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Interviews

Vic Juris: Tension and Release

By Published: July 28, 2009
Vic JurisVic Juris is one of the premier jazz guitarists in the business today. Perhaps less known than some of his peers, he is nevertheless admired by all of them and has accumulated, since his emergence on the scene in the 1970s, an impressive portfolio of live performances and recordings. His international career has included associations with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
, Phil Woods
Phil Woods
Phil Woods
b.1931
sax, alto
, Jimmy Smith
Jimmy Smith
Jimmy Smith
1925 - 2005
organ, Hammond B3
, Don Patterson
Don Patterson
Don Patterson
1936 - 1988
organ, Hammond B3
, Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
1924 - 1990
vocalist
, Michel Legrand
Michel Legrand
Michel Legrand
b.1932
piano
, Chico Hamilton
Chico Hamilton
Chico Hamilton
1921 - 2013
drums
, Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
b.1946
saxophone
, Gary Peacock
Gary Peacock
Gary Peacock
b.1935
bass
, Richie Cole
Richie Cole
Richie Cole
b.1948
sax, alto
, Mel Torme
Mel Torme
Mel Torme
b.1925
vocalist
, Eddie Jefferson
Eddie Jefferson
Eddie Jefferson
1918 - 1979
vocalist
, and the prodigal exemplar of the Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt
1910 - 1953
guitar
tradition, Bireli Lagrene
Bireli Lagrene
Bireli Lagrene
b.1966
guitar
. High on his list of creative gigs has been his association with the highly accomplished David Liebman Group since 1991.

Juris is also one of the leading jazz educators throughout the world. He has written two books published by Mel Bay, Vic Juris Inside/Outside: Original Play-Along Modern Jazz Guitar Solos and Modern Chords: Advanced Harmony for Guitar. Both books are highly regarded by up and coming guitarists. He currently teaches at The New School for Social Research, Rutgers University, and Lehigh University. He has conducted clinics throughout the United States and Europe.

Two outstanding qualities characterize Vic Juris' playing. One is his embodiment of the jazz tradition, while always stretching his scope and reaching for new possibilities and concepts. The other is his almost uncanny ability to hear and communicate the totality of the music he is playing, from beginning to end, including what is going on around him in the group and his many references to the jazz legacy. One could say that a good player is also a good listener, and Juris is an exceptionally good listener. Manifest in the artistry of his playing, this ability attracts the audience and gives deep coherence to his melodic lines and harmonies.

Juris participated in this interview with the same attention and freedom of movement with which he makes music. He was able to pick up quickly on questions and ideas, go his own way with them, and come right back to the center. He had no hesitancy in addressing whatever the interviewer had in mind, whether commonplace or esoteric. The result is both a unique sampling of what it is to be a working, evolving jazz musician and a cornucopia of information about the guitar and music in general, especially aspects of the jazz scene from the 1950s to the present.

Chapter Index
  1. Early Life Experiences
  2. Coming Up as a Jazz Artist
  3. The Association with Dave Liebman
  4. Bireli Lagrene and Charlie Byrd
  5. Guitar Lore
  6. Inside and Outside
  7. Tension and Release
  8. Jazz: Past, Present and Future
  9. Looking Forward


Early Life Experiences

All About Jazz: For a warm-up, we'll start with the infamous desert island question. Which recordings would you bring to the proverbial desert island?

Vic Juris: What comes to mind is a The Beatles
The Beatles
The Beatles

band/orchestra
album called Rubber Soul (Capitol, 1965), which was one of the first all-acoustic albums I ever heard. As a kid growing up in the '60s, I was deeply moved by that record. Another would be Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery's The Dynamic Duo (Verve, 1966) with a big band. Then there would be Larry Coryell (Vanguard, 1969), his first album where he did some rock type things and did some trio work with Jimmy Garrison
Jimmy Garrison
Jimmy Garrison
1934 - 1976
bass, acoustic
and Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
1927 - 2004
drums
. Again, growing up in the '60s, I really related to what Coryell was doing. Still another would be Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
1942 - 1970
guitar, electric
's first album, Are You Experienced? (MCA, 1967). It was some of the most powerful music I ever heard. If I had to pick one more, I would probably take John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
's A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964). I thought he really broke new ground with that one. Looks like they're all from the '60s, but that's what comes to mind at the moment.

