“I come out of Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Benson of course, Jim Hall, Jimmy Raney, Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow. These are my idols and these are the guys that I emulated. The purity and clarity in their playing, the organic nature of their swing, these are really the things I love about this music…”Chris Whiteman
I first became aware of Jazz Guitarist Chris Whiteman through his live organ duo and trio gig videos on YouTube and immediately loved his traditional playing style and chill demeanour. In this interview Chris shares with us his musical beginnings, his days at the University of Miami and how playing a conga shaped his Jazz playing forever. An informative and entertaining read. Enjoy!
JGL: Hi Chris and thanks for taking the time to participate on Jazz Guitar Life. For those who don’t know you, give us an elevator pitch about who you are.
CW: I’m a traditional Jazz player who loves Jazz Guitar man, I really do…lol!
JGL: That says it all Chris! Before we continue, how are you doing in this COVID pandemic era we find ourselves in?
CW: Well right now I’m primarily teaching but I was starting to play more and was travelling more and more. In fact, the year before the pandemic people started to recognise my playing as somebody they wanted to hear rather than just hiring any old guitar sideman so people started to seek me out. As mentioned I’m a very traditional player and always gravitated towards the traditional approach of the Guitar which was not good for my career for a long time. Apparently I wasn’t “hip enough” or that I was playing an “old style” but that’s who I am. I come out of Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Benson of course, Jim Hall, Jimmy Raney, Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow. These are my idols and these are the guys that I emulated. The purity and clarity in their playing, the organic nature of their swing, these are really the things I love about this music and these are the elements I was working on as a player. But something happened in the last couple of years and people are really starting to appreciate that style of playing, at least in the relationships that I’ve developed as a result of me pursuing and studying this music for the past 25. I really like this classic style of Jazz Guitar.
JGL: How do you account for the shift in interest? Was it just that you were committed to this style and kept playing and playing?
CW: Yeah, there was definitely this perseverance. I mean I was never trying to pursue something that I didn’t have a passion for. It wasn’t like I decided that I needed to play more modern for marketing potential. It was “I know what I like” and I’m going to stick with it. People slowly started to let me know that they really liked what I was doing. I think it is in contrast to a lot of the modern guys that are very technique oriented. You know, this perfection of technique almost compresses the life out of the music. Even the swing 8th notes get so honed that they feel monotone in a way. We’re so bombarded with information these days that you wanna hear something pure and authentic and melodic.
JGL: I tend to agree. So let’s move forward a little bit. You love this music, you’ve stuck to your guns, you’re playing gigs, are they local gigs?
CW: Yeah but I’ve travelled a bit. I went up to New York and played Birdland…
JGL: Sahweet…as a leader or a sideman?
CW: As a sideman. I started working with a singer named Stephanie Nakasian who was married to Hod O’Brien, a legendary BeBop pianist who passed away about 5 years ago in his 80’s. Well Stephanie and H had a daughter and she is Veronica Swift who was on the cover of Downbeat a couple of months ago. She’s had a great career so far and has played with Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center and Chris Botti’s band and plays a lot with Emmet Cohen. She also has her own recording career and I have a gig with her and I believe Emmet’s going to be on the gig as well. LOL…I have one gig on the books this year and it’s with Veronica although I’m not sure yet where it will be! So yeah, I’ve travelled and I’ve even played over in Poland! But you know, as a Jazz musician a lot of our gigs tend to be local. I was probably playing between 3 and 4 nights a week around this area. Now when I say “around this area” it could be to DC, which is a couple of hours away, so I’ll drive up there and play with…do you know Steve Herberman?
JGL: Of course! He was kind enough to be interviewed a while back on Jazz Guitar Life (click here dear readers to check that out)!
