Jimmy Bruno's stature as one of jazz's top hard bop guitarist is undisputed. His career as a musician and educator warrants the numerous times that he has been interviewed at All About Jazz. In this interview with AAJ contributor Edward Zucker, Bruno discusses his current CD, Maplewood Avenue (Affiliated Artists, LLC, 2007), the Jimmy Bruno Guitar Institute, carpal tunnel surgery and a near carjacking. He also offers his uncensored opinion on numerous other topics.
All About Jazz: When did you first notice, and what were the symptoms of, carpal tunnel syndrome?
Jimmy Bruno: I did not know what it was at first. It was about ten years ago, I was getting a tingling, and it started in the left hand, when I was standing up playing. It did not affect my ability to move my fingers but it gradually got worse. The next stage was about five years ago, when my fingers started falling asleep. That was when I started to get worried. Then it started to go to the right hand, the same thing. This would happen toward the end or middle of the night of playing. Then I started to notice I would play three bars and my hand was numb a bit; I could always move my fingers which was strange, because it didn't affect my playing. It became painful, and would wake me up at night. Then I would play three bars, and would get this awful pain in my hands.
That is when I went to the doctor; I went to Dr. Klein, who is a guitarist, a good friend of mine. He set up appointments for me, two of his friends that are hand specialists, and one was a specialist in arthritis. They wanted to make sure it was not arthritis or a pinched nerve. They confirmed that it was carpal tunnel through a test, where they put needles in your hands and shock you with an electric current down your arm, which goes into a laptop. The needles were in my hand and it measured the speed from the electric current and how long it took to go down there. The carpal tunnel on the left hand was 90% blocked and right hand was not too bad, like 60%. The next step was going in for minor surgery. To get an appointment can take six to seven months. I went to Dr. Thoder, he saw me right away, and I had the surgery a few days later. It is a fifteen-minute surgery and it is nothing. You cannot see the scar anymore.
While he was in there, he also noticed that I had a trigger finger and he fixed that as well. The procedure took fifteen minutes. I had a cast for about six weeks and that was a drag. Prior to the surgery, when I was in the process of being diagnosed, the specialist advised that I not play for a little until they knew what it was. I lost a total of about six months. After the surgery, I was in a cast for about six weeks. When I started to play the guitar again, it was fine. I feel like I have a new left hand.
AAJ: Did the surgery affect your playing style?
JB: No, it did not. The odd thing is that it went away in the right hand. They told me that it happens from time to time and they do not know why but it is not unusual for it to go away.
AAJ: Did you speak to any other musicians; I remember Dena DeRose had something similar a few years ago.
JB: I was talking to other musicians that had various hand problems, and people on the internet were emailing me, but I quickly realized that that is the worst thing that you can do because they may not have had the same thing as you. Carpal tunnel is different for everyone. If I was not a guitarist, it may not have mattered. To tell you the truth, I was pretty disgusted with the whole music business anyway. So I thought, "This is great, now I am out." It sounds like a sick thing to say, but at that point I was so disgusted with the business that I did not give a shit.
AAJ: Do you remember the exact date of the surgery?
JB: February 14, 2008, will be two years.
Carjacking and Guns
AAJ: What other interests do you have outside of jazz? What path do you think you would have pursued if the surgery did not work, if you could not play again?
JB: I was planning to buy a gun range. I like to shoot competitively. I shoot paper; I do not kill anything and have no desire to do so. In a roundabout way, I was introduced to that sport, competition shooting. I was in negotiations with a local range. Either that or go into photography which is another hobby of mine that I love doing
AAJ: Photography I understand, but you have to explain to me how you make the transition from jazz musician to gun range owner.
JB: I was carjacked one Friday night. The carjackers did not get the car and I escaped.
AAJ: When and where did this occur?
JB: 30th Street train station in Philadelphia, about three years ago. It was frightening; I have been afraid before, but this was wow, you could die and I came close. I had just bought a brand new Mercedes-Benz, it was the second day I had the car, and I took it to work on a Friday night. Two cars pulled up next to me and several guys got out and approached my car with tire irons in their hands and they were about to smash the front windshield. I just hit the gas and somehow managed not to hit anyone. I got on the highway, and I was doing a hundred miles an hour, and I could not take my foot off the accelerator, it was the adrenaline. My car was swerving all over the highway, I could not steer and then I saw my exit and I somehow I slowed down until I could get off the highway.
