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Interviews

Jimmy Bruno: From Surgery and Carjackings to His Guitar Institute

By Published: December 26, 2007
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Philadelphia's Jazz Scene

AAJ: All the musicians on the CD are/were based in Philadelphia. Philadelphia recently had one club close (Zanzibar Blue) and another club was sold (Ortlieb's). As a Philly musician what are your thoughts on the state of jazz in Philly? Especially since there are, only two clubs remaining that have jazz nightly (Ortlieb's and Chris' Jazz Café).

JB: I think it is good and bad. It is up to Chris' Jazz Café to set the standard in Philly. If they handle it right, they can be a premier jazz club. It is very difficult to own a jazz club. People think that owners are just raking in the money, and they are not. Owners struggle to keep a place open and are hesitant to make some major changes, and I understand that. Clubs should have a policy to keep the noise down. I think this would be a perfect time to up that ante. They can be bringing some major acts, as an example, they have Pat Martino coming in around Christmas. Just establish a kind of New York listening vibe. I think the owners have a good chance to do that, they would set themselves apart, that would also set the standard for any future club that would open in Philly.

Jimmy Bruno

Many serious jazz listeners are put off by the noise level in an Ortlieb's or Chris' Jazz Café. Most people that come to see me also travel to New York to see a Chick Corea or a Joe Lovano. Some of my fans will not come to Chris' Jazz Café to see me because of the noise. I think the true jazz fans will come to Chris' Jazz Café if the noise level is addressed. The music there is a real bargain, some acts that you see in New York for a $50.00 cover, you can see at Chris for a $15.00 or $20.00 cover.



With some of the acts they are now drawing, they would have a line outside the door and they could turn the room over two or three times, the way clubs do in New York. That is a decision the owners need to make. The way they doing business now, the way they are handling the entertainment, they are very, very successful. The club is always crowded, they are making a few bucks, but not getting rich and that is all you can expect from a jazz club. The food is great, the owners Glenn Gerber and Mark DeNinno are good friends, and Al McMahon, the manager, does a great job booking the talent. I think that is something they need to decide.



I will always go back there and play, but it is a sad state for Philly. It does not help Chris' Jazz Café that they are the only one; it actually helps if there is a scene. The jazz scene could just fade away if that is the only club, the scene could just go kaput. I do not think that will happen, at least I hope not. In the 1970s there was place called Skewers, in the bottom of a hotel in Rittenhouse Square, and that was the only jazz club in Philly. Then I left Philly and went to Las Vegas, and when I returned several years later, there were seven or eight jazz clubs in Philly. I hope that this is just one of those down periods. Musicians need a place to play.

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Jimmy Bruno Guitar Institute

AAJ: You were one of the first musicians that can I remember to have a website, and you sold your CDs on the site. How did it come about that you embraced the technology so early in the game?

JB: Through [AAJ publisher] Mike Ricci, believe it or not. He had just started All About Jazz, and I do not think it was called All About Jazz at that time.

AAJ: Do you remember what year that happened?

JB: You would have to speak with Mike for the exact year. When he first told me about the internet and showed me what was there, I looked around the 'net for a bit. Then I told Mike he was nuts, the internet would never catch on, there is nothing but garbage out there. I love it when this shit comes back to bite me. If there is a word that is worse than wrong, that is what I was. I mean I was way past wrong! He would call me with, "I need pictures, and I need this or that." He became annoying to me, all this web site crap.



I have him to thank for my site. It all grew so fast and I was saying, "Wow, Mike you were right." Then he was the one who became so busy, because his site became so busy that he did not have the time to maintain my site, and the situation was reversed. I was calling him asking, "Mike can you put this or that up on my site," and I am sure I drove him crazy. Eventually I started maintaining my site; it must have been over sixteen years ago. The internet became invaluable; I realized I could teach on the 'net, in a rudimentary way, back in the day.

AAJ: How did you become involved in jazz education on the internet?

JB: Someone asked me for a lesson, and they sent me a cassette tape. I answered in an email, using a program called Encore. Then I realized that I could teach a student who was living in Australia. Other programs came along including chat rooms, i-chat and program where you were able go online with video cameras, so I did that for a while and gave people lessons. The problem was you had set a time, and could only do one-on-one lessons.



I have a friend, David Butler, who is a retired AOL executive, who devised an idea for an online school. He is a very brilliant guy, and he is also a good guitarist. I had met him many years ago. He has always been a good friend, and he heard about the hand surgery, and got in touch with me. It was his idea about trying to get me back into my career. I always loved the music, it was always fun. He had a hard time talking me into it, but I thought I would give it a shot. That is how we got into the internet thing and we started a record label called Affiliated Artists. He talked me into reinventing myself a little bit.