AAJ: Your musical interests seem to be more diverse than some other jazz players, who might pick straight-ahead jazz and one or two avant-garde things. Your choices include rock and popular music. Did you start out with rock bands?

VJ: That was the first type of music that I played. But in the '60s, we didn't have iPods and other high-tech headset devices. Everything was on television and radio. You'd hear the music blasted everywhere, in cars, storefronts, etc., so I picked up all the pop hits. At the same time, I was studying guitar with a teacher, Ed Berg, who was a jazz player, so I was getting both worlds. And at night, there would be the TV variety shows. So I was bombarded with both rock and jazz.

AAJ: In a way, rock 'n roll wasn't under your control—you were exposed to a particular environment.

VJ: For me, it was unavoidable. Even the school bus driver had on WABC, the top 40 station.

AAJ: When did you start hearing straight-ahead jazz?

VJ: Before the "British Invasion" of the '60s, I was already studying guitar with Ed Berg, a jazz player. To make a long story short, his studio was damaged in a fire, so I had to study at his house. When I'd go there, he'd have on an album by Johnny Smith
Johnny Smith
Johnny Smith
1922 - 2013
guitar
or Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt
1910 - 1953
guitar
. And I was only about 11 or 12 years old, but I was immediately drawn to it. I asked Berg to teach me that stuff, so he started lending me albums by Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel
1923 - 2004
guitar, electric
, Jimmy Rainey, Jim Hall
Jim Hall
Jim Hall
1930 - 2013
guitar
, Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
and so on. He had a good collection. So he really exposed me to jazz that way.

AAJ: On a personal level, what was it like for you as a kid and teenager growing up in northern New Jersey?

VJ: We were originally from Jersey City, and then moved out to the country to Parsippany. And I didn't have any friends who were into jazz, so it was kind of lonely for me that way. Once I was in a music appreciation class in seventh grade, and I brought in a new release, Miles Smiles (Columbia, 1966). When the music teacher heard it, he scolded me and said, "Please don't bring anything like that in here again." So I felt, "Oh no, this jazz thing offends even music teachers!" And the kids didn't like it either. The reason I bought the record was that I read an article about Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
guitar
where he said Miles Similes was one of his favorites.

AAJ: Unfortunately, there are those who don't take jazz seriously at all. When Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
1930 - 1956
trumpet
was already making records and courting his wife-to-be who was a college student, she told him his playing wasn't really serious music. She said, "I'll take you over to my music professor's home, and he'll show you what real music is about." When they got there, the professor asked her to introduce her friend. She said, "This is Clifford Brown." The professor nearly fainted, and said, "My God, you're one of the greatest trumpet players who ever lived! I listen to your records all the time!" So the lady really took it on the chin, but she ended up marrying Brown anyway.

VJ: Isn't that something! You know, people don't realize how young these guys were. Clifford Brown died when he was only 26 years old. It's amazing how poised and graceful these guys really were. I'm 55 now, and just beginning to realize how young these incredible players were.

AAJ: Some of them, like Brown, condensed a whole musical life into a few short years.

VJ: Unbelievable! Charlie Parker died when he was only thirty-four.

Coming Up as a Jazz Artist

AAJ: For you, did your career germinate slowly, or did everything come together early?

VJ: I was doing rock until I was around 19. Then, a friend of mine introduced me to Eric Kloss
Eric Kloss
Eric Kloss
b.1949
reeds
—do you know about Eric?

AAJ: Yes, the saxophonist. He was blind from birth. I learned about him from Pat Martino
Pat Martino
Pat Martino
b.1944
guitar
. They're good friends.

VJ: Exactly. I met Eric, and he got me deeper into playing jazz. We hit it off as friends and shared a lot of common musical interests. He lived in Pittsburgh and started bringing me out there a few times a year. I also met Pat Martino around that time. Pat was really my first real mentor that I started hanging out with. I was playing at a little bar in Greenwich Village about 1976. Pat had just moved into the Village, so he and a friend of his wandered into the bar where I was playing with bassist Steve LaSpina
Steve LaSpina
Steve LaSpina
b.1954
bass
. And Pat was my hero. Steve whispered to me, "That's Pat Martino there." So during the break we went over and introduced ourselves. Pat said, "What are you doing tomorrow? Do you want to come over?" Of course I said, "Yes!" And we became good friends, and we hung out, and I watched him work, and we met a lot of other people. Through Pat, I met organist Don Patterson
Don Patterson
Don Patterson
1936 - 1988
organ, Hammond B3
.

