Hank Mackie: "Pass"-ing Jazz Guitar to a New Generation

Craig M. Cortello By

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I don't think I know anybody that came up playing jazz guitar (for a span of roughly 30 years) in New Orleans that didn't study with him.
—Davy Mooney
Ensuring the continuity of the lessons and traditions from one generation to the next can be a delicate process. It often requires the care and sensitivities of someone with a unique balance of admirable qualities. With respect to the arts, it calls for someone who has both respect for the masters and an appreciation for the innovation of a new breed. It demands a thorough understanding of the traditional practices of old and enthusiasm for the evolution of the craft. It calls for the ability to convey the fragile balance between theory and inspiration. Perhaps most importantly, it requires a mentor who can introduce the lessons of the virtuoso and encourage talented youth to learn them as a foundation, yet achieving that end through infectious admiration and example rather than browbeating.

By all accounts, Hank Mackie possesses an abundance of all of those qualities.

Mackie was formerly the owner of The World of Strings, a small New Orleans guitar instruction studio in the area known as Lakeview for the better part of the latter quarter of the 20th century. At the end of a long dark hallway was an entrance that led to a narrow waiting area and 3 or 4 separate rooms no larger than your average master bedroom closet, a clandestine location reminiscent of a private detective's office from the film noir genre. It was there that Mackie and his colleagues displayed equal parts instruction, artistry, and patience for hundreds of aspiring musicians.

There are several influential artists who made substantial contributions to the advancement of jazz guitar from the Bebop era and beyond. One name seems to come up consistently, however, when guitarists who are grounded in the history of jazz discuss their influences—the man born Joseph Anthony Passalaqua and known as Joe Pass. His brilliance was integral in elevating jazz guitar to the level of featured showpiece, as Pass pioneered the ability to intertwine melody, chords, fill-in solo riffs, and bass lines, carrying tunes with or without the safety net of a combo. Hank Mackie, through instruction and performance, demonstrates the influence of the legend.

While listening recently to local clarinet virtuoso Tim Laughlin's Great Ballads... Past and Present, the 1999 album (one of six recordings on which the two collaborated) for which Mackie's guitar provided the sole accompaniment, I was reminded of how the late Mel Torme once described his relationship with pianist George Shearing. "Two people with one musical mind," said Torme. Mackie is perfectly in step with Laughlin throughout, the ideal complement—intertwining interesting textures with Laughlin's beautiful tones, yet never overbearing and respectful of the melody.

"Hank's playing is very much like his personality. He's very giving," Laughlin says, explaining why he sought to pursue Mackie to record the Ballads project, an album that was ambitious in its simplicity and can best be described as a musical conversation. "It was basically just about two instruments talking to each other and playing off one another," he added. "And I don't think anybody in town does it any better (than Mackie)."

"Another thing about Hank is his enthusiasm," he adds. "He's one of those (players) who's so secure with himself. When you hear him play, you understand why. If you put something in front of him, he's not going to feel strange about it because he's never played it. He'll be the first one to say, 'Let's do it or let's hear this.' That's sort of rare now."

At a young age, Laughlin first hired the elder Mackie to fill out his combo for a local hotel brunch gig that ran for several years, because he sought to tap into Hank's wealth of knowledge. "I had nothing to prove and everything to learn," says Laughlin. "He's very patient with his explanation and very clear. I learned a whole lot from him," adding emphasis to the latter sentence.

It will likely be Mackie's role in bridging the time continuum of jazz guitar from Joe Pass and others to the next generation of New Orleans guitar wizards, however, that may ultimately serve as his crowning achievement. And in this triumph are timeless lessons in effective education, both in the music realm and otherwise.

"If Hank took on a new student, he would ask the student what they were looking forward to learning, and it might be a lick from Whitesnake, or whatever," says Laughlin. "Hank would simply say let's hear it, he'd teach the kid the lick, and they'd start the lesson right after that. Rather than giving the kid a lecture, he did what the kid wanted and moved on."

I had the pleasure of speaking to a couple of Mackie's younger protégés recently. At the age of 25 and recently relocated to New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Davy Mooney is still in the process of establishing himself in the jazz world, yet he's built a great foundation. He recently placed third in the prestigious Thelonius Monk guitar competition in Washington, D.C., which was judged by an impressive panel of guitar giants including Stanley Jordan, John Pizzarelli, Pat Martino, and Bill Frisell. His journey included instruction under Mackie, at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), and in the University of New Orleans (UNO) jazz guitar combo under the direction of one of Mackie's most accomplished students, Steve Masakowski—a music instruction "trifecta" that defines the consummate roadmap for jazz guitar supremacy in New Orleans.

The first Virtuoso album (there were actually 4 separate albums and a live recording in the Virtuoso series) from Joe Pass is frequently referenced as the work that exemplifies how Joe Pass took jazz guitar to a new level. It's the album entitled, For Django, Joe's tribute to "gypsy jazz" master Django Reinhardt however, that Mackie passed to his promising students and that Mooney and others point to as the ultimate jazz guitar piece. "It's the definitive jazz guitar album. It's got everything," says Mooney.