CW: Well he used to have a steady gig at the Tabard Inn and would invite guitar players. Actually Randy Johnston (Jazz Guitarist) introduced me to Steve. Oh, and I also use to book a club here in Richmond, so if I knew of a guitarist in the area who I wanted to play with I could contact them. Before the pandemic I had invited guys like Joshua Breakstone and Royce Campbell. In fact Royce and I just recorded an album together. So it was a cool opportunity to play with some great players but unfortunately it went out of business. Actually the two venues that I played at regularly both shut down. There are about 80 restaurants in this area who have gone out of business permanently!
JGL: As a result of the pandemic?
CW: Yeah! It’s really changed everything you know. Luckily I have…well…when I got to Miami…is it cool if we backtrack a bit?
JGL: Of course! Just one question before you begin…how old are you now and how old were you when you went to study at the University of Miami?
CW: Cool. Ok, I am 45 now and was 26 when I went to Miami. So what happened was, I was studying Classical Guitar because in the Richmond public school system they had a legit Classical Guitar teacher from Argentina named Carlos Pozzi who was a primary student of Abel Carlevaro, a very famous Argentinean Classical Guitarist and composer who wrote a lot of famous music for Classical Guitar.
So I studied with Carlos in an old school, mentorship kind of way where he was actually like a father figure to me and he was all about Classical Guitar! Now, I was into Hendrix and Classic Rock and actually Hendrix was my hero! But I kinda liked Classical Guitar as well so I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but when I graduated high school, Carlos had a relationship with a teacher over at Virginia Commonwealth University in the Classical Guitar program there. So he introduced me and it was kind of a natural progression from one school to the other. It was a big school though and they had a great Jazz program there. Ellis Marsalis even taught there.
So while I was there, I just started taking as many Jazz classes as I could because I just wanted to play electric guitar you know – and they used to bring in a bunch of different artists – Barry Harris came down one time and so I got exposed to a variety of teaching methodologies. But I needed to practice this stuff as you know because it takes a while to absorb this language.
I was taking Classical Guitar which I didn’t really want to pursue and I was studying Jazz on my own and taking the classes and I just decided that I was going to drop out of school and that I needed to practice. You know, I never really had a strong passion for Classical Guitar and I felt that I didn’t have time to practice while I was at school which was a big problem, so I dropped out. I taught at a local music shop and had a friend who graduated from Berklee – a saxophone player a few years older than me – and because he was my friend he started hiring me for gigs even though I wasn’t at the level that he was at!
So he would hire me for gigs and I would bring my Real Book to play out of like “All The Things You Are” and he’d be playing and then he’d reach back and close the book and boy, I’d have a heart attack you know! I mean OMG, what if I mess up? My body was reacting like my life was in danger…that was the level of anxiety I was experiencing. I mean at that time I didn’t have many of the fundamentals in my playing at all so it was a good experience to get more serious about my playing and this music. Then all I did was practice! I transcribed for like four years and practiced for like six to eight hours a day everyday!
JGL: What were you working on at that time?
CW: I was primarily transcribing and playing along with records. I got a lot of vocabulary together and I could sound pretty good if I could control the situation! I was calling the tunes, I was picking the tempo, picking the keys, then I could plug in this vocabulary you know, but it was real fragile! It could fall apart very quickly is a different key was called or a faster tempo.
During this time though I was also taking lessons off and on depending on who came to town. It was at this time that I was referred to Mike Longo who was Dizzy Gillespie’s musical director and was a pianist living in New York. So I’m serious about this music and I want to learn so I call him up and ask for a lesson and he says “sure we can have a lesson”! Now remember, I’m in Richmond and he’s in New York but he came highly recommended so I decided to drive up there because I’m serious about learning!
So I get to his apartment and take out my guitar. He asks me to play him something so I play him a solo version of “Tenderly” and he then says “All right, put your guitar away!” and he hands me a Conga drum. Then he asks me – and I’ll always remember this – “what is Jazz?” That caught me off guard and I said “I don’t know man, it’s improvised music.” I mean I was flailing trying to come up with what I thought was the correct answer and then he stops me. “Jazz is the marriage of African rhythms and European harmony. If you don’t understand African Rhythm you’re never going to swing! If you don’t understand 6/8…” I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he started me playing these 6/8 patterns which are basically triplets if you think about, you know the origins of where swing comes from, the triplet sub-division. So man, I started playing congas all the time…lol…doing these patterns and it really helped me to understand rhythmically this organic rolling forward meter of the triplet, the pulse.