Vic JurisAAJ: Pat worked with him, too. The organ-guitar combination is very generative. For Pat, his work with organists has been very influential and inspirational.

VJ: Pat is a master at playing with organ, as was Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
b.1931
guitar
with Jimmy Smith. Pat and Kenny are probably my two favorite guitarists to play with the organ. After working with Don Patterson, I did a couple of gigs with Jimmy Smith and some with Wild Bill Davis. Unfortunately, my experience with Jimmy Smith was difficult. He was very angry and confrontational with me. He went ballistic if you got a little bit more applause than him. By contrast, I really enjoyed working with Don. He was a true genius, a natural. His comping and suggestions were terrific. He was just a beautiful man.

AAJ: There's a wide variation among musicians regarding their degree of egotism as opposed to working closely with their groups.

VJ: Some are just interested in having the guitar back them up. But the best musicians are those who are looking for interaction.

AAJ: One of Martino's favorite terms is "interaction," in just the sense you mean.

VJ: A good jazz band is like the Harlem Globetrotters when they get in a circle and throw the ball around to "Sweet Georgia Brown." The best times are when you can't predict what's gonna happen next, but you know it's all good.

AAJ: Michelle Obama recently had some jazz players over to The White House, and she emphasized that jazz enables each musician to have his individuality while working well with the group. She posed this as a model for the young people who attended.

VJ: It's nice to have anyone from The White House talk about jazz!

AAJ: Jimmy Carter was a huge jazz fan. He had Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
perform at The White House. Carter himself was a pretty good pianist. Of course, Clinton played saxophone, even on the campaign trail.

VJ: Some of the musicologists have actually transcribed some of Clinton's sax solos.

AAJ: That's scary. [Laughter.] Now, like Martino, you're largely self-taught, although Pat did study with Dennis Sandole.

VJ: He only studied with Sandole when he was young, for about a year. By contrast, I had a teacher who taught me all the guitar basics, and then started to teach me jazz improvisation. In that respect, I had more formal teaching than Pat.

AAJ: There's tremendous value in being self-taught, yet formal education is also quite valuable in the making of a jazz musician, except that in the worst case scenario, the latter can take the originality and spontaneity out of the musician. At one point, you seriously considered attending music college. Do you ever regret not having done so?

VJ: No, I don't think so. My age group is really the last to apprentice with the older masters, and I probably would have lost some of that had I gone to school. Berklee in Boston was the only major jazz school at that time anyway. In any case, I really didn't like school; I just wanted to play. I just started out hittin' the clubs—there was a lot of work at that time.

AAJ: Which were some of the groups you played with in the '60s and '70s?

VJ: I played with Don Patterson, with saxophonist Richie Coles, and in one group with Richie we had Eddie Jefferson
Eddie Jefferson
Eddie Jefferson
1918 - 1979
vocalist
. I was also playing rock fusion with keyboardist Barry Miles
Barry Miles
b.1947
piano
. While freelancing in New York, I played some gigs with Chet Baker
Chet Baker
Chet Baker
1929 - 1988
trumpet
, Joe Farrell
Joe Farrell
Joe Farrell
1937 - 1986
saxophone
, Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
1949 - 2007
sax, tenor
, and many others.

AAJ: So you did get that exposure with some of those innovative horn players. One can hear references to that in some of your more recent recordings.

VJ: Well, there were actually only a few of them then, as distinct from the many players graduating from music schools these days. There were a limited number of musicians who hit New York and on the street learning by doing. Also, there was a bit of a loft scene in those days where people had jam sessions. Dave Liebman had a loft in New York where they would come and jam.

The Association with Dave Liebman

AAJ: When did you first start hanging out with Liebman?

VJ: I met him in the mid-'80s. He and his wife Caris were just about to be married. I met him at a week-long educational workshop in Germany. Then I would see him once in a while and we played a few gigs together. He was starting a new band with a guitar, subsequent to his band Quest with Billy Hart
Billy Hart
Billy Hart
b.1940
drums
, Richie Beirach
Richie Beirach
Richie Beirach
b.1947
piano
, and Ron McClure
Ron McClure
Ron McClure
b.1941
bass
. He was looking for something a little different, so he called me for that new band. It began in 1991, and I'm still with them.

