Jazz Guitar Legacy Interview with Jack Petersen – Part 1

Jack Petersen on guitar with the Mike Vax Sextet at The Nash Jazz Club - Joseph Berg Photography.

Well, they didn’t have that then, but they did have something else. It’s a thing called “hot licks.” You know, you hear a hot lick and you say to yourself, ‘hey, play that again. Let me look at it. Let me play it. Let me learn it.’ And you learn it, you know? And nobody ever told me I should go through all the keys, but I did, just to make sure that it was part of me, you know? But I, at first, like everybody, like any child learning how to speak—starts imitating what he hears. And you do the same thing with jazz at first to get started, you know, you gotta start somewhere.

Jack Petersen

With a large majority of our Jazz Guitar Legacy players passed on, it is a rare moment indeed when one gets an opportunity to talk with such a player, especially one who has been around for close to nine decades. Well our man in the field – Dr. Wayne Goins – had just such an opportunity with the legendary Jack Petersen!

Mr. Petersen was born in 1933 and over the years has been a major force in the propulsion of Jazz instruction as the “…pedagogical architect for jazz guitar and jazz improvisation at Berklee College of Music, University of North Texas College of Music, and University of North Florida.” (source) He also played with Stan Kenton, and personally knew The Cats of the day like Jimmy Wyble, Tal Farlow, Herb Ellis, Barry Galbraith and many others.

Mr. Petersen may not be a house-hold name like Joe Pass or Kenny Burrell, but his influence on the Jazz Guitar community – either directly or indirectly – is just as important! This man IS our history and the first part of this interview features his early years coming up as a player and what the scene was like “way back in the day”. Enjoy 🙂


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JGL: I’m so thrilled to talk with you—this is such a rare treat. I have a couple of questions I’ve laid out for you that I wanted to ask about your career, which has been quite stellar, of course.

JP: Yes, why thank you.

JGL: So let’s start with just getting some general background information about you and where you grew up. You moved to Denton, Texas when you were five?

JP: No, when I was eight.

JGL: Oh, okay, what year was that?

JP: 1942.

JGL: So where were you actually born?

JP: I was born in Elk City, Oklahoma.

JGL: Oh, really?

JP: Yeah. <laugh>. I’m an Oklahoman like Charlie Christian.

JGL: Well, I was just gonna say that same thing! [laughs], I know that you’ve had several legendary guitar players who you were influenced by. I know that Charlie Christian was a huge one. But I didn’t know that you were born there, in the same state.

JP: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Sure.

JGL: Did you know about the book I wrote on Charlie Christian?

JP: Yes.

JGL: I don’t know if you’ve read it or not, but I think that book is still the most thoroughly researched book on Charlie anywhere in the world.

JP: Alright. Let me ask you this. What year did he really die in?

JGL: 1942. [March 2.]

JP: How old was he?

JGL: 25.

JP: Okay. I thought he was 26. Over the years, there’s been a lot of controversy on that. What an influence he had on everybody, that guy!

JGL: Speaking of Texas, talk to me about the Western swing bands that you were influenced by at the age of 16.

JP: Oh, it was Bob Wills…

JGL: The Texas Playboys!

JP: Yeah. That’s, that was the main one. And there was Hank Thompson. He had one too, down in Waco, Texas. He was with the Brazos Valley Boys.

JGL: Oh, yeah.

JP: He had a big hit on a tune called “Humpty Dumpy Heart.”

JGL: I wasn’t aware of that.

JP: And it was, I mean, it was a big one. You know, you turn on the radio every day, man. Every station was playing that tune, you know?

JGL: What year was that?

JP: Oh, that was in the late forties, I think. I don’t know what exact year, but it would be really late forties, you know, like 48, 49. (Ed. Note: He was correct, it was 1947)

JGL: There’s a whole chapter in my book that I wrote about Western swing bands—the groups were really, really huge at the time. The territory bands were going on, and those Western swing bands influenced Charlie Christian more than most people know.

JP: Yes, yes. Well, there was a great guitar player with the Bob Wills band named Eldon Shamblin

JGL: Yes. Eldon Shamblin.

JP: Yeah. And the other guy was Tex Williams, he also had a Western swing band, and Spade Cooley.

JGL: Spade Cooley! Yep.

JP: And Jimmy Wyble played with him. And Bob Wills—Jimmy also played with Bob Wills.

JGL: Wow. And you were listening to all these guys?

JP: Oh yeah. Those guys—they were great influences on me.

JGL: Did you ever meet any of them?