He also had some books on harmony that he had written so I was really delving into this stuff. Unfortunately – and even though I stayed with some family in New Jersey where I’m from – driving back and forth from Richmond was rather unsustainable, but it was also really valuable to study with someone who really understood this music. He was the first person who I studied with who was a really established musician who understood the fundamentals of Jazz. This got me thinking that I got to go back to school! I had a friend in Miami and oh…before that…Jonathan Kreisberg played in my area – this was when he was still a fusion player playing a Strat – and he crashed at a friend’s place for a few days. I got to meet him at my friend’s place and we jammed a little and he was already a monster player. I told him I was thinking of going back to school and he said “you gotta go to the University of Miami and study with my teacher Randal Dahl!” I had never heard of this guy but a friend of mine who was going there said “yeah man, you gotta come here!” But it was an expensive school and I had no money…you know…lol…I figured there was no way I could afford it but my friend that I should apply anyway, so I did. To my surprise – but also as a result of all the practicing I was doing – I got a great scholarship so I said “ok…I’m doing it man…I’m going to Miami!”
JGL: Nice! Must have been an exciting time.
CW: Yeah, but I was 26 when I got there and all my “peers” were in their very early 20’s and I was also a little more advanced. My single note lines were way beyond what they were doing at the time but I had years on them so no wonder! My teacher, who was very astute, and who was one who saw your strengths along with your weaknesses, basically said “your lines are better than anyone else here so we’re going to focus on playing chord-melody!” I was devastated man…DEVASTATED!! I wanted to be George Benson but my teacher told me “if you sounded any more like George Benson, that wouldn’t be a good thing!” So it took me three years to finish my undergrad and chord-melody was my primary study every week and he was a chord-melody master! He was known for chord-melody and guys like Hiram Bullock sought him out to study solo guitar.
I hate to admit it but it was painful! I didn’t want to play solo! I mean I left Classical Guitar because…I wanted to be with players…
JGL: You wanted to SHRED!!
CW: LOL! Yeah man…I wanted to shred! But of course I kept at it and then when I graduated I didn’t know what to do. So I did a Masters and ended up getting a teaching assistant gig for two years, but that meant I also studied chord-melody again with my teacher for two years…LOL!! So I spent five years doing chord-melody and in retrospect it was the BEST thing I could have done because you’re responsible for all the elements of the music and there’s nowhere to hide. You have to know it and it gave me the most thorough development I could have ever got. Plus I was also playing in the big band there so I had to get my reading together. In fact they used to bring in big artists to play with the big band – The Concert Jazz Band – and once they brought in drummer Denis McGrail who was the last drummer in the Basie Band while Freddie Green was still there, so I got to play with him. He’s also an arranger so he came to play and rehearse with us for a week so I got to talk to him about Freddie which was very cool. So overall I got a great education there at Miami, the full spectrum, from Big Band to solo playing to small combos in between. I would say the value of going to music school is the variety of playing experiences. In fact, it’s the only reason that I would recommend going to music school.
Oh I also forgot to mention that I studied arranging and use those concepts to this day when I arrange for solo guitar. That was another invaluable skill to get down.
JGL: It would appear that what you got out of your time at the University of Miami you have put to good use?
CW: Yeah man, I wouldn’t take it back! It was invaluable and I learned a lot about teaching because I started teaching as a TA. Then when I finished my Masters I got hired full-time as a teacher there and stayed for another couple of years after graduating and then it was time to get out of Miami!
JGL: What were you teaching there at the time?