Jimmy Bruno

We realized that the way I was giving lessons only allowed for one person per hour, so we brainstormed and came up with the idea for Jimmy Bruno Guitar Institute. All I could provide was the content; David organized the site, knew about the technology that was available. His wife Patricia handled the business and financial end, which was my good fortune, because I need someone like that. Through his knowledge, we could make the site very easy to use. The three of us put in thousands of hours in developing the site, and David invested of his personal savings in purchasing the gear. We really did not know what was going to happen, there were no guarantees when we put up the site.



The site was not complete at that point; we did not have the part where we could accept credit cards. It was just a demo and somehow people found little holes in the site. Somehow, about fifty people found their way into the site and tried to submit credit cards. One person had his credit card processed; we had to email him and refund his money, letting him know we were not ready. When we finally did open the response was overwhelming, we had to get more bandwidth and bigger server space. We were slammed; we had to hire more people.

AAJ: How many people now work at the JBGI?

JB: Right now, we have about ten employees at the JBGI.

AAJ: Can you describe how you and the students communicate, what is the process?

JB: What I wanted to do was make it as close to a private lesson as I could. Here is everyone's problem starting out with any guitar lesson: Students cannot connect the sounds to their fingers, whatever their level of ability is, that is the biggest issue.

AAJ: What do you mean by connecting the sounds to their fingers?

JB: If you look at a piano, all the notes are fixed; they are all in the same place. A pianist has one finger for middle C. If he sees that note on a piece of paper it is always there, it does not move. When you do that to jazz, and a piano is visual, any player who has been playing for any reasonable length of time, say five years, has been looking at that picture for five years. Eventually, if he is not thinking about it, the picture he sees, lets say an E flat and that black note that begins a C chord has a certain sound, a blues sound. A pianist can develop some licks around that, and if he goes to another octave, there it is again, not a new finger. Without consciously doing it, there is a connection between the sound, the pianist finger and what he sees.



The way I have always taught is that there are these five shapes, there are five pianos on the guitar. The first part on the Institute is these five shapes and the exercises. There is also an introductory course that explains my theory to jazz, not the book or academic theory. I feel those academic ideas and methods, with scales and modes, they have been around for a very long time and I do not think that that is the best way to teach. In fact, I know it is not the best way to teach, because I could not make music that way. I learned to make music by playing with other musicians. I have spoken with other musicians and they have learned by ear; of course, these were older school musicians.



This was true since I was a child, nobody had any descriptions, I learned more that way. The books, they just set me back. The education systems in the colleges, it is time for a change. The purpose that they served is great, and at the time it was the only method available and it worked to some extent. What would happen in some long-about way was people who were good students could make music out of scales and modes, and that is the trick. I became curious about these twenty years ago. If you look at the transcriptions from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane to Michael Brecker, you would find things that do not fit the theory. Music can make the theory fit anything.



The answer I was told was that you need to learn that stuff, but then you forget it when you play. I wondered why everyone was teaching like that. I thought, "Why not start from the perspective that music is sound, and theory is everything that comes after that?" Only after you analyze it does it become theory. Take Wes Montgomery or Charlie Christian, I wonder how much theory they knew; probably not much. So twenty years ago, I began to teach like that in my private lessons, just connect the sounds to the fingers. I would tell a student, guess what, you just used the Dorian mode. One student said to me that is great, but why do I need to know that now? It took a long time; it was a gradual process to where I now teach people the right notes very quickly.



Back to the five shapes, a student has to do them or they are lost. From there a student finds their spot or level. Students receive assignments and they send me video of them playing the assignment.

Jimmy Bruno AAJ: And all this is done over the internet?

JB: Yes, they send a video, we have an automatic uploader on the site, you drag your video to it and the site does the rest. I look at the video and maybe they are fingering or practicing wrong. I post a video on the site of my reply to them. Students have the choice of my reply being either private or posted on the site. We try to encourage everyone make it public, so everyone gets to see it. Chances are if you doing something incorrectly, other are as well. That is the way is goes.

AAJ: What is the timeframe for a student to receive a response to their posting?

JB: It depends on the amount of uploads we receive. It can range from 24 hours to just under a week.

AAJ: How many hours a day do you spend working at the JBGI?

JB: Anywhere from three to sixteen hours, I am also constantly creating content. Everyday I add something new. I just hired a new assistant to handle the editing, which frees up more time for me to answer students.



I still have private students, and one actually quit to join the JBGI. Asked him why, and he replied that when he leaves a private lesson he takes the instructions I write, and by the time he gets home he has forgotten something and cannot ask a question for a two or three weeks. On the site, he can watch the lesson repeatedly. Also on the site, you can work at your pace. For instance, you may have the time to come in for a private lesson once a month. On the site, the content is available 24-7, and nothing is erased. For someone who has a lot of time, they can burn through the lessons, as they are always available. We also have some basic tunes that everyone should know because the same harmonies exist in other tunes.

AAJ: Which tunes are they?