AAJ: In addition to being so knowledgeable and talented, Liebman is really an inspirational guy. He seems to have a way of working with and nurturing the same group for an extended time, so it really coalesces.

VJ: The thing that's really great about Dave is that he knows what he wants to get from you. He'll get the best out of you, and he really doesn't tolerate any nonsense. I've learned more from him than anyone I've ever worked with. He's an amazing player, educator, human being. He was the best man at my wedding. We could go on about him forever. I'm so terribly grateful to Dave on many levels.

Vic JurisAAJ: His harmonies are so advanced and complex. How do you manage to fit in with him?

VJ: What you have to remember about Dave Liebman, Pat Martino, Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
b.1954
guitar
, and such is that they get up early in the morning and they work on their music all day long. I remember visiting Martino in the early morning, and he'd be in his music room sometimes until 2 a.m. the next day! His wife would slide him food underneath the door! They'd always be doing the music, and that's what made them so great. I learned the work ethic from them—to really work hard. It's not all just genius.

AAJ: People say that John Coltrane practiced constantly. He would even go backstage while someone else was doing a solo and he'd practice! It was as if he couldn't stop.

VJ: The bartender at the Village Vanguard told me that Coltrane would play a set, and then he'd go backstage and practice during the whole break.

AAJ: Getting back to Liebman, some very seasoned musicians sitting in with him for the first time at a live gig, have really had a hard time following him. Liebman uses so many original lines and chord structures when he's playing that he's way ahead of most players.

VJ: He plays piano for his own purposes and he really understands harmony. He's a master. He and Richie Beirach would take chords from classical composers like Schoenberg, pick out voicings, and try to improvise over them.

AAJ: So if you're comping for him, for example, you just do your thing and he works around it, or what?

VJ: Well, each musician has his own language. You wouldn't comp for Liebman in the same way you would for Phil Woods
Phil Woods
Phil Woods
b.1931
sax, alto
. Liebman is more modern, while Woods or Sonny Stitt
Sonny Stitt
Sonny Stitt
1924 - 1982
saxophone
are more traditional. They're all equally great. So it's just the particular language you learn to play with Liebman or whomever you're playing with.

AAJ; Do you learn that in vivo, on the job, so to speak?

VJ: Well, in the old days if a player didn't like what you were doing, they'd just look at you and say, "Stroll!" which meant, "Don't play!" They'd just tell you to lay out. When I play with Liebman, sometimes I don't comp for a whole chorus. I use good judgment—if I don't feel that I have anything to add, I won't play for a while. If there's enough salt in the soup already, why add more?

AAJ: So there's a degree of tact involved.

VJ: Yes, of course.

Bireli Lagrene and Charlie Byrd

AAJ: An associate of yours has been guitarist Bireli Lagrene
Bireli Lagrene
Bireli Lagrene
b.1966
guitar
. Can you tell us something about him?

VJ: Bireli is a guitarist from France who came up as a boy wonder and was called a successor to Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt
1910 - 1953
guitar
. In the mid-'80s, we made a record together in Europe. It was a live recording where we played some of Django Reinhardt's music, as well as some original compositions of our own, kind of a post-Django recording done live. It made quite a stir in Europe. Around the same time, I did a year-and-a-half as Larry Coryell's duo partner. We did hundreds of gigs with two acoustic guitars. And I met Bireli through Larry.

I was always a fan of Django Reinhardt and knew a limited number of his compositions. So it wasn't hard for me to fall in with Bireli Lagrene. You should check him out on the internet—he's a remarkable player. He has a couple of YouTube videos. I played with him when he was about 18 or 19. He's about 40-something now.

AAJ: Charlie Byrd
Charlie Byrd
Charlie Byrd
1925 - 1999
guitar
was able to succeed so superbly on acoustic guitar. And you yourself have said that the acoustic guitar is the "real" guitar, so why is it that there are so few acoustic guitarists in jazz? In fact, nobody other than Charlie Byrd comes to mind that has done that on a consistent basis.