CW: I taught private study one-on-one guitar instruction and sight-reading class, in fact we had a sight reading class for guitar players, which was invaluable because a lot of guitarists have trouble or can’t read music. We had a really good methodology there and it was a two semester class so at the end of those two semesters, the guitar players had a clear grasp and understanding of the methodology for sight-reading.
JGL: Was it your own curriculum or were you working out of commercially available books?
CW: No, it was our own curriculum put together by Randall Dahl. We did use the Berklee book “Melodic Rhythms for Guitar” and we used that for the rhythmic groupings and not necessarily the studies because the downside of that book is that the studies are very melodic, very sing-song like and you kind of memorize the melodies instead of reading them which is obviously not a good thing..lol! So that class got guitar players reading at a decent level in a relatively short amount of time.
JGL: Nice! Earlier you mentioned that you spent six to eight hours a day practicing and transcribing, was it just Benson your were lifting or were you copying other guitar players or maybe even horn players or piano players?
CW: I was transcribing everything man, in fact early on I really got into Clifford Brown with Max Roach, but I was also listening to Wes of course and bought Steve Khan’s Wes Montgomery Folio book which I would play along from. I loved Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Jim Hall, and then people would tell me to check out some horn players so I did. Early on I had a hard time transcribing tenor saxophone players because my ears were not that developed and the timbre of the instrument was creating issues for me not to mention the articulations and the slurs and stuff. So when I heard Clifford Brown I was like “awww man, this guy is swinging his ass off” and I could hear all the articulations and the notes were so clean that it was easier for me to start to transcribe his stuff. Over time my ears got better and I could transcribe sax players and I got into Harold Blaine and Shirley Scott with Stanley Turrentine. Hank Mobley was a big influence, Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter, and then later, and still to this day, Bill Evans (the Piano player and not the sax player) is a big influence and resource for me when I’m trying to expand my harmonic approach.
JGL: When you were transcribing all that material, were you notating it or just storing it in your “mind-palace?”
CW: There was a lot of writing down and I still have stacks of pages of transcriptions that I did. I think it’s really important to put it on paper because the one thing you don’t want to do is to approximate this music. The clearer you can be the better and when you notate it you have to know the rhythm, where you are in the form, know what the harmony is and you gotta put down the notes…the correct notes! So that whole process is all about clarity for me.
JGL: Did you develop your notation skills through your study of Classical or was it picked up later at the University of Miami?
CW: I took the fundamental theory classes when I was studying Classical Guitar and there were assignments that you had to write, you know, counterpoint, four part harmony and Bach Chorales kind of things. So I was building the fundamental skills to place the music on the staff and I had been reading music all through high-school on Classical Guitar. In fact, I played trumpet when I was in middle school for about three years in stage bands so I learned to read in the public school system.
JGL: Sounds like a great education all around. So tell me…what happened to your love of Hendrix and the Classic Rock guys, did they get shoved to the back of the drawer so to speak?
CW: I’m still a big fan of Hendrix and love the flow, the ability to express yourself without fear, with 100% conviction. There’s no barrier with what’s in here (points to heart) and what’s coming out here (moves fingers). I’m going to be 100% vulnerable and here I am. This is what I loved about Hendrix and his music, there was no holding back. The Classic Rock guys that I always gravitated towards were guys that were heavily influenced by the Blues.
When you talk about the development of becoming a Jazz Guitarist I can tell right away if somebody skipped the Blues. There’s just something missing in their playing. What I learned about the Blues is that you commit to a phrase, and even though it may be a simple phrase, you still need to commit fully or no one is going to believe what you’re playing! So I’m always trying to bring the Blues into my playing but it sounds like the guys who have skipped the Blues are not fully rooted into the notes. They may have a ton of chops but there is not a lyrical element that comes out in their playing…at least to me anyway.
JGL: Well, all the cats you mentioned earlier definitely have a huge Blues element in their playing.
CW: Yeah man! Hey have you heard the album Two Jims and Zoot?