JB: Right now, "Satin Doll," "Autumn Leaves," "Misty," "On Green Dolphin Street," and "Another You."



We also have a discussion forum, and sometimes other students will answer each others questions. I join the discussion forums everyday and if there is something I can fix right away, I will jump in with the answer.



I think this is better than a private lesson. There is nothing in a private lesson that I could show somebody that I could not do over the internet. It occurred to me that the thing we could not do was have the students play along with me. I called my old friend and bassist Craig Thomas, and we are now making backing tracks. The next logical step would to teach how to play the chords over the backing tracks. In addition, here is something you cannot do in a private lesson, we have a transcriber, who will transcribe what I played and post it on the site. Everyday we find something we can do better.

AAJ: How many students does the site currently have?

JB: It is difficult to tell, we have people who are in the renewal stage, new enrollees.

AAJ: How long does the course last that people are already renewing?

JB: Right now students pay for a three-month period. At the end of the three months, you elect either not to renew, or keep going.

AAJ: So no matter what their level of expertise there is always something for the student to learn?

JB: Students can just keep going. We are so far ahead of the members, concerning content, that you can never reach the end, because content is added all the time. We just added a whole section on chord exercises. The other thing that I added was using a particular sound over minor 7 chords. In addition, that spawns a whole series of other lessons and new tunes are added all the time.

AAJ: Are you the only person who decides on the curriculum and how do you decide what is added?

JB: Well it is mostly me but David has great ideas about that. Believe it or not some of the best ideas are coming from the members, the discussion forums.



The fundamentals—the basis of what I teach—are there, and they will be complete probably at level three, which is the next level that we are doing. That level is advanced but I get ideas from students, for tunes. One person mentioned "Misty," so now I did one on "Misty," that will be up soon. I occasionally get a request for "Giant Steps." It is a great tune, but might not be appropriate at this point in the game; I think that everyone should be able to play over it. However, if you learn that tune, you only know how to play over "Giant Steps" changes, which are not very common. If you learn to play over "Misty" the set of changes in "Misty" might be in over a hundred other tunes.

Jimmy Bruno

We are trying to stick to tunes that have common chord progressions, and that you can learn to hear. When you hear them in another tune, not only do you recognize them, but also you already knew how to solo over them, you already practiced soloing over the changes. We have so many members and so many dedicated players. They are serious about this. We put a whole course on chords in right now. There are five lessons edited up there now, I think I filmed maybe twenty more and they all have to be edited. It does not take a long time to edit but it is intense work. Right now David Butler is doing that, he has an assistant now who does that part. In addition, if I just take the chord section, I know that there are at least a hundred more lessons, a hundred more videos of just chords.

AAJ: Can a beginner student sign up? Do you need to be able to read music?

JB: You do not have to be able to read music but it is not for someone just starting to learn how to play guitar. It is for the person that can play a few tunes. You have to be physically able to play the guitar, but you do not have to be a virtuoso.

AAJ: I just cannot go and buy a guitar today and say teach me how to play?

JB: No, we are thinking about adding that, I just need to do that.

AAJ: Does the site teach you how to read music?

JB: No, but you just gave me another idea. That is a great idea. I would have to figure out how to do that. If you are serious about playing, you should be able to read music. Is it necessary with jazz to be a great sight-reader? Absolutely not. Plenty of jazz musicians cannot read a note. I learned how to read music because my parents were musicians. To make a living, you have to be able to read music. I spent ten years in Las Vegas playing shows, making great money, and then I became a studio musician. You cannot do those things if you cannot read.



Do I need to know how to read music to play jazz? Not necessarily but it is an advantage, because I can look at a transcribed solo and be able to play it. That is one way to do it. The downside of it is that if you have the ability to read, sometimes it stunts the growth of your ear; it kills the ability to listen to something and play it back. For jazz, what is more important would be the ability to listen to a jazz solo and be able to pick up the guitar and get close to the notes. 20% to 25% percent of them, and you are on the right track.



For some people, it seems so overwhelming, and they try and try and they cannot get them in the beginning, and they think they do not have an ear. They go out and buy music and that is anti-music because music is sound. You have to have an ear, you have to develop your ear, and there is no way around that. Anybody can do it. Some people seem to think that someone has talent and can play what they hear. It is not so; I think that 99% of musicians in the beginning were not able to do it. You have to start somewhere and that is the place to start.



I suggest when you watch TV, just sit with your guitar and try to play the theme song to a TV show. It is the one good thing you can get out of television, the music is somewhat simple. Not all of them, there is still some great music out there, great composers. A lot of the theme music is two, three chord stuff, little melodies. It is perfect for practice. The first thing that comes to my mind is the I Love Lucy and the original Dick Van Dyke themes were not easy. A real piece of work that was like a fugue was the theme song from McHale's Navy. I still struggle to get all the parts.



