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Steely Dan's Jon Herington and Jim Beard


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In memory of Jim Beard, this article was first published at All About Jazz on July 6, 2017.

While keyboardist / producer Jim Beard and guitarist Jon Herington are both solo recording artists with long and varied careers that straddle jazz, rock and beyond, they may be best known these days for being longtime members of Steely Dan's current touring band. They have also been close friends for nearly 40 years. They sat down for a conversation as they were preparing for their first-ever duo tour to start in June 2017.

All About Jazz: What was the genesis of the duo tour?

Jon Herington: Well, we had talked about doing something a few years ago. We floated the idea and it never got anywhere. I had been pushing to work with my guitar / bass / drums trio [The Jon Herington Band] for many years and that sort of exhausted itself. I felt like I had done it for long enough and needed a break from it. There were some holes in the calendar this year because Steely Dan hasn't been working quite as much as in past years and so I thought it might be a good time to revive the idea.We had some time coming up in June. We got together once for a couple hours and played just to make sure something might be possible and I guess we were convinced enough to gamble and book the gigs. We have six gigs to try this whole concept out.

AAJ: What kind of material are you planning to do?

Jim Beard: We had a good couple of days where we went through a lot of stuff. I think getting up to this first run of gigs, we're going to prepare a little too much material. I have a feeling that we're going to realize certain things aren't working and will want to drop them right away.

JH: So far it's a pretty wide variety. We spent quite a bit of time trying to find a way to play some of the songs on Jim's records and some of the songs on an older instrumental record of mine [The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, reissued and re-titled in 2009 as Pulse and Cadence]. Looks like we'll be able to do a couple from that record and three or four from Jim's many records. Some of those are pretty tricky to learn—there's a lot of music there.

JB: Some of the songs are more reliant on the rhythmic aspect of how the songs were realized in the beginning and just don't seem to work...

JH: ...and others were pleasant surprises. We're just learning how to do it so it's kind of an adventure in that way. We're also going to do some pop tunes and some jazz tunes where we'll do some soloing. So there's going to be a variety but we're still working it out.

AAJ: Some duos these days will supplement with multiple keyboards, loopers, drum tracks and the like. What instrumentation are you planning on?

JB: Piano. A little bit earlier we were trying out melodica too but mainly piano I think.

JH: ...and guitar. That's as adventurous as it's going to get.

JB: We talked about a drum machine but then we decided no.

JH: That takes away from that sort of riskier, intimate and direct thing we can make happen with just a piano and guitar. We're trying to keep it pretty pure that way.

AAJ: Are you playing electric, Jon?

JH: Yes. I want to play a guitar I'm comfortable with and the one I typically play is a semi-hollow that wouldn't sound like anything if it wasn't plugged in.

AAJ: Is a recording planned to come out of this?

JH: We talked about it. I think once we have a sense of what's working and most effective, we thought it would be nice to do a quick little recording. It will be easier to do once we've been playing for a while.

JB: After we get through this initial run, I think we'll consider that.

AAJ: So this is your first duo tour together but you've played together in Steely Dan now for how long?

JB: This is my 9th year. Jon's been in the band a lot longer.

JH: It's been 17 years for me.

AAJ: How has that gig evolved for you both?


JH: You first. (laughs)

JB: It's a great band. The core band, the rhythm section just keeps getting better and better. That never gets old for me at all.

JH: That's the big thrill for me too, just to get to play with a rhythm section that is world class. And it has gotten better being out on the road over the years, you get to that beautiful, sweet spot sooner. That's the biggest evolutionary element to the band, it seems to me. That's the great pleasure of it.

JB: Also, there are a few of us in the band that are always looking to find the best oyster place in every town. (laughs) That's an evolving thing...

JH: ...and that's been getting better because of GPS and smartphones (laughs)...so we've become a culinary tour as much as a musical tour (laughs)...

AAJ: When you both came up in the '80s and through the early '90s, the dynamics of jazz was a bit different than today. Do you have any thoughts on shifts in the dynamics of late?

JB: Well, one thing is, back in the '80s, '90s, and early 2000's; you used to be able to go to Japan with your normal band and do the Blue Note circuit. Now they pretty much tell you who they want in your band.

AAJ: Really? This is currently?

JB: They are doing it now. The promoters can tell who you should have in your band. They tell you, "We want you to have "So and So." That's become a very strange thing.

AAJ: Jon, In the '90s you released an instrumental record, The Complete Rhyming Dictionary as your solo debut. Your next release wasn't until 2000's Like So, which was a vocal-oriented rock project.

JH: Yeah, it was a very different thing.

AAJ: I read somewhere that one or both of you got fed up when the "Smooth Jazz thing" hit. Was that the reason for the change in direction?

