Larry Camp is a wonderful jazz guitarist out of Petersburgh, Florida who has played with a lot of heavy jazz cats including Dizzy Gillespie and Gary Bartz among other top names. In this interview he shares his thoughts on everything from his musical background, to his endorsement of Devoe Arch-Tops to how he gets his great tone. Like all the guitarists on Jazz Guitar Life, Larry is the real deal. A must read indeed.
Interview by Lyle Robinson via email 2004
“I would just like to see jazz guitar and jazz in general recognized for the art form it is and kept alive. I am very concerned that young people are not being exposed to music in general and jazz in particular these days. Its not happening in the schools, and its happening less and less it seems in the entertainment venues such as nightclubs and bars where it used to flourish.”
JGL: How old are you?
LC: I’m 52 years young.
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
LC: I live in St. Petersburg, Florida, and play quite a bit in the Tampa Bay Area.
JGL: At what age did you first get into guitar playing and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? What was the motivating experience to get you involved in this particular music and instrument?
LC: I was 12 years old when I picked up the guitar. It wasn’t jazz that inspired me, it was the Beatles and rock n roll that inspired me. I feel like it was a natural evolution. I got tired of just playing the blues and was looking for other sounds when I discovered jazz through George Benson and Larry Coryell’s records. That was back when there were records and not CD’s, and I would wear them out copying their solos.
JGL: What kind, if any, formal training do you have (ie: lessons, schooling, that sort of thing). And how did these experiences help you get where you are today?
LC: I took private lessons for one year from a guitarist in Richmond, Virginia, named Jerry Fields. And he showed me basic jazz chords and how to read and write music. I studied jazz at the University of Miami for four years, also. These experiences taught me musical theory, harmony, and composition. I also learned how to arrange for a big band, and I have found these skills to be invaluable in the real world. I don’t think I would have been able to achieve this level of musicianship without this background. It was very important to my development as a musician, not just as a guitarist.
JGL: Your biography on your site states that you have taken lessons from some heavy players like Jimmy Bruno, Joe Pass and Howard Alden. Could you talk a bit about how you came to approach these individuals to take those lessons and was the experience at all what you expected?
LC: Both Joe Pass and Howard Alden, I approached at the night clubs they were playing at, and in both cases I went to their hotel rooms the next day and took lessons from them. In each case we ended up hitting it off pretty well musically, and in the case of Joe Pass he charged me a box of cigars for his lesson. Since then Ive stayed in regular contact with Howard Alden and consider him a friend. I actively sought out Jimmy Bruno. I drove to Philadelphia to get a lesson, and remember this was back before his was famous. He showed me quite a bit about teaching methods and all of the techniques he uses on his videos he showed me in the course of one day. We ended up going out and getting Philly cheese steaks for his whole family and I had dinner with them. And then I drove home to Baltimore in the middle of a snow storm. Jimmy is truly a nice guy and world-class guitarist. We are friends to this day, and in fact I played with him at the 2001 American Classic Guitar Show, and it was quite a thrill.
JGL: What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes?
LC: When I first started playing, I didn’t have much of a practice routine at all. It wasn’t until I started studying formally that I learned the value of practice. I would practice technique, scales, arpeggios, and the usual guitar-related exercises, same as everyone else, until my fingers were sore. Sometimes I would practice eight or twelve hours a day. I still work on some specific areas, especially my technique. Ive switched now to playing a lot of acoustic guitar and it requires a more disciplined technique to articulate the musical phrases and get the required volume from the instrument. I still practice learning songs and playing through their harmonies, and will occasionally transcribe a song or a solo if it grabs my attention.
JGL: What was your first guitar?
LC: My first guitar was a $13.00 True Tone from Western Auto that my dad bought me. The action was so high you could shoot arrows with it. Today I play a DeVoe Archtop, and a Selmer-type guitar made by Shelly Park. I went through a collecting phase, and I have accumulated a lot of guitars over the years, too many to name but I love them all.
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? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
LC: George Benson and Larry Coryell were my first jazz guitar influences. Then came Joe Pass. After Joe, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Kenny Burrell were the cats that I really dug. I still love all of these players and I still learn a lot from them, but now a-days my tastes have broadened and I listen to a lot of new players like Ben Monder (we shared a semester at U of M together), Kurt Rosenwinkle, Mark Elf, Dan Rafferty, and Anthony Wilson. Im also big on Gypsy Jazz these days. Im very much into Django Reinhardt and modern gypsy players such as Birilli Lagrene, Angelo DeBarre, Stocholo Rosenberg, Fapy Lafertine, Jimmy Rosenberg and Tchovolo Schmidt. As far a non-guitarists go, Charlie Parker was a huge influence along with the entire lineage of bebop saxophonists and trumpet players. I also love the bebop piano players such as Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Tommy Flanagan, and the modernists like Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea. There are so many great young players today, its hard to keep up with whats happening, but I do my best to stay current.
