Jazz Guitarist Ed Cherry first came to my attention back in the late 80s when I happened upon a Montreal Jazz Festival TV broadcast of Ed playing with the late, great Dizzy Gillespie. I immediately dug Eds funky rhythmic playing and single line approach and Ive been a fan ever since.
In this interview, Ed shares a few stories of his days with Dizzy. We also dig into his early years, what hes up to now and we touch briefly upon the BAM and its relevance in Jazz today.
Interview by Lyle Robinson via email 2013
JGL: Hey Ed, and thanks for taking the time to talk with Jazz Guitar Life. First off, the usual question, how old are you?
JGL: And what geographical area do you live in?
EC: New York City.
JGL: Lets go back a bit shall we? How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing?
EC: I started playing when I was around 12 or 13 yrs old. Guitar was not my first instrument, I played clarinet for about 3 years in elementary school. I thought I would be a saxophone player at some point.
JGL: Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?
EC: When I started out on guitar I was into James Brown, Booker T and the MG’s, all the hip R&B instrumentals of the day ( The Horse’, ‘Stereo Freeze’, ‘Hip Hug Her, etc.) and the blues. I was deeply into B.B. King when a friend of mine in my old neighborhood turned me on to one of his LP’s that was in his mothers record collection. It had “Sweet Little Angel, 3 O’clock in the Morning Every day I have the Blues, all his old hits. I went to see him at Yale university around 68 or 69 and was mesmerized. I sat right up front I remember everything; the powder blue double breasted suit and high black boots with the pointy toe, the gleaming red Gibson ES 335 he called Lucille, the expressive way he sang and the guitar playing and sound he got, and the organ player playing the bass notes with his left hand. “What!? No bass player!?” Haha
JGL: I remember seeing Robben Ford years ago with an organ trio and also wondering where the bass player went to! Can you recall that particular moment that first excited you about jazz guitar or jazz in general? The one that made you say that’s what I want to do!
EC: My dad played jazz records in our home all the time. He was a fan of the music, and guitarists like Grant Green, Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery. Grant was his favorite!
I was 11 or so and knew who Charlie Parker and Grant Green were, but was not ready to really LISTEN to that yet until one day after playing a few years, maybe senior year of high school, I started listening to Miles, George Benson, Mahavishnu, (fusion was huge then, but I wasn’t really THAT into it). I do remember seeing George Benson on PBS TV with his group. He was wearing glasses and playing a Gibson 175 and really playing a lot of guitar. I was floored! Also on PBS (I think it was PBS?) Larry Coryell with Gary Burton playing a lot of notes real fast I was like “yeah, I want to do that!” Hahaha.a listening maturity was taking place at that time..
JGL: Sounds that way to me! Was there a defining moment when you decided that Jazz Guitar would/could be your career path?
EC: I didn’t realize it but the music just consumed me, there was no defining moment. I didn’t make a conscious effort to say I’m going to be a jazz musician”, it just happened.
JGL: Have your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?
EC: I had no expectations other than to just hopefully become a better player and develop my own sound and try to play what I’m really hearing.
JGL: Have you found it difficult making a living as a jazz guitar player, or has it been relatively easy for you?
EC: It can be very difficult for some of us now, especially in these economic times. Many turn to teaching to make ends meet. When I came to New York in the mid/late 70s I think it may have been easier to get a band on the road and work. Many of the living legends of our music were still around and that was like finishing school for a lot of young musicians. Earl Hines, Dizzy, Art Blakey, etc. Now those kinds of gigs don’t exist. Wynton (Marsalis) is the old guy now and he has a big band that’s on salary and those guys are not going anywhere, you know? The days of throwing a band together and taking it out on the road is pretty much done. Some do it but its really difficult and time consuming. I was lucky. When I came to New York, I knew Rodney Jones and a few other people. After I spent about a year in the city working day jobs and going to jam sessions at night networking I guess you might call it Rodney recommended me for the gig with Dizzy Gillespie and I was with him for the next 10 or 12 years..
JGL: Nice. Before we continue on about your work with Dizzy, lets talk a bit about your gear. Ive noticed that you are an endorser or fan of Victor Bakers guitar building and own at least two Baker models (now that you are not selling one of them). What has been the appeal of his guitars and what did you originally start out with?
