“Kenny Burrell was a champion and mentor to me during a still very formative time in my career. As the years have progressed beyond that time, the magnitude of what he was trying to do with that band has become increasingly significant and meaningful to me.”Bobby Broom
On October 24th and 25th (1986), Kenny Burrell, Bobby Broom and Rodney Jones – along with Bassist Dave Jackson and Drummer Kenny Washington – hit the stage at the Village Vanguard for a two night celebration of Jazz Guitar that culminated in two record releases: Generations (1987 – BLUE NOTE BT85137) and Pieces of Blue and the Blues (1988 – BLUE NOTE B1-90260).
In this exclusive interview for Jazz Guitar Life, Jazz Guitarists Bobby Broom and Rodney Jones sit down – virtually – with JGL staff writer/researcher Dr. Wayne Goins and reminisce about that special project, it’s precursor and the impact it had on their careers. An entertaining and insightful read. Enjoy 🙂
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JGL: Guys, let’s discuss each of your situations before this serendipitous event occurred: Rodney, you were with Dizzy Gillespie’s band; and Bobby, you were with Sonny Rollins. Can both of you provide some context?
BB: Rodney was with Dizzy before I joined Sonny’s band, so I’ll start there. I must’ve been around 15 years old when I heard about Rodney Jones. I can’t remember exactly how I heard, but I remember that at that time I was on the lookout for young, Black, jazz guitarists. I was looking for inspiration and I needed someone who was more accessible than a George Benson, or Earl Klugh, who seemed so far removed from my daydreams in the reality of my room in my NYC family apartment. Not only was Rodney much closer to my age (he’s 5 years older), but I learned that he lived nearby my Upper West Side neighborhood! I bugged my parents to take me to any and every Dizzy Gillespie show that they could so that I could hear Rodney play with him. Eventually we met, and I became the young, doe-eyed kid that he would graciously let hang out at his jazz guitar hangs that he would organize at his apartment.
RJ: I joined Dizzy in 1976 when I was just 19 years old. I had known Kenny years before after being told about him by my guitar teacher, Bruce Johnson. I’m not sure how Bruce knew him other than Bruce’s father was a guitarist named Austin Johnson and he played with the Ink Spots, but Bruce told me Kenny was someone I should definitely check out and a Legend. I used to go and hang out at the age of 15 or so outside of the old Half Note club on 52nd St. and wait for Kenny Burrell to go in the club and just wave to him and say hello Mr. Burrell. The third night of doing that he invited me in and talked to me about jazz guitar He was very kind and nice to a young person wanting to play Jazz. The next time I saw him was in Nice France. I was there with Dizzy Gillespie and we ended up doing a combined gig where it was two guitars also we played with Gatemouth Brown, and also Kenny Burrell, myself and Bucky Pizzarelli. That began my long friendship with Kenny Burrell.
JGL: What do you guys remember about how you got recruited individually for this project?
RJ: Kenny just called me up one day and asked me to join the Jazz Guitar Band. I was grateful to be asked and to have a chance to play with and learn from him and also from my friend Bobby Broom.
BB: I met Kenny Burrell not long after I’d moved to Chicago. There was an occurrence that took place at a Chicago jazz club that resulted in my being invited to meet and play with Kenny. (Sort of like a very random, or ‘street’ version of today’s Herbie Hancock competition. LOL) Anyway, I sat in with Kenny during his Chicago performance and he liked what he heard. That prompted him to return to the city a while later, presenting a 3-guitar frontline group that would be a precursor to his formation of the Jazz Guitar Band. Around a year later, he called me to tell me about his decision to form KB & TJGB, and his choice of Rodney and me as his guitar-mates. Of course, I was thrilled at the prospect of playing with this legend, in addition to Rodney who was my childhood hero and inspiration.
JGL: Bobby, how much did KB’s playing on albums influence your career?
