Pat Kelley Interview With Jazz Guitar Life

“I had a fantastic time playing with George and we got along really well. The band was always stellar. This was not a reading gig. George had very few charts, so I learned all the material from the records before the first concert. Some of the pop tunes, such as Turn Your Love Around, had specific guitar riffs that had become part of the song. I think either Steve Lukather or Lee Ritenour had played the Turn Your Love Around riff on the record. Those parts were obvious when I was learning the songs from the records.”

Pat Kelley

I was first introduced to Pat Kelley back in the 90’s when on a whim I bought his High Heels CD because I liked the guitar he was holding. I had always considered him a smooth Jazz artist until I got another CD that he was on, John Pisano’s Guitar Night via Mel Bay Records. I was delighted to hear Pat play in a more traditional manner and I began searching him out on the WWW. I eventually friended him on Facebook and finally reached out to interview him, which he graciously accepted.

In this interview, Pat talks about his background, his educational dream of studying – at least in a workshop format – with Howard Roberts and Johnny Smith on separate occasions and his being able to work with the Man, George Benson. It’s an informative and entertaining read and I think you’ll dig it! Enjoy 🙂

JGL: Thank you Pat for taking the time to talk to Jazz Guitar Life. First off, if we can get into a little background about you that would be great. How old are you?

PK: I can hardly believe it, but I will be seventy in March. I guess that means I’m sixty-nine.

JGL: Now, for those who are unaware of you, could you give Jazz Guitar Life readers an elevator pitch of who Pat Kelley is?

PK: I have played the guitar almost everyday for the past sixty-five years. I still love to play and I have had a most fortunate life and career.

JGL: Whereabouts are you located?

PK: I just moved to the California Central Coast, about three hours north of Los Angeles after living in LA since the seventies. I will still be going into LA for some gigs, sessions, and socializing.  

JGL: Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?

PK: I started playing when I was five years old, so at that time I was just learning popular songs and songs my dad knew. I started my first band in sixth grade. We played a lot of surf music and other popular music with maybe a few things hinting at jazz.  I moved along pretty quickly and became interested in jazz for real at about thirteen, when one of my dad’s friends brought over some Howard Roberts records which really lit a fire in me. 

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? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?

PK: In addition to Howard Roberts, I listened to Wes Montgomery, Johnny Smith, Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, and all the guys of that time. There was a next wave of guitarists that had a big influence. These would include George Benson, Pat Martino, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Ralph Towner, and the guys that were around that age. I’ve always liked listening to piano players and that is mostly what I’ve been listening to lately.

JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?

PK: My first good guitar, at age eight, was a Rickenbacker, which I still own.  I have a bunch of guitars, both acoustic and electric, that I have used for sessions and various musical situations. Today my main guitars are a Roger Borys B120 and a Benedetto Bambino.

JGL: What other gear are you using? Do you have a specific stage set-up that works best for you in a variety of musical situations?

PK: I’m pretty much a hard-core tube amp guy. I have had refrigerator sized Bradshaw racks and pedal boards of all varieties. Today, for my own music, I am mostly using very minimal effects with great sounding amps. I may use a digital reverb and delay. I have a ’57 Tweed 4×10 Fender Bassman,  ’64 Fender Deluxe Reverb, ’59 Tweed Fender Deluxe, ’68 Fender Princeton Reverb, ’62 Supro, Matchless Chieftan, Matchless Lightning. I sometimes like a two amp stereo setup.

JGL: Is there anyone – alive or dead – whom you’d love to play and/or record with?

PK: I won’t talk about the dead ones. There are too many. I like Diana Krall and the way she lets the band play and be featured, although Anthony may never give up that gig. James Taylor would be a great gig also. He always has a stellar line up in his band. Herbie Hancock would be a dream.

JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what have you done to make this choice work for you?

PK: I knew from the moment I touched a guitar that I wanted to make this my life mission. I practised as a kid because I liked having the guitar in my hands all the time. I got an early start so by the time I was sixteen I was playing in bands with guys that were older than me, while working to improve my reading and overall playing. When I was twenty, I moved from my hometown of Tulsa to southern California, and started my first steady California gig two weeks later, playing five nights a week at a Hilton Inn. I just kept meeting people and trying to develop a circle of contacts as I moved into new things. I’ve also tried to keep learning and actually think my playing is still improving.

