upson and drummer George Reed.  Both guys were originally from NYC and ended up settling in Syracuse.  For about a year, Bernie would call me to play with his group on his steady Sunday gig.  Every week I would musically get beat up and would assume he would never call again.  Sure enough he would call me the following week and I would be back on the gig.  I never made the same mistake twice.  If he called a tune I didn’t know, I learned it by the next week.  George Reed was also instrumental in taking me under his wing and called me for consistent work with his jazz groups.   Another important connection was playing in drummer Pete Procoprio’s group.  He’s a great drummer/band leader who has had many outstanding groups throughout the years.   At one time or another Pete’s groups featured players such as Andy Fusco, Gary Keller, Glenn Drewes, Tony Leonardi, and Frank Puzzullo.  I have had some amazing opportunities.  This was all before I was even twenty years old!

JGL: Similarly, Was there a defining moment when you decided that Jazz Guitar would/could be your career path?

JB: No, it was a gradual progression.  Moving to New York City as a musician is definitely an eye opening experience.  No amount of playing or practicing can fully prepare you.  There always seems to be someone that seems to do it better.  I have been fortunate that I have maintained a consistent amount of work over the years, but have always felt that it could dry up at any moment.

JGL: How difficult do you/did you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player, or have you found it to be relatively easy?

JB: Right now I make my living solely playing guitar.  It’s never been exclusively from playing jazz guitar though.  For me, the key has been to be versatile and therefore it’s possible to keep a steady stream of work.  I do a wide range of work including shows, clubs and recording sessions.  I know many players that solely make their living as a jazz guitar player but most have to supplement their income with teaching.  Some players have day jobs and play jazz on the side.

JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?

JB: My first guitar was a Harmony steel string acoustic that had a very wide neck with strings that felt like tree trunks.  From there I graduated to my first electric which was a Danelectro guitar that had a wide neck with strings that felt like tree trunks. These days my main guitars are a 1967 Gibson L-7, a 1985 Gibson 335 and a DiCarlo Nylon String.

JGL: What other gear are you using?

JB: I also have a Yamaha nylon string, a Martin Steel String, Yamaha 12 string, a Deering Banjo, Epiphone mandolin and a Fender Stratocaster. In terms of amps I have a 1969 Fender Vibrolux, Tech 21 60 watt combo, a Roland Acoustic guitar amp and a 1970’s Mini-Brute Polytone given to me by Jack Wilkins.

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?

JB: In the beginning I was influenced by jazz guitarists Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessel, Pat Martino, George Benson, Jim Hall, Jack Wilkins and John Scofield.   I was very influenced by trumpet players Kenny Dorham and Tom Harrell.  In the blues realm I’ve always enjoyed Freddie King, Albert King and B.B. King.  In regard to classical guitarists I’m a fan of Julian Bream, John Williams and the Assad Brothers.   In terms of rock/r&b type guitar I was into Paul Jackson, Hiram Bullock and Steve Lukather.  My influences have changed over the years but I still love to listen to those players from time to time.  It reaffirms what drew me to music in the first place.  And it still sounds great to me!!

JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?

JB: Lately I’ve been listening to many pianists including Art Tatum, Renee Rosnes, Monty Alexander and Ahmad Jamal.  I’ve been recently listening to Maria Schneider’s Concert in the Garden CD.  Rich Perry, Steve Grossman and Joe Henderson are a couple of my tenor saxophone favorites.  I’ve also have been listening to Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard a great deal.

JGL: Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?

JB: I would have to say that Jack Wilkins has been one of the most influential guitarists for me.  He’s the consummate artist.  He’s constantly working on new things and he has a real very deep understanding of music.

JGL: You have played in a wide variety of settings including gigs with Al Martino, Bob Mintzer, Tom Harrell and the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. How did these high profile gigs come about and what was on the program for the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra performance?

JB: Like most work, you usually receive the call from a conductor, music director or contractor.  I received the call to play with Al Martino through his conductor Tony Riposo. Bob Mintzer was through Justin DiCioccio who was directing a big band for a program called the Grammy Sessions Live.  Bob Mintzer was the featured artist with an all-star ensemble that also included Kenny Washington, John Mosca, Ari Roland and Mike Holober among others. 

The Tom Harrell call was a little different.  I received a call from his manager saying that Tom heard me play somewhere and that he would like to hire me for an upcoming concert.  I wasn’t convinced at first that this was for real.  The next evening Tom called me personally to tell me he was glad I was able to make the date. In regard to the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra dates, I received the call from a contractor who told me that the conductor/arranger Calvin Custer had recommended me for the concerts.  I’m a little foggy on the program since it was almost twenty years ago, but I believe it was some kind of jazz meets classical type thing.

JGL: You are as adept on Classical Guitar as you are in Jazz. How did your love for the Classical Guitar come about and do you find that the two worlds collide at times or do they complement each other?

