“When I decided to make a career in music, I came to Boston to study at Berklee. I found out pretty quickly that jazz and the type of music that excites me is hard to learn and I wanted to give myself every advantage. I entered Berklee as a student and found everything I was looking for – all the knowledge I was seeking is in Berklee’s curriculum. I just fell in love with the place.”John Stein
John Stein is a world-class player who shares with us his path in becoming an International performer, his take on Jazz education, his experiences of recording in Brazil and what it takes to succeed at something you love.
This interview was conducted via email November, 2007. Check out his website at www.johnstein.com
JGL: How old are you?
JS: I’m 58.
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
JS: I live in Boston, MA.
JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing?
JS: I began playing guitar when I was 7 years old, so it’s been more than 50 years.
JGL: Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?
JS: Well, I was a child when I started. I was lucky enough to have an exceptional teacher as a youth, Charlene Kunitz. She taught me chords and right hand accompaniment techniques for folk music tunes initially. World music might be a better term, actually, because I learned tunes from all over world, with lyrics in different languages. I had a good voice as a child and could sing very well then. Charlene also loved classical music and introduced me to that type of guitar playing as well. I received an incredible musical foundation from her. I grew up in Kansas City. When I was about 12 years old, Charlene and her husband Don left Kansas City to reside in California.
After Charlene moved, I took a year of classical guitar lessons from a guitar teacher at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music and then switched to taking my first jazz guitar lessons from a Kansas City guitarist named Don Wenzel. My memory of Don is very positive and I think he exposed me to some things that would eventually take root in my musical life. I was entering my adolescence, however, and for a number of years my interest in music went into a kind of hibernation. During my early teen years I played only sporadically, but in high school I got interested in music again and joined a rock band. I got my first electric guitar at that time. I wish I still had that guitar, a late 50’s blonde ES 175 with PAF pickups. I sold it for $150 when I got tired of the rock band. Ouch!
At the time I got my electric guitar, I took some more lessons. This time my teacher was Kansas City guitarist Tommy Davis, and Tommy definitely introduced me to jazz concepts – chords with major 7ths, for example. So I brought that with me to the rock band, which added some interesting textures that many rock bands lack. Tommy also taught me to harmonize a couple of standard tunes, which is something I do all the time now.
JGL: Can you recall that particular moment that first excited you about jazz guitar or jazz in general? The one that made you say “that’s what I want to do”!
JS: In my twenties, I moved to Vermont. I was making a living as a carpenter, building houses for people, and I enjoyed it. It was meaningful work for me. It challenged me, which is something that I need, and I had to learn a lot of very specific skills. Also, the end product is something of great value to people, which is also meaningful for me.
But as I became more skillful and as I mastered the various techniques necessary to build structures, my interest in carpentry waned. At that point, I realized I really wanted to pursue the creative activity that had been a part of my life since childhood and I wanted music to be my career. So I turned to the guitar, which had been with me since the age of 7.
Vermont is a rural state, but there is a lot of culture there, and I found many like-minded people actively pursuing creative paths. We formed bands, practiced music together, looked for gigs, and so forth. At some point, I outgrew the people I was playing with musically. This is probably because I had been given all those music lessons as a child. So when I began to pursue music seriously in my twenties I became ready for challenging stuff pretty quickly.
There was a man living in Vermont near me at that time named Peter Tavalin. Peter was about my age, and he had attended Berklee College of Music. Peter got a gig at one of the venues in Brattleboro and he put together a jazz band for a weekly session at this club. I was playing in rock bands still at this point, but I was musically ready for the challenge of jazz so I asked Peter for some lessons. I could already begin to see a path for myself as a serious musician and I realized that jazz music was a path I could pursue. My first ambition at that time was simply to be good enough to play with Peter Tavalin at his weekly gig. But the jazz bug really bit me, and I realized pretty quickly that I wanted to make jazz guitar my life pursuit.
JGL: Were your parents and family members supportive of your musical career choice?
JS: Oh, yeah. They paid for all those music lessons. They also drove me to the lessons and waited around to bring me home – all the things parents do to help their kids. They also encouraged me to perform and appreciated my performances. That positive reinforcement has gone a long way towards helping me decide to spend my life in music.
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?