JH: I had done a couple tours in Europe with Jim's band's and I'm sure I must have registered Jim's frustration at that whole [jazz] endeavor and his growing reluctance to dive into it that deeply, like other people had done before. Many people Jim had worked with, like John Scofield for instance, never let up that way but also they had done it longer and much more aggressively before that. It just seemed to me that making a living that way as a musician was on the decline. I also had a young child at that time and I wanted to be home anyway. I looked at the making of that record [The Complete Rhyming Dictionary] as the closing of a chapter for me. I also began to get more interested in playing with that trio of mine [The Jon Herington Band] and writing music for it. That led to that first record of songs [Like So].

(To Jim Beard): I don't know if I gauged you right about not really being enthusiastic for continuing to push your career in that way.

JB: Well those tours that I did then were created to support records. I had help from the record companies on both occasions and that made it doable. I also didn't have to think like: "I have to just tour and do MY thing." I had a pretty active career producing records and had a strong studio sideman thing going on. Then I started a family, had two young children, and I wanted to not be an absent father. There was never a time for "I'm going to do my band and that's it."

AAJ: Well, it seems we've reached a point where many players these days say it's a luxury to put out a solo record but they do so for artistic reasons—if they can afford to.

JH: That's certainly how I've done it. Except for that first record, nobody's ever given me money to do it. I've always decided that it was something I wanted badly enough and cared enough about to invest in myself. There are a few pluses like, any income I get from selling them is mine and will always be mine. That's a plus but not much of one because we don't sell that much.

AAJ: There are many out there today, guys like Matt Garrison come to mind, who fully embrace the new prototype of the entrepreneurial musician—who not only perform and put out their own records but own a venue / studio, do their own website sales and lessons, etc. It seems the order of the day is diversification. You guys have a studio, correct?

JB: Yes, we call it The Cave. It's three times as big as the last place we had.

AAJ: Is it for your projects, other people's projects, a rehearsal space?

JB: All of the above.

JH: It's not a place where we can do full band tracking but it's an individual workspace for each of us and an equipment storage space for us. Like a home studio though not at home.

AAJ: Going forward, do you see yourselves continuing to diversify as others are doing—teaching perhaps?

JH: I don't envy younger people who are just starting out in this business but I've actually been able to do the opposite in the last several years. I feel like I'm able to relax a little for the first time ever really and not worry so much about where the next gig is coming from.That's because I've been lucky to have two really solid touring jobs—with Steely Dan and with Madeleine Peyroux. It's more road work than I'd like to do but I'm happy to ride them out. And I don't know that I'll need to be chomping at the bit to replace them when they go away. I'm older. In two years I'll be collecting Social Security, assuming Trump doesn't take it away from us. (laughs)

And that's another reason why I wanted to try this thing with Jim as well. We've known each other 40 years or so and if we get a basic repertoire together for the two of us, we're thinking that it's going to be pretty easy to revive any time there's an opportunity for a gig or masterclass or to add a rhythm section. It might be a way we could more affordably get away and book a tour with a "found" rhythm section in Europe or possibly Japan—something you can easily do nowadays. I'm not really hungry to do a million other things. I was more ambitious when I was younger. If I have a few musical outlets that satisfy me in a creative way, maybe a little teaching, I'm ok with that.

AAJ: Jim?

JB: Well, I'm just taking what comes along, really. I do a lot of things in Europe where I guest with other groups. In August, there are these French musicians I'm playing with (Nguyen Le, Hadrien Feraud, Nicolas Viccaro, Stephane Guillaume), we're going to do a Jazz festival in Monaco. There's a group of Swedish guys that I'm going to join after that and we'll play Denmark and Sweden. A couple of years ago I was invited to the Didier Lockwood Institute outside of Paris. It's a jazz oriented school but has a string department too. They wanted to do a project based around the music from my album [with the Metropole Orkest], Revolutions so they had me come over to rehearse them and conduct them and we gave a concert after five days. What was really interesting was they have a sister school in Paris itself where, after the five days of doing that, there was a masterclass. The composition teacher who set it up gave her class an assignment wherein each student picked a song off my solo piano album Show of Hands and arranged it for a group. I was knocked out.

AA J: Are you suited to the teaching life?

JB: Well, years ago, when my family was younger, I seriously pursued institutionalized education—the college thing. Once, as a fluke, I responded to an ad in the union trade paper that said Berklee up in Boston was looking for a new Dean of Composition. So I sent in my resume and thought I would never hear back from them. About a month later I got a letter saying they would like me to send more information and recordings of my music, so I did that. Then I got another letter saying that I had made it to the short list and they would like to see more things from me. Then I got a phone call from them saying I was narrowed down to one of three candidates and they would like me to fly up to Boston for a couple of days. I really didn't expect any of this but then I had to sit through committee meetings. I mean, I thought I was being vetted for Supreme Court Justice, it was ridiculous. It's funny, they ended up not accepting any of the final three candidates—none of us got it. After that I did a year of teaching at Rutgers Mason Gross School and I was also teaching at the Aaron Copland School of Music because the family was back in the states and I wanted to have some time teaching gigs. I knew, after a couple years of diving into it, that that was not a role I wanted to get into. I feel like so many of these teachers in that world, they behave more like politicians. They're all afraid of losing their jobs. Everybody's looking over their shoulder, worried about getting stabbed in the back somehow. I decided this is not for me. I teach privately and enjoy that. I also like giving masterclasses, going to universities and doing a day or two but the full-time, trying to be an adjunct professor? I'm older. I don't want to start ladder-climbing now.