In terms of Mackie's influence, he adds, "He can really break things down and get at the nuts and bolts of things. Jazz can be kind of mysterious. He just sort of demystified the whole thing. It's sort of like if you do what he says, you're going to sound good," says Mooney, echoing Laughlin's sentiments regarding Mackie's ability to simplify seemingly complex theories, a universal attribute of great educators.

On a more conceptual level, Mooney discussed Mackie's influence as well. "There are some guys that just kind of play a bunch of licks, like plug lick in here," says Mooney when describing the way Mackie discussed guitar players and their approach, "And other guys that play on a deeper level like Joe Pass and Tal Farlow." Mooney added that when Mackie discussed great players, he clearly conveyed to him that making that distinction was critical.

Mooney has released two CD's, 2002's In This Balance of Time, and the sequel one year later, Luckless Pedestrian. Both recordings showcased all original material, and he has his sights set on another CD of the same. Mooney also gained notoriety previously as a member of The Hot Club of New Orleans, a local band in the mold of the Reinhardt/Grappelli group of the late-30's that took France by storm. Todd Duke, another student of Mackie covered guitar duties in tandem with Mooney for the dynamic combo.

The affectionate manner in which Ted Ludwig speaks of Mackie's influence clearly demonstrates that Hank's guidance transcended music and affected him on a more personal level. Ludwig was the inaugural winner of the ASCAP/Louis Armstrong Foundation scholarship, which helped fund his graduate work at the University of New Orleans (UNO). He also provides guitar instruction for Mel Bay Publications. Ted is a native of St. Bernard parish which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and has relocated to Little Rock, AR, where he continues to play and teach frequently.

Ludwig sought Mackie for instruction in 1994 at the age of 20 at the suggestion of several musician friends. "Hank saved my life musically," says Ludwig. It was Mackie who persuaded Ted to stay in New Orleans and learn from the fraternity of young jazz guitarists that were feeding off each other's passion. "I knew I wanted to be a player, but I didn't know what direction to take. Hank helped me to clarify those things," he added.

Ludwig noted Joe Pass (and the aforementioned For Django album), Tal Farlow, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, and Pat Martino as influences that Mackie offered for his audible consumption, a musical diet that redirected him from rock and fusion toward jazz. "When he let me hear Joe Pass playing on the John Lewis tune 'Django,' I couldn't believe it," says Ludwig, recalling a breakthrough moment that turned him on to jazz. "I just said Oh, my God, this is it. This is what it's about, right here." He added that Mackie had hundreds of solos transcribed from when he was a kid that he shared with him.

"Hank was always a nuts and bolts (the exact term Mooney used) kind of a teacher. If you took what Hank gave you and took it to a job, it worked." Ludwig adds, "If I could sum it up with one sentence, he got in the trenches with the student," noting the propensity of some teachers to demonstrate a condescending attitude toward students. "He didn't sit up there on a higher level, look down at you and say OK, this is the thing you need to learn to get up here. He came down to your level and he brought you up. A lot of teachers shoot things at you—If you get it, you get it, if you don't, you don't," he added.

"Hank never was afraid to tell you things more than one time," says Ludwig. "When Hank was teaching, he let go of the fact that he was a great player. Hank always encouraged his better students to come out and sit in wherever he was playing," he added, offering further evidence of Mackie's self-assuredness and humility.

Ludwig also discussed Mackie's approach to assessing his students and providing a customized lesson plan. "Another thing that was truly amazing about Hank—All you had to do was play one song and he could find all of your weaknesses," said Ludwig. "He didn't just have a set curriculum that everybody worked on. He knew that every individual had strengths and weaknesses. He had a plan in mind to get you from point A to point B."

Mooney, Ludwig, and Duke need only look at the brilliance of the Mackie disciples that have gone before them to get a sense of the solidity of their foundation.

In mentoring innovator extraordinaire Phil deGruy, Mackie demonstrated his enthusiasm for the explorative nature of the exceptional musician. After studying briefly with legendary guitarist's guitarist Lenny Breau in the late 70's and early 80's, deGruy gained an appreciation for the use of guitar harmonics. At Mackie's suggestion, Phil commissioned luthier Jimmy Foster to create his first "Guitarp," a modified guitar instrument that employs 10 additional strings to create the harp-like sound and a unique hybrid of an instrument (deGruy's current version of the Guitarp was created by Ralph Novak). Listeners are blown away not only by the distinctive nature of the sounds that this instrument is capable of producing, but also of deGruy's mastery of it, as I was 20 years ago when I first heard Phil live.