JB: I started studying classical guitar around the age of 17. My love of classical guitar came through my many fine teachers including Ed Flower, Tim Schmidt and Joe Jewell.  It is frustrating at times.  You could spend a lifetime on either the plectrum or finger-style technique. They definitely complement each other, but only if you treat it as just music, not a separate entity.  In other words, don’t treat the music as if this is my classical music and this is jazz music (or whatever form of music your into).  All styles are based on the same foundation.  It’s the marketing aspect that puts boundaries on the music.

JGL: Have you ever thought about going the Charlie Byrd route and just performing solely on the Classical?

JB: I really enjoy playing a nylon string guitar.  At home I usually play nothing other than the nylon string.  However, I love the sound of the electric guitar as well and couldn’t imagine exclusively playing one over the other.

JGL: Do you teach privately and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?

JB: At this time I am not teaching guitar privately.  Presently my playing schedule does not allow it.  However, I have taught extensively over the years and find it very rewarding.

JGL: How do you approach improvisation? Is it based on the usual scale/chord relationships or are you coming at it from a different angle?

JB: Of course scale/chord relationships are the foundation but add in the vocabulary you have learned from the study of other players you have emulated and then you may start to develop your own voice.  But even more importantly, rhythms are crucial to improvisation.  You have heard the phase, “there are no wrong notes” but what they leave out is that “there are bad rhythms”.  If you study all the great improvising masters, you’ll notice that they all have a great sense time.  If you take out the pitches and leave the rhythms, you’re left with what sounds like a great drum solo.

JGL: For the student of Jazz Guitar, what would you say is the most important thing to do when learning to improvise and play over changes?

JB: The most important thing is to use your ears: It’s too easy to get locked into digital patterns on the guitar without knowing the sounds or their true function.

JGL: What is your practice routine like these days? Do you work on specific things or just play tunes?

JB: My practice routine is a little scattered these days.  I do practice technique and work on transcribing music quite often.  However, It’s hard to find the time for consistent practice with my family and work schedule.

JGL: You have received a Bachelor’s in Music Education and a Masters degree in Jazz Performance but did I read correctly that your original major in College was Classical Percussion? Did you continue that route throughout college and do you still play percussion these days?

JB: When I attended Ithaca College I initially didn’t realize that the school had music education degrees in either instrumental education or choral education.  Unbeknownst to me, guitar fell under the choral education degree(since it’s not an orchestral instrument).  I was prepared to leave the school.  Luckily, I was playing guitar in the school’s vocal jazz ensemble and the director was the chair of the music education program.  He thought enough of me to have a meeting with the dean of the music school and they offered me an opportunity to switch to the instrumental education program.  There was a catch though, I would have to audition on one of the other instruments that fell under that instrumental music education degree program.  I chose classical marimba because I was aware that renaissance guitar music was popular among the percussion majors.  I had already played a considerable amount of Renaissance guitar music and I felt it would be a much smoother transition.   I figured if I focused on the keyboard marimba technique, I could then apply it to the pieces I had already played on guitar.  I was fortunate because I had two world-class teachers on marimba, Ted Rounds and Gordon Stout.

I worked up an audition and within a year I was accepted into the program.  It was complicated though because I still wanted to study classical guitar.  The school worked out a program that would have classical guitar as my main instrument for the school, while percussion would be my main instrument for the degree.  When I reflect on those years I can’t believe I was able to handle the rigor of the program.  In any given semester I would have private guitar lessons, percussion lessons along with the required band instrument classes(class bassoon, class trumpet, class clarinet, class trombone along with the rest of the band instruments). In addition, I would have foundation of education classes, psychology classes, and liberal arts classes.

In addition I would have the traditional music history, theory, sight-singing classes along with mandatory and elective ensembles(symphonic band, guitar ensemble, jazz ensemble, chorus and the vocal jazz ensemble). Unfortunately, I haven’t touched a percussion instrument since 1993.  When I started attended the Manhattan School of Music for guitar, I attempted to gain access to the marimba practice rooms at the school with no luck.  Playing marimba  and percussion seem like a distant memory at this stage.

JGL: Do you feel that there is any benefit of going the academic route rather than getting an “old school” bandstand education?

JB: I’ve been fortunate to have both forms of education.  I feel there is a kind of wisdom you get from both the “old school” and academic forms.  I’ve had very good teachers over the years and I believe they helped me to learn proper technique early on.  I also have played with experienced players that were not schooled and those players helped me realize that the academic approach does not help you to necessarily make great music.

JGL: You have been both a leader and a sideman. Which do you prefer and what are the differences in roles that you need to bring to the table?

JB: They are equally rewarding in different ways, but I would say I prefer to be a leader.  For me, being a leader allows a greater outlet for creativity. To be a sideman, you have to be flexible and check your ego aside and serve the music for the leader you are working with.