EC: I have 3 of victors guitars and one on the way by builder Wyatt Wilke. VB uses great woods and the sound of his archtops are clear and they sing.
I was originally using mostly Gibson guitars ..the older ones are still the gold standard for archtops (along with the less affordable old DAquisto and DAngelico) I had old super 400s , L-5s, and a Johnny Smith (which I didn’t really like that much). I liked the Guild Artist Award too. Especially the older ones from the 70s with the De-Armond Rhythm King pickup. I had one that I wish Id kept with a Charlie Christian pickup in it
JGL: What other gear are you using?
EC: A Buscarino semi hollow nylon electric. I used that on all of Hamiett Bluietts “With Eyes Wide Open”. I don’t use it too much these days but still have it around. And I also have a 67 Fender Tele.
JGL: Nice! Now I recently had the pleasure of checking out your recent Downbeat Blindfold Test and was pleased to read that you pretty much were able to name almost all the guitarists played. You are obviously a fan of Jazz Guitar! Who were your influences on jazz guitar in the beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?
EC: Early influences for jazz guitar were George Benson, Larry Coryell, Pat Martino the guys who played fast and flashy. Then I went into a heavy Grant Green phase, understanding the significance of groove, space and the blues inside his playing.George Benson will tell you right now, Grant was “the man”!
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
EC: When I put on a CD or LP its usually an old blue note record: Hank Mobley or Jackie Mclean, music like that. I like Wynton Kelly, old Kenny Burrell recordings and I still listen to Grant Green. I don’t listen to too many guitar records now that I think about it. A lot of what I hear and not just guitarists is pretty bloodless compared to the older things Ive been listening to.
JGL: Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist/artist and why?
EC: Well I’ve already mentioned grant green as a big influence, and my guitar teacher Bruce Johnson who I met through Rodney Jones back in 76. Bruce was a master guitarist who taught a lot of guys (Vernon Reid, Kevin Eubanks, Rodney Jones and others).
Bruce hipped me to a lot of technical things about the guitar as well as what to look for in a rhythm section and the importance of not leaning on a drummer or bass player to keep time. Having the drums inside YOU! Being fearless with your music! How to conduct yourself in social situations! Being aware of the world around you! All these things were, and are, important to hear when you are young.
JGL: Speaking of being young, were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice?
EC: My parents were supportive. They saw how much I loved music (my playing records over and over again must have drove them nuts!) and my incessant guitar playing. They didn’t hold me back whatsoever and I will be eternally grateful for that.
JGL: As are we. Tell me, do you teach privately and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
EC: I teach from time to time. I don’t have a lot of students because I don’t go out and try to hustle them up. If someone comes up to me and they are cool and not try to act too hip, I give them my card and say stop by. I prefer beginners and intermediate students because they are really searching for the right way to do something. Advanced students, either they just want to come over to try and show off, or they can play and don’t really need lessons, they just need to go out and be in front of an audience. The bandstand is often the best teacher.
JGL: Indeed! From what I have heard of your playing, you are steeped in a long history of the jazz tradition coupled with a keen sense of whats hip and modern. But underneath all that is a healthy dose of the blues and soul that at times reminds me a lot of O’Donell Levy, who you might remember and even know. How then do you approach improvisation? Is it based on the usual scale/chord relationships or are you coming at it from a different angle?
EC: Chord /scale relationships. Sure we all have to have that together don’t we? Playing off chord tones, etc. Also, I try to just find a tonal center and work it or just find the blues in everything or play off the melody of the song with motifs and such. Building a vocabulary and “licks” if you will. Everybody has their licks that they work. Pat Martino, Scofield, George Benson, Grant,Wes, they all have/had their own library of licks and tricks that they worked out. We all have to do it and be fearless with it! Its all a part of developing your “way”, your sound.
JGL: Speaking of playing, you are probably most recognized as being Dizzy Gillespies guitar player from roughly 1978 to 1992. If it hasnt been told too many times, and if you don’t mind recounting it yet again, how did your association with Mr. Gillespie come about?
EC: I met Dizzy initially from hanging backstage with Rodney Jones at concert/club performances in New York in 76/77. Rodney was the guitarist at that time and was really something to hear back then just raw energy working out his licks and tricks onstage and swinging!
