“When I came into Jazz, I wanted more than what rock and blues had to offer and the first stuff that spoke to me was, you know, the earliest Be-Bop 101 with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. But that’s when I also heard Charlie Christian’s playing and just sort of all the cross-fertilisation from that era. I mean guys like Errol Garner, who played on some of those Parker sides, and Tiny Grimes who also played on Bird’s (Charlie Parker) early records as well. It was that sort of Swing to Bop that got to me and it’s kind of coloured my playing throughout.”Chris Flory
I first heard the marvellous Jazz Guitarist Chris Flory with saxophone great Scott Hamilton on the radio one day and immediately loved his traditional playing style and “old school” tone. I have since followed his career and was thrilled when he agreed to “sit down” with Jazz Guitar Life. In this interview Chris shares many great stories about his time spent with Benny Goodman, his lessons with Tiny Grimes and so much more. An inspiring and entertaining read. Enjoy
JGL: Hi Chris and thanks for taking the time today to chat with Jazz Guitar Life.
CF: Sure. Absolutely. Thank you.
JGL: Well, to start things off, if you could give Jazz Guitar Life readers an “elevator pitch” of who Chris Flory is, that would be great?
CF: Well, I’m a mainstream Jazz Guitarist, and I use the term mainstream because I think I represent the middle, the central part of jazz in this century. Sort of at the juncture between the end of the Swing era and early part of the Be-Bop era but not limited to that solely. My playing comes out of Charlie Christian, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t influenced by a whole lot of everything since then. Including, and for me, ‘cause of when I grew up – I turned 60 about half a year ago – when I started playing guitar, you know, I started playing guitar because of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and I got into the blues pretty young. And all at the same time I was exposed to this stuff like Jimi Hendrix – who was coming out – and the more virtuosic rock guitarists, and then the blues guitarists who were becoming popular in that same era. You know…BB King and Albert King.
When I came into Jazz, I wanted more than what rock and blues had to offer and the first stuff that spoke to me was, you know, the earliest Be-Bop 101 with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. But that’s when I also heard Charlie Christian’s playing and just sort of all the cross-fertilisation from that era. I mean guys like Errol Garner, who played on some of those Parker sides, and Tiny Grimes who also played on Bird’s (Charlie Parker) early records as well. It was that sort of Swing to Bop that got to me and it’s kind of coloured my playing throughout.
The other thing is, from the start I wasn’t necessarily or completely influenced by the guitar models that were out there. I was listening to horn players and pianists amongst everybody else.
JGL: Was there any one particular moment, artist or album that grabbed you at that time that had a major influence on your playing style or career choice?
CF: I remember when I was about 16, probably the biggest thing – and I think a lot of guitar players felt this – was the vinyl LP reissue of those Minton sessions with Charlie Christian. There was a minor key thing, which was basically a jam session on the Count Basie tune “Topsy” called “Swing To Bop”. For me, that was the first thing, ‘cause it was in a minor key and I could hear that the first part was blowing around on the I minor chord and then it goes to the IV minor chord, and then it has this bridge thing that at first I couldn’t quite figure out. But just the harmonies from the same kind of rock and roll that was out in whatever, from ’68 to ’72, I could kind of hear some of that and noodle around on that and pick it up by ear.
And that was right at the same time that I was living back in New York. I had just sort of reached this wall of my own understanding of rock and blues playing and I just couldn’t get past a certain point so I started looking for lessons and ironically I had my first two guitar lessons from Tiny Grimes! And that was from just seeing a little yellowed business card that had “Guitar Lessons: Tiny Grimes” at this music store where I used to get my strings (chuckles)!
JGL: Had you known of Tiny Grimes at that point?
CF: Oh yeah! I was like “OH MY GOD!!” This is THE guy who played on those early Parker tunes like “Red Cross” and “Romance Without Finance” stuff. I can’t remember if it was DIAL or SAVOY, but it was a set of sessions, a little quartet or quintet with Tiny Grimes. So I was like really impressed by that.
The lessons were kind of informal and everything and Tiny was going through some difficult stuff in his life and he was a little bit like an uneven kind of guy, so the lessons kind of faded out. And then I did the only formal kind of studying I ever did in my life starting later that fall for almost a year. I got with this teacher named Carl Thompson who was a real good all around Jazz Guitar teacher. He opened up a whole different world of these unfamiliar chord fingerings that didn’t involve barre chords and playing every string.
From there I learned more basic music theory from this guy in a few months than I got in any little college class or two that I took in theory. It just kind of spoke to me and it gave me the tools to mostly learn stuff by ear, learn stuff by rote.
JGL: Was this still happening in New York?
CF: Yeah. I had this sort of uneven thing where…I think you’re aware of me when I played with Scott Hamilton for like a lot of years?
CF: Well, from my family moving around several places around the North East, we (Chris’s family) wound up in Providence when I was about 15 or 16, which is where Scott grew up. We were teenage friends and I had my little rock band and he had a blues band at the time. So we were friends and we used to listen to all these records together and then I left home really young to come down to New York at the age of 16. But all those years that I was in New York as a late teenager I wasn’t ready to play professionally.