VJ: Well, Charlie was classically trained. So that's probably why he decided to stick with that instrument. I don't think he was trying to be unique; it was just his instrument. The problem for most of us is that an acoustic guitar doesn't have the sustained sound that an electric guitar has. And it doesn't really make sense to amplify an acoustic guitar. Teachers often want you to start out on acoustic guitar; however, because when you play electric guitar, you're not hearing the guitar, you're hearing the amplifier. So when you're developing your technique, it's always a good idea to start with acoustic guitar, so you're hearing the instrument.

Guitar Lore

AAJ: You've mentioned that, for you, the guitar is just a vehicle or a tool. Martino tends to agree with that assessment. For others, the guitar has a special meaning, sort of like a close friend, maybe romanticized a bit, perhaps mystical in what it "gives" the musician.

VJ: Well, for me, I'd probably be happy playing any instrument—I really just like music as such. I'm not really hung up on guitar that much. With the guitar specifically, I tried switching instruments a couple of years ago. I bought a bunch of guitars and tried them all, and I frankly couldn't tell the difference. You get your own sound. The thing is just to develop your own personality on an instrument.

AAJ: Yes. Trombonists were very preoccupied with what instrument and mouthpiece to use. And there were gimmicks like a tilted slide, even a string for reaching the lower notes. But the best players, while serious about such matters, pretty much got settled on a horn and mouthpiece and stuck with it.

VJ: The trombone is a very hard instrument to get a personal sound on.

Vic JurisAAJ: Tommy Dorsey
Tommy Dorsey
Tommy Dorsey
1905 - 1956
trombone
, Janice "Ms. JJ" Johnson
Janice "Ms. JJ" Johnson
b.1953
vocalist
, Urbie Green
Urbie Green
Urbie Green
b.1926
trombone
, and Curtis Fuller
Curtis Fuller
Curtis Fuller
b.1934
trombone
all had distinct easily recognizable sounds that were very different from one another. Some players develop a very personal connection to their instrument.

VJ: Slide Hampton
Slide Hampton
Slide Hampton
b.1932
trombone
lives near me, and sometimes I see him walking down the street blowing on his mouthpiece.

AAJ: Well, he's just keeping his chops up. But for some people the guitar has a very special mystique.

VJ: It's a very difficult instrument to play jazz on, or even to read. Like for middle C, there are five options for it, while for the piano there's only one option for any note. And it's hard to get a personal sound on it because there are so many players. It seems that those who are most successful are those who can be easily identified by their sound and style. I think audiences really appreciate that.

AAJ: Absolutely. And you yourself have a wonderful and identifiable way of playing. Your sound is universal and brings in the traditions, but it is deeply personal and has a rich resonance. One particularly impressive thing about your playing is that you seem to hear and incorporate the whole composition and performance. Most guys are focused on a few bars behind and ahead of the beat, but you're like a painter who has an awareness of the whole canvas or landscape and makes each element fit into the whole in a balanced way. You seem to do something similar when you play.

VJ: Yes, I'm very conscious of the form of the piece. Like you say, it's sort of like a painter working towards the big picture on the canvas. That's not something you develop early on as a player. It takes years to get there. Just learning to improvise on chord changes is a life-long process.

Inside and Outside

AAJ: Many different things go on inside a musician when they're playing. For example, the singer JD Walter
JD Walter
JD Walter

vocalist
says he's often introspecting about emotions. Liebman sometimes has visual images going on internally. By contrast, pianist Jim Ridl
Jim Ridl
Jim Ridl

piano
says he thinks mostly about the sounds he's making—the music itself. There's a different psychology for each musician. Where do you go mentally when you're playing?

VJ: I'm usually into the music itself, rather than images and associations. Sometimes I'm preoccupied with irrelevancies—like I'll think about my house on a road trip because I'm eager to return home. Mostly I'm thinking about the harmonies and listening a lot to the rhythm section. And when I play with someone as special as Liebman, I have to listen hard to him as well as the rhythm section while at the same time keeping my own part together. And I'm also thinking about the audience quite a bit. The audience is the most important thing in a way—they're the reason that you're there. It's an entertainment business. So I'm always conscious of trying to put on the best show that I can. Sometimes the audience notices that the musicians show up late or they're too casual about what they're doing. I try to be as professional as possible.

