I first met Jacques Lesure on Facebook and immediately realized that he was not only passionate about Jazz and Jazz Guitar, but more importantly, his role within that community. Since then, Ive come to enjoy his philosophizing and while some may consider him to be more than a tad out-spoken, it comes from a place that cares deeply for the tradition and the craft that continues on that great tradition.
In this interview, Mr. Lesure talks about his passion, the music education system, racial division and what his gravest fear is! A definite must read!!
Interview by Lyle Robinson via email 2015
“Bandstand mentoring is still an important vehicle for those up and coming to be well-rounded musicians and to have a sustainable career. The bandstand teaches life.”
JGL: If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?
JL: 53 years old. I was born and raised in Detroit,Michigan
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
JL: Los Angeles, California
JGL: Before we begin, please give Jazz Guitar Life readers a quick elevator pitch of who Jacques Lesure is.
JL: My elevator pitch is I is a man who loves God, his family, Jazz music, and the endless pursuit of excellence.
JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing?
JL: I’ve been playing guitar for 43 years. I began playing when I was ten years old.
JGL: Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?
JL: No. In 2nd or 3rd grade I joined the school band and played trumpet and later added bassoon. I played band and classical music. This began my interest in music overall. At the age of ten, when I started learning guitar, blues, R & B, gospel and other forms begin to peak my interest.
JGL: 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”!
JL: Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Charlie Brown had jazz music consistently throughout their shows. The sound appealed to me immensely. I wanted to know what THAT sound was. Mr. Rogers would feature jazz performances. When I saw Joe “Handyman” Negri play guitar on the show, I said, “Wow, I want to do that too” I was about 11 yrs. old.
JGL: Similarly, Was there a defining moment when you decided that Jazz Guitar would/could be your career path?
JL: I was about 13 years old and my parents brought home the George Benson “Breezin” LP. I was in my room practicing my guitar. My mom was cleaning the house and playing the track “Breezin”. When I heard the round, full sound of his guitar coupled with his scat singing, I stopped, came out of my room and was drawn to the Hi-Fi like a magnet. I picked up the album and read all the credits. It was my first introduction to the forms of jazz music. I have been in love ever since and knew that’s what I wanted to do as a career.
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?
JL: My first guitar was a Fender Thinline Telecaster (the one with the F-holes). Today, I play a guitar that was made for me by Vatroslav Sabolovic, made in France. (For more info: sabolovic.com) He is a wonderful builder of guitars and I proud to play his instrument.
JGL: What other gear are you using?
JL: Guitar wise, I have a Gibson L-5 from the 70’s, a couple of current model D’Angelicos, an early model Eastman, and a few other nondescript guitars. For tube amplification I use Fender and for solid-state I use Henriksen. I use Reunion Blues gig bags and accessories, LaBella strings, and beautifully made Revo guitar straps. I power everything with Essential Sounds products.
JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?
JL: My early influences on jazz guitar were my Detroit heroes, Perry Hughes and Earl Klugh. They directed me to listen to Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, and early George Benson. My influences have pretty much stayed the same.
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
JL: Of course, I listen to my good friends who are also amazing musicians, Russell Malone, Bobby Broom, Ed Cherry, and Peter Bernstein. I also listen to many jazz saxophone and piano players too numerous to mention. However, people like Eric Reed, who is like family, saxophonists Eric Wyatt and Ralph Moore are continuing the legacy of true jazz music.
JGL: Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
JL: Jerry Byrd has been the most influential in my life. Jerry Byrd is from Pittsburgh, PA and grew up with George Benson. He was also a protégé of Wes Montgomery. Wes gave Jerry a guitar and he played for many years in the Freddy Cole Trio. He currently lives in Thailand. Jerry is the one who really straightened me out after college. I was loaded with information but not application. He connected the dots of life, human nature, and performance for me. I started to see being a jazz musician as a lifestyle. He helped me develop a keener love of all the arts and the finer things of life. He was an extension of my biological father who was very similar in his core values.
JGL: What is your take on Jazz education today? Is the band-stand still as important as a mentoring vehicle as it once was?
JL: Jazz education today, I believe, has lost its focus. It is now a commercial industry. One can obtain a degree and become a “jazz musician.” Many of the people who they most discuss and emulate in these formal programs, i.e. the jazz greats, never attended or finished college. Many of them could barely read music. They learned to play through an apprenticeship which happened on the bandstand. College students these days are learning to be “jazz musicians” in very controlled environments that often do not include the bandstand acumen. Their live performances feel like, their combo rehearsals. What they are lacking is the bandstand experience. They lack the skills of audience engagement. They are not given room for failure and feedback (which can assist in musical development). The do not have an appreciation for tenured musicians and their audiences are mainly their peers. They no longer have to take any lumps. These lumps were important for me and others to grow musically. Bandstand mentoring is still an important vehicle for those up and coming to be well-rounded musicians and to have a sustainable career. The bandstand teaches life.
JGL: The above being said, 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?
JL: I do take a limited number of students. I can be reached at jacqueslesure.com. I prefer that they have either seen me play live or have listened to my music. I prefer students that have an intermediate proficiency on guitar and have a true love for jazz music.