So I was studying and working at whatever job and then when I was 20 I moved back to Providence. That’s when I had more of a peer musical situation where I could play with other people at a similar level to me. Eventually I had my own little Jazz band with some of the people I would later play with for a lot of years. Scott had his own group then as well with a different guitarist…
JGL: Do you remember who that was?
CF: Yeah and he stills plays regularly in Providence, Rhode Island. His name is Fred Bates and he’s a really great player. He left Scott’s band during those two years that I lived in Providence like ’74 to ’76 and that’s when I got the chance to be in Scott’s band. And that was the beginning of a long association.
JGL: And obviously you both shared similar tastes musically?
CF: Absolutely! We gravitated towards the same music but he was way ahead of me in that area. But he listened to a lot of stuff and Providence was a great place for blues during the 1970’s.
JGL: So this was the first incarnation of the band?
CF: Yeah. It really was. I had a younger friend from when I lived with my family in Upstate New York who was a bass player by the name of Phil Flannigan and he came to Providence to be part of the music scene and was part of my band, which is how he got into Scott’s band as well. We were the nucleus of that quartet or quintet that played New York a few years later.
Scott and I came down to New York separately, but around the same time in the Summer of ’76. From there I had a lot of good luck with a lot of glamorous gigs that I would kill to have now, except that the people involved are mostly dead now (LOL)!
Scott really turned some heads and a lot of it came from even before we moved down from Providence. There was a pair of Jazz clubs in the seventies, close to where I live now actually in the West 50’s, Jimmy Ryan’s and Eddie Condon’s, and they were sort of the relocated last gasp of 52 street, located around 57th and 4th avenue.
We would go and sit in in those places and at Jimmy Ryan’s, the house band was Roy Eldridge’s sextet! Roy really took a shine to Scott and also those associated with Scott. And partly because of that, Scott immediately started getting attention and stuff and I got a little of that attention too! It was like I had just moved to New York and I got on this gig that Scott was already on which was a longer running stand at Mikell’s Pub with Hank Jones and Milt Hinton which was really something.
That same summer I did one concert with Illinois Jacquet (Tenor Saxophonist) which was an outdoor concert in Philadelphia partly because he knew me when he was a guest at Eddie Condon’s and I kind of sat in. He had this kind of patronize the up and coming young musician thing and he made a big show of hiring me on the spot for this concert down in Philly…but it didn’t really lead to anything, whereas the other thing led to being a month’s gig at Mikell’s Pub.
JGL: But Illinois obviously saw something in you that he liked?
CF: Yeah! Absolutely. But I was ready in some ways and not ready in other ways.
JGL: Kind of like a trial by fire?
CF: Yeah! Absolutely.
JGL: Did this lead you into the Benny Goodman gig?
CF: In a way. Benny had been operating some kind of version of the Benny Goodman sextet – sometimes it was six pieces and other times it was seven pieces – and he always had his eye out for interesting new people and he started using Scott…it could have been around ’76.
At the time, Benny was using this guy on guitar who was older than us, out of Cincinnati, a great guitarist…
JGL: Cal Collins!?
CF: Yeah, Cal Collins! Benny always liked to tinker around with personnel and was kind of a famously difficult guy, and I had my first shot working with him – I can’t believe it was that early – but I did know what I was doing and that was in 1977. Scott wasn’t on the date at that time because I think he was doing something else with Buddy Tate who was a tenor player.
So that was my first time with Benny, and I remember doing a date…it was at one of those New York State university campuses right up by the Canadian border like Potsdam or Canton or something like that. The Goodman office, rather than driving us up in vans or limos or something just straight up from New York, they flew us to Montreal then had a bunch of university kinds pick us up to drive us back.
So they got on the Trans-Canada and started driving East (the opposite direction), and even I knew that. But I was kind of green and shy and didn’t speak up until I saw a bunch of signs pointing towards Quebec, and I’m like “Uhhh, I think we’re going the wrong way (LOL’s)!” So it took hours to get to the gig, but it was still very cool. Connie Kay was the drummer, you know, from the Modern Jazz Quartet, who was also the house drummer at Eddie Condon’s in New York so I knew a lot of these people. Major Holly was the bass player on that gig. And all these people I got to play with at different times on different gigs all through the late 70’s and early ‘80’s. But that was my first shot with Goodman.
Then…I think it was very sporadic. I might have had another date in ‘77 and then maybe a couple in ’79. It wasn’t until ’81 or ’82 that I got all the work with him. And that was a group with Scott, Warren Vache on trumpet and John Bunch on piano who had been doing it since the ‘60’s and still with the big band. John went to Russia with Benny in that famous 1966 tour or something. And when we could afford to have a fifth piece – piano – in Scott’s band, he was the guy.
JGL: Nice! Now Chris – and not to tell tales out of school as it were – but…given Mr. Goodman’s sometimes more difficult personality, was there a moment or two where you incurred Benny’s famous wrath?
CF: There were a lot of moments that were great – and I’ve been asked this question for decades – but I think I did pretty well, partly because he just liked me, musically and personality wise. The age difference was enough – I was in my 20’s – that he didn’t pull the same kind of stuff that he tended to do with other people. But…I did see it!
