Jimmy Bruno Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

” I would hope that anyone interested in my work as a player or an educator realizes that this is my own personal vision of how I interpret jazz. I can only teach or coach someone in the method that worked for me. Equally important, is a lot of what I preach about jazz is from my observations as a jazz musician who has played this music for over 40 years.”

Jimmy Bruno

Jimmy Bruno, for those who don’t know, is a truly gifted Internationally reknowned Jazz Guitarist and educator out of Philadelphia who has become a true icon of Jazz Guitar. In this interview he shares with us his musical background, his view of technology, and how hislatest CD “Solo” came to be. A great read indeed!

This interview was conducted via email October, 2004. Check out his website at www.jimmybruno.com

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JGL: How old are you?

JB: Just turned 51.

JGL: What geographical area do you live in?

JB: I live outside of Philadelphia in Abington, PA. A suburb of Philly.

JGL: At what age did you first get into guitar playing and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?

JB: I started playing around 7 years old. I always played standard tunes. What I didn’t know then is that they were the same tunes that musicians used for playing jazz. Jazz standards. Both my parents were musicians. My mother sang and my father played guitar. They loved jazz. I learned all the tunes sung by Ella, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet etc.

JGL: You have mentioned in the past that your musical training came from being on the bandstand at a young age (19 and playing with Buddy Rich) and associating with the older cats that were in Buddy’s band. How then does this differ from the institutional approach of a college degree program where one learns through a defined curriculum of activity within a set number of years? Is one preferable over the other or do both avenues of learning come out to be the same in the end?

JB: A lot of musical training came from my father and mother as well as other musicians who were their friends. That’s a tough question. There is a danger that learning jazz in a school can become to academic and sterile. I find that students forget that music sound, feel and something else that’s intangible. It’s very difficult to describe an abstract thing such as music. I can tell you what it’s not. It’s not theory or rules, or “approaches” or mathematical devices. In a sense it is all those things but only after the fact… after the music has been played and created, it can be analyzed in anyway someone can dream up. I find no purpose or use for that type of information. In academia, there is a danger that the creative part of the process is lost.

On the other hand, and this always depends on the individual, academia can and does develop some skills for the individual to take those concepts and evolve them into his or her own musical voice. Schools also give young players a chance to play. That’s the most significant aspect a music university or college has to offer. The quickest way to learn, is to play, play, and play, all the time.

JGL: You are a major exponent of jazz education and have published many sought after works of knowledge in both print and video/DVD and on your website. Apart from the obvious, which is gaining knowledge and facility on one’s instrument, is there anything else you hope that the student of Jazz guitar gets out of the various resources you have on the market?

JB: I would hope that anyone interested in my work as a player or an educator realizes that this is my own personal vision of how I interpret jazz. I can only teach or coach someone in the method that worked for me. Equally important, is a lot of what I preach about jazz is from my observations as a jazz musician who has played this music for over 40 years. There are certain things that I notice, patterns, formulae etc. I see the 12 notes in a certain way. I see them in constant motion spinning around a central tone. That tone is constantly shifting which in turn is keeping the 12 notes in a constant state of musical flux. It is from this, that one creates a line that developes into phrases that evolve into a solo.

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

JB: I do teach, but on a limited basis only because of time constraints. Any one can take a lesson. You can find all the info at www.jimmybruno.com. All that is required is a desire to learn something about the guitar or music. I enjoy teaching people where music is there hobby or passion as well as someone trying to become a serious musician.

JGL: What was your first guitar?

JB: My 1st guitar was a Gibson L4 but I didn’t like it because all the other kids had solid bodies, so my dad bought me a white Supro guitar that I played for a few years then later moved onto a Guild Starfire and then to an L5.

JGL: You recently acquired and endorse a Roger Sadowsky arch-top and will soon be “father” to a signature series Jimmy Bruno Sadowsky model. How exciting is that and did you ever imagine that you would be the recipient of such an honor?