JGL: According to your Bio you have been “an integral part of the Thornton School of Music Guitar Faculty at the University of Southern California for twenty-four years”; have published two books: Arpeggios for the Evolving Guitarist and Melodic Minor Guitar; are part of the USC Thornton School of Music Instructional Series (Mel Bay Publications) and have been on the faculty of the Monterey Jazz Festival Summer Jazz Camp, the Guitar College Summer Guitar and Bass Camp, the University of Tulsa Summer Jazz Camp, and the Interlochen Center for the Arts. When do you sleep!? LOL.

PK: Haha. All of this was spread out over a number of years.

Seriously though, how did you get into teaching at such a high level and what was your music/Jazz education like when you started on this journey? Did you study privately or did you go through the formal school system?

PK: I had some great teachers when I was young, including my dad, who was my first teacher. When I was four, he gave me one of his ukuleles and showed me how to read the chord block diagrams in a music songbook. I remember the first song I could play was “My Buddy”.  My dad also had a small acoustic guitar that he acquired for fifty cents in 1937. When I was five, he converted it to nylon strings and shaved down the bottom of the bridge to lower the action. It played pretty well. This was my first guitar and it now lives in a glass case at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, in my hometown, Tulsa.

At eight years old, my dad knew I needed a new teacher in order to keep moving forward.  The new teacher was Bill Davis, who taught on Saturdays at Craig’s Music Store in downtown Tulsa. He taught me to read music, and I am so thankful for my early start. We went through five of the books in the popular Mel Bay series and some things in the Oahu method. I was still playing songs with my dad and other people he jammed with. I needed to move on again by the age of ten. Dick Gordon was a very popular full time guitar teacher in Tulsa. He always had tons of students, back to back with thirty-minute lessons. His main method was about learning songs. He also made everyone sing, whether you could sing or not. Fortunately, I also liked singing. I probably knew a hundred songs when I was ten. I started a serious band called Pat and the Panthers when I was thirteen. We played mostly teen dances, live TV shows, and we did some recording in a studio.

In high school, I studied with the great Eldon Shamblin, of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys fame. Ironically, I never worked on western swing with Eldon. We worked almost exclusively on chord melody playing. I was learning a lot of popular standards such as The Shadow of Your Smile, Misty, Satin Doll, etc. At the same time I was now playing in a nine-piece soul band with guys that were a little older than me. We were playing nightclubs and fraternity parties at different Colleges in the surrounding area.

By the time I was in college, the band had morphed into a band that played a lot of Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago material. I majored in music composition at the University of Tulsa. There wasn’t much available in those days for guitar performance. In the summers of 1971 and 1972 I attended weeklong workshops with two of my heroes, Howard Roberts, in Hollywood, and Johnny Smith, in Denver. After these experiences I could hardly wait to move to California and go for it.

During my last six months in Tulsa, I played with a jazz quartet at a supper club. We played six nights a week, five hours a night. I decided to go ahead and move west before finishing my degree at TU. With the exception of one lesson with Joe Pass, I never studied with anyone again, but man did I learn a lot from playing with many great musicians. I also constantly studied and explored things on my own.

To answer your initial question about teaching at a high level, I will praise USC for wanting to have experienced professional musicians on the faculty. USC is a private school and can hire teachers based on experience rather than a piece of paper. That is the reason USC has such an amazing roster of high-level players on the faculty.  It is a shame that even two-year state-run community colleges will only hire someone with an advanced degree, many who have no playing experience at all. I never applied to teach at USC. I got a call from Richard Smith, who was the guitar department chair at the time, asking me if I would like to teach some private student. I quickly became a big part of the program and was soon awarded a full time position, which only required about eighteen hours of teaching per week. I designed several classes, two specifically for our doctoral students.

