“Making a living! That was my main motivation. I had a gig at the time that was six hours a night, six nights a week sometimes seven playing standards with a trio like Oscar Peterson’s old trio and I learned the repertoire so as of now I know just as many tunes as most guys know, maybe more than some. That was what you worked on in those days and that was the end of that era and the beginning of the Rock and Rollers.”
Joe Beck was the seminal working Jazz Guitar Player in the late 60’s early 70’s and his career has continued to move forward ever since. In this candid interview, Joe shares with us some of his past experiences, his most recent musical adventures and the origin of his Joe Beck Alto Guitar. A great read.
This phone interview was conducted August 14, 2007. Sadly Joe passed away a few months after our talk.
JGL: First off, it’s great being able to speak with you and I thank you for taking the time to speak with Jazz Guitar Life.
JB: Not a problem.
JGL: For those who are not familiar with you or your career, could you tell me a little about yourself?
JB: My career started when I was really young, probably around 17 or 18 when I moved to New York. I immediately got a gig with a trio that worked six nights a week in the middle of Manhattan. So I got to know everybody immediately on the music scene and shortly there after I was recording jingles with Stan Getz (Saxophone player) when Astrud Gilberto was a big star and I also worked with Gil Evans. Then in 1968 when I was 22 I was working with Miles (Davis). My career happened because I happened to be in the right place at the right time in a very unique time of Jazz music.
JGL: For me personally, that was the best time for Jazz Guitar and for being a Jazz Guitarist.
JB: Well when I would finish a gig around two in the morning I would go around the corner to the Playboy Club and sit in with Monty Alexander and let Les Spann take a breather and I would finish the gig for him. Then we would go and listen to Kenny Burrell play around the corner or we would go up to Mintons and listen to Wes Montgomery and sit in with him…
JB: Yeah. It was crazy! It was a different world that doesn’t exist right now.
JGL: Given those experiences during that time, how do you feel about the scene today?
JB: Well, today’s scene is still really powerful, it’s just distributed differently. As far as the level of guitar playing…well, I can’t even describe how much higher the level is in terms of technical ability and musicianship than it was forty years ago. The Guitar player today is expected to read anything put in front of him and is expected to play anything in lots of different styles and there are hundreds, thousands of people who can do that, and certainly not just here. You go over to Europe and it’s exactly the same. You go to Japan and it’s exactly the same. The players are really, really evolved.
JGL: What about opportunities? When I was coming up back in the early seventies, guys like you, and Steve Khan, Dave Spinozza and John Tropea to name a few, had created your own brand of Jazz and Rock initially in the studio and nightclub scene of New York and then LA. And it seems like there was just a lot more opportunity to create or recreate a scene…
JB: You’re right. There were more venues and it was easier to access those venues. On the other hand, if I played a gig in the 1970’s, like Larry Coryell and I playing a tour of Japan, that’s where it would end. Today, a gig like that is podcasted and streamed on websites all over the planet. So it may be true that we don’t have the opportunity to go and jam at the clubs that existed when I was young, but we can now disseminate our music infinitely easier because of the Web and because of technology and I think that that is very leveling. People forget that. They complain about the scene. But when I was a kid we were being told that we should have been around in the fifties when Bird and Diz were playing on 52 st. and Monk was up the street and that there is nothing to do now. It’s exactly the same now. The music is not going to go away. There’s no danger of the music dying, it’s just that there are so many better player right now that there are so many qualified guys that are unable to fill the few spots that the world needs. There are only so many people that want to hear a Jazz Guitar player.
You know, there’s that joke about the Blues player who plays three chords for a thousand people and the Jazz Guitarist who plays a thousand chords for three people…lol. That’s what is going on here. We can’t expect the whole world to want to hear Stella By Starlight ad infinitum. Something has got to give and that’s where somebody like Sco (John Scofield) comes in and says “Ok, I’ve already done Stella, and I’ve gone out with my Lavano Quartet and have completely nailed the Jazz Quartet scene. Now I’m going to go play with these Jam bands and reach some young kids.” And everyone is saying that he’s selling out but that’s bull-shit. That’s what you are supposed to do. His path is the right path.