JS: I don’t know what brand my first guitar was – an inexpensive nylon string guitar. I think the guitar is still in a closet at my mother’s house, with a warped neck and pretty unplayable.
I have had many guitars over the course of my life and nearly all my jazz guitars have been Gibsons. I just love Gibsons. I have a small collection of jazz guitars now, not as impressive as many people I know, but a lot more guitars than a person can play all at once. The fact is, I’m really not much of a collector. I’ve just been on a hunt for the right guitar to help me express myself fully. I would buy a guitar because I thought it was just the thing I needed, then later another one would call out to me and I would try it. I’ve sold a number of guitars that didn’t suit me, but I’ve kept a few of my favorites.
Right now my favorite guitar is a 1961 ES 330. It’s very special – easy to play and it sounds wonderful.
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?
JS: I’ve listened closely to all the great guitarists (and to musicians who play all the other instruments, too, not just guitarists). All the musicians I’ve studied have influenced me. The two guitarists whose styles have appealed to me most are Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. I have always wanted to take the things I love most about their playing and form my own style as a synthesis of theirs. So many other musicians have influenced me that it is really way too simple to chose just two people, but Wes and Jim are my greatest guitar fathers.
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
JS: I go on little tangents. I’ll get interested in a particular musician and I’ll listen to that person’s work very closely. I also listen to music of certain types. For example, because I have been lucky enough to travel to Brasil 3 or 4 times to do concert tours, I have spent a lot of time learning about Brasilian jazz – studying the different styles and listening to the great Brasilian musicians. Brasil is a very large country with a strong and powerful culture. I’ve barely scratched the surface of Brasilian music.
JGL: Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
JS: Over the course of a lifetime in music, I would have to answer your question by saying that all the people with whom I have spent time making music have influenced me the most – the drummers, bassists, horn players, singers and so forth, with whom I have worked, played, studied, etc. Making music with people is an incredible activity and I have learned from every one of my collaborators.
JGL: You were born and raised in Kansas City, which was once, and may still be, a hotbed of Jazz activity and talent. Cats like Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Pat Metheny, Lester Young and Ben Webster are all associated with the Kansas City Jazz scene. What was it like growing up surrounded by this musical heritage, and did it rub off on you as one might expect when you were growing up?
JS: I think somehow it has. My personality has been shaped by the fact that I grew up in the Midwest. I was born too late to personally experience Kansas City in its musical hey-day. Charlie Parker, Count Basie, and all those other greats were long gone from Kansas City by the time I got interested in jazz music. But I have an affinity for certain swinging medium tempos and a love of blues music that I believe may come from growing up in Kansas City.
JGL: You seem to play many styles of Jazz, from Bossas and Contemporary to BeBop and Swing. Is there any one style you feel particularly strong in and what prompted you to explore these genres?
JS: I just love mainstream jazz, which is a pretty broad term, and encompasses the styles you mentioned. I love Brasilan music, and blazing bebop, and swinging blues. I’m emotional and love to play ballads. I like ballads because the slower tempos give me more space to use all the stuff I’ve been leaning about all these years – all the reharmonizations and color notes that we can add to make the music sound special. It also seems easier to invest my music with feeling at ballad tempos.
JGL: Is there a type of musical situation (ie: duo, trio, solo) you enjoy the most or does it matter?
JS: Well, I’ve probably played in most contexts at one point or another. Any context that allows me to try to find new ways to use my musicianship excites me. Recently, I got a last-minute call from a restaurant that has music and they asked me to bring a bass player and do some duets. They also weren’t paying very much. Well, try to find a good bass player on a Saturday night a couple of hours before the gig for short money. I couldn’t! So I played the gig with a drummer. We were a guitar player and a very creative guy with brushes on a snare drum. We had a ball! It was some of the best music I’ve made in a long time because we really listened to each other and interacted conversationally. I would speak through my guitar, and my friend would answer and elaborate on his drum, and we carried on that way for 3 hours. To my surprise, the people at the restaurant really loved it, too. I thought it would be too esoteric for a “non-jazz” audience, but people really enjoyed the palpable interplay.
JGL: You are a major exponent of jazz education, teaching at Berklee College of Music, and have published a bunch of lessons and solo-guitar arrangements for Just Jazz Guitar magazine. How did music education become so much an important part of your life and what kinds of subjects do you attempt to impart to your students or audience?