It seems kind of funny that a guy with no college degree was designing classes and teaching doctoral music students. I also launched the New West Guitar Group, which was originally a USC guitar ensemble that I coached. I took them to the North Texas State music festival in 2003 and they won the combo division with a four-guitar group with no rhythm section. They are still together and have released a string of CDs over the years.

JGL: Aside from your formal teaching, do you teach privately and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?

PK: I do some teaching on Zoom and in person for anyone in my area. I’m comfortable with students on many levels.

JGL: Since this is Jazz Guitar LIFE, were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice and how difficult did you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player when you were coming up?

PK: My parents were completely supportive of me making a career in music. I had been playing the guitar nearly everyday of my life and they knew I had the ability, desire, and drive be a professional. I was already a pretty experienced player by the time I moved to California in the early 70s. I’ve never done anything for a living outside of music. From the age of sixteen I played gigs constantly and taught private guitar lessons. I started getting calls for sessions and tours early on in California. I have been very fortunate that things have worked out so beautifully. 

JGL: You have been featured in all almost every musical setting imaginable, from solo guitar to large ensembles – like SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA large – to network TV shows and to countless studio sessions (in a variety of genres), film scores and jingles! And while I can imagine that these are all creatively satisfying, I’m curious to know – at the end of the day – are there one or two musical situations that you prefer over all the others?

PK: Some sort of live situation seems to always win out. That could be a concert in front of a live audience or a live band tracking in the studio, as opposed to overdubbing parts separately. 

JGL: You have played with a bevy of top-shelf musicians George Benson, Natalie Cole, David Benoit, Ronnie Laws, Hubert Laws, Tom Scott, Al Jarreau, Dave Brubeck, Dave Koz, Jane Monheit, Olivia Newton John, Herb Ellis, John Pisano, Melissa Manchester, Burt Bacharach, Jose Feliciano, to name just a “few”! What are the challenges in garnering a reputation to get to play with such heavy-hitters and are there any take-aways you’d like to share with Jazz Guitar Life readers?

PK: I grew up playing all kinds of music and I think that has helped me fit into some of these experiences.  Tulsa was a town that was cloaked in blues and country music also.  Earlier in my life, in addition to studying Wes Montgomery, Howard Roberts, and Johnny Smith recordings and learning standards, I played in bands that performed songs from the Ventures, The Beatles, Yardbyrds, Hendrix, Motown, etc.  A number of my gigs that you mention here would also be near impossible without some ability to read music. It is of course kind of worn out to say this, but just be a cool person to be with also.

JGL: Of course I would be remiss if I did not ask you about your time with George Benson. Can you talk a little about your association with GB? In some YouTube videos I have seen where you are playing alongside him, he really seems to dig what you’re playing…which I am sure he is! How free are you to put your own stamp on things or is it a strict reading of the charts?

PK: I had a fantastic time playing with George and we got along really well. The band was always stellar. This was not a reading gig. George had very few charts, so I learned all the material from the records before the first concert. Some of the pop tunes, such as Turn Your Love Around, had specific guitar riffs that had become part of the song. I think either Steve Lukather or Lee Ritenour had played the Turn Your Love Around riff on the record. Those parts were obvious when I was learning the songs from the records.

There were also songs that were not specific and I could freely add my touch. George lived on the east coast and most of the band lived on the west coast. My first show with George was in Lisbon Portugal. I had not met George until the sound check of that first show. I had no rehearsals ahead of time. The first time I played with the band was at this sound check. I had played with several members of the band in other situations, and had done tours and recordings with other artists that were also managed by George’s manager. I had already established a reputation that landed me playing with George without an audition.

George was one of my early heroes and it was an experience of a lifetime to be around him. I remember him coming up to me at a sound check and playing some kind of ridiculously great line, then saying that it would be great when he figures out what it works over. He could be quite funny. A famous George quote that went around the band was, “Brother, we’re livin’ like kings and getting paid for it!”

I toured with George for almost five years, touring all over the world. It was my choice to move on to something else and George graciously understood. 

JGL: I can imagine that you have enjoyed playing with John Pisano at his Guitar Night – as I have listening to it on the double Mel Bay CD – and that your Overtones For 2 Guitars features a nice selection of duo performances with such luminaries as Bruce Forman, Howard Alden, Peter Bernstein, and Anthony Wilson to name but a few. What was the impetus for this special project and whom else would you love to play with in a two-guitar setting?