JGL: I agree. As a musician you’re constantly developing and changing…
JGL: You seem to have your finger on the pulse of what is happening today…
JB: Well I don’t know. I feel completely out of it. I’m 62 now and effectively have been retired since 2000. I tour Europe twice a year and I do a couple of gigs on the West Coast and that’s pretty much all I do anymore besides teach. I’m not in that day to day fight in Manhattan to go and play hundred dollar gigs. It’s just not worth the trouble and I don’t need to do it anyway. John Abercrombie and I have a new duo record coming out in October (2007) and we’re going back to Europe in December (2007) for another duo tour. We did one last year and it was fantastic! I mean it was sold out before we even finished announcing it.
So there are places to play for us…I mean, I have an old, long career and whether it is a successful one or an important one is left up to those who are talking about it, but it is long…lol…and it allows me the luxury to be in demand for certain things. There are not too many guys who can say that they have played with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich, Miles Davis, and all the people I got to play with because of where I was in New York and what I did. I have this thing that sort of gives me an entry card into the world of playing concerts. And it’s not necessarily that I deserve it, but I’ll take it! I mean, I always feel that are much better players that aren’t heard. Listen to Tony Perrone or Jack Wilkins. There are phenomenal players around here that for one reason or another haven’t gotten the recognition that they deserve and then I get recognize for stuff that doesn’t even count.
JGL: Well, I wouldn’t dismiss what you have done. I think you were a very important figure during the time you were coming up. I mean, the stuff you were doing at that time had no reference…
JB: Yeah. We didn’t have a zero at that time, we didn’t know where the middle point was…and actually, I really think Larry Coryell was the one who moved everything in the right direction from where I sat. He came to town and stayed at my apartment for a while and we became really, really close for a year before he got hooked up Chico Hamilton and then with Gary Burton and all those early gigs that he did. But when he came to New York he could sound like Johnny Smith, he could sound like Jimi Hendrix, he could sound like Jimmy Raney, he had it all worked out and he was a young guy. He was the first one I thought was capable of putting one foot at the Fillmore and the other foot at Brydland and being equally comfortable at both places. And I tried to emulate that. I wanted to be like Larry. I wanted to play all those styles as well as Larry. I was already good at the Johnny Smith style but I hadn’t really given a shit about the rock guys. At that point the Beatles were still singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” which wasn’t exactly the evolved music that we hear now from the Beatles. So I wasn’t too interested in rock and Roll.
JGL: So what pushed you in that direction?
JB: Making a living! That was my main motivation. I had a gig at the time that was six hours a night, six nights a week sometimes seven playing standards with a trio like Oscar Peterson’s old trio and I learned the repertoire so as of now I know just as many tunes as most guys know, maybe more than some. That was what you worked on in those days and that was the end of that era and the beginning of the Rock and Rollers. Now the guys like Spinozza and Tropea…Spinozza came from the Funk bands and bar bands and he was such a funky devil…he could play like Hendrix and you couldn’t tell the difference plus he brought a great set of chops to the table much like Tropea who was a Berklee guy and would be woodshedding “Donna Lee” and running all those Be-Bop heads while reading his ass off. He was really a great musician. So they all came after me but only by three years. I had already nailed down the territory as the young guy, so when anyone like say Maynard Ferguson needed to rock up one of his albums they would have me come in and overdub screaming, fuzz tone guitar on it and then they would say “Cool. We got a rock album”.
JGL: You’re not the guy who played the guitar solo in Ferguson’s version of “Chameleon” are you?
JB: Yeah unfortunately…lol…if you have the vinyl my name is on it. It never made it to the CD though…
JGL: I don’t know what you think of that solo but I really love it. It was one of the original tunes that turned me onto Jazz…
JB: Well that’s the stuff that I did. I even did that with the Dorsey band.
JB: I swear…with these ridiculous big bands. Woody Herman and his band ended up recording my tunes to turn his band into a Rock band. I did it with Lionel Hampton…I mean all these old players who wanted to juice up their band, I got the job of doing that. That was while Spinozza and Tropea were still kind of in school, although I don’t think Spinozza went to school, or wherever they were at the time. Spinozza is a great player and to this day is one of the gifted guitar players there is.