JGL: For the student of Jazz Guitar, what would you say is the most important thing to do when learning this art form?
JL: Understand that who you are as a person is going to directly correlate to how you interpret, feel, and express yourself musically. Your personality is going to determine the rate at which you learn, how much you retain, and your musical output.
JGL: What is your practice routine like these days? Do you work on specific things or just play tunes?
JL: My practice consists of at least 2-3 hours of practice daily. This does not necessarily mean 2-3 hours straight playing guitar. It also includes listening and reading. I work on theoretical concepts and I play through tunes. My most important focus is my rhythm including timing on single note phrases, as well as “comping.”
JGL: I notice that you do not use a pick when you play but rather prefer using your thumb. Was this a conscious decision you made at some point in your technical development, a nod to Wes perhaps or was it more of a natural occurrence?
JL: I began playing with a pick. I noticed over the years as I practiced, I would sometimes not use the pick. However, for some reason, I was able to maintain fairly good facility with a pick. If the truth be told, I never truly “enjoyed” using the pick. It was a device that allowed me to play fast but not necessarily musical. One day, while being in the company of George Benson, he looked at me playing with my thumb and said, “Man, you have a thumb like Wes. You should develop that.” Not only did he say it, but Kenny Burrell and countless other guitarists told me the same thing. It posed a dilemma for me because I felt as if I could not compete with all of the other cats playing fast. Then I realized that there was no need to compete. I love the sound of my thumb, had not problem playing what I truly wanted or needed to play, and my fans loved it too. I was also very close to the late Jimmy Ponder who was also a mentor to me playing with my thumb. It’s no turning back now.
JGL: It has been noted that you have performed with many great musical luminaries such as Kenny Burrell, Oscar Brown Jr., Jimmy Smith, Stanley Turrentine, Freddy Cole, Wynton Marsalis, George Benson, Jack McDuff, Les McCann, Carmen Lundy, Oliver Lake, and many others Having worked with such a diverse group of top-shelf performers, what has been your take-away in all of this over the past 30 years or so that you’ve been playing.
JL: My take-away is that one must truly be oneself, maintain integrity, and have a balanced life to be a successful musician.
JGL: 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?
JL: I like them both. I don’t prefer one over the other. When you are a leader, you are 100% responsible for all that occurs, pre-gig, doing performance, and post gig. You are the face of the performance. Whatever the sidemen do, the leader is responsible. That’s why it’s important to develop leadership skills. Your name in front is not enough. As a sideman, your role is to support the leader and make their job as easy as possible. This includes open communication, punctuality, and of course musicality that is in the context of what the leader requires of their music. In both roles, it’s not about you, but what you create on the bandstand.
JGL: Is there a particular musical grouping you enjoy playing with organ trio, quartet, etc and if so, why?
JL: Yes. I enjoy guitar quartet with piano, organ trio, and duo with a good bass player or saxophonist. These configurations, I feel, allows a guitarist to utilize various skill sets.
JGL: With all the performers you have played with, are there any experiences or stories positive and/or negative that you would like to share with the readers?
JL: Yes. My first time playing with organist Jimmy Smith, I had no rehearsal. He didn’t even know who I was. It was a referral. I had one phone conversation with him prior to the gig. We met at the sound check and ran over a few things. The performance was n front of 5000 people. We came on stage and played one song, “The Sermon.” After that song, he announced the band to the audience and then said, “We will now feature the guitar player.” Then he left the stage with the drummer and the saxophone player. At that point, I almost blacked-out, LOL. But I played a solo piece. I don’t even remember what t was, but I remember people applauding, so it must have been okay. Then, I look in the wings of the stage and there is Jimmy, waving me on to play ANOTHER one! That’s bandstand mentoring at its best.
JGL: Do you still put together the “No Nonsense Jam Session” and could you talk a little about the importance of the Jam Session and what one should bring to the table for such an event?
JL: I am currently not running the session. But jam sessions are very important. When one comes to a session, they must keep in mind that it’s not only a performance opportunity. It is one of the best times to learn something, ask questions, network, and experiment. Participants should always be respectful to the host and other participants. Lastly, DON’T PLAY LONG.
JGL: As far as I know you have two CD’s out as a leader which have been released within the last two to three years. It seems like you waited a while before putting out your own CD as a leader. Was this a strategic move on your part or did you feel that were you just not ready, and if so, what changed?
JL: As a working musician, we have a tendency to fill our calendar up with gigs, without considering longevity, life and career transitions. I have been blessed to work, travel extensively and work with some of the best musicians in jazz. However, I was not cementing my legacy in jazz music. Then the time came to record. I was approached by drummer, Willie Jones III, who owns, WJ3 Records, and was able to sign to his label. This label has some of the top names on its roster. I’m very fortunate to be a part of this family.
JGL: How difficult do you/did you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player, or have you found it to be relatively easy? Consequently, as an independent artist/performer/educator, how do you go about marketing yourself? Are there any tools that you have come across that you have found to be effective and would like to share with Jazz Guitar Life readers?