BB: One of the most important records in my collection was Two Guitars, a 1957 album that Kenny made for Prestige Records, with Jimmy Raney on the other guitar, along with Jackie McLean on alto, Donald Byrd on trumpet, and Art Taylor, Doug Watkins, and Mal Waldron on drums, bass, and piano, respectively. Both Kenny and Raney’s melodic sophistication impacted me and heightened my sensitivity to this kind of detail. It was important for me, at the age that I first heard it, to become aware of that level of melodic detail coming from my instrument. I had gotten used to hearing it from the horn and piano players, but seemingly less-so from the guitar. That’s also why I loved Wes so much, because of his attention to that detail.
JGL: What about you, Rodney?
RJ: One of the first jazz records that I ever had was Live at the Five Spot. I listened to that over and over. Later I got into Introducing Kenny Burrell and the Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane.
JGL: Regarding the music recorded for the Guitar Band, who, how, and when did the songs get chosen?
BB: If I recall correctly, Kenny chose the material. He may have conferred with Rodney and me somewhat, but I think that he did the decision making as far as repertoire was concerned. He may have even given us a list at the first rehearsal, but I can’t remember clearly. In any case, as expected, it was his group. He conceived it, organized it, brought and sold the idea to Blue Note Records, and the Village Vanguard.
RJ: Kenny chose the tunes but asked us if we had any originals. I submitted “Blue Days, Blue Dreams” and we played that. I might add that during the whole time I was in the Jazz Guitar Band, I played with my thumb only.
JGL: Let’s talk about the first gig you guys performed—was it at Joel Segal’s Jazz Showcase in the Blackstone Hotel?
RJ: Not sure, but that seems about right…
BB: If I’m not mistaken, the actual first public performance of Kenny Burrell and the Jazz Guitar Band was for the recording, at the Village Vanguard. In 1986. As I mentioned earlier, the performance at the Jazz Showcase may have been the impetus for the idea for group, but it happened before Kenny decided to form the group that he would name, The Jazz Guitar Band. I believe our weekend at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago was billed as, “The Guitar Explosion,” or something like that. That was in 1985.
JGL: Neither of you had played there before, what were your feelings going in?
RJ: I had played at the Jazz Showcase many times with Dizzy although at the old location on Rush Street. I was excited and a bit nervous. By this time I had a lot of experience so I felt ready to give it my all and make the best music that I could.
BB: I assume you’re asking about the Jazz Showcase, but since the Village Vanguard was the actual christening engagement for the group, I’ll answer to that venue. The Vanguard is associated with the New York jazz scene and many live recordings from people like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Kenny Burrell, Bill Evans, and so many more. As if that wasn’t enough, there was the added pressure of making a live recording for Blue Note records. However, both clubs are historic jazz venues, where all our legends, innovators, and important figures played
JGL: At the time, did either of you have any sense of the historical importance?
BB: I think I was still young enough to be somewhat aloof to the thought of historic significance. At that point I was still living very much in the present moment, without too much introspection or contemplation. It’s not that I disregarded the significance in any way, but what was more important to me was that I enjoyed the experience, played as best I could, and had my solo guitar pieces together! [laughs.]
RJ: Yes. I knew that it was something special.
BB: Again, because of my age at the time, I was 25 years old, I wasn’t thinking along those lines. For one, I didn’t see myself in that way yet – as being someone in a position to have any historic impact. Maybe that was a good thing, because it helped me to not have to contend with any undue pressure. I’m not sure it was exactly humility, but rather naivete. Sounding good, individually and collectively, was my biggest concern. I guess in that way I feel the same now as I did then.
JGL: I’ve heard or read somewhere that there might have been an early role played by the Chicago jazz guitarist, Curtis Robinson—any insight regarding that?
BB: When Kenny returned to Chicago for another week engagement at the Jazz Showcase in 1985, Curtis was the guitarist that Kenny chose to join us for the 3-guitar front line. I remember meeting with the three of us after the engagement, as a kind of debriefing. Kenny asked for each of our summation of the week. Then he asked if we thought there was anything that we thought he should take away from the experience. (Wow, what a thoughtful and kind human being he is.) I believe it was Curtis who suggested that he continue to work with younger players.