When I came home, I drank half a bottle of scotch. My wife said that I needed to call the police. I told my wife that that I could not even walk or talk, and I could not call the police. Something like that stays with you; it started to eat at me. Every time I came to a stop sign, I would look around, so I decided I needed to get a gun. I went to a gun range in Bucks County, PA. There I met this great guy, Ed Hartzell. If you do not know about guns, they can be very intimidating, and I did not know anything. At the range, I said I wanted to buy a gun. Ed asked, "Why do you want a gun?" He finally agreed to sell me a gun, but insisted he teach me how to use the gun.
I bought a Glock 19, and I brought it home, but did not want to tell my wife since she is very anti-gun. I am looking at the gun and the ammo, and I am scared to death of the gun. I started thinking, what did I do, and I went back to the gun store several days later and said, "You need to show me how to shoot this thing." Until then, I was scared to death of guns. If there were a gun in the room, I would get as far from the thing as possible. I took numerous lessons and began to notice improvement; it takes a ton of practice, like anything else. It is also an expensive hobby.
From there I obtained a permit to carry, once I was sure that I would not shoot myself in the foot. The more lessons I took, the more I got into the sport of competitive shooting. Nowadays, I do not think much about the carjacking, or needing a gun for self-defense. It is just nice to know that if someone ever broke into my house, I would know how to use a gun. I was amazed at how much is involved in owning a gun, and the responsibility, so I would not recommend it to everyone.
I think everyone should know how to shoot a gun and protect himself or herself. If you own a gun, you cannot just put it in a drawer and forget about it, you do have to know how to shoot it and know what you are doing. The minute those skills go away, then a gun becomes dangerous. For me it is a great hobby, I enjoy the competition, and practicing. There are tons of details, and if this was an interview for a gun magazine, we could go on forever.
The New CD
AAJ: Now you have a new CD out, but before that you were with Concord. What happened to the association with Concord Records?
JB: Concord kept getting bigger and bigger, they felt the need to get higher profile artists. I think they had some stuff with Barry Manilow, Ray Charles, somewhat jazz-oriented. Concord will always put out quality music. The two people that run itJohn Burk and Glen Barroslove music; they are not suits that count numbers. Unfortunately, with the company growing, you have to answer to a bunch of people with suits, I imagine.
I was planning the Jimmy Bruno solo record, and then I was talking to Bill Bay at one of the conventions somewhere and he said he wanted to start a label. I had already recorded the solo CD. He was starting the label and had money for the ads. I felt Concord is going to do what they are going to do. I know that they were not going to concentrate on spending a ton of money on promoting this CD although they have always done well by me. If not for them, I would not be talking to Bill Bay.
I mentioned it to Concord and they said it could be a good thing for me. I am friends with the people at Concord and recorded with John Burke for fifteen years. He said, "You should jump on this because he is going to take out a plenty of ads," which he did. It was wonderful exposure for Bill Bay and me, so I did that for him, and I am sure I will record something for Concord again. Through this person David Butler, he said that the industry was moving toward the internet, so we did the Maplewood CD and we started our record label.
AAJ: You have a new management, Affiliated Artists and your new release is your thirteenth if I am correct.
JB: Yes, the thirteenth or fourteenth CD.
AAJ: The new CD Maplewood Avenue was recorded at your house and engineered by you?
JB: Yes and I mastered it, and did everything.
AAJ: Can you describe the creative process for the CD?
JB: Well, it started with bassist Jeff Pedraz and vibraphonist Tony Miceli. We were just going to get together to play, and I wanted to see if I could record. I did the solo CD, that was somewhat easy. Now I just wanted to see if I could record more than just me. It also was just a test, plus they like to play, it was a good chance for us to get together and play. We came to my house, set up all the gear, and just played the tunes, nothing special, just standards and other stuff.
We would record maybe once or twice a week. I would experiment with the mics and all the gear, mixing and mastering it and things like that. While we were doing this, Tony came by with an original tune, "PA Turnpike," that is a takeoff on the changes from "On Green Dolphin Street." We played with that for awhile; put it in a few keys during the solos. It is odd because, while we were learning the tune and Tony was explaining the tune, that when it came time to record it, I did not turn on any of the outboard gear. I did not do anything, just hit record.
