Whenever people write about Gene Bertoncini's music, the same words tend to appear: elegant, graceful, versatile. Lyrical. Master. Virtuoso. Writer Gene Lees called him "the Segovia of jazz," the perfect term for one who creates such poetry with the acoustic, nylon-stringed guitar. Still a busy performer, teacher, and clinician, Bertoncini has played in many styles and settings in his five-decade career, and swings in all of them. Following the 2004 release of Quiet Now
(Ambient), he has become increasingly admired for the crystalline beauty of his solo work. Bertoncini is an unusually modest musician, known for his gentle nature and open heart; this could explain the remarkable purity of his playing.
Bertoncini was kind enough to travel to my home for a recent interview, where we shared some laughs and lunch and a happy interlude in which he played my own classical guitar. We talked about his multifaceted career and the connections he draws between his music and his degree in architecture.
All About Jazz: All of your bios say pretty much the same thing: you were born in the Bronx, showed talent very early, performed on TV at 16, spent time in the service, and have played virtually everything with just about everybody. But I was curious about a comment you made: that you turned to architecture because you were a "baseball-and-apple-pie kid." Could you expand on that?
Gene Bertoncini: When I was playing as a kid, I noticed that the jazz musicians were smoking funny cigarettes, and doing funny things with women; it didn't seem right. I played in a club where there were fights because someone would hit on somebody else's girlfriend, and the chef would come out of the kitchen with a meat cleaver...
GB: In the Bronx, you know. So it seemed like possibly a dangerous thing to get into, not really a spiritually great field to be in. Being raised in a Catholic school, that kind of stuff turned me off.
AAJ: Makes sense.
GB: In high school, I spoke to my adviser about what to do with my life. We had taken some kind of geometrical exams, and he said, well, you're really great at this. I used to copy the plans in the Real Estate section of the New York Times 'cause I loved the drafting, tools, tracing paper, T squarethe whole thing was very appealing to me. I thought I'd like to be a draftsman or somewhere in construction, since I used to work around the house with my dad, and we built so many things. I wanted to do a little better than a bricklayer, but I liked the area, and I got 100 on those tests analyzing forms. The adviser put all those things together, and said, "Why not study architecture at Notre Dame?" So, OK. In those days, a great letter of recommendation could get you into that school. Today you have to be the president of your high school class, a football hero...
AAJ: ...or run an Internet company from your garage.
GB: So I was accepted, and my folks really struggled, but my dad always wanted to see me get a college education. It was a big Italian thing. They got me through; they didn't have a lot of money at all, but somehow they did it. Of course the tuition was maybe 5000 a year; now, nobody can put a kid through college. That was the continuation of my apple pie: going to college and studying architecture. But I got right into music there: I began as the guitar soloist with the Notre Dame Concert band. I played clarinet in the marching band and played at all the dancesfirst with the band that was there, then with my own band.
AAJ: I didn't know you played the clarinet.
GB: Yeah, since high school. Anyway, when I first went to Notre Dame I noticed all these big guys walking around and thought, Jeez, I'm gonna look like that when I get out of here? Wow, this is great! They must do things to you... But it was just the football team.
AAJ: Speaking of big guys, another thing that intrigued me in your biography is that you were a Marine. Somehow I can't picture you as a leatherneck.
GB: What the f*** do you mean??
AAJ: [laughter] Well, OK, now I can see it better.
GB: In those days, we had the draft. I knew I had to do something; I didn't want to be drafted for two years. My first choice was the Air Force Reserves, but those spots were all taken, so I thought I'd try the Marine Corps Reserves, and they accepted me. My tour of duty was six months' active duty at Parris Island and subsequent training, then five years of going one weekend every month. But I had to go through basic Marine Corps training. I feel proud enough of that to say I was a Marine, although I didn't see any active duty.
AAJ: Semper fi!
GB: Yeah. All that stuff. You never know you can do those kinds of thingsclimb a ladder, then climb down a rope over water. I also knew for the first time what it meant to really be indoctrinated, to follow orders. After a couple of weeks with the drill instructor, boy, you just did it. You just jumped. I can see how that could be necessary during combat: "Bertoncini, go over there!" "No, no, noget somebody else!"
AAJ: In discussing your music, people often speculate about how your architect training informs your playing. There's another great musician who was also into architecture, and that was Jobim.
AAJ: Apparently he was always good at drawing, so when he got married and needed to make some reliable money, he took the entrance exams for architecture school. But he only studied a year before going back to music.
GB: Wow, that's wonderful! I didn't know that. I owe you for this. We met backstage once. Did he ever talk about being influenced by architecture?
AAJ: Not that I know of, but Goethe once said that architecture was "frozen music." What's your take on the connection?