JP: I had met… let’s see, lemme think a minute. I had met Jimmy Wyble once. Yeah. Very quickly. You know, he was playing with Red Norvo out in Reno, Nevada, and I was doing some Stan Kenton summer jazz camps out there. And I met him. He was playing there at one of the casinos, and I met him briefly.

JGL: Wow. okay. So let’s fast forward a little bit and talk about someone who was a big influence on you. A man named Bob Hames.

JP: Yes! Yeah. Boy, you’ve really done your homework!

JGL: Yeah [smiles].

JP: He, he’s the only guy I took some lessons with when I was in high school.

JGL: Wow.

JP: He introduced me to a lot of different players—Remo Palmier, people like that. Boy, that was a major influence. He [Hames] had a great recording of him [Palmier]. And then George Barnes was a great influence on me in those years. And Les Paul, too— this is before he started doing all that multiple recordings. You know, Hames had had early recordings of Les Paul, who was a great guitar player.

JGL: Yes. And so how long did you study with him?

JP: With Bob?

JGL: Yeah.

JP: Let’s see…it would’ve been about three months. He was graduating from North Texas, and he moved over to Dallas, and I started taking with him lessons in spring of that year. Let me think a minute. What year was it? I was still in high school, so it would’ve been about 1951.

JGL: What high school did you go to?

JP: Denton High School.

JGL: Okay. Now, you went to the Army in 1955, right?

JP: Yes.

JGL: Tell me about that. How did that happen? Did you sign up on your own or did your parents encourage you?

JP: No, no. I got drafted.

JGL: Okay.

JP: In the spring of ‘55 and took basic training…no—summer, summer of ‘55, excuse me. There were two phases. Then in the fall, first you had your regular basic training; and then I had to go to Heavy Weapons. And then in January, I went overseas to Korea in ‘56, for, let’s see…16 months.

JGL: Wow.

JP: So, I got out in the spring of ‘57, then came back to Texas.

JGL: Okay.

JP: And when I was in the Army, I got with guys who were from New York and LA and Chicago. And so I had a lot of influences there from those guys, you know. Especially from Chicago, I got a chance to play with a guy named Larry Novak, a great piano player.

JGL: Wow.

JP: And we became very good friends, stayed, in touch all those years, but he passed away a couple of years ago. But he was an amazing piano player, man.

JGL: Wow. Larry Novak.

JP: Yeah. It was a great influence on me. And then I was listening to all the guitar players of that period. It was, you know, Barney Kessel and Herb Palmeroy. No, I meant Herb Ellis, who had gone to North Texas way before I had.

JGL: Oh, right.

JP: He was ahh, you know, he was from that part of the world.

JGL: Right.

JP: He grew up in a little town called Farmersville, which is not too far from Denton. But he was there in Denton right after the Army in about ‘45, ‘46, something like that.

JGL: Wow. And somewhere I read that you said Tal Farlow was an influence on you as well?

JP: Very much. I knew Tal, I had met him.

JGL: Really?

JP: And I had met Herb Ellis too before that too.

JGL: Wow.

JP: But Tal was a major influence on me. Man…that guy. Wooh!!

JGL: <Laugh>.

JP: His harmonic sense was incredible, you know? Really.

JGL: And what about Oscar Moore?

JP: Listen, man, now there’s a guy—which I’m glad I have an iPad now that I can find those old Oscar Moore recordings, you know? Of course, I first heard him with Nat King Cole.

JGL: Yes.

JP: And there’s a guy, man, when you listen to—boy, he’ll make you pat your foot. Let me tell you, man, that guy could play, man—wooh!

JGL: Yeah. Yeah.

JP: And I think he was from, or was born, I think, in Waco, Texas. Is that right?

JGL: I’m, I’m not sure. I don’t know much about him other than the Nat Cole stuff.

JP: Well, after he left Cole, Irving Ashby took his place.

JGL: Yes, that’s right.

JP: But Oscar made some albums on his own, you know, out in L.A.

JGL: Really?

JP: And man, I found those on my iPad on YouTube. And boy, what a treat that was, to hear that stuff again. I used to have two or three of his old albums. You know, and man, that guy… the first solo jazz solo I ever copied off of on guitar was his solo. I think it was with Nat King Cole when he did—what was it, “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

JGL: Wow.

JP: And boy, I learned so much from that. I copied bits and pieces, you know; I would hear something I liked, and I would take it off the record.

JGL: Yeah. By ear.

JP: Oh, yeah. There was nothing written out. You know, this idea of where they got books of patterns now?

JGL: Yeah.