JGL: When you were younger what was your band experiences like? Did you have friends who were involved in music as well or did you have to search for people to play with.
LC: I started playing in teen clubs in my teens. I left home at 18, and played professionally in dance bands and rock bands and pop bands until I was 25 years old. I then went to University of Miami to study music, and when I left Miami I moved to Baltimore. Ive been playing jazz ever since, and I have been really lucky to meet and play with some great musicians. In 1994 I moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. And I continue to play music, teach, record, and enjoy music more than I ever have.
JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did to make this choice work for you?
LC: YES. And all of the above. It obviously requires a lot of work, dedication, and patience.
JGL: How has being a jazz guitar player affected your personal or social life? Or has there been no effect what so ever?
LC: It certainly didn’t make me rich. And most of the friends I have are musicians. If you call that a social life, then I guess it hasn’t affected it much.
JGL: Were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice?
LC: My dad wasn’t, he thought I should get a degree in business; however, my mom was very supportive. Eventually, my dad relented and paid for my schooling. Unfortunately, he died while I was going to school at the University of Miami. I think he would have been proud of me. My mom, up until her death a few years ago has been very supportive of my work and life as a musician.
JGL: How difficult do you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player? Or have you found it to be relatively easy?
LC: Almost impossible. You need to back it up with teaching, and playing commercial gigs from time to time to make money.
JGL: How do you go about searching for gigs? And what have you found in your experience that makes looking for gigs easier?
LC: I find that working as a side man comes easier these days because I am known. However, working as a leader, or my own music, requires that you have a CD, that you have a promo package, and that you hustle and stay on the phone just like everyone else, that part doesn’t seem to get easier.
JGL: Could you describe some of your best musical situations or experiences and the worst?
LC: Two of my most memorable situations were playing with Dizzy Gillespie, in Baltimore, and also in Baltimore playing with Gary Bartz at the Jazz Closet. I got to play with many well-known musicians at the Jazz Closet such as: Gary Bartz, Woody Shaw, Junior Cook, and a host of others. I would really rather forget the worst situations, although some of them might make some pretty funny stories. They could also be a little bit embarrassing. Well save that for another interview.
JGL: What type of musical situation do you enjoy the most (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.)
LC: That’s a hard question because I like them all equally. Each situation has its own challenges. I think playing duo or trio is probably the most demanding, other than playing solo guitar. The freedom that you get when playing in a trio and everyone is listening to each other can be very exhilarating and rewarding for us, the musicians, and the audience as well. It can also be scary if you are playing with the wrong cats.
JGL: Would you talk a bit about your other group Impromptu and how it came to be? What are the challenges playing the Django or Gypsy style compared to the more mainstream jazz style? And is this style of music more popular with audiences than Bop or swing or any other mainstream style?
LC: It started as a weekly get-together between myself and Nick Baltic, the other guitarist in the group. We would get together and just try to play songs by Django. We had so much fun we eventually invited a bass player, and then a violinist to rehearse with us once a week, and we really loved the sound, so we started booking it as a group. Surprisingly, it has been moderately successful. It seems that people respond to this music simply because its so different from what they’re used to. The music also has an upbeat vibe to it, that’s very positive and uplifting. The challenges are that Ive never done it before, and playing acoustic guitar requires a different technique than electric archtop. Its a more percussive technique and requires considerable chops to accomplish and get enough sound (volume) out of the acoustic guitar. Not to mention, Django’s music is very challenging in and of itself. He was way ahead of his time, and it still sounds modern to me.
JGL: Do you like performing more as a sideman or as a leader? And if you could comment on the pros and cons of both.
LC: I prefer performing as a leader. I guess I’m a control freak. Being a sideman is challenging because you have to please someone else. And its also easy, because you don’t have to do anything but pick up the phone, dress appropriately and show up. But being a leader means that its your name that’s on the line if the people don’t like the music. But there is more of a sense of satisfaction in being a leader, because the final product is an expression of yourself.
JGL: Your bio states that you have played for the President of the United States. First off, which President did you play for and would you talk a bit about how that came to pass and what the experience was like? Also, did it help your career much after that or was it business as usual?
LC: I honestly don’t remember which president it was, but it was at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC with famed jazz violinist Joe Kennedy, Paul Bollenbach and I on guitars, two drummers, two bass players, Charlie Covington on piano, and Joe on violin. I don’t think it did anything to help my career, but it certainly didn’t do anything to hurt it.
JGL: I read on your site that you have played with Marcus Belgrave and Julius Hemphill for the Baltimore BCCM and Dizzy Gillespie, Gary Bartz and Woody Shaw in Baltimore at the Jazz Closet. These are some of the most recognized names in Jazz history. Would you talk a bit about you came to play with these greats and what were those experiences like?