JB: It is a great honor. Roger is a master luthier who has created a perfect instrument for me. As well as Bob Benedetto who has made several very fine instruments that sound gorgeous. My taste in sound has moved away from the floating pick up on a carved top guitar to something that suits the sound in my ear at the moment. I love the sound of a built in pick up on a laminate body.

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

JB: All the greats that came before me. There is no need to list them all because it is every guitarist of note. I can name a few who stand out: Johnny Smith for his absolute perfection of execution and marvelous lines and technique, Hank Garland for his excitement and creativity and a certain drive in his playing as well as phenomenal technique. Pat Martino for his shear genius and understanding of the guitar and his totally unique musical conception.

This answer could go on and on. As I type this I realize I left out Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, Wes, Barney. Like I said, it’s everyone. Non-guitarists covers more people than I came name. Everyone from the be-bop era to fusion to rock and even country, Bonnie Rait, Santana come to mind….so much soul and a great fellow. I love the way Willie Nelson sings certain tunes., or Louis Armstrong. That’s music in it’s purist form, straight from the soul.

These days I don’t have much time for listening to other guitarists, but from what little I have heard,there are certainly some real innovators that will soon make their mark, while some of them, have wonderful ideas but lack a certain mastery of the physical aspects of the instrument…I still enjoy and appreciate their music. I listen to all kinds of music. I don’t have a favorite style. The only style I don’t like is “bad”. I listen for pleasure and relaxation, not analysis or study, except for some classical composers like Stravinsky, Mozart, Bach, Prokoviev, Debussy and Ravel. That list is in no way complete.

JGL: When you were younger what was your band experiences like? Did you have friends who were involved in music as well or did you have to search for people to play with.

JB: I was very lucky. My parents were musicians so there was always someone to play with or ask a question. Their friends were a great influence on me as well as being a wealth of real world experience and knowledge. The most important lesson I learned about music is that it takes an overwhelming amount of dedication and tremendous discipline. I often find those two ingredients lacking in most college students.

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?

JB: I didn’t think about it at first. I knew I was obsessed with it and that I loved it. I didn’t think about a career until I was 16. At that point I was either going to be a Doctor, lawyer or architect.

JGL: You were born and now live in Philadelphia which as you know was and is home to some of the greatest talents of Jazz Guitar. Cats like Pat Martino, Billy Bean, Eddie Lang, Dennis Sandole, and of course Jimmy Bruno Sr. I am sure there are a bunch of others I can’t think of now at the moment. What is it about Philly that has fostered such wonderful guitar players and do you get a chance to hang out and/or play with those guitarists who are still around?

JB: I really don’t know the answer. I do visit with Pat as often as I can. I never met or knew Dennis Sandole.

JGL: Coming from a professional musical family were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice or did they try and steer you towards other career choices?

JB: At first when I was very young they were very encouraging, but later they wanted me to go to college and get an education. Later, when I was a successful sideman and was making good money they accepted the idea.

JGL: How hard did you find having to raise a family when coming up and what were some of the ways you worked things out?

JB: It wasn’t hard at all. In the beginning I struggled as ever young person would. But I was a very capable guitarist at a very young age. I never had a problem finding work or making money.

JGL: Your facility on the fret-board is just awesome. What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes?

JB: I study the mechanics of harmony and apply them to the guitar. When I was younger I practiced at least 5 to 8 hours a day. I worked on everything, reading, soloing, chords, arpeggios scales, melodic motifs.

JGL: There are some who may say that your playing is too technical with not much “feeling”. I personally don’t agree with that statement but that’s just me…:) How do you respond to such a statement or does it even matter what others think?

JB: I don’t know how to respond to that. I can only make a few observations: those comments often come from a guitarist who has very limited technique and a very limited understanding of jazz and music in general. I have heard that statement made about many historical and important players, only to have history prove them utterly wrong. I don’t know, I don’t hear that from Johnny Smith, Hank Garland, Pat Martino…Tal never thought so, Joe Pass loved it, Barney was encouraging and was glad to see the guitar “grow and evolve” as he put it, George Van Eps was encouraging, it’s a long list.