JP: Well, they didn’t have that then, but they did have something else. It’s a thing called “hot licks.” You know, you hear a hot lick and you say to yourself, ‘hey, play that again. Let me look at it. Let me play it. Let me learn it.’ And you learn it, you know? And nobody ever told me I should go through all the keys, but I did, just to make sure that it was part of me, you know? But I, at first, like everybody, like any child learning how to speak—starts imitating what he hears. And you do the same thing with jazz at first to get started, you know, you gotta start somewhere.

JGL: Yes.

JP: And so I would copy these licks, and I would make up solos using these licks all over the place, you know? Until I started creating my own. But it took a while, you know, that’s the way we used to have to learn, man. We didn’t have solos—I don’t remember any solo was being written out when I was growing up.

JGL: Let me ask you this question, if you remember, what kind of guitar were you playing back then?

JP: Let see, I had a SS Stewart first. A good guitar I had, you know. I had an old beat up one that my dad bought for five bucks, but the strings were so high, I could hardly even play it. So finally I started saving my own money. I was working at the grocery store on the weekends, you know, Friday and Saturday. And I got enough money to buy this SS Stewart, and it was a good guitar. I wish I still had it, in fact, you know? And I put a mounted pickup on it, and then after that, I started playing Gibson guitars.

JGL: What Gibson guitars did you have?

JP: Well, the best one I had was the ‘Big Blonde.’ It was the—what is it? Oh, what’s the biggest one they make?

JGL: Super 400.

JP: Yeah. I had a Super 400. Yeah.

JGL: Oh, wow. Okay. You had one of those back in the fifties?

JP: Yeah.

JGL: Wow.

JP: They were good guitars, man. Yeah, I had it and I had blonde pickups put on it, so I was really into blondes, you know? it’s like that tune that Tommy Mottola and Carl Kress did—“Blonde on the Loose?”

JGL: <Laugh>. Yeah! (song was recorded in 1941) I was actually gonna ask you about Carl Kress next!

JP: Oh, listen, man, you know, he had great-sounding chords. I loved the things he did. And those duos he did with Tommy Mottola too were outstanding. You know, they did ’em first with acoustic guitar. Then later on they did it with electric guitar, and they added drums and bass, and a great clarinet player. I think he was a studio player there in New York. And those particular recordings are killers, man. Boy, they really make you pat your foot. Those guys were really cooking, man.

JGL: I thought, I thought it was Carl Kress and Dick McDonough.

JP: That was earlier.

JGL: Oh.

JP: They were done in the thirties. Now, and McDonough and Carl Kress were done in the forties.

JGL: Oh, okay. Okay.

JP: And Dick McDonough, he was a great guitar player, man.

JGL: Yeah, yeah. I heard an early recording of that. And that was one of the few, the first guitar duo albums I’d ever heard.

JP: Oh, weren’t they good?

JGL: Oh, yeah!!

JP: But there was somebody before them. At my age, I have trouble remembering things sometimes. I’m 89, you know, years old.

JGL: Wow. Wow.

JP: Before that was in the twenties was Hmm. Guy used to play for Bing Crosby. What was his name?

JGL: Oh, I don’t know. (Ed Note: Although neither of us could remember at the time, it turned out to be Eddie Lang.)

JP: He was from Philadelphia. He also played with a great violin player that has many stories about… oh, I don’t know why I can’t think of his name.

JGL: Oh, Stephane Grappelli?

JP: No, no, no. This is before that.

JGL: Oh, wow. Okay.

JP: This is ah…oh, shoot, I can’t… I’ll think of it as we talk. (Ed Note: Although neither of us could remember at the time, it turned out to be Joe Venuti.)

JGL: Okay. Let’s talk about Barry Galbraith.

JP: Wonderful player. We were corresponding when I did my guitar group at the University of North Texas, which was 15 guitars. I had I sent him a copy of it, and he was very impressed with it, and wrote a very nice note for me to put on the album, you know?

JGL: Yeah.

JP: The first time I heard him was with Phil, the saxophone player.

JGL: Phil Woods?

JP: No, I can’t think of his last name, but it was good. (WG: Actually I think it was Phil Woods JP was referring to—there are several recordings with them together.) You could tell he was reading lines. He was such a good reader on guitar, and they were playing duets, you know, duets with drums and bass.

JGL: Yeah.

JP: And boy, what a great album that was. Man, that was a major influence that made me think about really learning how to read on a guitar. And I just really practiced hard at that, where I became a pretty good reader. You know, I could sight-read things pretty well, you know, but you have to work at that. You know, that’s another part of music—learning to read is another area that you need to work; really get where you can do it really well. And Barry was fluent at that.

JGL: that was gonna be one of my next questions about sightreading. Like, how exactly did you go about developing that? What would be the recommendation…how do you teach people to go about doing it the way you did it?