In ‘78, Rodney decided to leave the band and recommended me. I made one very short rehearsal with Diz at pianist Mike Longos apartment and after playing a couple of tunes he gave me 5 100$ bills, told me to get some clothes “cause” we leave next week! I was floored. I never expected to be in the band longer than a few gigs bu, I ended up staying over 10 years.
JGL: Any stories of interest from your long standing career that you’d like to share with JGL readers?
One story I would like to share was when Dizzy came to Montreal around 1984 or so. He did a double bill with Moe Koffman (featuring Ed Bickert by the way), and when Dizzy walked onto the large Place Des Arts stage, he looked out at the audience, dropped his pants and drawers and mooned the audience while loudly stating You can all kiss my black ass! The audience was aghast and when Dizzy turned around, after pulling up his pants, he immediately realized that this might not have been the crowd to have fun with. He rushed over to the microphone and apologized a few times saying that he was just kidding around. Of course, once he started playing, it was all good.
I had heard stories that he was a funny guy and that night proved it. I’m not sure Ed if you were on that gig, and if so, maybe you remember it differently? So any stories?
EC: Well we were kind of stand offish with each other at first. I was in awe and he didn’t quite know what to make of me. One afternoon we pull into a motel while on the road somewhere in middle of the day. I’m in my room unpacking and there’s a knock at the door. I open the door and its Dizzy with nothing on but his light blue socks, brown shoes and a driving hat! He ran around the parking lot and then ran into his room which was next to mine. He stuck his head out, looked at me, laughed, and then slammed the door. That gave all of us something to talk about when we saw each other later. A real “ice-breaker”.
JGL: That’s too funny Ed! Many musicians who played with Miles usually have that one nugget of experience that they learned while sharing the stage with him. And usually its the I learned what not to play and how important silence is to the music. Did you come away with anything like that from your years with Dizzy?
EC: Yeah, Ive heard all that before, blah-blah! But one thing that really resonated was don’t be late to the gig! Surprisingly, its a problem for a lot of people, showing up at start time or after. I try to get to a gig at least 40 minutes before hit time to set up, play thru the amp in the room for a few minutes if possible and then just chill until hit time.
JGL: One last thing about Dizzy, I read somewhere a long time ago that when comping for Dizzy, he didn’t want to hear any chord alterations or extensions above a 9th as he preferred to play those on his own without being pushed to do so by a chordal instrument, be it guitar or piano. Was that your experience or am I way off base? And if it is correct, was it difficult to keep the harmony in check?
EC: Yes, you are correct Lyle. Dizzy did not like a lot of notes behind him. No “Bill Evans” thick chords please. Keep it sparse and rhythmic. He used guitar the last 20 years or so in his bands because he didn’t want 10 notes behind him just 3 (or 2 or nothing at all). He was partial to the min6th chord, 13b9 or 7b5 chords..
JGL: Apart from playing with Dizzy, you also played with organist John Patton, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, vocalist Paula West, saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett and the late, great organ player, Jimmy Smith amongst other popular figures of Jazz. I imagine that each of these artists required you to fill some really big shoes, especially playing with Jimmy Smith. When you initially get these types of high-profile gigs, what goes through your mind? How do you prepare for them? Do you listen to all the albums of each artist that you can, or do you simply approach it as this is my job and Ill do the best I can?
EC: I listen a little but I don’t go through a long listening process because these are creative people and they might not do what you are used to hearing on past recordings. They usually know how I play, what I do, so they just expect me to come in and be “me” inside their
JGL: Having played with the free-thinking Hamiet Bluiett, and having dedicated a tune to the free-spirited Jazz Guitarist, Sonny Sharock on your The Spirits Speak album, do you find it a challenge to put aside one style of playing for another? Or is it all just one music defined by the moment?
EC: No, I don’t find it a challenge to put aside one style for another. Many dedicate themselves to one style or another, which is cool, but I prefer to keep my options open. I guess I’m kind of fearless in that way. I like to swing and play some blues, but also like to play freer styles too and rock out if given the chance.
JGL: Are you still involved in the, for lack of a better term, avant-garde scene?
EC: No, Ive not done any of those kinds of gigs in a very long time.
JGL: And speaking of scenes, is being a NYC musician working for you, or do you find that one needs to get out of the country to truly be recognized for their dedication and commitment to Jazz Guitar and Jazz in general?