AAJ: To listeners, that makes a huge difference. The attitude of the musicians markedly affects the audience's satisfaction with what they're hearing.

Vic JurisVJ: A positive example is Houston Person
Houston Person
Houston Person
b.1934
sax, tenor
's group. His band is impeccably dressed. The order of the set is perfectly in place—where a ballad comes in, etc. He's a guy who all young people should go and check out. He wrote the book on being professional—I learned an awful lot from him. He's one of the elder statesmen that young people should go and hear. He's a perfect role model. I still go and ask his advice on things. He's also a good business person. He's been playing 30 or 40 years as a bandleader, and he's still working a lot.

AAJ: The business sense of musicians varies quite a bit.

VJ: Bucky Pizzarelli
Bucky Pizzarelli
Bucky Pizzarelli
b.1926
guitar
's in his 80s, and he's still booking gigs.

AAJ: On the other hand, there are some outstanding musicians who have trouble booking gigs and making a meaningful living.

VJ: If you don't have a business sense, you'd better get someone to do it for you. Plus a lot of clubs don't want to talk to musicians—they'd rather talk to managers. The trouble is, a lesser known musician is going to have a hard time getting a manager.

Tension and Release

AAJ: Let's focus in on your teaching and educational work. You do considerable teaching and mentoring. You've also published some top instructional books for Mel Bay. One of your manuals has the phrase "tension and release" in the title, with the subtitle "inside/outside playing." These phrases are striking. Can you briefly tell us what you had in mind?

VJ: This is a book that I did for Mel Bay Publications. What I did was to improvise over a collection of the standards, and part of the soloing would be directly on the chord changes, with notes pertaining to the chords—that's what I mean by the "inside." And then the "outside" would be the notes that were away from the tonality. This would then create the musical landscape of being in, being out, being in, being out. That's the way that Coltrane played, for example.

Vic JurisAAJ: So when you say inside and outside, you mean within the structure or outside of it.

VJ: In and out of the written harmony. And included are a transcription and a CD that comes along with the book which shows everything that I did. It's a great time to learn right now. There are some really amazing books out.

AAJ: The guitar in particular seems to generate a large literature.

VJ: One great series is that of Jamie Aebersold. He offers a rhythm section to play with, so you can be anywhere in the world and acquire the skills. That's a very valuable tool to simulate the real world of jazz.

AAJ: Now when you talk about tension and release, do you mean the same thing as inside and outside, or is that a different concept?

VJ: Tension and release comes from the bebop school: creating a tension on the V [five] chord and then resolving it on the I [one] chord. That was the way that Bird and Dizzy played in the 1950s. I asked Jimmy Heath
Jimmy Heath
Jimmy Heath
b.1926
sax, tenor
about it, and he said they all played that way. They didn't play from scales those days, they played from tensions on the chords—play on the V chord and release on the I. From what I understand, Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
was their guru.

AAJ: They used the basic chord structure of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" in many instances.

Jazz: Past, Present and Future

VJ: Yes, as in the blues form. If you think about it, most of what Charlie Parker wrote was based on the harmonies of the standards. He just wrote the melodic lines. "Yardbird Suite" and "Confirmation" were totally original, but the rest of the tunes were based on popular songs.

AAJ: That's probably one reason why Miles Davis brought in modal playing rather than a harmonic basis.

VJ: He probably got into the modal playing through Bill Evans' influence. That seems to be the consensus.

AAJ: Wasn't it the other way around?

VJ: No. I think Evans came first—he was heavy into Ravel and Debussy.

AAJ: Debussy would be considered modal?

Vic JurisVJ: If you listen to the Debussy "Piano Preludes," you can really hear how it influenced Bill Evans. I think Bill was aware of modes and their functions before Miles. Although Miles may have studied it at Juilliard as well. We may never really know for certain.

AAJ: It's an interesting historical question. While we're talking about this, the origins and evolution of jazz are fascinating—for example, the way jazz syncopation and rhythm came out of African percussion music. It's striking how there are so many diverse influences that come into play throughout the history of jazz.

VJ: The rhythms are definitely African-based, but with the influence of Central and South America. But the harmonies are definitely European. I think jazz is a combination of African rhythm and European harmony.