When we listened to the playback, it just sounded terrific. I was thinking, "What did I do different?" I did not EQ, or do anything. When we recorded it, I put a little reverb on the guitar that was it. I thought, man, there is just something neat about this sound, it reminded of the old things recorded in the '60s and stuff like that. We found a way to record it by doing nothing; we just found the right mics. When I say nothing, I mean no processing and no EQ. I was mixing every night. Meanwhile, Jeff and Tony were at home writing tunes. By the time it was done, I only had time to write one tune, "Maplewood Avenue."
The CD was done before we knew it. I mixed it, and then I had to learn about mastering. Mastering the CD took several months and several tries until I could get it the way I wanted it to sound. I came back to the same idea, to do as little as possible. I wanted it to sound as if someone was sitting in the room as we recorded it. The last studio record I did was Midnight Blue (Concord, 2002); that was high tech and electronic. I wanted to do something completely the opposite this time and it just sounded so natural to us, that we decided to do very little to it.
AAJ: So how did the finished product compare to how you envisioned it during the recording process?
JB: Oh, it came out much better that I thought.
AAJ: On the CD, it is just you, vibes and a bass, how did you decide on that instrumentation?
JB: It was always in the back of my mind, I had always wanted to do a record like that at some point. It was not planned for this CD, but I did not have the mics for drums, and I knew that recording drums is a whole other thing to learn. Recording drums is a study in and of itself; especially if you have never done it before. I decided that maybe I would learn how to record drums later, and I did not have the proper mics for drums. That is how it turned into this; it was an accident. I always wanted to do this, Red Norvo came to mind, those types of records. The next CD will have drums.
AAJ: The CD contains all original compositions, was that deliberate or just the way it shook out?
JB: It was a conscious decision because I did not want to rework a bunch of standards, although there is plenty yet to be done with standards. No one has reached the end of what you can do with those tunes and there is nothing old-fashioned about them. I can pretty much turn on the radio and hear some great soloists doing something with changes that every jazz musician has heard and played a hundred times and there are still new ways to navigate the tunes. Having not done a record of all originals in a while, it seemed like a good idea and I am glad I did it. Additionally, we had the material; we had a ton of original tunes which we were writing and playing, and the newer tunes just sounded better.
Philadelphia's Jazz Scene
AAJ: All the musicians on the CD are/were based in Philadelphia. Philadelphia recently had one club close (Zanzibar Blue) and another club was sold (Ortlieb's). As a Philly musician what are your thoughts on the state of jazz in Philly? Especially since there are, only two clubs remaining that have jazz nightly (Ortlieb's and Chris' Jazz Café).
JB: I think it is good and bad. It is up to Chris' Jazz Café to set the standard in Philly. If they handle it right, they can be a premier jazz club. It is very difficult to own a jazz club. People think that owners are just raking in the money, and they are not. Owners struggle to keep a place open and are hesitant to make some major changes, and I understand that. Clubs should have a policy to keep the noise down. I think this would be a perfect time to up that ante. They can be bringing some major acts, as an example, they have Pat Martino coming in around Christmas. Just establish a kind of New York listening vibe. I think the owners have a good chance to do that, they would set themselves apart, that would also set the standard for any future club that would open in Philly.
Many serious jazz listeners are put off by the noise level in an Ortlieb's or Chris' Jazz Café. Most people that come to see me also travel to New York to see a Chick Corea or a Joe Lovano. Some of my fans will not come to Chris' Jazz Café to see me because of the noise. I think the true jazz fans will come to Chris' Jazz Café if the noise level is addressed. The music there is a real bargain, some acts that you see in New York for a $50.00 cover, you can see at Chris for a $15.00 or $20.00 cover.
With some of the acts they are now drawing, they would have a line outside the door and they could turn the room over two or three times, the way clubs do in New York. That is a decision the owners need to make. The way they doing business now, the way they are handling the entertainment, they are very, very successful. The club is always crowded, they are making a few bucks, but not getting rich and that is all you can expect from a jazz club. The food is great, the owners Glenn Gerber and Mark DeNinno are good friends, and Al McMahon, the manager, does a great job booking the talent. I think that is something they need to decide.
