Bern Nix: A History In Harmolodics
Nix grew up in Toledo, Ohio in the '50s and '60s with the standard jazz guitar tradition. The desire to play jazz was paramount. "It was always in my head that I was thinking, 'I'm going to be a jazz player,'" he says.
R&B was big in Toledo at the time, along with the rock sound. "Different bands I was in wanted me to get a wah wah pedal. They'd say, 'Play wah wah, Bern.' I had a Vox for two months, but... I like Coryell [and] McLaughlin, [and] I wanted to be a 'real jazz guitarist,' whatever that is. I admire [their] stuffit's part of the vocabulary[but] when I was 14 or 15, I thought of the more traditional jazz guitarists like Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, etc, that 'this is real jazz guitar.'
Here is a great clip of Kessel playing "Gypsy In My Soul" in 1962the introduction has a sliding chordal sound similar to Nix's.
"I always liked the sound of the guitar as it is. My parents wanted to give me an electric, but I wanted to keep the acoustic. I can admire the boxes, [the use of effects] pedals, but I always have a certain sound in my mind, or an idea of the sound that I want." He says he liked Hendrix, but jazz was the thing for him.
"But," he continues, "there were just R&B bands in Ohio when I was growing up! Toledo was just R&B in the '60s. You had to get out of there if you wanted to play jazz. Everyone was playing R&B. If you were trying to play jazz, you were kind of weird in the 50s and the '60s. Some people played just the blues, but nobody wanted to play jazz. They thought you were from another planet if you wanted to play jazz."
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the gap between R&B and jazz at the time, there is a '70s release of Jimi Hendrix studio tracks where Hendrix himself can be heard saying in an incredulous voice, "Jazz?" when some modern jazz is heard playing briefly over the studio speakers. Hendrix had, of course, developed on the R&B "Chitlin Circuit" in the '60s.
However, in addition to straight-ahead jazz, Nix was also drawn to the avant-garde. "I also had a thing I always wanted to do," he says. "Part of me is contradictory. Part of me is jazz, another part of me wanted to play avant-garde.
In any event, at first Nix listened to Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Raney, Jim Hall, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Chuck Wayne, and George Shearing. "A lot of my guitar teachers were from the '40s and the '50s, so they were into mainstream jazz guitar'real jazz guitar.' I liked Howard Roberts, a session guitarist who recorded a lot of elevator musiche played the tempo of horn players. Not many can do thatjust Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino."
Chuck Wayne plays "Bernie's Tune" with the Mike Morreale Quartethe is almost like a saxophonist, exhibiting chromatic aspects and some of the flavor of early Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie: Bernie's Tune
For a guitarist to be able to play a guitar at the speed of a Charlie Parker lick is certainly appealing, but it is hard to doNix comments, "One school of thought is that you can try to play like the horn players. Another school of thought is that a guitar is a guitar, a sax is a sax. George Benson was talking about it a few years ago, [suggesting] using a different way of tuning [to do it]. A horn player has a better grasp of phrasing because they have to breathe. Hence they used to say guitar players don't know how to phrase, as well as that they don't know how to read!"
Nix points out the important factor of the overlapping of influence of earlier guitarists on each other: "A lot of early rock players in the '50s and early '60s were into real players. For example, (Elvis' guitarist) Scotty Moore was into Barney Kessel, who was into Charlie Christian. Chuck Berry was into Charlie Christian. But the '60s was more diverse. It was [just] either blues or jazz in the old days."
And T-Bone Walker: Nix says he had some of Walker's records. "I had old B&W (the Black And White label) 78s around the house of T-Bone. Seminal people. The traditions overlapped. There is a record of T-Bone and Charlie Christian doing a duet as kids."
"Cross-generational influence" applies to all jazz musicians, even to some names that may be surprising. Nix says, "Hanging out with Ornette Coleman, I would see him play a carbon copy of Charlie Parker, all the licks, but when he was being 'an artist,' he wouldn't play that. Jackson Krall told me once that Cecil Taylor could play like Bud Powell. [There was also] a book written by a guitarist who said that Monk could play like Art Tatum, but he wanted to play his angular style. Once Monk was listening to a playback and he said, 'It sounds like James P Johnson!'"
Nix spoke more about his "special" guitar influences, names not so "run of the mill" (if one could ever call Christian, Montgomery, etc. "run of the mill"). Of Pat Martino's excellent piece, "The Great Stream," he says "Yeah, I've heard that. He's amazing, he's amazing. The first I ever heard of him he was playing with (altoist) John Handy. He took Jerry Hahn's place in John Handy's band, in the 1960s. Then I started investigating some of his other recordings. I went to one of his clinics at the Guitar Centre on 14th Street about five years ago. He was explaining his approach to the fingerboard. It's all like geometry or somethingIt's all very geometric. He picks up the guitar like an engineer, you know? So it's amazing, but I could never think about the guitar that way."
As with the Chuck Wayne clip above, this clip of Martino playing "The Great Stream" live is extremely instructive. It is very well filmed, with plenty of attention to the guitarist's approach to the fretboard.
But he says "I've never thought of myself as being a techniciansome people do bothbe musicians and technicians. I practice the basic scales. I do them every day. [It gives you] more dexterity... if I don't do it every so often then my fingers getsomebody told me once, [it's good] if you can play all the places on the neck, but everybody's different. I have the fingerboard in my mind and in my ear." Some non-musicians may see playing scales as a childhood task, devoid of musicality, but Nix knows that a musician does not see it like that. "You can see a scale is like a melody, a parent or a primary melody, a root melody," he says.
There is a tune of Nix's, entitled "To Paris" (see below), where he sounds, in the riff figure at the beginning, a little like '40s bebop guitarist Tiny Grimes. Nix says, "A lot of people say that. I've had people tell me I sound like all sorts of people. I've had people tell me I sound like Alan Holdsworth, Jim Hall, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell. Everybody hears in different ways, but I was surprised that somebody said that. I mean, Tiny Grimes is a great player. There's nothing wrong... I just can't see the similarity! Sometimes you don't have any objectivity about what it is you're doing. It's hard to be totally objective about your own work.
"It's funny, I was listening to the radio earlier this evening. They were doing [a program on] John Cage. There's a John Cage festival coming up. At a certain point you have to get beyond wondering about whether what you are doing is good or badnot getting hung up about it."
Yet, later in "To Paris," you have the feeling of a subtle Charlie Christian being evoked.