RJ: I had met Curtis before but did not know him well.
JGL: While on the Vanguard gig, was there ever any interaction with the owner Max Gordon, or Kenny Burrell’s manager and album producer Helen Keane?
RJ: Just hello and goodbye. Helen was a nice person and seemed to really love the music.
BB: For me, none that I can recall.
JGL: What was Kenny’s take on Bruce Johnson, the man who served as mentor and played a crucial role in both of your musical developments?
BB: Rodney can speak more on that than I. Bruce and he were very close. I did take a few lessons with him, but mostly because, at the time, I wanted what Rodney had. I only lasted for a few lessons though [laughs.]
RJ: Kenny referred to Bruce as legendary and a genius, which he was. Not sure how or where he had heard Bruce but he was an unknown giant of jazz guitar. He asked me if Bruce would write some liner notes about the recording and he did.
JGL: Any particular thoughts on his liner notes for the album where he clearly showed his pride and joy for u guys’ success?
RJ: Bruce was proud and happy for both Bobby and myself. Bruce was also a person who was confident in his own creative process. He saw us as talented kids.
BB: As I’ve often said, I believe it rare that a musician goes to the lengths that Kenny did to endorse, support, and uplift younger players on his own instrument. To present two relative youngsters, for a live recording on Blue Note Records is beyond magnanimous. However, that act is an example of the epitome of the spirit of jazz. The love that our musicians have for the art compels us to share it, and to move it forward by passing it on. Kenny did this in a most unique and powerful way.
JGL: What was your relationship with the drums/bass tandem of Kenny Washington and Dave Jackson?
BB: Kenny Washington and I went to the same High School of Music and Art (now known as Laguardia). He was a way more advanced and knowledgeable jazz musician than I back then. (Probably still is in ways.) I learned a lot from being around him. Particularly about Oscar and Johnny Moore, brothers and guitarists for Charles Brown’s and Nat Cole’s trios. I’d never heard of them, much to the dismay of K-Wash. About a week later, he gave me two cassettes that he made for me, full of music that they played on. (That knowledge came in handy as a reference years later when I played and recorded with Dr. John.)
RJ: They were great and I enjoyed playing with them both. They could play a great pocket that made it easy to play.
JGL: Let’s talk about the “guitarjo” on the album—what exactly is that?
BB: That’s a better question for Rodney to answer.
RJ: It’s basically a banjo that’s tuned like a guitar…Kenny knew that I had done Broadway shows etc., when I used it effectively, and asked if I had a guitar, which I did. It was not a very good one, but he sure made it work.
JGL: Let’s discuss Bobby’s original, “No Hype Blues”…
RJ: A great tune. Really reflects Bobby’s brilliance and influences. I loved it.
JGL: Bobby, how did you arrive at writing/structuring the tune? did you create it especially for the occasion?
BB: It’s going way back in years now and it’s interesting to think that I wrote that melody in around 1985 or ’86. I believe I’d already written it prior to the KB & TJGB occasion. Like other compositions that I’ve written, I think the melody came on in kind of a flurry. Kind of like info that I was receiving and had to ‘transcribe’ before the transmittal signal was lost. I’m sure I tweaked it, maybe as it was coming in, sort of like adjusting the antennae to get a clearer signal. I’ve certainly tinkered with the chords over the years, especially in the first 4 bars.
JGL: Rodney, what about your original, “Blue Days, Blue Dreams?”
RJ: It was inspired by “Born To Be Blue” by Wes Montgomery on the album called The Alternative Wes Montgomery. I wanted to capture the same feeling that was on that song.
JGL: [Goins note: That specific version you mention was the only “completely unreleased” take on that two-disc vinyl set (released by Milestone Records in 1982)—all the other songs were alternate takes from other Wes recording sessions. And that version also doesn’t sound anything like the studio version on the Movin’ Wes album, which is at a faster tempo and has the full Johnny Pate orchestrations on it.]