I will always go back there and play, but it is a sad state for Philly. It does not help Chris' Jazz Café that they are the only one; it actually helps if there is a scene. The jazz scene could just fade away if that is the only club, the scene could just go kaput. I do not think that will happen, at least I hope not. In the 1970s there was place called Skewers, in the bottom of a hotel in Rittenhouse Square, and that was the only jazz club in Philly. Then I left Philly and went to Las Vegas, and when I returned several years later, there were seven or eight jazz clubs in Philly. I hope that this is just one of those down periods. Musicians need a place to play.
Jimmy Bruno Guitar Institute
AAJ: You were one of the first musicians that can I remember to have a website, and you sold your CDs on the site. How did it come about that you embraced the technology so early in the game?
JB: Through [AAJ publisher] Mike Ricci, believe it or not. He had just started All About Jazz, and I do not think it was called All About Jazz at that time.
AAJ: Do you remember what year that happened?
JB: You would have to speak with Mike for the exact year. When he first told me about the internet and showed me what was there, I looked around the 'net for a bit. Then I told Mike he was nuts, the internet would never catch on, there is nothing but garbage out there. I love it when this shit comes back to bite me. If there is a word that is worse than wrong, that is what I was. I mean I was way past wrong! He would call me with, "I need pictures, and I need this or that." He became annoying to me, all this web site crap.
I have him to thank for my site. It all grew so fast and I was saying, "Wow, Mike you were right." Then he was the one who became so busy, because his site became so busy that he did not have the time to maintain my site, and the situation was reversed. I was calling him asking, "Mike can you put this or that up on my site," and I am sure I drove him crazy. Eventually I started maintaining my site; it must have been over sixteen years ago. The internet became invaluable; I realized I could teach on the 'net, in a rudimentary way, back in the day.
AAJ: How did you become involved in jazz education on the internet?
JB: Someone asked me for a lesson, and they sent me a cassette tape. I answered in an email, using a program called Encore. Then I realized that I could teach a student who was living in Australia. Other programs came along including chat rooms, i-chat and program where you were able go online with video cameras, so I did that for a while and gave people lessons. The problem was you had set a time, and could only do one-on-one lessons.
I have a friend, David Butler, who is a retired AOL executive, who devised an idea for an online school. He is a very brilliant guy, and he is also a good guitarist. I had met him many years ago. He has always been a good friend, and he heard about the hand surgery, and got in touch with me. It was his idea about trying to get me back into my career. I always loved the music, it was always fun. He had a hard time talking me into it, but I thought I would give it a shot. That is how we got into the internet thing and we started a record label called Affiliated Artists. He talked me into reinventing myself a little bit.
We realized that the way I was giving lessons only allowed for one person per hour, so we brainstormed and came up with the idea for Jimmy Bruno Guitar Institute. All I could provide was the content; David organized the site, knew about the technology that was available. His wife Patricia handled the business and financial end, which was my good fortune, because I need someone like that. Through his knowledge, we could make the site very easy to use. The three of us put in thousands of hours in developing the site, and David invested of his personal savings in purchasing the gear. We really did not know what was going to happen, there were no guarantees when we put up the site.
The site was not complete at that point; we did not have the part where we could accept credit cards. It was just a demo and somehow people found little holes in the site. Somehow, about fifty people found their way into the site and tried to submit credit cards. One person had his credit card processed; we had to email him and refund his money, letting him know we were not ready. When we finally did open the response was overwhelming, we had to get more bandwidth and bigger server space. We were slammed; we had to hire more people.
AAJ: How many people now work at the JBGI?
JB: Right now, we have about ten employees at the JBGI.
AAJ: Can you describe how you and the students communicate, what is the process?
JB: What I wanted to do was make it as close to a private lesson as I could. Here is everyone's problem starting out with any guitar lesson: Students cannot connect the sounds to their fingers, whatever their level of ability is, that is the biggest issue.
AAJ: What do you mean by connecting the sounds to their fingers?
JB: If you look at a piano, all the notes are fixed; they are all in the same place. A pianist has one finger for middle C. If he sees that note on a piece of paper it is always there, it does not move. When you do that to jazz, and a piano is visual, any player who has been playing for any reasonable length of time, say five years, has been looking at that picture for five years. Eventually, if he is not thinking about it, the picture he sees, lets say an E flat and that black note that begins a C chord has a certain sound, a blues sound. A pianist can develop some licks around that, and if he goes to another octave, there it is again, not a new finger. Without consciously doing it, there is a connection between the sound, the pianist finger and what he sees.