AAJ: That raises a more general question that'd be difficult to answer. Nobody seems to know where jazz is going today—what is its future? In the past, jazz underwent various developments: swing, bebop, hard bop, free jazz, etc. There were various discussions and debates about what was essential versus peripheral. Today, most people seem to say that it's all been done already, and what is now done is variations and permutations of what's already been done.

VJ: I think jazz is in a big transition period. The bebop generation—the Sonny Stitt and Miles Davis guys—there are very few of them left. Then you've got the baby boomer generation, which is my generation, and a lot of us didn't become group leaders—we became teachers. And now you've got the new generation of players, and they're not going to so much apprentice with my generation. They're doing a lot of thinking for themselves. So I think it's going to be a new evolution.

AAJ: Many of the younger ones seem to be referencing earlier forms such as Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, ragtime and boogie woogie.

VJ: I'm very involved with that generation when I teach at the New School and at Rutgers. It's a whole other way of learning. I learned on the job, and they're learning in school. This affects the music and the way they're playing.

AAJ: What particular messages do you try to get across to young musicians whom you teach and mentor? And do you teach verbally as much as by example?

VJ: I teach everything verbally. I tell them exactly what I think.

AAJ: Pat Martino focuses a great deal on his rather complex theory of the guitar when he gives master classes. When you teach, what do you focus on, and what do you want the musicians to take with them?

VJ: I teach private lessons, ensembles, and classes. In private lessons, I emphasize the fundamentals—the tools they need to make a living. In my ensembles, I lay my philosophy on them, about team effort, coordinating their playing with each other, traditional and modern playing. I try to cover all the bases.

AAJ: What's your take on the more experimental and avant-garde types of jazz? For example Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
and others' approaches to so-called free jazz cause reactions ranging from repulsion to high praise.

VJ: Ornette Coleman was almost crucified in the late-'50s and early-'60s for free jazz. But I've been involved in a lot of free jazz. I got into it very deeply when I played with Gary Peacock
Gary Peacock
Gary Peacock
b.1935
bass
for about a year. I came home exhausted from those gigs, because when you have to literally make something out of nothing, it's a lot harder than playing on chord changes. You know, in general, it's just another level of improvisation, and it's a matter of taste whether you like it or not, just like whether or not you prefer impressionism in art.

AAJ: Liebman has a great interest visual art. Do you share that with him?

VJ: Yes, when I go on the road, I tend to visit art museums. You've got one of the best in the world in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I just performed there recently at their Friday evening music series. I'm always amazed what they've got in their collection.

AAJ: The Cezanne and Beyond exhibit showed Cezanne's influence on modern artists. For example, he painted a dresser drawer, of all things, and it was referenced in a 1950s American painting. That's similar to jazz, in that you pick up phrases, lines, and ideas that return in various forms over periods of years and decades. Jazz is a culture that keeps evolving.

VJ: For me, I've never been able to stay with one bag or sound. I'm always changing, and I think the critics have been a little confused about that. I haven't developed one regular sound and style. If you listen to my recordings from thirty years ago, they're completely different from what I'm doing now.

AAJ: That's creativity. It's great that you're always trying something different and new. But for many audiences, familiarity is what grabs them.

VJ: And when you're trying to get bookings, the managers want to easily categorize you. It helps them select the groups for festivals and concert series. So a hazard of doing what I do is that if I don't fit the profile, I don't get the gig. On the other hand, the critics are impressed with me and they wonder why aren't I better known?

AAJ: Unfortunately, the business aspect often interferes with the development of the music.

VJ: Sometimes, that's been my struggle. Like lately, I have this trio with bassist Jay Anderson
Jay Anderson
Jay Anderson
b.1955
bass, acoustic
and drummer Adam Nussbaum
Adam Nussbaum
Adam Nussbaum
b.1955
drums
. We play often and have a residency at the 55 Bar in New York. We play there the first Sunday of every month and we've built up a good audience, and we're going to make a live recording there soon. But we play a wide variety of things, and I hope it will catch on.

Vic JurisAAJ: They have quite a litany of excellent players performing there, even though it's a tiny hole in the wall—I guess maybe like The Village Vanguard.