If they held an Olympic competition for guitarists, deGruy would undoubtedly be the Decathlon champion. His skill sets are as diverse as his repertoire and his influences. His unique instrument serves as his playground, as he frolics through the land of arpeggios, bass lines, harmonics, picking, endless chord voicings, and an occasional single-note run with equal precision and dexterity. If accused of overstating deGruy's talents, I would simply offer the nearly nine minute "Chain Lightning/Wizard of Oz Medley" from his Hello Dali album that traverses the bluesy Steely Dan tune with nearly the entire soundtrack of the classic musical fantasy film as exhibit "A" in my defense.

Professional guitar players who hear Phil for the first time are often astounded by the relative anonymity of such a talent, but then again, Phil's exceptional skills and sound defy classification or apt description. The long overdue accolades are beginning to make deGruy less of an unknown, as his talents have caught the eye (and ear) of Stevie Vai, Charlie Hunter, and of publications such as Guitar Player, Downbeat, and JazzTimes. His latest critically acclaimed Just Duet CD attracted a host of talented and diverse players, including Mackie, Masakowski, and Hunter. As a result, deGruy is beginning to lose his grip on the title of "best kept secret in the jazz guitarist world."

Masakowski is best known for both his solo work and with the ensemble Astral Project. He studied at the Berklee College of Music and currently serves as an Associate Professor of Music at UNO. His bio lays out his impressive list of accomplishments. Masakowski has recorded several CD's as a solo artist and with Astral Project, and has been invited to perform on dozens of others. Two of his solo CD's were recorded for the prestigious Blue Note label, including Direct AXEcess, which his students speak of with great awe and admiration. A tour with vocalist Dianne Reeves included a Carnegie Hall performance. Mackie has clearly designated Masakowski as the heir to the throne of the "teacher you need to study with" title for directing promising jazz guitar prodigies in New Orleans. New Orleans jazz guitarists influenced by Mackie speak of Masakowski's playing, instruction, and listening skills with similar affinity.

In the autobiographical liner notes of Masakowski's tribute album simply entitled For Joe (Pass), Masakowski clearly delineates the moment that Pass and Mackie changed his life—"Some twenty-plus years ago, Hank Mackie gave one of his hot-shot, know-it-all guitar students a record that would have a humbling and seemingly life-altering affect! Well, I was that student, and the record was For Django by Joe Pass," he writes. Masakowski performs two original compositions that represent literal recognitions of his idol, and the cascading melody chords of "Pass Presence" and the bluesy dissonance of "I'll Pass" demonstrate reverence to the virtuoso and an impeccably played and heart-felt homage to his hero.

Bill Solley was trained classically and redirected toward jazz. He crosses genres seamlessly as he provides the magnificent complement for vocalist Kim Prevost, his wife and musical partner. The duo exhibits stunning chemistry musically and otherwise, an observation apparently shared by the BET Network when they honored Prevost and Solley with their 1999 Jazz Discovery Vocalist award, the first time the award was given to a duo.

The ability of the pair to devise fresh and innovative arrangements of songs that have been overworked by the masses is their forte. Solley struts a 7-string Foster guitar, a consistent preference of the New Orleans jazz player. His rhythmic and vibrant chordal accompaniments soften appropriately when Prevost invokes her haunting and earthy lower register tones that are reminiscent of Anita Baker or Cassandra Wilson, with a playful avidity.

In the liner notes of the Prevost/Solley album I Would Give All My Love, author Bill Milkowski states, "For some inexplicable reason, there seems to be an unusually high concentration of amazing guitarists in New Orleans." Perhaps this essay will provide clarification for such ruminations. The jazz guitar legacy emanating from and based in the New Orleans area is thriving, and Hank Mackie has his fingerprints all over it.

For roughly the last dozen years, Mackie has continued to teach at a small guitar shop in the suburb of New Orleans known as Metairie, Todd's Express Music. What has Hank Mackie meant to the evolution of jazz guitar and to the considerable history of jazz in New Orleans? Ted Ludwig offered his endearing assessment, "He's the father of jazz guitar in New Orleans." While the rightful owner of that title would appropriately come from the early part of the 20th century and the pioneering generation of New Orleans jazz, when Johnny St. Cyr, Lonnie Johnson, and others were establishing the 6-string as a jazz staple, one can understand the enthusiasm with which Ludwig and his colleagues speak of their mentor.

In a city so universally recognized for breeding talented wind instrument virtuosity, guitar could easily have become the forgotten instrument in the evolution of New Orleans jazz. Had there not been someone on the music scene over the last 4 decades with a sincere appreciation for the instrument, a style with its roots grounded in guitarists of the previous generation, and the skills and passion for delivering those lessons to eager and youthful students, such an outcome might have been inevitable. As Mooney said of Mackie, "I don't think I know anybody that came up playing jazz guitar (for a span of roughly 30 years) in New Orleans that didn't study with him."

Thanks to Hank Mackie's guiding hands, New Orleans will continue to be a World of Strings.

(Certain biographical information for this article was obtained from artist websites—Guitarp.com (deGruy), the University of New Orleans (Masakowski, Ludwig), KimPrevost.com (Solley), and DavyMooney.com (Mooney)).

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