The way I have always taught is that there are these five shapes, there are five pianos on the guitar. The first part on the Institute is these five shapes and the exercises. There is also an introductory course that explains my theory to jazz, not the book or academic theory. I feel those academic ideas and methods, with scales and modes, they have been around for a very long time and I do not think that that is the best way to teach. In fact, I know it is not the best way to teach, because I could not make music that way. I learned to make music by playing with other musicians. I have spoken with other musicians and they have learned by ear; of course, these were older school musicians.
This was true since I was a child, nobody had any descriptions, I learned more that way. The books, they just set me back. The education systems in the colleges, it is time for a change. The purpose that they served is great, and at the time it was the only method available and it worked to some extent. What would happen in some long-about way was people who were good students could make music out of scales and modes, and that is the trick. I became curious about these twenty years ago. If you look at the transcriptions from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane to Michael Brecker, you would find things that do not fit the theory. Music can make the theory fit anything.
The answer I was told was that you need to learn that stuff, but then you forget it when you play. I wondered why everyone was teaching like that. I thought, "Why not start from the perspective that music is sound, and theory is everything that comes after that?" Only after you analyze it does it become theory. Take Wes Montgomery or Charlie Christian, I wonder how much theory they knew; probably not much. So twenty years ago, I began to teach like that in my private lessons, just connect the sounds to the fingers. I would tell a student, guess what, you just used the Dorian mode. One student said to me that is great, but why do I need to know that now? It took a long time; it was a gradual process to where I now teach people the right notes very quickly.
Back to the five shapes, a student has to do them or they are lost. From there a student finds their spot or level. Students receive assignments and they send me video of them playing the assignment.
AAJ: And all this is done over the internet?
JB: Yes, they send a video, we have an automatic uploader on the site, you drag your video to it and the site does the rest. I look at the video and maybe they are fingering or practicing wrong. I post a video on the site of my reply to them. Students have the choice of my reply being either private or posted on the site. We try to encourage everyone make it public, so everyone gets to see it. Chances are if you doing something incorrectly, other are as well. That is the way is goes.
AAJ: What is the timeframe for a student to receive a response to their posting?
JB: It depends on the amount of uploads we receive. It can range from 24 hours to just under a week.
AAJ: How many hours a day do you spend working at the JBGI?
JB: Anywhere from three to sixteen hours, I am also constantly creating content. Everyday I add something new. I just hired a new assistant to handle the editing, which frees up more time for me to answer students.
I still have private students, and one actually quit to join the JBGI. Asked him why, and he replied that when he leaves a private lesson he takes the instructions I write, and by the time he gets home he has forgotten something and cannot ask a question for a two or three weeks. On the site, he can watch the lesson repeatedly. Also on the site, you can work at your pace. For instance, you may have the time to come in for a private lesson once a month. On the site, the content is available 24-7, and nothing is erased. For someone who has a lot of time, they can burn through the lessons, as they are always available. We also have some basic tunes that everyone should know because the same harmonies exist in other tunes.
AAJ: Which tunes are they?
JB: Right now, "Satin Doll," "Autumn Leaves," "Misty," "On Green Dolphin Street," and "Another You."
We also have a discussion forum, and sometimes other students will answer each others questions. I join the discussion forums everyday and if there is something I can fix right away, I will jump in with the answer.
I think this is better than a private lesson. There is nothing in a private lesson that I could show somebody that I could not do over the internet. It occurred to me that the thing we could not do was have the students play along with me. I called my old friend and bassist Craig Thomas, and we are now making backing tracks. The next logical step would to teach how to play the chords over the backing tracks. In addition, here is something you cannot do in a private lesson, we have a transcriber, who will transcribe what I played and post it on the site. Everyday we find something we can do better.
AAJ: How many students does the site currently have?
JB: It is difficult to tell, we have people who are in the renewal stage, new enrollees.
AAJ: How long does the course last that people are already renewing?
JB: Right now students pay for a three-month period. At the end of the three months, you elect either not to renew, or keep going.
AAJ: So no matter what their level of expertise there is always something for the student to learn?