JP: Well, I knew how to read music from playing piano at early age, you know.

JGL: Right.

JP: I knew about where the notes were and all of that, but I didn’t know a lot about rhythms you know, like you have in jazz and so forth. And that was something I had to really work on. But what I did, was…one time I went downtown, there was a music store in Denton, Texas that was having a sale on music. So I went down and bought a bunch of clarinet parts, which I always knew that the music written on a clarinet is in the same register of a low E like a guitar.

JGL: Right.

JP: And then I got a bunch of violin parts, which will always, the lowest note is always G, but it is a higher range. You know, you could read up in the ledger lines and so forth.

JGL: Right.

JP: And so I would put a stack of music on my right, and bring it up and open the book and read. And I remember somebody telling me years ago before that, they said, ‘If you’re gonna read, learn how, don’t stop. If you make a mistake, don’t stop and try to correct it. Just keep going. Just keep on reading until you get to the point where you don’t make those mistakes. But it takes a while, you know, but it’s…you just got to learn to read a little bit ahead as you read. Alright. Then when you get through with that, turn it upside down. You can still read it and you get doubles your money’s worth.

JGL: Wow. Wow. And so you did that?

JP: Yeah, I did that.

JGL: Oh.

JP: That’s the way I did it… for hours and hours, I’d practice for hours. When you are young, you know, music and playing guitar is 24/7, man, don’t kid yourself. You’ve got to do that. If you want to be a player, man, you’ve got to really live with that instrument. There’s a three-year period where you’ve got to go and just, just live it all the time, man. It’s gotta be done.

JGL: So what was the…

JP: And wait a minute—in Dallas, see now, there was something going on when I was growing up in Dallas. It was a carryover from World War II. They made the clubs close at midnight in Dallas to keep the soldiers off the street.

JGL: Right.

JP: Alright. The Baptists—I guess our religious groups—kept that going for years. So when I played in Dallas at the club, he closed at 12 midnight. The musician’s unions stayed open all night. So after we got through the gig, we’d all go up to the union and jam all night, man.

JGL: Wow.

JP: And that was a lot of playing, you know. And by the way, when I was in Dallas, boy was I influenced by, you know, black players in Dallas, “across the tracks” as they say.

JGL: Yes.

JP: I’d go over there and play with those guys all the time, man.

JGL: Wow.

JP: It was a guy named Jimmy Clay, great saxophone player. And he and I became friends, and we used to go with Clay all the time, man, with those guys. Man. It was just, you know, I remember one time they had a guy come in New Year’s Eve—it was all over town. He was brought in to play. He played piano and sang. So they brought him into Dallas. I didn’t get a chance to go over and hear him, but they were all talking about him at that time. You know who it was?

JGL: Who?

JP: Ray Charles.

JGL: Oh my God!!!!

JP: This is before he was ever known. Yeah.

JGL: Wow!

JP: They brought him in from Florida. <Laugh>.

JGL: Wow. That’s so incredible…

JP: I was very much influenced by every ethnic group. You know, it didn’t matter. You know, I’m color blind; it doesn’t mean a thing to me, but if you can play, you can play. I don’t give a damn if you’re orange, you know?

JGL: <Laugh>, What years was that—when you were talking about that happening?

JP: That was happening, you know, after I got out the Army. So that would be late fifties, early sixties. Mainly late fifties.

JGL: And you were doing studio work, right? You were getting hired to do studio sessions because you, cause you could read music.

JP: Yeah. I was doing studio work, and I got to where I was not only playing, but I was writing too. I was always very interested in orchestration of some kind, you know, where I would play and write for two horns or a 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10-piece, and eventually then a full band. Then, I got to where I could write for a symphony orchestra.

JGL: Really?

JP: Yeah.

JGL: Wow.

JP: And I did that on my own. I didn’t study that. I just did it, you know.

JGL: Wow.

JP: Because I wanted to.

JGL: That’s incredible.

JP: I remember the two books. It was a book on arranging by Dick Garcia, which is very good and a book by Henry Mancini.

JGL: Oh.

JP: Which was a great arranger’s book, you know, and I learned a lot out of those books. I learned a great deal.

END OF PART I – Click for Part 2 🙂

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  1. I’ve really enjoyed reading about Jack Petersen’s interview you did and seeing him play for the first time.. you’ve done a wonderful job. I’m a jazz guitarist from Elk City, OK

    • Thanks so much Richard for dropping by and checking out the Jack Petersen interview. He’s truly a legacy player and very cool that you have seen him perform live 🙂 Part 2 coming soon.

      Take care and all the best.

      Lyle – Jazz Guitar Life

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