JGL: Yeah. I want to talk with him eventually…
JB: He’s a monster player. There’s a great story…he and I were doing a session together when he first came to town and he’s playing next to me. Everyone takes a break and he looks over at me and asks “Joe. Is it too much?” And I look back at him and I say “No. it’s too often”…lol…Because he’d play so much shit you know and playing “too often”. He reminded me of that thirty years later. But these are my friends. We play golf together and it’s like Forty years later so it’s not like I’m telling stories out of school…lol.
JGL: Not at all….
JB: The West Coast side I didn’t know those guys very well. I knew Larry (Carlton) vaguely and I knew Lee (Ritenour) vaguely. I went out there for a while but I wasn’t working with them. I was working with the old guys like Howard Roberts and Tommy Tedesco, great guys. I went out there for about six months to put a band together with Tom Scott (sax) and Roger Calloway (Piano) and we had a really cool rock band. We’d practice for six months every day and played the first half of a gig at the Fillmore and the band broke up. We all looked at each other and said “This sucks” and we all left.
JGL: LOL…Was that the band that played opposite Cream?
JB: No. That band was called Jeremy and the Sadryers…
JGL: Oh yeah…with Jeremy Steig…
JB: Yeah. That band stayed together and probably would have stayed together to this day except for the drugs and that lifestyle just got in the way of everybody. It was really impossible…
JGL: How did you feel coming from a traditional Jazz background and all of a sudden finding yourself on a “World” stage so to speak?
JB: It didn’t mean anything. I was just shocked how bad these guys played and were millionaires. That’s what would kill me…not Eric (Clapton) though…Eric was unique. But then you would go play opposite a band like Jefferson Airplane and I don’t think the guys knew how to even tune their guitars. Jorma Korakuen couldn’t tune his guitar and they were disgraceful and they were making millions of dollars. I don’t know if you ever heard of a band called Blue Cheer but they were one of the loudest bands in history and OH MY GOD! They were just an annoyance. I tried to look at the positive side of the gigs we did playing opposite Buddy Guy. The James Cotton Band was really a good band. And we played opposite Jimi’s band down in the Village and I got to see that band. I don’t even know how to describe that time. It was just an easy step, already being a good guitar player, relatively…it was an easy step to become a rock player coming from already having Jazz credentials. Try the other way and it’s not so good. Try putting Eric Clapton in Freddie Hubbard’s band and you might have a problem. So I just felt it was an easy thing to do and I loved the people I was doing it with and we got to travel a little bit. But I go very bored of it and ended up becoming a composer and arranger.
JGL: That’s right. You became quite a successful jingle writer…
JB: Yeah. That made me a lot of money but I also ended up writing arrangements for Sinatra and producing records for him, Gloria Gayner and a lot of great singers that I had worked with and bands as producer/arranger or conductor or all. I Kind of got mired down in that world of big checks and small work days. I remember Coryell begging me to stop doing that and to just get out and play music and I just didn’t get it.
JGL: But that’s where you were at that time in your career…
JB: Yeah but I regret it because it took a twenty year chunk out of my life that could have been dedicated to becoming a better player rather than a better banker.
JGL: I get that. Speaking of which, twice in your career you sort of chucked it all to go to the farm.
JB: Right. In ’69 I had just finished with Miles and New York was overwhelming me and I had some reasonable financial success at that time with my jingle company so I bought a farm in Upstate New York and ended up milking cows for a few years and enjoyed that. Then I came back in the early seventies and Sanborn (sax) and I hooked up and started the band Beck and that had a good impact and made some good records. Once again it was another start-over and successful and I figured that’s how it works. You come to New York and do what you want. I didn’t realize that there were people coming to New York who didn’t get it done you know. And then finally in 1988 when I met my current wife I just decided to retire. I was done.