JGL: Why Kenny didn’t allow more material from either or both of you?
BB: I don’t think that it was a matter of him not allowing more original material from us, as much as him looking for material that would fit the sound of the band and the musical program. He probably asked if we had anything, I showed him my blues and he liked it. It was also a good fit for the musical theme of the band’s 2nd release, “Pieces of Blue and The Blues,” which was a program of all blues-form, or blues-based material.
JGL: When did you all know the material you all were performing on the concert would ultimately become an album (or two?)
RJ: We knew that we were recording live for Blue Note.
BB: Oh, yeah—we knew!! The whole plan was arranged to completion from the start. It was explained fully in the recruitment phone call. So, it wasn’t a situation where anything was withheld. We knew exactly what we were getting into, what was being asked of us, and what we had to do.
JGL: Discuss the 4-song medley that wasn’t on the original vinyl album.
RJ: Kenny selected the tunes in order…the songs represented a survey of different eras of jazz. Other than that, I don’t remember much about it in particular.
BB: That was Kenny’s idea; he wanted us all to play a solo guitar feature, I went first [“Dolphin Dance”], then Rodney [“Naima”], the Kenny went last [“Star Crossed Lovers”] and then we all played a tune together [“Just Friends”]. The bass and drums didn’t play on it. I was young—I was playin’ a lot of notes!
JGL: How do you think that two-album project has affected your careers?
BB: From the standpoint of being an up-and-coming player at the time, being a member of Kenny Burrell’s Jazz Guitar Band was a tremendous learning experience and a very high-level apprenticeship, in that I was being asked to perform alongside a master of my instrument. Personally, the association and approval were validation for me as a jazz guitarist.
RJ: For me I think it just added to the shine that I had from Dizzy and other gigs that I had done. Having the grandmaster’s stamp on a career is life changing because of what it says. I am most grateful to Kenny for that gift.
JGL: It seems to me that unique and rare situation like that would have been historically significant and made a more lasting impact on the pantheon on great jazz guitar albums…
BB: One would think that this caliber of endorsement would provide an entrée to establishing my position in the field; allowing for further opportunities to record and perform regularly to develop a career in jazz. To the contrary, it took me at least twenty more years to begin to become recognized among high-level, jazz guitarists. Prior to the last 15-20 years or so, If I was thought of at all, there seemed to be some equivocation in how I was perceived or discussed, that seemed to question my place and belie pedigree. In fact, I was described as everything but a jazz guitarist – “bluesy,” “funky,” “soul-jazz…” there were all sorts of caveats.
Looking back, I’m highly suspicious of the reasons for this. But that answer is more a reflection of the jazz business. More importantly though, the effect of The Jazz Guitar Band on the person and musician that I am, has been nothing but positive. What Kenny did helped to empower me, so that–whether recognized or not, in or out of print, dismissed, whatever–I’ve been able to continue to conduct my career with a clear vision.
JGL: This might seem like a random question, but are there any specific memories about the photo shoot (positions, attire, etc.?) I remember the first time I saw that, and thinking about how proud I was to see not just one but TWO young black jazz guitarists standing next to a legend like KB—I used to imagine myself being there in the photo, and wondered what I would have worn or where I would have stood myself…
RJ: I wish I had worn something else. Oh well…
BB: Ha!! Yes, actually! You may have noticed that on the cover of the record, I’m the only one that isn’t wearing a suit jacket (aka, a blazer in traditional terms). I’m sure that we were all asked, or told, that that was the dress-code for the shoot. I’m sorry to say that that was a not-so-subtle act of defiance on my part. Suffice it to say, I was 25 years old. I imagine that Rodney might remember the scene or be able to expound on it differently. I was busy trying to brace myself from the inevitable blowback, and to confidently wear a tie with that loud, red cardigan! As I recall it, there wasn’t much made of the situation at the time. Kenny was as cool and dignified as ever.