It was the end of a glory period of doing all these dates, all the George Wein dates in the US during the summer of ’82. You know…all the Newport Jazz Festival gigs which became the KOOL Jazz Festival sponsored by the KOOL brand cigarettes along with all the dates around the country. Oh yeah…and earlier that year, Benny was still so in love with Phil Flanagan and I that he took us out, just the rhythm section out to the West Coast for a couple of concerts out there and then this Paul Masson Winery series of concerts using guys from the West Coast for the horns. It was very nice. And then a European tour where I was kind of like the de-facto road manager for the tour ‘cause Benny didn’t want to spring for a road manager – LOL. And I was kind of like savvy and energetic when it came to foreign air-ports and stuff like that. We were very close at that time.
Mel Lewis was the drummer and I think Benny and Mel were having issues and he was constantly having the rest of the band layout so it was just a trio with me and Phil Flanagan. Some of that stuff is up on YouTube. It was very good, but I did get a taste of the famous Goodman wrath!
At the end of that summer, I had been playing my only guitar at the time, which was a Gibson ES-150. You know, a plywood construction with a P90 pick-up. Well, at the end of that summer, Benny took me aside and he said “You know, that guitar you’ve been playing, it sounds good on the solos, but you know…it’s not really…it doesn’t sound so good on the rhythms!” I remember him saying “I want something a little more crisp. Like Allan Reuss or something like that.” And I was like all entitled…”Well I don’t have the money if you want me to buy a new guitar. That’s like a thousand dollars…I can’t do that!” I was kind of defiant and I showed up at the next concert with the same guitar which was at the Jones Beach Theater just outside of New York.
All of a sudden, all the treatment I’d seen people get coming through the ranks started happening to me. He had this loose-handed way of letting you know to “lay out” and sometimes he would do that to you for half a concert which was kind of humiliating. And then at the end, the guy who was running the office at the time who was an insider friend to all us young guys came up to me and said “Look Chris, you better do something about this guitar because he’s considering Bucky Pizzarelli for the next upcoming concerts you’re scheduled to do!” And so I went and bought the guitar I’m playing now which is a blonde Gibson L7 which I played for the first time at a concert in New Haven. I didn’t even have a pick-up for it yet and so played it acoustically. Of course Benny considered this a “win”. He wanted me to get a new guitar and I did. But even when I was pushing back with having no money and kind of expecting him to buy me a new guitar, he – in retrospect – was right! This is YOUR living. This is IMPORTANT! I was lucky however that a friend of mine who worked at We Buy Guitars on 48th street came across this guitar and called me. They wanted $1200.00 which at the time seemed like a fortune but now it’s like “thank God I got it when I did!” It was a lucky moment and that’s the axe I’ve played for the past 30 some years!
JGL: So Benny getting on your case was a good thing in the end.
CF: Oh yeah!! It was because of him that I now have this wonderful instrument!
JGL Well, thank you Benny!! LOL! Tell me Chris, as a guitar player and someone who may or may not have been influenced by Charlie Christian, did you ever get any stories out of Benny concerning Charlie?
CF: You know what…he actually had nothing much to say about Charlie. In fact, on the tune “Airmail Special”, which Charlie kind of wrote, Benny had me sort things out for him on the last two bars of the bridge…LOL…right before we were about the play the tune! I was just doing it by ear and sometimes I wasn’t sure if I had it articulated correctly or not but thankfully we went with the version I provided…LOL!!
JGL: That’s too funny! So, when you first got the call to join Benny, did you end up going back to all those Charlie Christian sides again?
CF: To a certain degree, but it was more like because I had already heard what the dates were like from Scott and John Bunch, it was more like getting an idea of what the repertoire was going to be and it wasn’t so much the Charlie Christian/Benny Goodman vehicles at that time, even though we did do “Airmail Special” a lot but not necessarily all those other tunes. Ironically though, I had recorded an album with Bob Wilbur who is a highly respected saxophone and clarinet player with a stellar resume who had a Sydney Bechet type of thing going on. I played in a band with him, Phil Flanagan and Chuck Riggs which was doing a Benny Goodman kind of thing and we recorded an album called Swinging For The King. Doing all those arrangements verbatim, it was why I was steeped in that stuff at the time I was hired by the real Benny Goodman…LOL. Which is not to say that Bob is a clone of Benny. He’s a great talent in his own right with a lot of musical history behind him but with a great love for Benny and Sydney Bechet. So I had all those tunes kicking around in my head.
JGL: So it was a good fit!
CF: Oh yeah! Absolutely! A lot of it was also the rhythmic thing. He liked where all of us were coming from rhythmically and that we played things with a lot of drive like how he heard things rhythmically.
JGL: That helped I’m sure…LOL. So let’s leave Benny for a while and get back to you. You were in New York in the early to mid 70’s?
CF: Well…when I came to stay, you know, as an adult professional musician, it was 1976, I was 22 and I’ve been here ever since.
Part 2 of this Jazz Guitar Life interview with Chris Flory will be published in the coming weeks. Join the mailing list to be kept in the loop 🙂
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