LC: Julius Hemphill and Marcus Bellgrave were visiting artists for the Baltimore Center for Creative Music, and I was involved in that for a short time through a tenor saxophonist named Bob Gray and an alto saxophonist named Carl Grubbs, who was John Coltrane’s cousin. Carl and Earl Grubbs did an album, I believe on Muse, called The Visit. You have to remember this was almost twenty years ago, so its real hard for me to remember what the concerts were like. I know that the music was much more organized than a lot of people would think with them being regarded as avant-garde players. I also performed with Ken McIntyre during that period, and this was with a big band with strings and orchestra, and was highly composed and structured. Dizzy Gillespie, I played with at UMBC, a college in Baltimore, with the UMBC big band. Woody Shaw, I played with for several nights at the Jazz Closet while playing in Gary Bartz house band. They were all great experiences. I learned a lot from them, and value them. But I also learned from players that aren’t famous, too, and never will be. This is where the music is really passed down, in the trenches. But I have been very fortunate to have had these musical experiences with such great players.
JGL: You have played a number of European Festivals. Would you describe how life is like on the road and how does one manage it and stay healthy at the same time? Or is such a thing possible?
LC: The festivals Ive played in Europe were with a swing band called Hot Jazz. As far as being on the road, we were treated very well, stayed in first class hotels and ate good food. There was really nothing to complain about, Europeans treat jazz musicians very well. The key, I think, to handling the road is to avoid excess of alcohol, drugs, and too much partying. If you just stick to the business at hand and follow the itinerary, you’ll be all right. I chose to look at it more as a vacation and sightseeing adventure than a job I had to do.
JGL: Among the many things I enjoy about your playing, your sound is something that I immediately loved. How have you been able to achieve such a beautiful tone?
LC: I try to imagine the voice of the guitar in my head as a human voice. And I also think a lot of it, especially when recording, is just luck of the draw. You’ve got to hope that the engineer is having a good day, both when recording it and mixing it. I also believe in using really good guitars like the DeVoe archtop that I used on my CD Campfire. A lot of it, I suppose is in my fingers and the way I pick. I’m simply trying to reproduce the sound that I hear in my head. I’m really glad you like my sound.
JGL: And speaking of sound, your guitar is quite beautiful to look at it and I’m sure its a dream to play. Could you talk a bit about it and how you came to endorse the Devoe Arch Top?
LC: I met Tom DeVoe at the American Classic Guitar Show in Long Island, New York, in 2001. I played one of his guitars at the show, and called him on the phone a few weeks later and ended up buying the guitar that I played at the show. It turns out he lives only about 45 minutes from me in Holiday Florida. So, its like having my own personal luthier and repair man all in one. I feel that Toms guitars are highly under-rated and that he makes the best carved top archtop guitar for the money. Tom has really learned how to produce a great-sounding guitar that also happens to be beautiful. They are not just pretty pieces of furniture. Ive been endorsing his guitars for over two years, and I still think his guitars are some of the best Ive ever played.
JGL: Without a doubt you are a first class player in my book and I’m sure those that have, or will, hear you will state the same. How is it then that you are not a more known commodity in the Jazz Guitar World, or are you and this is a fact that has been hidden from me?
LC: I would just like to say this, fame is not necessarily something that I actively sought. I was always more concerned about the music than being known. However, music is a business, and I understand the value of self-promotion. I just have never been very good at it. Hopefully, with the release of my CD, that will change, and people, (other than just musicians) will know who I am and be drawn to the music.
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.
LC: Never. However, I think I would have made a good artist as I was always able to draw and paint really well without too much effort or training. But I chose music, and Ive never regretted it.
JGL: Where would you like to see jazz guitar go in the coming years?
LC: I’m not so interested in where its going to go, as I am in simply keeping the flame alive. I would just like to see jazz guitar and jazz in general recognized for the art form it is and kept alive. I am very concerned that young people are not being exposed to music in general and jazz in particular these days. Its not happening in the schools, and its happening less and less it seems in the entertainment venues such as nightclubs and bars where it used to flourish. We play jazz concerts that are usually well attended, but often these don’t include the younger audience, which is a shame. I think they are exposed entirely too much to pop radio, rap, and MTV, and really don’t get exposed to live jazz. The schools cant do it all. If jazz is not included in our daily lives, as part of our culture, it stands the very real chance of not surviving as a real-life art form.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
LC: Listen. Practice. Study with a great teacher, and listen some more. And make sure you have a day job, because jazz is no way to make a living anymore.
JGL: Thank you Larry for participating on Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated.
LC: Its been my pleasure to participate in this interview, and to be a part of your jazz guitar website. I think you are performing a valuable service, and I wish you the best of luck.
For more info about Larry, check out his website at www.larrycamp.com