JGL: Looking back, almost forty years now, what are your personal thoughts about the significance of that legendary event?
RJ: Really only gratitude. It was a golden time and to play with Kenny and Bobby was amazing. Both incredible guitarists and persons.
BB: I could be all ‘rainbows and daisies’ about the historical significance of Kenny Burrell’s Guitar Band. That would be the spiritually positive and perhaps politically correct thing to do. However, that would also play into the hooves of the elephant in the room.
JGL: Explain to our readers—what do you mean by that?
BB: I just went to AllMusicGuide.com to verify the album(s)’s recording dates. While there, I saw a “User Review” that sums up my feeling about the recording’s significance. The gentleman chides the ‘editorial reviewer’ who wrote in so many words that the three guitarists sound so much alike that they can’t be distinguished from one another. And, that the music wasn’t very “memorable.” The User questions the ‘writer’s’ jazz acumen and aural skills. He also goes on to say that it would benefit many if these records were made available again. I couldn’t agree more.
JGL: Wow, there’s actually lot to unpack here…
BB: Some years ago, I expressed these same sentiments in two separate emails that I wrote. One was to the editorial reviewer and the other to the president of Blue Note Records. The editorial review was written way back when the first album was available on iTunes. My understanding is that the purpose of those is to give potential listeners an overview of the music contained on a recording, not to make judgements about the music that might dissuade potential listeners. Taking the process of erasure a step further, the first release, “Generation,” was removed from digital distribution, so that now there is hardly a trace of it anywhere on the internet. It is not available for streaming or download, and only appears on database type portals such as AllMusicGuide, Wikipedia, and Discogs. The second release, “Pieces of Blue…” is listed under “Kenny Burrell,” rather than KB & TJGB. And the cover of that record contains a picture of Kenny and not the band, so I guess that’s convenient.
JGL: This specific area makes for an interesting conversation, and maybe raises more issues…
BB: All things considered, the question then becomes, ‘Why?’ What is the reason behind the dismissal or erasure of this band? For one of the leading historical figures of the jazz guitar to have made such a bold presentation, is extraordinary to say the least. I can’t think of another instance where that has been done, for the guitar or any instrument for that matter. That an elder would create a band to introduce not one, but two new voices on their same instrument, seems rather ground-breaking to me and in that way, is inherently memorable. That said, it seems that the music that we made would have to be pretty sad to warrant its complete erasure from the history of jazz and jazz guitar. But somehow, that is what has happened. If not for musical reasons, then what?
JGL: As one who might now consider yourself as an elder statesmen, if you had to play the role to the new generation of up and coming guitarists that Kenny Burrell did for the two of you, who might you be looking at if you were to form the 5-piece Jazz Guitar Band today?
RJ: Hmmm…that is a tough question. Don’t want to single anyone out and there are many who could be worthy and all are my friends.
BB: No comment.
JGL: Okay, final question: Kenny Burrell was born July 31, 1931 in Detroit, Michigan—he’s still the most recorded guitarist in history. He’s 91 years old, and a living legend. What are your final thoughts about this man?
BB: Kenny Burrell was a champion and mentor to me during a still very formative time in my career. As the years have progressed beyond that time, the magnitude of what he was trying to do with that band has become increasingly significant and meaningful to me. After my time playing with him, we kept in touch, and he also became my supporter and advisor as I became more serious about jazz academia. Now, we share a unique memory and insight for which I’ll be forever grateful. I am honored to call him a friend.
RJ: My entire musical career is standing on the shoulders of Giants. Wes, Barney, Nathen, Grant, George, and Kenny. He is a role model to me for dignity, soulfulness, artistry and professionalism. He is a dear and beloved friend and one of my greatest musical treasures this lifetime.
JGL: Thank you both so much for your time and energy.
BB: You’re welcome.
RJ: You’re welcome.
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