So we bought a big, big farm in Upstate New York and I figured that was it. But that just wiped me out and I didn’t have enough strength to do it. And finally around 1992 we came creeping back to the city and tried to start over again. It then occurred to me that this business is done now. There’s two reasons…the business has mutated into a Macintosh and sample library for anyone who can put it on their desktop and the other thing was that I was already now fifty years old or close to it and nobody needs a fifty year old Rock guitar player on a jingle session. It’s just not going to happen…
JGL: They’re gonna call the young guy…
JB: Yeah…of course.
JGL: Actually, they’re going to call the guy you WERE…
JB: Exactly…it’s the same old story: Who’s Joe Beck; Get me Joe Beck; Get me a young Joe Beck and then get me Joe Beck again. It’s the four stages of studio life.
JGL: I remember reading a story about a studio ace like Carlton or someone similar, who went back into the studios after a long absence and there were a bunch of new guys all around and when he was handed the chart, it said something like “Play like Carlton”…
JB: It was “Play ala Joe Beck”…
JGL: Oh…it was you?!
JB: Yeah…lol…I might even have the part around here somewhere. I remember asking one of the guys, what does it actually mean “Play ala Joe Beck?”…lol.
JGL: But you have done a lot of stuff lately, like the Polarity album with Jimmy Bruno…
JB: Yeah, that was all after. When I came back I started thinking about what it is I want to do. I was certainly not going to quit everything. So Lew Soloff and I put together a quartet and went to Europe for a couple of months so I got to do two or three tours a year for a while. Then I got to do the Far East and I had a duo with Aly Ryerson (flute) when I invented the Alto Guitar and that became a successful thing and we toured for about eight years all over the world. So we got a lot of mileage out of that sound but it kind of ran its course. It was never really a Jazz group because it was too preconceived for that.
JGL: It was more like Chamber music…
JB: Yeah exactly. It was fun and it was easy and I knew what to expect every night and didn’t have to worry if someone was going to show up drunk or whatever. It was a very logistically easy situation.
JGL: Having mentioned the Alto Guitar, can you talk a little about that if you have a few more minutes?
JB: It’s a tuning that I came up with back in the early sixties actually. I played a lot of Bossa Nova sessions and I wanted a tuning that allowed me to really be a Bass player so I tuned the guitar down but that really didn’t work so I came up with this alternate tuning that I use and it allowed me to play melody with one finger and chords with three fingers and bass parts with my thumb. And it worked great but I had no reason after that to do it until I met Aly and heard her play the Alto flute and it just occurred to me that now would be a good time to try it so I had someone build me a guitar, Rick McCurdy as it happens, and he made me a beautiful guitar and so I started using it on the concert stage. Now Martin guitars make the Joe Beck Alto Guitar which is a really beautiful instrument if you have six grand to spare.
JGL: Sure…lol…do you get any of that at all?
JB: Yeah…it’s a good deal.
JGL: I’m glad to hear that. Now before you go, can we talk about the latest (at the time) CD Trio: 7 and especially your usage of a harmonizer which I found quite cool to hear you playing with?
JB: Well, it’s just one effect in a pedal that I really like. I happen to like the sound of this Korg A4 pedal. It’s an old out of date pedal and it has a great stereoaucity to it that most pedals don’t have that kind of depth to them and we were recording here at my studio on Connecticut and it sort of went there. I don’t know how it got there because I didn’t intend it to do that, for the music I mean and Santi (Dibriano – Bass) and Thierry (Arpino – Drums) are such quick studies that they just made it seem like the most logical thing in the World and we just went to this new area and fiddled around for a while. If you listen to “Alone Together” it goes through the Universe before it ends. I mean, on that record, those two guys are such great musicians that you can’t mess it up.
JGL: Why did you even decide to do another record?
JB: I love recording. I have a new one coming out with Abercrombie this year (already out), I’m gonna do a solo record this year, and I’ll probably do more Trio records. I won’t be stopping that. It’s a great source of revenue and to sort of track your progress.
JGL: Cool. Well, I think I’ll wrap this up by saying thank you for taking the time to speak with Jazz Guitar Life and I look forward to seeing and hearing more great things from you.
JB: Thanks Lyle. It was my pleasure.
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