PK: John Pisano has become a close friend and his twenty-years of Guitar Night Concerts have been extremely meaningful to me. It fuelled my desire to really concentrate on straight ahead jazz again and these nights contributed mightily to the Los Angeles jazz guitar community. I edited Bob Barry’s wonderful book of Guitar Night photos, which features all the players that appeared on John’s Guitar Night series. I also love playing in the guitar duet format. It seemed natural to record with different guitarists that I also admire. I don’t even want to start naming others to record with in the future because there are too many to name.

JGL: Having mentioned Howard Alden, there seems to be a lot more cats playing 7 and even 8 string Guitar these days. Has this been something you have done or plan to do or are 6 strings more than enough?

PK: I have not had the desire to play a 7 string. I’m still trying to master six. I do enjoy playing my baritone guitar, which is tuned like a guitar, but lower in pitch.

JGL: In June of 2003 you were inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and are now among such notables as Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, Chet Baker, Oscar Pettiford, Dave Brubeck, and Lester Young. That must have been a very special night for you. I realize that you are too young to have known Charile, but did you get to know Barney at all?

PK: It was very special to be recognized while I’m still living. Oklahoma has a rich history of great musicians and great music fans. Unfortunately I never met Barney.

JGL: You have obviously found your stride in this business and have done quite well and I assume will continue to do so. Any “tips or tricks” you can lay on those interested in doing the same? Should we all move to California…lol? J

PK: I’m not so sure it is as important to be in California these days. The world has changed rapidly into a world that can be managed from most anywhere that has the Internet.  There are advantages to being in a city such as Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville. Most national tours come out of these places and there are large numbers of high-level players in these cities. Being around great players usually pushes us to take it to the next level. 

JGL: Almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature has their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to the music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you/did you face on your instrument and how do you/ did you work at getting over them? 

PK: I’m a pretty stress free kind of guy. I’ve always loved playing and I think I have done a good job of enjoying the process without worrying about the end result. I can certainly feel insecure and stress a bit over some of the reading on film dates.

JGL: How do you handle the other side of being a working musician – the business side? Do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician something that should be taught in music schools or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to managers and agents?

PK: I think it is difficult to leave the business side of things to only a manager. Meeting people is part of the business. Making contacts to widen your circle is something we have to do. The business of getting the music together for my own concert is my personal concern. I do think music schools should offer some training in music business. I would like to see more teaching in the area of managing finances and investments. The music business can be fickle, with good times and bad. If it is a great year, invest for the future rather than buy an expensive car, unless it is a spectacular year, lol.

JGL: If you had to do one thing over again, what would it be and why?

PK: I would stay in contact with those that I have let drift away. Our personal contacts and friends are one of our greatest treasures.

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.

PK: I don’t really know, but I wouldn’t mind being a pro tennis player or maybe a chef.

JGL: When you’re not on the band stand or in the recording studio, what do you like to do to unwind?

PK: I like to cook healthy food, ride my bicycle, hike, visit National Parks, play tennis, and play the drums.

JGL: Nice! Oh and just for fun…how many hats do you own 🙂

PK: Lol, I’ve lost count. Over the years, as my hair became less exciting, I noticed my photos looking a bit boring. The hats seem to make it more interesting and it kind of gives me a brand. I have quite a collection now.

JGL: What does the future hold for Pat Kelley?

PK: I plan to keep playing for as long as I can. I’m in really good shape and I believe I have quite a few years left. I’m at the top of my game at the moment. I plan to release another CD and mostly do my own thing.  

JGL: Thank you Pat for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. I wish you much success in all your endeavours!

PK: Thank you, Lyle.

Please consider spreading the word about Pat and Jazz Guitar Life by sharing this interview amongst your social media pals and please feel free to leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you 🙂

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About Lyle Robinson 347 Articles
Lyle Robinson is the owner/creator/publisher and editor of Jazz Guitar Life, an online magazine dedicated to the Jazz Guitar and its community of fine players worldwide.

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