The only thing I can say is that if most jazz listeners thought that, I would not have a career, or recording contracts, or endorsements or book and videos deals etc. I don’t give it any thought at all except that it makes laugh every time I hear it. I don’t mind it all. It has no effect or bearing on me as an individual or musician.

JGL: At a point in your career you made a conscious choice to just play jazz even though you were making a great living playing commercial music. How did this decision come about? Was it difficult at that time to stick to your musical guns and stay the course and if so, how did it get easier?

JB: I was unhappy and depressed playing while making a great living being a sideman, but I always wanted to play jazz, it was my first love, it was the first music I heard. When I turned 35, I figured it was time to try becoming a jazz artist, that way, I would know one way or the other what would be my next choice. No, it wasn’t hard at all because I was doing something that I truly loved.

JGL: Now that you are established as an International artist, is it easier to get gigs or do you still have to work at it?

JB: One always has to work at their career, it IS a business too and that does not diminish the music in anyway. If you had a law firm you’d still have to make sure you have new clients. It isn’t any easier or harder, it just IS. I enjoy that part of being a jazz musician. It can be very exciting and rewarding both financially and personally.

JGL: As an international artist do you have a favorite place to play or are you just as happy to hang out at Chris’ Jazz Cafe?

JB: I don’t play locally that much anymore. My favorite places are the Blue Note, and Birdland in NY, Blues Alley in Wash, DC. and a few others. But my favorite event is to perform in a concert setting.

JGL: Could you describe some of your best musical situations or experiences and the worst?

JB: Every musical experience or situation can teach you something. I try not think in those terms of “best” or “worst” Obviously some are more rewarding than others.

JGL: What type of musical sitaution do you enjoy the most (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.)

JB: I enjoy it all. Right now I am having a wonderful time playing solo guitar.

JGL: Speaking of solo guitar, among your recorded CD’s as a leader you have recently completed a solo guitar album titled “Solo” for the newly formed Mel Bay Records division to be released sometime in November, 2004 [ed. note: click here to check out the review]. Can you talk a bit about how this project came to be and what if any were the challenges recording a solo guitar CD?

JB: How it came about it is a very long story. Basically Bill Bay had an idea to form a label. I had already started the CD and it was ready for release on Concord. I approached Concord with the idea of being one of the 1st releases on this label and they were very receptive to the idea. There will be a lot of press involved as well as many other aspects of this venture. And, the CD industry being what it is today, Concord thought that Bill could do more for me at this point in time. I am fortunate that the people that run Concord have been good friends for sometime now and have always done what is best for me. I owe a lot to those people, namely, Nick Philips, John Burk and Glen Barrows

JGL: The CD sounds great and it sounds like you are having a blast. Any memorable moments from this session you would like to share?

JB: It was a real chore but one that I enjoyed. There was a huge learning curve dealing with the recording gear. A store in Philly, Cintioli’s music was kind enough to let me take anything that I needed to try 1st. That only took awhile. The process got really involved. With all the technology it is possible to make a perfect recording. That’s what I started doing at 1st.

After a few months of that I realized I had a perfect performance but all the excitement and spontaneity of the music was gone… it was a huge sterile blob. I scraped everything, started over from scratch and decided to try to record a performance thinking that with a few tries I would take the best of what I had. Well the music was certainly better but there was an inconsistency about the energy, after-all, I was standing in my studio playing to no one.

Next idea was to get up very early every morning and record the material in the order I wanted it on the CD. One day it all came together and that’s what’s on the CD. There are only two splices on the entire CD. I am very happy with the playing. I would have recorded it differently now as far as sound etc. But it is what it is, as long as the music is real and honest that is more important than the technology aspect. But look out for the next one, the sound alone will be amazing. Hope that I can get some good performances.

