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Vic Juris: Tension and Release

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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.

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