JGL: Along with your many accomplishments, you can now add the title of Producer to your CV, having produced James Silberstein’s most recent CD Express Lane as well as Master Jazz

JB: Guitarist Jack Wilkins’ latest CD Until It’s Time on the Max Jazz label. How did you get involved in this side of the music business and what do you have planned for the future in this regard? It was sort of a natural transition.  Jack had collaborated on my first two recordings and when it came time for his recent recording, Until It’s Time, he asked if I would produce it.  It was quite an honor.  Once Jack’s recording was mixed and mastered, Jim Silberstein heard it and gave me a call to co-produce his Expresslane recording along with Harvie S.  Following this recording I produced and played on  a recording for alto saxophonist Mike Dubaniewicz called Drive Time that was released on the Jazzed Media label.

JGL: Speaking of Jack Wilkins, he’s co-produced your two CD’s, Crazy Talk and Open Up, and has been by your side in many playing situations. How did your association with Jack come about and how much of an impact has he had on your career and choice of direction?

JB: When I moved to New York City in 1993 I attended the Manhattan School of Music and studied with Jack Wilkins.  Upon leaving the school I kept in touch with Jack and we have become good friends over the years.  We have collaborated on many projects and he was instrumental in making my debut record, Crazy Talk, a reality.  He asked my why I had not recorded something of my own and he replied that I should put a project together.  I replied that I would eventually get around to it whereas he replied, let’s put it together and I’ll help produce it for you.  I was lucky that he really believed in my potential.

Jack’s been a major asset in regard to my direction and career.  In addition to my own projects, I’ve been involved in many of his projects as well.  Also, Jack has recommended me for many gigs.

JGL: You seem to be quite the proponent of the Organ trio. How did you get involved with Organ trios and what is it about this format that inspires you?

JB: In the mid nineties I was fortunate to play with many groups in the Harlem Jazz organ scene including such artists as Reuben Wilson, Jimmy “Preacher” Robins, Seleno Clarke and Nate Lucas, to name a few.  I love music that is bluesy, soulful and organic sounding.  No pun intended.

JGL: How do you go about marketing yourself? Are there any tools that you have come across that you have found to be effective?

JB: I have never been fortunate enough to have a personal manager, publicist or radio promoter.  I do have a website and I had a great label with my recent release.  The label is called Jazzed Media and they were able to get the CD out there.

JGL: Do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician something that should be taught in music schools or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to managers and agents?

JB: Music Business should absolutely be taught in the schools.  Just like any academic setting, it only allows you to receive the tools.  The real test is putting those tools to work in a real life setting.

JGL: If you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?

JB: Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans.  They are two of my idols and just to comp some chords behind them would have been suffice. One of them was Tom Harrell who I was fortunate enough to work with.  He is a tremendous improviser as well as one of the most prolific composers.

JGL: Has your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?

JB: I would have to say that it has been what I expected and more.  Though I have worked hard over the years, the study of music has never felt like work.  It’s the lifestyle that can be very challenging.  Though then again it is that lifestyle which allows us to have experiences and interactions that most people will never be able to relate to.

JGL: How would you like to see your life unfold in the coming years and what do you think would be needed to get you there?

JB: Not sure.  I think if I thought that far in advance I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now. [laughter]  I think I need to keep making music and progressing.  I hope I continue to love playing music, and when that stops it is time to move onto something else.

JGL: If you could do one thing over again, what would that one thing be and why?

JB: I think I would of focused on the piano. I noodle a little bit now but to really play the piano would be something.  I just love what is harmonically possible on the piano.  I spent many years studying piano transcriptions and marvel at the possibilities.

JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?

JB: Stay true to yourself.  Don’t limit yourself and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and make some mistakes.

JGL: What else do you like to do apart from guitar playing?

JB: Stare at walls for hours on end and then play guitar again.  Seriously, when I’m not working or practicing I spend time at home watching television, reading or surfing the net.

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.

JB: When I first went to college, I enrolled in music in a local community college in Syracuse and after the first year I started to have second thoughts about making a career in music.  The beginning of the second semester I enrolled in the accounting program at the same school.  I literally was an accounting major for approximately 20 minutes.  I went and received all the signatures and completed the paper work.  After my degree switch was finalized, I turned right around and re-enrolled in the music program.  After that, I never looked back.

JGL: Apart from music, what else do you like to do for fun?

JB: Spend time with my family and friends.  I used to play golf but haven’t had much time to play over the past few years.  Answering this question makes me realize I need more hobbies. [laughter]

JGL: Thank you Jeff for participating in Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career and life.

JB: Thank you Lyle, I appreciate what you do for Jazz Guitar. Jazz Guitar Life is one of the finest guitar sites on the web.

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