AAJ: You are both products of higher musical education. Jim, you went to Indiana University and Jon, you went to Rutgers but I'm a bit unclear. How did you end up in Indiana, Jon?

JB: He was chasing a girl... (laughs)

JH: I was an English major in college [at Rutgers] because I thought it was the way that allowed me the most freedom to choose the music courses I wanted to take.I was clearly only interested in music studies but I didn't want to be told to take all the music history courses. I kind of regret this now but I didn't want to take piano proficiency courses because I was a new, disciplined guitar student for the first time in my life. I was determined to get serious about playing the guitar. I didn't want any distractions. In terms of time, I didn't want to have to be learning the piano. So it seemed easier to read and write my way through college rather than be a music major. But I took every new and imaginable course they had. They had to create a whole new theory course for a couple of us who had run through the whole curriculum. I got to study with a professor in the grad school who was the head of the composition department so I did a lot of study of all kinds of music. And I was gigging on the weekends, trying to learn how to play jazz all that time.

And yeah, Jim''s right, the only thing that got me to Indiana was a girl. It was a really lucky break. I thought I'd be reading the want ads, looking for a day job but within two weeks I was working in a local rib joint, playing guitar with a jazz band. I met a lot of people that were really welcoming and really friendly and there was a first-string of really top-notch players where I was living in Indianapolis.It wasn't long before I met a whole slew of fabulous players who were studying down at IU, where Jim was. So I got hooked up right away playing, stopped thinking about having to get a real job and it was really great and I was really busy. Then when I met Jim and we started playing some more modern, electric gigs.

JB: We were in a cover band.

JH: Yeah, it was like a funk band, basically. That was a blast. We had three front singers...

JB: Chris Botti was in the horn section...

JH: Kenny Aronoff was on drums, Bob Hurst was playing bass. It was an amazing band and this was all in Indiana. I just felt like it was the most amazing lucky break.

JB: This was also when I stopped being a closet pop music lover... I came out of the closet. (laughs)

JH: It was fun.

AAJ: Then did you both come to New York around the same time?

JB: Pretty much. Jon got there a year ahead of me.

JH: Jim spent a year working on a cruise ship line...

JB: .. trying to save money to move to New York—which I didn't do, but I moved anyway.

JH: Jim got some serious work pretty soon after he got there. It took me a little longer. I slid right in in Indiana and got great work. That just didn't happen in New York. It was a long, slow slog before I was steadily employed and confident that I would stay employed. I wasn't really confident that I was going stay employed until maybe 10 years in.

AAJ: Who was your first big gig after you came out to New York, Jon?

JH My first actual real gig was with Jack McDuff. That was horrible and short-lived. It was fun to play but everything else on that gig was absolutely wrong (laughs).

AAJ: Did it have anything to do with having to move a B3?

JH: It did have a bit to do with that. It also had to do with sitting on the hump in his Cadillac in the middle because I was the last guy to join the band-(laughs)—for a 24-hour ride from New York to Chicago to play our first gig. Without any hotel or anything. We just left in time to do the gig. I mean can you imagine? Arrive just in time to do the gig? It's insane but it was like that and it didn't last long.

But, you know, when I got to New York I put on a tuxedo and did bar mitzvahs and weddings and made a living doing that for a while. I did some teaching, some pick-up work with pop and rock bands. So I was diversifying as much as I could then, taking anything and everything I got called for. I did do some recording but the heyday of recording was already on the wane. When I got there you could see it was slipping away already. Broadway work was the only regular employment I could get that made sense to do after a while. I did a lot of them. The first one I did was "Tommy." I played in an Elton John show called "Aida" for a 4-year run. I played the last three years of "Hairspray." It was kind of grueling work in a way, but it paid the bills. I had a young child and we were living in New York City and I needed as much regular income as I could get, so it was a lifesaver.

AAJ: And then after a while you both ended up in (saxophonist) Bill Evans - Saxophone band?

JB: Yeah. We did a few gigs. We did Fat Tuesday's in the city here. We'd run up to Boston and play the Willow. We did a few things where we opened up for Miles Davis in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

AAJ: So Jon, you were doing all these jazz gigs for the most part. When you moved into doing vocal music with your three-piece, was that something that had been burning for an outlet for a long time?