VJ: To me, it's the best club in New York. They have all kinds of music, and it's usually no more than $10 to get in there. You can hear some of the most original and creative stuff there. The owner, Scott, is a remarkable guy. He puts the programs together, and he's so supportive—he'll even help the guys carry their equipment in. He's 100 percent behind the music, which is rare these days.

AAJ: Talking about the diminution of those who are behind the music, sadly, the great guitarist Joe Beck
Joe Beck
Joe Beck
1945 - 2008
guitar
passed away not too long ago.

VJ: Joe was one of the first guitar players I met in New York, and probably the most versatile guitarist I've ever heard. He could play blues like B.B. King
B.B. King
B.B. King
b.1925
guitar, electric
and at the same time be writing charts for Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra
1915 - 1998
vocalist
. Joe was a remarkable musician and accompanist—one of the all-time greats. Another one of those extremely underrated jazz musicians. He had a big influence on me and was very supportive of me.

AAJ: He was also a very sweet man. Did you hear their fabulous duet CD, Polarity (Concord Jazz, 2000), which features Joe on a guitar he actually invented?

VJ: Yes, sure. I also remember hearing Beck with Joe Farrell in the 1970s. I was amazed at his versatility.

AAJ: He was a true master. His passing is a great loss to all of us in the jazz community.

Looking Forward

AAJ: Bring us up to date and tell us some of your current interests besides your trio and the 55 Bar. How do you see yourself moving forward in the next period, musically?

VJ: I want to keep recording, and I also want to focus on composition. As we discussed earlier, I'm also interested in the acoustic guitar, and I plan to do an all-acoustic guitar recording sometime in the next year. It'll probably be a little more on the world music side. And I'm also getting interested in different percussion and drumming, and some of that we'll be in my music. I'll also continue to work in Dave Liebman's group. In fact, we just made a new recording of Ornette Coleman's music. I'm also involved with Tim Hagans
Tim Hagans
Tim Hagans
b.1954
trumpet
' Norrbotten big band and just did a recording with them. And I'm doing some New York studio work.

AAJ: Do you do any composing?

VJ: Yes, I do quite a bit. That's what I'm planning for some of my recording. I write a lot for the trio, and I'm also writing some acoustic bass pieces.

AAJ:. John Coltrane said that music is his spirituality. Certainly A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964) and Meditations (Impulse!, 1965) reflect that. And Dave Liebman, too, is very spiritual, perhaps in a more understated way. So, do you have a particular spiritual path you follow or a general philosophy of life?

VJ: As I get older, I think about the age-old question, "Why are we here?" I value simple things a lot, like conversations with people, but I really think we're just a tiny grain of sand in the universe. As far as we know, we just have each other. We should all take that more seriously. And I think there is something far beyond our comprehension. And sometimes when things are really good on the bandstand and the chemistry is there, it's beyond, it's definitely spiritual. As musicians, there are some moments that are so uplifting and so transcendent, and that's what we're all trying to achieve in a sense.

AAJ: There are those special moments in jazz, and you can tell that the guys are in another space, another level.

VJ: There's that certain magic. Thirty years ago, I was sitting at the bar listening to Chet Baker, and he played a particular phrase that knocked me over. I could still go back to that moment. How did that person play that? Where did it come from? One of the greatest experiences on the bandstand is when you play something you never played before.

Selected Discography Ken Serio, Live...In the Moment (Tripping Tree, 2007)

Gary Versace, Reminiscence (Steeplechase, 2007)

Dave Liebman Group, Blues All Ways (OmniTone, 2007)
Vic Juris, A Second Look (Mel Bay, 2005)
Vic Juris, Blue Horizon (Zoho, 2004)

Vic Juris, While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Steeplechase, 2004)
Dave Liebman Group, Conversation (Sunnyside, 2003)
Marc Copland/Vic Juris, Double Play (Steeplechase, 2002)

Vic Juris, Songbook (Steeplechase, 2001)
Joe Locke, Slander (And Other Love Songs) (Milestone, 1998)
Vic Juris, Music of Alex Wilder (Double-Time, 1996)

Bireli Lagrene, Live at the Carnegie Hall (Jazz Point, 1993)
Richie Cole, Popbop (Milestone, 1992)
Mel Tormé, Mel's London Mood (Parade, 1980)


Photo Credits

Top Photo: Courtesy of Vic Juris


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