JS: When I decided to make a career in music, I came to Boston to study at Berklee. I found out pretty quickly that jazz and the type of music that excites me is hard to learn and I wanted to give myself every advantage. I entered Berklee as a student and found everything I was looking for – all the knowledge I was seeking is in Berklee’s curriculum. I just fell in love with the place. For the first time in my life, I was an excellent student in a school situation – highly motivated to learn everything I possibly could in all my classes. It just comes naturally to me to share what I learn with other music students, so I spend a lot of time teaching.
JGL: In your experience as an educator, what are the most important elements of jazz guitar study that young people (or any student of jazz guitar) need to acquire early on to sustain the dream of becoming a professional musician? Are there any common issues or problems that you encounter regularly that happen when beginners first start out learning jazz guitar?
JS: Jazz requires a strong knowledge of theory. Some people are successful because their ears are exceptional and they learn what works by ear. There have been a number of examples of very successful (and uniquely special) musicians who play solely by ear. But most of us don’t have the kind of talent to depend only on the ear and it is very helpful to learn as much music theory as possible. All great jazz musicians use musical theory when they play, whether they understand it intellectually or simply with their ears. In order to learn theory sufficiently to help one play jazz, it has to be absorbed to such an extent that it becomes part of who we are and we can simply use it when we need it without having to think about it. I often think of the Nike Shoe Company’s motto, which is “Just Do It.” In sports, or in music, in order to “just do it,” our activities need to become second nature.
To make music theory second nature, a student needs to work on foundational materials until they become automatic – key signatures, scales, chord formulas, all the very basic things. If the foundation is strong, a musician can build a sophisticated and impressive musical structure and do so spontaneously during improvisation. The students I see who become successful musicians are the ones who take the time to master the foundational materials. They find it easy to add more knowledge because they have something to build upon.
JGL: Apart from being on the faculty of the prestigious Berklee College of Music do you teach privately as well? And if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
JS: Most of my teaching time is grabbed by the responsibilities I have at Berklee. I do occasionally take additional students. The procedure is not very mysterious – someone just has to ask. I help students who are curious and excited about music, their level is not as important as their interest.
JGL: How did you wind up on the faculty at Berklee?
JS: After I graduated, Berklee offered me a job. I thought about it for a minute, and decided a job in a place like Berklee would be good for me. It has been. I’ve been there a long time. I love the students and my colleagues, and I’m in an environment where I can work on my musicianship, improve myself, be respected for my musical growth, and I can share my passion and my knowledge with others.
JGL: When you were developing as a Jazz Guitarist what kind of studies did you work on?
JS: I’ve always done what most jazz musicians do. I learn tunes. I learn solos that other great musicians have played. I analyze the work of other musicians, their compositions. I study types of music, and the great players and composers in each style. I study the great instrumentalists on all the different instruments, not just the guitar. I read biographies and autobiographies of great musicians. I read about the historical periods of jazz music. I hang out with musicians as much as possible and try to learn whatever they can teach me. Of course, I’ve also worked specifically on guitar technique, scales, chord voicings and so forth.
JGL: What is your practice routine like these days? Do you work on specific things or just play tunes?
JS: Depends on whatever the next gig is. I practice whatever I need to succeed at a given time.
JGL: You have six CD’s out as a leader and all are wonderful I’m sure. There are however two CD’s that I feel need particular mention: The newly reissued and remastered Green Street and the Brazilian Concierto Internacional de Jazz. Could you talk about these two records and how they came to be?
JS: Green Street is my second CD, recorded nearly 10 years ago. My record label just reissued it because it is a very good recording and deserves to be more widely heard. In the years prior to making Green Street, I was playing in an organ trio – guitar, Hammond organ, and drums – and the CD represents my artistic statement in that musical context. The tunes are really wonderful and the playing is also very good. My local musical buddies – Dave Hurst on drums and Ken Clark on organ – are fine musicians, and we added David “Fathead” Newman on reeds for the recording. As always, David sounds fantastic.
Concierto Internacional de Jazz was released the year prior to our Green Street reissue. I recorded it in Brasil a couple of years ago with Brasilian musicians. I have been very fortunate to find brilliant musical partners in Brasil when I tour there. Since I had already been to Brasil and I knew that I would be working with great musicians, I decided to try a recording there.