GB: In architecture, you're analyzing a couple of things: artistic balance, balance in design and what constitutes good design, and the needs of people. When designing a structure of any kind you have to be concerned about what's going to be happening inside the structure, and how it's going to make life better for the people in it, whether in a residential or commercial situation. And that opens up all kinds of sensitivities in you. This awareness can easily translate into your music: it becomes a combination of satisfying yourself and being concerned with the needs of the listener.
I'm always thinking about how my music will affect peopleI can't wait to play this for somebody, because I think it's going to make them feel good. Then there's the idea of making a presentation, because an architect always has to present a completed concept for a client. The whole concept is there on paper. I believe very much that this has influenced my sense of arranging: I present a concept for each tune I play, pretty much, that I've thought about. There's a beginning and ending and a middle; there's balance, you know, in a harmonic sense, and in a linear sense, like looking at the elevation of a building.
That's one of the reasons why I work out a lot of things on the guitar. It's not just learning the notes, or how to improvise, it's working out arrangements to improvise from. There are things I just play off the top of my head, but for the most part, I want to have a really great concept for each thing I play.
AAJ: You can hear that, especially in your solo albums [Quiet Now and Body and Soul (Ambient, 1999)]. Then there's another aspect of the architect analogy: you wouldn't build a contemporary house with a lot of froufrou on it.
AAJ: Well, there's no froufrou in your music, either, no gratuitous ornamentationeverything is part of the whole, organic to the whole. I think that applies to Jobim as well.
GB: Very few of his things are improvised, too, because he's so sure of everything he's playing. When he goes out and does a concert, you feel that everything is worked out, with complete lineshe's an arranger, from start to finish. And maybe to a flaw... but I wouldn't say that about him, since all you have to do is play his songs, and he's way ahead of the game.
AAJ: They always sound through-composed.
GB: They really are. What's so great about the guitar... it's got that potential of being a vehicle for both composition and arranging, because the whole thing is there in your hands. I feel that my guitar is my own little orchestra.
AAJ: I was trying to characterize your music and came up with the word "Brajazzical," for Brazilian and jazz and classical. Does that work for you?
GB: I don't feel like I'm that much of a Brazilian specialist. I feel like if you look at a sonogram of a pregnant Brazilian woman, there's a baby and a guitar. Those guysthere are so many great players: Romero [Lubambo], Paul Meyers...
AAJ: Baden Powell...
GB: Oscar Castro-Neves...
AAJ: Marco Pereira, Rafael Rabello...
GB: [Paul] Bellinati. I really love the music, and I try my best to play it. I'm always working on it. I've heard Brazilian players say that they love the way I play it, and I recorded with Luis Bonfa [Non-stop to Brazil (Chesky, 1989)]. Joao Gilberto used to borrow my guitarI learned how to play bossa nova right from him.
AAJ: Wow, that's right from the source, since Gilberto was one of the founders of bossa nova.
GB: He was really the guy who brought Jobim's music to life, to the world. When he sings and plays the guitar, the clarity is so...amazing. He's just the best player there is.
AAJ: And his time...nobody has quite the same phrasing as he does. He's always floating ahead or behind.
GB: That's the nature of that music; it's so clear when he does it. He's so fussy about the sound; a few times I came down when he was working, and he wanted me to make sure that certain things were happening. He would say, too much bass, too much basshe was extremely sensitive.
AAJ: He's an interesting guy, for sure. Monica Getz once told me that Joao came for dinner one night, and stayed for two years.
GB: Joao was doing a solo concert at Carnegie Hall. And we were all waiting for Joao, you know, and no Joao, no Joao. Finally George Wein comes out and says Joao's caught in traffic. But the guy sitting next to mea big music producersaid, "He's next door at the Parker Meridian. Something's wrong. I have to go over and get him out." So meantime, George tells the audience to take a break. We all had coffee, the guy went to get him, and Joao finally makes his appearance on stage. He was at least an hour lateat Carnegie Hall!but then he played an hour and a half straight. It was absolutely beautiful.
AAJ: What were your biggest influences?
GB: When we were kids, my brother and I used to look forward to the live broadcasts of Benny Goodman. My folks are from Italythere's no reason we should be listening to jazz. I don't know how it happened, but I consider it a great gift to both of us. So that was probably the earliest influence: hearing that swing, getting the beat. Later on, it was the George Shearing Quintet, and Chuck Wayne, who became my teacher. My first guitar teacher was Johnny Smith; his recordings were a tremendous inspiration to me. A little later on, it was Tal FarlowI wore out Tal's recordsand Barney Kessel, his album with Shelly Manne. I also loved the piano guys in those days, like Andre Previn. They swung so hardShelly Manne and LeRoy Vinnegar or Ray Brown. Oscar Peterson: I loved that trio, saw them in person at the London House in Chicago. There's that Barney Kessel album with Julie London [Julie is Her Name (EMI America, 1955)].