JL: Just like any other form of entertainment or art form, things are cyclical. There are ups and downs, highs and lows. People are going to choose to eat and pay their mortgage before they go hear a jazz concert or buy a CD. So, during the feast times, one must save, use their resources wisely, and adopt diversified skills. Then, when the famine comes, you can ride it out. I believe that word-of-mouth and utilization of social media are no-brainers in terms of marketing. Also, a well-developed, user friendly, website is the first step.
JGL: You have been described by some as not only an Ambassador of Jazz, but maybe more importantly, as an Ambassador of the Black experience in Jazz. Given the racial and cultural origins of this music and given that it is now 2016 is there still issues of racial division on either side or to coin a phrase, can we all get along?
JL: Yes. The racial divide still exists. But we can all get along if we CHOOSE. It is an unspoken “elephant in the room” when it comes to who the major promoters and purveyors, and noted educators are in this music. They are predominantly outside of the African-American culture. They music is a direct creation of African-Americans. Of course the raw materials such as, the instruments and harmonies are worldwide derivatives. However, they were put together into the musical shape that we now call jazz. African-Americans started the music in New Orleans and it branched out into the major, urban metropolises. Along with this, came a CULTURE that supported the music and that is the African-American experience. You can’t have jazz without honoring, acknowledging, protecting, and preserving the culture that engulfs the music. There is no stand-alone jazz concept. Even though that’s what one would think if they were to view the current climate of today’s jazz music in its performance and educational platforms. You cannot create a sub-culture and pass it off as the original.
I believe the number of people receiving degrees in jazz study and performance would diminish if it were called African-American, Urban Improvised music. I think many parents, outside of the African-American culture would discourage their children from majoring in that. “Jazz” seems to be a safe word.
JGL: You have been, and continue to be, a mentor to up and comers. With the now almost ubiquitous role of Hip Hop on Black youth culture, how much of a challenge is it to get young black minds to care about Jazz and its historic impact on their community?
JL: It’s quite a challenge. Due to the lack of music education at the elementary level and lack of exposure to performance of jazz music in urban and undeserved areas, one must seek out opportunities to deliver the message of the power of this beautiful music. It cannot be presented in a way that isolates or appears unattainable to Black youth. They have to view it as much a part of their culture as they do Hip Hop. Many of the youth who are entrenched in Hip Hop, unfortunately, don’t have parents who are jazz astute. It’s a large undertaking to expose parents who will ultimately influence their children. Jazz music needs to be in pre-schools and prisons to serve black youth. Playing jazz in pre-schools will provide the perfect opportunity to expose young, pliable minds to the music. Playing jazz in prisons, will give an alternative and a different outlook to life that may diminish recidivism.
JGL: Going in a different direction, your don’t hide the fact that your religious faith is very strong! How if at all has your faith impacted your role as a musician?
JL: As a Christian, my faith is THE most important aspect of my music. I believe God gives me the talent and the ability to nurture that talent to its highest level. I believe God created music for our enjoyment and for our healing. My faith has allowed me and others like me to show that in order to play jazz music you do not have fall into the varied stereotypes that many attached the jazz musicians. You can have a family, live a clean life, and still play jazz at a high level.
JGL: In an online interview at another Jazz related site you were asked Whats your greatest fear when you perform? and you replied Boring the audience with virtuosity. Given the almost competitive nature of Jazz where for some if not most virtuosity is an envied end-goal, would you mind expanding on your response a little more please?
JL: Yes. When we talk about virtuosity in jazz 9 times out of 10 we are talking about speed and the number of notes someone plays. I don’t think jazz is truly competitive, I think the music business is. But it doesn’t have to be. There is room for everyone. My goal, when I stand in front of an audience, is to connect with them emotionally. Of course, I want to play my very best. But I get to determine what that is. If I’m competing with anyone, it would be myself to be the best I can be. I have seen some of the world’s greatest players bore an audience senseless because they were not engaging. Because of their stature, many in the audience were too embarrassed to say that they did not enjoy the performance.
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?
JL: I would like perform to do more master classes and workshops around the world. I would also like to own my own venue.
JGL: 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.
JL: I would be a psychotherapist (I have a psychology degree) or I would be an attorney. I am also currently, an ordained minister.
JGL: Apart from music, what else do you like to do for fun?
JL: I like to spend time with my wife and family and read. I’m also a wine connoisseur. I am a big fan of independent film as well.
JGL: As we wrap this up Jacques, do you have any parting advice for the younger guy or gal out there who might be considering a career as a jazz guitar player?
- Look at who you are as a person.
- Become clear on your true motive for wanting to play music.
- Develop the highest proficiency and level of musicality you can.
- Learn the historical high points and iconic figures of the music.
- Learn confidence in yourself without being arrogant.
- Never stop studying.
- Be a well-balanced person of integrity
- SWING ON!!
JGL: Excellent advice! Thank you so much Jacques for taking the time to be on Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career and life.
JL: Thank you Lyle.
For more info on Jacques Lesure, please visit his website at https://www.jacqueslesure.com