JB: Students can just keep going. We are so far ahead of the members, concerning content, that you can never reach the end, because content is added all the time. We just added a whole section on chord exercises. The other thing that I added was using a particular sound over minor 7 chords. In addition, that spawns a whole series of other lessons and new tunes are added all the time.
AAJ: Are you the only person who decides on the curriculum and how do you decide what is added?
JB: Well it is mostly me but David has great ideas about that. Believe it or not some of the best ideas are coming from the members, the discussion forums.
The fundamentalsthe basis of what I teachare there, and they will be complete probably at level three, which is the next level that we are doing. That level is advanced but I get ideas from students, for tunes. One person mentioned "Misty," so now I did one on "Misty," that will be up soon. I occasionally get a request for "Giant Steps." It is a great tune, but might not be appropriate at this point in the game; I think that everyone should be able to play over it. However, if you learn that tune, you only know how to play over "Giant Steps" changes, which are not very common. If you learn to play over "Misty" the set of changes in "Misty" might be in over a hundred other tunes.
We are trying to stick to tunes that have common chord progressions, and that you can learn to hear. When you hear them in another tune, not only do you recognize them, but also you already knew how to solo over them, you already practiced soloing over the changes. We have so many members and so many dedicated players. They are serious about this. We put a whole course on chords in right now. There are five lessons edited up there now, I think I filmed maybe twenty more and they all have to be edited. It does not take a long time to edit but it is intense work. Right now David Butler is doing that, he has an assistant now who does that part. In addition, if I just take the chord section, I know that there are at least a hundred more lessons, a hundred more videos of just chords.
AAJ: Can a beginner student sign up? Do you need to be able to read music?
JB: You do not have to be able to read music but it is not for someone just starting to learn how to play guitar. It is for the person that can play a few tunes. You have to be physically able to play the guitar, but you do not have to be a virtuoso.
AAJ: I just cannot go and buy a guitar today and say teach me how to play?
JB: No, we are thinking about adding that, I just need to do that.
AAJ: Does the site teach you how to read music?
JB: No, but you just gave me another idea. That is a great idea. I would have to figure out how to do that. If you are serious about playing, you should be able to read music. Is it necessary with jazz to be a great sight-reader? Absolutely not. Plenty of jazz musicians cannot read a note. I learned how to read music because my parents were musicians. To make a living, you have to be able to read music. I spent ten years in Las Vegas playing shows, making great money, and then I became a studio musician. You cannot do those things if you cannot read.
Do I need to know how to read music to play jazz? Not necessarily but it is an advantage, because I can look at a transcribed solo and be able to play it. That is one way to do it. The downside of it is that if you have the ability to read, sometimes it stunts the growth of your ear; it kills the ability to listen to something and play it back. For jazz, what is more important would be the ability to listen to a jazz solo and be able to pick up the guitar and get close to the notes. 20% to 25% percent of them, and you are on the right track.
For some people, it seems so overwhelming, and they try and try and they cannot get them in the beginning, and they think they do not have an ear. They go out and buy music and that is anti-music because music is sound. You have to have an ear, you have to develop your ear, and there is no way around that. Anybody can do it. Some people seem to think that someone has talent and can play what they hear. It is not so; I think that 99% of musicians in the beginning were not able to do it. You have to start somewhere and that is the place to start.
I suggest when you watch TV, just sit with your guitar and try to play the theme song to a TV show. It is the one good thing you can get out of television, the music is somewhat simple. Not all of them, there is still some great music out there, great composers. A lot of the theme music is two, three chord stuff, little melodies. It is perfect for practice. The first thing that comes to my mind is the I Love Lucy and the original Dick Van Dyke themes were not easy. A real piece of work that was like a fugue was the theme song from McHale's Navy. I still struggle to get all the parts.
The TV show Monk used to have a great one. It was just two guitarsDjango Reinhardt style guitars by a person named Jeff Beal; I am assuming he is a guitarist. Beautiful piece of music, and then for some reason they replaced it with some dreck from Randy Newman, turning it into a piece of crap. The point is that if someone has a very limited ear, they should still be able to play the chords from that theme song. I think Randy Newman only knows five chords. I guess it is hard to back out now and say something good about Randy Newman. Put it this way, I am not a fan, but I am sure he has written some good music that people like. It does not make him a bad person.