JGL: YES!! I LOVE that album and actually was just listening to it the other day. Zoot Sims with Jimmy Raney and Jim Hall. You can’t beat that combination!
CW: Yeah! It’s one of my all-time favourite albums and Jim Hall is on fire on that recording! I’ve never heard him play like that!! There a lot of modern stuff going on like intervallic lines and fourths and stuff. I listen to that album and I can hear how Pat Metheny was influenced by Jim Hall. I can hear the origins of some of the concepts that Metheny is playing.
JGL: Have you seen that YouTube video featuring Jim Hall and Pat Metheny? It’s from a TV show hosted by pianist Ramsey Lewis and features Jim and Pat doing solo stuff then they get together and do a quartet thing with bass and drums. It’s really nice!
CW: No man, I haven’t seen that but I did see Pat and Jim do a gig together at the Smithsonian a bunch of years ago. It was for the 100th year of the Archtop Guitar (1998) and featured the Scott Chinery Blue Guitar Collection. Pat joined Jim and his trio of Steve LaSpina and Terry Clarke and they did some very modern stuff happening, very spontaneous and explorative and a little beyond what I was able to comprehend at that time. Then Jim and Pat played duo and did All The Things You Are which is a tune I believe they always play together. I’m really glad I got to see them both together and I think Jim was wearing his famous signature vest…lol!
JGL: And Pat was probably wearing a striped t-shirt…lol.
CW: Yeah man, with Converse High Tops…lol!!
JGL: The Metheny Fashion…lol! So tell me Chris, who are you listening to these days and is there anyone who excites you that we should be checking out?
CW: Man I’ve been listening a lot lately to the Two Jims and Zoot!! Another album I’ve been listening to is The Oscar Peterson Quartet with Lester Young and Barney Kessel on guitar. I’ve also been listening to Bud Powell lately and Bill Evans I’m always listening to. Basically I still listen to the “old school” stuff man. Not that I’m anti-modern music it’s just what I gravitate to. I just like the vibe of those recordings and everything about them. I also love Anthony Wilson and Peter Bernstein and Joe Cohn. These are the guys who are alive today that I really love and listen to and even when they get little modern, there’s a logic, there’s logical elements and I can still follow the music and it doesn’t sound like bulls**t! You know what I mean?
JGL: I do. I’m not sure if you know Dan Wilson?
CW: Yeah, sure I do. My old roommate Troy was playing with Joey DeFrancesco for a long time as did Dan Wilson.
JGL: Right! Well I read something Dan wrote once and to paraphrase he basically said “I believe every note that Peter Bernstein plays!”
CW: Yeah man, I do too.
JGL: Speaking of guitar players, earlier you mentioned Royce Campbell, who I had the pleasure of interviewing a few years ago, and am I correct in stating that you will be recording with him sometime soon?
CW: It’s already done man and it’s out!
JGL: Oh cool. What’s the title?
CW: It’s called the “Campbell/Whiteman Project” and it actually made it on the charts! It came out March 25, 2020 and was released on Royce’s label. It has the Turkish Drummer Emre Kartari and Paul Langosch on Bass who use to be Tony Bennett’s bass player for about 20 years and also played with Mundell Lowe and your Canadian friend Ed Bickert.
JGL: Nice! So how did this union come about, you and Royce?
CW: I met Royce through Randy Johnson who invited me to play at a guitar event he was organizing in Charlottesville. Kind of like a guitar summit with five guitar players and Royce was one of the guitarists. We had known of each other and Royce had been watching some of my YouTube solo guitar videos.
At that time I was booking for a club and so I invited Royce to put a quartet together and to come on down to play and he said “yeah, that would be great!” As we had played together before at the guitar summit I felt our styles were compatible and we had a good time.
