My love affair with the guitar started the summer of my 10th year at an arts camp on Cape Cod. Having already taken lessons on the piano and violin, and although at the time my current instrument of ‘study’ was the cello, I quickly developed a love of the guitar, watching the camp counselors accompany themselves and others on appealing popular folk songs of the time.
It was at this camp that one of the counselors taught me the three chords necessary to play “The MTA” and “The Titanic”, probably G, C and D7. I learned them well enough to host the end of the year talent show, at the end of which, when my time came, I sank the Titanic a second time, embarrasingly unable to find the correct starting note of the song.
This didn’t stop me; I was bitten by guitar bug, which has been biting me ever since, and hasn’t let up over more than a half-century of studying and playing this wonderful instrument.
The instrument has taken me from folk to blues to classical, and eventually in my teenage years to jazz. Being endowed with a good musical ear, I plundered my records for guitar chords, patterns and licks, and when I started to become fascinated with guitar players like Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, Joe Pass and B.B. King, I learned to steal their licks, all the while trying to get their sound. At school I made friends with other guitarists, who turned me onto more chords and licks, as I did to them.
The guitar started out as my guide to the world of music and in time became a connection to other peers, both guitarists as well as players of other instruments. There was a mutual feeling of respect for each other, and one thing we had in common was a love and hunger for music.
In high school, I was fortunate to have a mentor, who was the music teacher at the school. He would sit me down in his study and play me recordings of the great jazz musicians, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, among many others. David recognized my talent and eventually connected me to Jim Hall, who agreed to take me on as a student. So the summer before my freshman year in college I would make the weekly trip to New York City for guitar lessons with this guitar master, lessons which inspired me enormously. Jim had an unorthodox teaching method, teaching by concept rather than method. Being an extremely motivated student, this approach suited me, and I took whatever information he gave me and used it to expand my playing. Eventually, my lessons with Jim Hall affected me not only as a player, but as a teacher, where I would learn to combine his conceptual style with a methodical approach, in order to give my students a well-rounded musical training.
This study and preparation laid the groundwork for my musical experiences in college. On the more formal side were my academic musical studies, Theory and Harmony, Orchestration, Renaissance Musical Performance, contemporary musical ensemble playing: I enjoyed it all. But on the other side were the fellow jazz musicians I made in New Haven, and the budding jazz scene that I became part of. Being young musicians cutting their improvisational teeth like me, we shared the same hunger to play and found and created opportunities for ourselves to perform. This continued through and after my years at Yale; these same musicians have mostly all continued playing professionally, and many have established their niche in the pantheon of great improvisational players.
After college eventually I ended up in New York City, where I started to find work playing ‘club dates’ (weddings and bar mitzvahs) and a Broadway show here and there. I met lots of guitar players, and we would often get together in groups of three or four and play jazz tunes. Finally, I got my first tour with an English folk-rock artist signed with Capitol Records, and suddenly I found myself thrust on stage opening for groups as varied at Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh, Blue Oyster Cult and Pure Prairie League.
Upon returning to New York, I reunited with my old New Haven friends, many of whom had moved to the Big Apple like myself. Even though the gigs were scarce, I was playing all the time, mostly in the living rooms of musicians who were living in lower Manhattan. It was the period of ‘loft jazz’: the dearth of paying jazz clubs forced musicians to create their own spaces, often in the lofts they lived in, and this scene sparked a new level of creativity in the contemporary jazz world.
However, the opportunity for making money at music was pretty meager at that time, and several friends of mine and myself decided to put together a band dedicated to playing dance music, albeit with a creative edge, a sort of avant-funk. The five of us formed Slickaphonics, a band that eventually got a record deal with a small jazz label and started touring on the European festival scene. The reviews on our first gigs in France were good and soon our territory expanded to all of western Europe. During our 10 year existence the Slicks made 5 albums and toured Europe fairly extensively, all the while creating a cult following. During this period I was also playing with other jazz musicians both in Europe and New York. After a while, my funk guitar chops got me a gig with Maceo Parker and the J.B. Horns, three illustrious veterans of the James Brown band. I even got to play with the King of Soul himself!
All during this time I was writing music: pieces for my own ensembles, music and words for Slickaphonic songs. Towards the end of the eighties I decided to join forces with my old friend and writer Deborah Atherton, with the goal of writing a musical based on the old vampire story “Carmilla”. This first project led to our next, much bigger project, an opera based on the life of Mary Shelley. “Mary Shelley” became a large part of my musical life for ten years, culmination in a full concert version at the Society for Ethical Culture auditorium in 2002. It was eventually presented by New York City Opera as part of their VOX series in 2011.
Over the years I have written short pieces for the guitar which I call my “rags”. These rags are solo guitar pieces which I perform finger style using plastic finger picks. In 2003 I was asked to do a book for Hal Leonard Publications called “Ragtime Guitar” which included 11 of my arrangements of classic piano rags for the guitar and three of my own rags. In writing these pieces I was seduced by the idea of creating solo pieces for the guitar that incorporated many of the rhythmic, harmonic and melodic elements of jazz and blues. I continue to pursue this direction on the instrument to this day.
Finally, for the last 15 years I have concentrated on teaching, which has become a great source of satisfaction to me. I have been fortunate to have a steady stream of beginning, intermediate and advanced students study with me in my studio on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Through my teaching, I have been able to pass on my love of music to my students, and it has been wonderful to experience their delight as the great world of music and the guitar opens up to them.