I loved the way the guitar was used in the Les Brown band, how it was voiced with the horns. My older brother also influenced me with the tunes he played on the accordionjazz accordionhe knew all the tunes. I listened to Bill Evans a bit, and vocal albums, like the Hi-Los.
AAJ: All those moving internal linesthat's kind of what you do. How did you get started on the classical side of things?
GB: Chuck Wayne told me to listen to the recording of Julian Bream, and the "Pavane" by Ravel changed my life altogether. The Art of Julian Bream [RCA, 1959] is a particularly great record. It's got the "Pavane" on it, and the [Lennox] Berkeley sonatinaI was so taken with that. I started practicing classical guitar just about the time when the bossa nova hit. Joao was borrowing my guitar, I was playing the classical repertoire, and all these things kind of came together.
I was doing studio work at the time, and I got a call to play on a big album by Ahmad Jamal; they wanted somebody to play a bossa nova kind of thing. I just listened to Joao's Corcovado record over and over, and went to Rudy Van Gelder's studio. There was an orchestraRichard Evans was the conductor and arrangerand Ahmad Jamal was the soloist. It was his album. I had a lot of courage in those days.
AAJ: Do you remember the name of it?
GB: Macanudo (Argo Records, 1962). When you come up in the music business, you start getting calls for studio things. There was Sebesky, and all of a sudden I'm doing an album with Hubert Laws, and then a second one. I walk into another studio and there's Ron Carter, Grady Tate and Hank Jones and Nancy Wilson. That was a great album, which we did in two days. And then it's another studio, and you're doing a film, Peggy Sue Gets Married (1986). Or you're doing all of Burt Bacharach's recordings.
AAJ: You were on those?
GB: Most of them, yeah. I did the recordings after "[Do You Know the Way to] San Jose." I was playing rhythm stuff, nylon string. There were three guitar players: Jay Berliner, Art Ryerson, and me. And I did all of Tony Bennett's records in the 70s. I was getting a lot of calls as a good all-around player...Columbia Studios, with a big orchestra; Johnny Mandel conducted a lot of dates. There were all those soloists in the orchestra too: George Duvivier, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Phil Woods. So many great players.
AAJ: You've done television too, yes?
GB: That Was the Week That Was [the American version of the BBC satire, which ran from January 1964 to May 1965]. The Tonight Show for two years. The [Merv] Griffin show before that.
AAJ: You were even in the Buddy Rich band at one time.
GB: Yeah, I was in Buddy's Quintet. Just like Marine Corps training.
AAJ: I bet. "Do this, Bertoncini!!"
GB: It was more like, "Why did you that?" After every set, there was a meeting, with criticisms. But he treated me good. Mike Manieri was the vibraphonist. I just saw him the other day.
AAJ: What's been the biggest frustration in your career?
GB: I'd like to be a better jazz player as a soloist, playing alone. I think the pressure of playing alone doesn't allow me the freedom to improvise more, and it's frustrating not to be able to do it as well as I'd like to. I'm trying to get better at doing all of it at the same time. If there's a rhythm section playing, you can take your time... you should be able to do that, even though you're doing solo.
AAJ: That sounds like the opposite of carefully crafting an arrangement.
GB: It is, but I'd like to do that part of it better. You know, the arrangements do stand on their own, and I'm proud of them, but I'm still frustrated with the fact that I'm too careful, and I think it's partly psychological. Actually, I'm going to a clinic, giving myself a birthday present: there's this guy who runs a workshop in Wisconsin. I met him on one of my tours. He does a thing called "Getting in the Zone." Sometimes you've got the energy flowing, and some person will come in, and you feel a need to impress that person, and there goes your whole groove.
AAJ: It's hard to stay in the zone; it's not a constant state anyway, by definition.
GB: Yeah, but there are some guys who play no matter what. When you ask about frustration, that's part of what I'm talking about: the inability to stay in the zone.
AAJ: I'd be curious to know if there's a magic way to stay there.
GB: It's all about the emotions. One of the first things I did early in life was take singing lessons, and the first thing the teacher put in front of me was a Puccini aria. I was singing those arias, and I went to my first opera ever, at the old Met. "La Boheme." So I'm there in the balcony, and I'm beginning to be so moved by this that I had to get up and find a place where I could openly weep. It was so powerful. I felt it was great to be moved like that, and thought, if you can get in touch with that singer inside of you, and then translate that feeling onto the instrument... Sometimes we learn things on the instrument where we don't singwe learn technically, or analyticallybut to be able to really sing when you play...
AAJ: Not just in the vocal sense, but to be that expressive?
GB: Yes. But sometimes you do that vocal thing too. I tell my students to sing a little something, and then try to play exactly what they sang. The closer it gets, the more likely you are to be in touch with the notes you play, and when you're in touch with the notes you play, they're gonna be in the right spot.