JGL: How did you come to choose the tunes that you did?

JB: They were the 1st tunes I learned how to play when I was around 10 years old, all except for “Giant Steps”. They were tunes that I remember hearing around my house with my mother singing and my father playing guitar. They used to sit around the kitchen table and do this all the time.

JGL: Were you influenced by other solo guitarists such as Joe Pass, Martin Taylor or Lenny Breau when recording the CD or is it all Bruno?

JB: I love all those people, especially Martin. I just did it in a Jimmy Bruno style. I was never big on trying to imitate someone else’s playing. One can never do it as well as the person you are trying to emulate.

JGL: As mentioned, the new CD is on the Mel Bay Records label. Does this mean that you won’t be doing any more recordings for Concord or is this just a one time thing?

JB: Who knows what the future holds, but I believe that there will be future CDs with Concord and Mel Bay. I am very excited about this new marketing that Bill has in mind. The whole industry is in for a big change. It has already started and in fact it is still changing everyday. It is very difficult to sell music in the traditional ways that have worked in the past. Only time will tell.

JGL: Almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature, have their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you face on your instrument and how do you work at getting over them?

JB: Good question but to tell you the truth, my mind doesn’t work that way. The art itself governs my music and my performances where some are better than others, some are outstanding and a few, not many, are terrible. There is nothing special that I do before a performance. Sometimes, I don’t even warm up. I believe music exists in time and space and depending on that time and that space-metaphysical time and space-is the essence of the music and the performance. A sculpture or painting also exist in time and space but a different time and certainly space, plus it is a tangible thing that can be viewed over and over again. Music just dissipates into the universe unless you capture a tiny microscopic piece of it on a CD.

JGL: You have mentioned in another interview that you are in the process of combining computer technology with music to do something more than 180 degrees away”. Are you still contemplating such an endeavor and can you talk more about it?

JB: Yes, very much so. I want to attempt to adapt the elements of improvisation with a more compositional approach using electronic instruments. I don’t mean using a synth to sound like strings or horns but use the technology to create electronic sounds and somehow meld it into an improvisational experience. I haven’t found the answer yet but it keeps me very busy.

JGL: How has technology played a part in your success as a guitarist and how have you taken advantage of technology (ie: computers, the Internet, etc.)?

JB: The internet connects me to all my listeners. It has spread my teaching concepts in a way that was not possible 20 years ago. It also creates revenue. Notation and sequencing programs have changed the way I write and teach. There are many tools that one can use to practice playing jazz. The list goes on and on. It may be an infinite process. I personally answer every email, almost like a tech support thing. But with all the spam these days some fall through the cracks. If I have not responded to anyone reading this who has asked me a question , I apologize for the oversight and please email me again. I will do my best to reply.

JGL: Where would you like to see jazz guitar go in the coming years?

JB: I would like to see the instrument played more efficiently, same as atheletes who with every decade get better and better. I would like to see the name “jazz” removed from the word guitar.

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

JB: Learn to play your instrument as well as any violinist in a major orchestra, study classical music. Bach understood the very nature of music and improvisation over two hundred years ago. Realize and understand that theory and rules came after the music was conceptualized. Try to find your own voice, copy no one. Someday people will deduce theory from your music. Know that it is 1000 times harder than you think it is. Learn how to make a living doing what you love. Study marketing. develop a good work ethic. Keep an open mind and finally, listen to all music. It’s all the same thing.

JGL: Apart from music, what other pursuits do you enjoy tackling?

JB: Right now I am learning about recording techniques. Before that it was photography. More and more my entire life is filled with music and my family. There is little time for anything else. This serves my needs as a human being very well.

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: No, I have no regrets, but it brings to mind something Joe Pass said: “If I didn’t play the guitar I would do something a lot simpler, like be a milkman or something.”

JGL: Thank you Jimmy for participating on Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated.

JB: Thank you Lyle.

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