EC: I don’t know about anyone else, but I feel I’m appreciated more outside of New York. I can work in New York and play with some really exceptional musicians, but when a non musician guy out with his lady somewhere in Italy (where I am right at this moment) comes up and tells you that they really enjoyed what you did, and are genuinely appreciative, that makes my soul smile. Sometimes New York just wears me down.
JGL: Well, this might be something a little more uplifting hopefully. You played on a tribute album to the great Grant Green alongside some serious guitar players like Russell Malone, Dave Stryker, Mark Whitfield, Peter Bernstein and Grants son, Greg. How did this project come about and was it a great big hang in the studio or did you all do separate tracks at different times?
EC: Dave Stryker organized the session as far as I know. He had the hookup with the record label. And no, it wasn’t a big hang. It was kind of like an assembly line situation. One guy in ,do his tune then out, then the next one comes in. All of those were first takes I think. I wanted to do a second take but was told no, that the next person was coming in (don’t remember who that would have been)
JGL: Switching course for a moment, as a performer and an educator, if you had only one piece of advice to give away to Jazz Guitar students (beginning, intermediate or advanced) who are looking to expand their understanding of what Jazz is at the core, what would that be?
EC: Listen to the grand masters of our music and all of the African American music you can, that’s where the music comes from, the African American experience! Gospel, Blues, early R&B, Ragtime, Boogie-Woogie, early Motown, James Brown, all of it. Listen to vocalists too and drummers.
JGL: It’s all about the listening, isn’t it! What is your practice routine like these days? Do you work on specific things or just play tunes?
EC: I just play through tunes. I try to learn one really well and play it through in a couple of different keys, apply a chord melody approach to it and work on developing ideas for improvising through it. I also play arpeggios slowly as a warm-up exercise and I’m still trying to get my reading in shape with some easy Bach etudes or clarinet things. Read anything at least 20/30 minutes a day if you can.
JGL: Thanks for that Ed. Now you have been both a leader and a sideman. Which do you prefer and what are the differences in roles that you need to bring to the table?
EC: Sideman is easier in some respects. Just make a rehearsal if there is one play the music to the best of your ability (you’ve got to be able to read at least a little, especially in NYC where many guys just show up and lay charts on you). Having the right equipment for the gig you are doing is also important. Then try to have some fun, get paid and go home.
Being a band leader is a bit more tedious as it involves me getting the gig (phone calls, emails, going to the venue in person to speak to whomever, if necessary), finding out how much the gig pays, figuring out who I want to play with and who is available that can play. Having your music together (having charts ready for everything you might want to play, standard tunes or originals) is also important. And then, after all that, I still need to focus on my own playing.
JGL: About your own playing. You have four CD’s out as a leader, with your recent CD Its All Good getting some nice reviews. How do you go about marketing yourself? Are there any tools that you have come across that you have found to be effective?
EC: Well with this new CD, Posi-Tone (record label) did a great job with the promo, etc. Some companies do nothing in that regard which is crazy! To not promote your artists is such a waste. To have a great CD and no one knows about it? Someone has to be on the inside “working it”, you know? Or you have to find a company that’s willing to work with you and pay them a bunch of money out of your own pocket for 2 or 3 months of promo (print/internet/radio).
Social media is good too. Facebook, websites, things like that! Keep your page interesting and up to date. People come back to see what you are up to so promote your gigs there.
Ive also started paying for local gig promotion for certain venues in the New York area. Email blasts that go out to friends/journalists/club owners, etc from a huge data base through a company called Jazzpromo owned by Jim Eigo. There are many of these types of small companies that do the same thing. Some are better than others while some cost more than others. You just have to shop around, ask musician friends about whose who and whats worked and what has not.
JGL: So what works for you as a favorite band format (ie: duo, trio, quartet) and why?
EC: Lately a trio format. An Organ trio is great for setting a classic mood and groove. Bass and drums is good too and a little lighter allowing you more freedom and space to roam harmonically and rhythmically.
JGL: If you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?
EC: I don’t really think like that. I think more in terms of “who would I have liked to have seen in person back in the day?” Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery, John Coltrane, all the usual suspects. To sit right up front and have heard Charlie Parker on 52nd street in the late 40s? Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!!
JGL: How would you like to see your life unfold in the coming years and what do you think would be needed to get you there?