AAJ: And people are going to react to them. I wanted to ask about your happiest career memories. You've had such wonderful times with such a variety of great players.
GB: That's true. It's such a joy to play music in all aspects of it. I feel very lucky about that. And some of the experiences, like being in the Tony Bennett special, doing those recordings, playing into a microphone and hearing it placed somewhere inside the orchestra...being a part of film and record dates and jingles, eventhose are fun, too. It was a busy time in the studios. It's totally dead now, in New York.
AAJ: Why is that?
GB: I think a lot of them are being done at home, with synthesizers. Stuff like that. But recently I got a lot of joy performing for Marilyn and Alan Bergman. The greatest lyrics ever written, and the nicest people.
AAJ: I'd love to meet them someday. Whenever there's a lyric that makes me sit up, it's either theirs or Johnny Mercer's.
GB: "How do you lose yourself to someone/and never lose your way?"
AAJ: "How do you keep the music playing?" is a very good question. It's wisdom, not just poetry, and it sits on the music so beautifully.
GB: "The Summer Knows": "She takes her summer time/and twists the moon around her little finger"aah.
AAJ: I hear you have a new CD coming out, with a string quartet.
GB: Yes, Concerti. They're supposed to be manufacturing it right now.
AAJ: Do tell.
GB: I'm really happy with it. One of the best parts is that I'm playing some great jazz on it, with Dave [Finck] really kicking me in the butt. It's just me and Dave and a string quartet. I picked Dave because he's so strong and creative and he's on a lot of Brazilian dates, and there's no drummer...
AAJ: So you needed a really good pulse. How did that work, doing jazz with a string quartet?
GB: A lot of my arrangements are for solo guitar, and the arrangers wrote around that stuff. Some of it is written, like "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," where I play a solo thing in front of that. A guy named Dave Rivello wrote "Every Time We Say Goodbye"it's a beautiful thing he wrote for me up in Eastman [School of Music], originally for a chamber music ensemble. Mike Paterson did backgrounds for "East of the Sun," and an arrangement of the Rodrigo slow movement [aka "Concierto de Aranjuez"]. I used to do that with (bassist) Mike Moore, just guitar and bass. And I did the Chopin again, the one that goes into "Insensatez" [Prelude in E minor], in kind of a Claus Ogerman setting. "Invitation" is on there too, as a bossa nova. Great song.
AAJ: So many jazz players dream about playing with strings; there's something about it that's the ultimate legitimizer. And aren't you playing with an orchestra soon?
GB: Yeah: April 26  with the Rochester, Minnesota Symphony Orchestra. I'm playing the Rodrigo, "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," "Every Time We Say Goodbye," and the Chopin. All of those, I think.
AAJ: One more question. I like to leave the last one for free space: anything you want like to say, any pet peeve or philosophy. Whatever you like.
GB: Let me see... I love the fact that the guitar is a warm instrument, and I would hope that the beauty that comes out of the guitar would in some way beautify the world... and that people would take the time to listen. There aren't a lot of people who put much time into listening these daysin general, they're looking at music a lot more than they're listening to it. They don't know how to be contemplative anymore, or meditative...after all, you have to check your e-mail, your cell phone, your telephone...
AAJ: We're afraid to be out of touch for a nanosecond. And if you're in a car with children, they must have a video, because they can't be allowed to daydream...
GB: ...or look out the window...
AAJ: ...or notice the seasons...
GB: So I hope that the music we do will enhance life.
AAJ: The way you do it, Gene, it certainly does. So keep it coming, will ya?
On May 3, 2008, the Classical Guitar Society of New York held a tribute concert to Gene Bertoncini, featuring performances by maestros Jorge Morel, Frederic Hand, and Dennis Koster, and several duets, including one between Gene and Paul Myers on "Chega de Saudade." The evening was like an extended family gathering, relaxed and warm and filled with laughter, with Gene telling one of his famous jokes. The guitarists explained why they admired and were influenced by Gene's harmonic vision and his ability to bridge the gap between classical, jazz, and Brazilian musical styles. "His voicings are a thing of wonderment," said the evening's host, conductor Scott Jackson Wiley. Basking in the affection pouring from both the stage and the audience, Gene said, "I'm a lucky guy."
Gene Bertoncini, Quiet Now (Ambient Records, 2004)
Gene Bertoncini/Frank Vignola, Meeting of the Grooves(Azica, 2002)
Gene Bertoncini, Body and Soul (Ambient Records, 1999)
Gene Bertoncini, Gene Bertoncini with Bill Charlap and Sean Smith (Chiaroscuro, 1998)
Gene Bertoncini, Jobim: Someone To Light Up My Life, (Chiaroscuro, 1995)
Gene Bertoncini/Michael Moore, Two in Time (Chiaroscuro, 1989)
Top Two Photos: Michael G. Stewart
Bottom Photo: Dr. Judith Schlesinger