The TV show Monk used to have a great one. It was just two guitars—Django Reinhardt style guitars by a person named Jeff Beal; I am assuming he is a guitarist. Beautiful piece of music, and then for some reason they replaced it with some dreck from Randy Newman, turning it into a piece of crap. The point is that if someone has a very limited ear, they should still be able to play the chords from that theme song. I think Randy Newman only knows five chords. I guess it is hard to back out now and say something good about Randy Newman. Put it this way, I am not a fan, but I am sure he has written some good music that people like. It does not make him a bad person.

Jimmy BrunoAAJ: How has your work as a teacher helped you as a musician?

JB: Everything that I teach, I have to test. Sometimes talking to a student online or through the school, they will ask a question that I do not know the answer to. I will try things at a gig, and say, Wow, this is cool." It helps me to be more in tune with what I play. It is like the guitar disappearing, it is the music and me. I am taking my advice, trying to get these students to that point. I want to make sure that every time I play, I try to be in the same space. It is easy to do in concert, easy to do at the Iridium in New York, not so easy in a noisy venue.

AAJ: I have seen you perform often and noticed that you will introduce tunes and engage in banter with the audience. What are your feelings regarding the relationship between musicians and the audience?

JB: I think you have talk; I have a tendency to do it too much. In the beginning, I did not talk to the audience and I had a so-so response. Then one day I started to talk and noticed people started to pay attention. I realized there is something to this.

AAJ: Numerous concerts have the band introduced; they walk on stage and play a seventy-five minute set; do not say a word and the show is over.

JB: I think for some performers it works. If I go see Jim Hall play, and I love listening to him play, it is neat if he says something. He does not have to say much, "Just I learned this tune in 19-whatever and I played it with." People like Jim have so many stories. I think it makes a nice break in the music if you have an interesting story about something that happened to you or some concert that you played before.



I was sitting in a concert hall the Kimmel Center, I saw Oscar Peterson there, and he stopped and told a story, I thought that was great. It breaks up the music; the music that we play can get intense. To listen to it, I think ninety minutes is the limit. Whether you break it into two forty-five minute sets, or whatever, but in one sitting without a break, I do not think most people can listen for over ninety minutes. I know that personally I would have hard time.

AAJ: Maybe that is why the maximum length of a CD is eighty minutes.

JB: Maybe so, I never thought about that, but seventy to seventy-five minutes feels good to the performer and the audience. If you break that seventy-five minutes up with some stories, or just some talk about the tune, or just anything really. To listen to music properly, you need to give your ears a rest. You can lose your ability to distinguish one piece of music from another. You can get a din in your ear, try to sit down and listen to an entire CD in your home, it is not easy.

AAJ: What is next for Jimmy Bruno?

JB: I want to see how far we can take the JBGI. It is providing enough income where we have the ability to grow as needed. As long as people keep signing up, we will meet whatever they need. If we have to hire fifty new people, we can do that. The technology will get better, we will see how can use that.



Another thing I am working on is more travel as opposed to less. No more local playing for me. I am in the process of putting together a permanent Jimmy Bruno Band. We will rehearse and put together some new tunes.

AAJ: Who would be in the Jimmy Bruno Band?

JB: I have some ideas, a few ideas. I want to keep a band together as long as I can. Play more of my original music, write more original music. I want to travel with the band, no playing some place and picking up the house band; that is over. If I play only one gig next year, it will be with my band. I should have done this a long time ago.

AAJ: Do you feel not having a permanent band has hurt your career?

JB: I think so; it has hurt me as a musician. I like to write tunes and I like to try to play different styles of music. It prevents from having a chance to explore. The only time I have a chance to do that is at my house. With my own set band, I could do it all the time, every time I play, every time I rehearse. It has hurt my career in the sense that it took me so long to do it.



When I play with pickup bands and I always play with marvelous musicians. The thing is you can only do the typical straight-ahead stuff. I mean, I will not take chances with a drummer and bassist I have never played with before, even if they are great.

It is time to get a set band; I never get to play my original tunes. What I should have done ten years ago, was put together a book of my music. I should be playing my tunes and I am not. A lot of has to do with my staying local and playing with local people. I love the people. I have never thought, "Ugh not that guy," that has never happened. I am always excited to play with the Philly musicians. When I get the chance to play with trumpeter John Swana, it is always a big event for me. It is just time to take it to the next level, and the way to do that is with a set band.


Selected Discography

Jimmy Bruno, Maplewood Avenue (Affiliated Artists, LLC, 2007)
Jimmy Bruno Solo (Mel Bay Record,s 2004)
Jimmy Bruno, Midnight Blue (Concord Records 2002)
Jimmy Bruno, Polarity (Concord Records 2000)
Jimmy Bruno, Live At Birdland (Concord Records 1998)

Photo Credit
Edward Zucker



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