JH: Not exactly but it was a return to my early musical roots. I grew up a big Beatles fan and a fan of British invasion rock and roll so that always felt like my first language. When I was learning jazz, it felt like an adopted tongue in a way.I don't think it was until quite a bit later that I found some way to to smooth out the differences. I used to be more of a purist about approaching each genre but I just don't care about that anymore because I don't think it matters all that much. As long as it feels like I'm making music that I'm satisfied with, I'm ok.

AAJ: Many people were surprised by your move from instrumental music to songwriting.

JH: I know a lot of people were quite surprised. I got that reaction quite a lot. [Like So] was not a guitarist's record really, it wasn't a shredder's album. It was about the songs but I think I've been consistent in that sense because that's always the most important thing for me. Even with the first instrumental record it was important to me that the songs were strong—that it wasn't just some excuse to blow, like a lot of people make records. There was an emphasis on the craft and the arranging and composition because that's what's important to me. It's always been important to Jim as well. That's one the things we've always shared. I mean It's beautiful when you get the right combination of people to do a blowing date where you do head / solo / head. That can be great, but we're fans of so much music. We're particularly fans of music by great writers and great arrangers and if you can exercise that muscle regularly, it makes for a much more interesting and satisfying listen for me. It's just where I'm oriented musically.

AAJ: Is it true that Complete Rhyming Dictionary got you the Steely Dan call?

JH: In a funny way it might have had something to do with it. I do remember a story. I got the gig really through a recommendation from Ted Baker. They were finishing the overdubs on Two Against Nature in late 1999 and looking for a rhythm guitarist on a couple tracks. Ted had brought in a demo of a guitarist friend of ours and a copy of The Complete Rhyming Dictionary. From what I remember him telling me. Donald (Fagen) and Walter (Becker) put the cd in and they played a bit of the first song and made some wisecracks about how it sounded so derivative of Weather Report or something. (laughs) But then they called me so I didn't mind, you know? (laughs) I got the call and played on a tune called "Janie Runaway." Walter asked if I would be around to do some more work and I said that I'd be happy to. Four or five weeks went by and I hadn't heard anything so I said well, that's a lost cause. But then Walter called back and said,"Hey, you know that track you played on? Well, we're not gonna use anything that you played." (laughs) He was just yanking my chain, of course. He said they wanted me to come back and play on a few other tunes so I think I ended up on four tunes on that record and did a bunch more sessions. Somewhere along the line they told me they were planning a big year touring in 2000 and asked me if I would like to play. The answer was obvious.

AAJ: It's ironic what was once exclusively a studio band is now almost exclusively a touring band.

JH: It is a great band. It's funny though, what you hear [about Becker and Fagen's decision to stop touring in the '70s] is things like "The equipment was so bad." or "We couldn't get a good sound" or "We couldn't hear ourselves." But if you look at those youtube videos from those late '70s Steely Dan tours, they sound fantastic. I think they just preferred the studio because they were restlessly creative and they just liked studio life. It was the perfect time to do it. It was probably the peak of session player quality at that time.

AAJ: Is there anyone you are listening to these days?

JB: I like pretty much everything Jacob Collier is doing.

JH: Yeah, Jim turned me onto Jacob Collier. He's pretty amazing.

JB: Who's the guitarist that opened up at the Beacon? Julian Lage?

JH: Yeah, Julian Lage. I also got to hear him at this guitar festival in Montana that I've done for the past two years in a row. Most of my listening though, I'm not all that embarrassed to say, is older music—Antonio Carlos Jobim, Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong are always on the list. Depending on how many glasses of wine I've had, the Bee Gees might be on the list. Chopin and Brahms, we get into some serious piano listening on the road sometimes. I'm a Bob Marley fan. There's so much great music. I'm probably not a good advocate for new music because I just don't need anymore. I mean, I haven't even heard everything Stravinsky wrote or everything Duke Ellington recorded. I'll die before I get to everything on my to do list. (laughs)

AAJ: Anything else to add?

JB: John Scofield's reuniting the 1988 band with Dennis Chambers and Gary Grainger and myself. Were doing two nights at Lincoln Center. I'm also producing a new record with Mike Stern right now and it's really happening the way records used to happen. Real people playing together in a room.

AAJ: What, you didn't have everyone record separately to a click track? (laughs)

JB: ...or send files to everyone's home studio. I hear some of these projects and they're so sterile and perfect and weird. I mean, people send me tracks, that's what we do here [at our studio]. I record my parts here, we do that but Mike's record is really... Dennis [Chambers] tracked three or four tunes. Will Calhoun was in and Arto Tuncboyaciyan has done three days' recording already.

AAJ: Well, that's something to look out for. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat and good luck with the duo tour and all your other upcoming projects.

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