JGL: What was that experience of recording in Brasil like?
JS: Well, it was a bit complicated for me for a variety of reasons. Although all the musicians spoke English, the two recording engineers only spoke Portuguese. I wish I could speak Portuguese, but unfortunately I cannot, so communicating with the engineers was mostly done with the help of others. I recorded the music in São Paulo, brought the files home with me on computer disks, and then mixed and mastered the CD here in the USA. I think using two different studios for recording and for mixing made the procedure more complicated than what I am used to. There were some unavoidable compromises, but I think it came out fine in the end.
Traveling is always an exciting opportunity to experience new things, because I’m out of my normal element. There is much pleasure in traveling for me, but as a traveler I have to be willing to experience unexpected things. I have close friends who hate traveling because they don’t enjoy being in situations they aren’t used to. Everyone is different. Anyway, it was a bit of a risk to try recording in a foreign country, but I accepted it because I enjoy creative challenges.
JGL: You have traveled extensively across the globe bringing your music to a wide and varied audience. What differences or challenges have you come across in trying to get your music heard abroad? Do you experience the same issues when dealing with a North American public?
JS: I haven’t found a lot of differences between audiences abroad and at home. People everywhere appreciate sincere effort and artistic merit. The one advantage I feel when I travel is, since I am coming from somewhere else and am only there for a short time, I represent a special opportunity to experience something out of the ordinary. I find this is true whenever I travel anywhere to perform. If I go to another city in the USA, it is more special for the people there than it is for people in my hometown, simply because my hometown is where I live and If someone in my hometown can’t make my gig, well they can come next week to another venue and see me.
The rest of the world is producing great jazz musicians now. Everywhere I have traveled in the world I find people who can really play jazz. Being an American jazz musician is therefore not quite as special as it probably was a few years ago, since the local players are often really good. There is an advantage for me, however, in that now I can depend upon finding great people to play with wherever I go.
JGL: As an international recording and performing artist how do you go about marketing yourself? Do you have an agent or do you prefer self-promotion?
JS: I’ve been lucky enough to forge a good relationship with a record label. My last two CD’s were released by Whaling City Sound, a label located in Southern Massachusetts. They have collaborated with me to promote my recordings to radio and press, help me promote my gigs, and basically offer whatever support they can. I do a lot of self-promotion, as well, a job for which I am not uniquely talented, but I do what I can. I would love to have an agent actively book me eventually. I probably will have to reorganize my life somewhat when I am ready to work more as traveling musician. Right now I work my traveling around my teaching schedule. Eventually I plan to reverse the percentages and work the teaching around my performing schedule, and I am somewhere along the path to accomplishing that switch. It will probably be a few more years of career building but I expect that to happen with time.
JGL: If you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?
JS: A tough question, really. I’ve never much thought about it. Maybe I’ll say Wes Montgomery because I admire him so much and never got to meet him.
JGL: Have your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?
JS: I don’t know what I expected. I have just always loved making music. It’s my favorite thing in the whole world. I do it because I love it. I feel really lucky to be able to spend so much of my time doing something I enjoy so much.
JGL: How would you like to see your life unfold musically in the coming years and what do you think would be needed to get you there?
JS: Just more of the same . . .I’m going to keep practicing, keep studying, keep hanging out with other music fanatics like myself, keep trying to get better. I want to play more gigs. I want to get better at interactive playing, listening and commenting on the musical contributions of my partners, reacting to what I hear, reacting to their reactions. I love spontaneous interplay.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
JS: Do it if you love it. If you truly love it you’ll be very happy.
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.
JS: I tried to be a carpenter and liked it for a while. Music has been the only long-term serious choice for me. I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.
JGL: Apart from music, what else do you like to do for fun?
JS: I enjoy watching sports, theater, and movies. I enjoy reading. But I really don’t make much time for these other activities because I’m happiest making music. I love my family and truly value my friendships. I live for my loved ones and my music.
JGL: Thank you John for participating in jazzguitarlife.com. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career.
JS: Thank you, Lyle. I’ve enjoyed answering your excellent questions and appreciate the opportunity. Jazz Guitar Life is a great website!