Well maybe a month later Royce emailed me and it was funny ‘cause you know Royce is a pretty humble guy and he wrote that he had recorded with a few guitar players and then he listed all these amazing cats like Pat Martino, John Abercrombie, Larry Coryell and all these other great players and he was like “Uhmmm would you be interested in doing a record together?” lol! So I said “yeah, sure man, let’s do it!” So then he said “why don’t we each write four tunes and pick some standards?” I was like “yeah cool, let’s do it!”
So we exchanged lead sheets back and forth and then chose the repertoire. I had recorded with Emre Kartari and Paul Langosch already and Royce had heard some of it and liked it. Actually Royce and Paul had recorded together a few times as well over the past twenty years so they knew each other. So we booked a recording studio in Charlottesville which is like a midway point between Royce and it was just like four friends getting together. We ended up recording the album in about six or so hours over a period of two days in one room live with no isolation and then I took all the takes back to Richmond and we mixed the album here. Royce also paints and so he took one of his paintings and that became the cover.
Then one day I got an email from Royce saying “Hey man, are album is on the Jazz charts in two spots: The biggest weekly gainer and most added to airplay which lasted for about a week. The cool thing is that around that time an Art Blakey reissue came out and we were right beside it on the charts! It was definitely cool to see our names right beside Art Blakey…lol!
JGL: Speaking of recording, do you have any recordings out as a leader?
CW: No. I don’t have anything out but I do have a live-to-tape organ trio album recorded that was done a couple of years ago that sad to say it hasn’t even been mixed yet. The pandemic threw a wrench into just about everything! I also have some stuff with Emre Kartari and Paul Langosch in the can and I need to put that together at some point. Also, hopefully this year I am going to record a solo guitar album. I just have to do it…lol!!
JGL: LOL…I hear ya! I’ve had an album coming out for the past twenty years…lol!!
CW: Yeah! It’s nice to be in charge but then, you’re in charge…lol! I need a producer to tell me what to do!
JGL: Roger that! Well Chris I think we can start wrapping it up. I’ve taken a lot of your time and very grateful for it. The last question I have before we go is…how many guitars do you own!? When I watch your YouTube videos it seems like there’s always a new guitar I had never seen before.
CW: LOL…I have about twenty guitars…I got a problem man…lol!
JGL: I see that you have a Roger Bory’s guitar and there are more than a few vintage Gibson’s I’ve seen you playing on your YouTube videos…
CW: Yeah, Roger Bory’s built that guitar for me about two years ago.
JGL: Nice! Oh…and you have that guitar with the Charlie Christian style pickups…
CW: Yeah, that’s the Daniel Sleeman. Are you familiar with Sleeman?
JGL: No, not at all. But it looks really nice!
CW: He’s a Dutch Luthier who lives in The Hague and builds about twelve guitars a year. His waiting list is super long now that Metheny has been playing his guitars. They are all Gibson inspired and he’s somewhat obsessed with early Gibson Archtops, but there’s something special about his guitars, they feel like you’ve played them your whole life. When I pick mine up it feels like it belongs in my arms and that was from day one!
JGL: Sweet! Do you own any solid bodies?
CW: I do. I have a couple of Teles and I own a Tom Anderson Strat. I also have a custom shop Gibson Es-336 which is a thin-line and I got a Jazz Master…for when you know, when I wanna play Jazz…lol!
JGL: Well this then begs the question, are you married and does your wife like all your guitars as much as you do…lol?
CW: LOL…actually my wife is very supportive and I owe a whole chunk of my career to her because she was the one who encouraged me to start making YouTube videos. And thank God I did that years ago because financially the pandemic has not impacted me at all. My teaching has just exploded during the pandemic because everyone was home. And yes, I lost gigs, but I am beyond capacity with my teaching schedule and I can’t take on any new students at the moment!
JGL: That’s not a bad problem to have at all.
CW: It’s a good problem.
JGL: Agreed. And on that happy note…thank you so much Chris for taking the time out of your busy day to hang out with Jazz Guitar Life and chat. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you professionally and much continued success in all your endeavors. Take care and all the best.
CW: Thanks man. Appreciate it!
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