EC: Well at this point it in my life it is what it is, you know? I would like to get into more Masterclass situations a few times a year. That’s starting to happen, but only just recently. Ive never really hustled for those kinds of things. More and better gigs with my trio and a relaxed home life. What else does one need? Patience, perseverance, calm..
JGL: If you could do one thing over again, what would that one thing be and why?
EC: Gone to school and finished all that when I was 23 or so with a degree in music performance. I would have liked to have had all that under my belt before I moved to New York. But who knows?! If Id done that I may not have ever met and played with Dizzy Gillespie
JGL: Very true! Do you have any advice to share for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar as a career?
EC: Have your technical skills together and your equipment together. Be humble. Don’t be a cocky jerk just because you can play “Giant Steps” or whatever at blinding speed. Its not about that! Its about making meaningful music with like minded people, being supportive on and off the bandstand. And respect your elders! Listen to the music, from Buddy Bolden on through Louis Armstrong Dizzy, Miles, Wardell Grey, Sarah Vaughn, Nina Simone, the Temptations, early Kool and the Gang, James Brown, Anthony Braxton, Hank Mobley, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, just do a lot of listening.
JGL: Once again, listening is the key it seems! Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.
EC: I never thought of doing anything else. I know my dad may have wanted me to be an architect like he is. I gave that a thought for about 5 minutes then went back to my room to play my guitar.
JGL: Apart from music, what else do you like to do for fun?
EC: Try to keep fit, exercise, bike riding, etc. And I’m into old movies and reading noir dramas, documentaries, some comedy too.
JGL: I have saved this question for last (and Ed, if you don’t want to respond to this question, no worries). In your Downbeat Blindfold Test, you refer to Kenny Burrell as a grand-master of our music, with our music being a statement you originally heard from Dizzy. I am assuming that the phrase our music refers to the African American experience?
EC: Our music is the African American experience. Anyone who says it isn’t is way off base! Who would deny that jazz is an African American creation? (with some good input early on from our Caucasian musical brethren. Now everyone is in on it)
Bop was created by Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian, Charles Parker, Kenny Clarke at Dizzys apartment at 2040 7th ave, Harlem, New York! Or at Monks’ place, or at Minton’s Playhouse at 210w 118th Harlem, NYC. And Dizzy said the term bop was created by some magazine, that there was no formally given name to what was being played, they just called it “our music”
JGL: This brings me to the questions is Jazz purely a cultural or racial experience akin to the notion of the current BAM movement?
EC: Look, I don’t want to get into all this racial/political conversation. That’s a whole other subject that could take forever to answer. I’m just a guitar player with a bit of knowledge about the history of our music
JGL: Is there still a racial divide between black and white musicians or are we all just getting along?
EC: Divide? Yes! But getting much better. There are still gigs and groups that will have all white musicians and there are gigs/groups where there are all black musicians..
I read somewhere where Miles said he didn’t care what color a person was as long as they could play (Dizzy and Charlie Parker may have had the second high profile integrated jazz group with Al Haig on piano and Benny Goodman was the first integrated jazz group as far as I know). Miles also said something like “you could tell that a white guy was alright if he had black musicians in his band”.
Whats kind of different now is that you can often go to Harlem and see an all white band playing “our music” in a black club. Rarely does that happen for black musicians in many “suburban” music venues
JGL: In 2014, with Rap and Hip-Hop being the ubiquitous life reference amongst a large majority of black youth, where does Jazz or BAM fit in with this young generation?
EC: With people like Nicholas Payton, Robert Glasper and others of this generation. The kids will hopefully get into the music through them.
JGL: As a past faculty member of the Montclair State University, School of Fine and Performing Arts for J.O.Y. (Jazz Opportunity for Youth), Essex Community College, Henry Street Settlement, and a current educator with the Jazzmobile, do you see the music having an impact in the lives of African-American youth? Basically, is there hope for Jazz/BAM in the years to come?
EC: I’m no longer with any of these organizations. I see kids one on one in my home. The ones I see are committed to the instrument and want to learn more about the history. But because of economics I see less and less African American kids in the music schools and summer clinics (these schools and band camps are not cheap). Its a shame too. In a perfect world, these would be free to kids 18 and under with classes in the inner city year round
JGL: Thank you Ed for your candor and for taking the time to participate in Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career and life.
EC: Thank you Lyle.
You can find out more info on Ed by visiting his website at http://edcherrymusic.com/