Michael Gauthier is a popular Montreal Jazz Guitarist and Educator who has been making a living with guitar in hand since the early seventies. In this interview, Micheal discusses the music business, past and present, his career as both a performer and teacher, and his take on why Jazz Guitar legend Kenny Burrell wouldn’t give him a guitar lesson. A fun and insightful read on how it is living the life as a Jazz Guitarist.
Interview by Lye Robinson in person 2010.
“At best, the least I can be is someone who inspires somebody by my enthusiasm towards this music and guitar. I also believe that to teach I need to also be doing gigs in Jazz, which is why I get hired to teach. I can’t see myself as being someone who shows things to somebody else without having first done it myself. And/or have discovered what I consider to be pertinent.”
JGL: Welcome Michael to Jazz Guitar Life and thanks for being here.
MG: You’re very welcome Lyle, it’s nice to be here. So are you going to start with your first traditional question?
JGL: LOL…Yes I am! So Michael, how old are you?
MG: Old enough to know better, to tell you the truth. But to be even more truthful, I’m 57 years old.
JGL: Thanks for that Michael. Now, for those readers who may not know who you are, tell us a bit about yourself.
MG: Well…I’m from Drummondville, Quebec, which is about an hours drive from Montreal. There was really nothing out of the ordinary growing up in a small town, other than I do remember Drummondville, for whatever reason, being quite a musical active little town. Being able to pick up an instrument and getting into a little band to play in, well, there seemed to be no problem in getting at least that far. And as a matter of fact, there seems to be a lot of musicians who have come from Drummondville and have moved to Montreal primarily and have made something of themselves.
JGL: Cool! Any names in particular?
MG: Michel Cusson (Quebec and International Jazz Fusion group UZEB Guitarist) comes from Drummondville. Jean-Marie Benoît, are you familiar with him?
MG: He just passed away recently. He was an incredible musician and one of the top studio players in Montreal.
JGL: Nice! Can you think of anymore?
MG: Hmmm, not off hand…but those two are enough…
JGL: And Mike Gauthier…
MG: Yes! And Mike Gauthier…So to continue my story…I started to play guitar in the 1960’s when the Beatles came out and learned their tunes along with the Dave Clark Five, House Of The Rising Sun, all that stuff when you learn to play D, G, A…
JGL: A minor…
MG: Yeah (chuckles), A minor…and got into little bands. Actually I started playing in bands just a little before the time Cream and Hendrix hit the scene. I remember when The Yardbirds started, that was a big learning experience, Jeff Beck with The Yardbirds. And then Clapton with Cream and John Mayall and the Blues Breakers any Jimi Hendrix of course! That was my fundamentals and those guys were my “teachers”. Now this was still when I was in regular ol’ school.
Then, around 1972 or 1973 I decided to forget school, I just wanted to play and I went on the road with a rock band and played many of the hotels in the Province of Quebec and around Ontario. And I did that for about a year and it was really a lot of fun and a great learning experience. I learned how to play like a professional. Then I discovered Classical Guitar.
While I was in that rock band, the bands that were becoming important on the scene, bands like Yes, Gentle Giant, Genesis, Jethro Tull, the pro rock scene. I realized that most of these guys had some kind of Classical background training, and that they could either read and/or write music or had some training in composition. So then I decided to study Classical Guitar. So I quit this band business and studied Classical Guitar for two or three years and loved it enormously! I thought it was incredible and I STILL do!
JGL: Did you study privately?
MG: Yes I did. And I went back to school to CEGEP (Quebec version of College), and learned a bit of harmony and counterpoint, and also learned how to read music at the ripe old age of 22 or something like that.
And then one summer when I was on summer vacation, you know, I had to make some money, someone phoned me up and asked if I would like to be in a band to play throughout the summer and do some club stuff and I said sure.
So I began playing with this band and they had a remarkable musician, a fellow originally from St. Jovite named Carl Desforges. Carl could sing like Stevie Wonder, he played guitar, piano, soprano saxophone, played drums, played bass, flute, basically he could play anything he wanted to. Any musical instrument he put his hands on he seemed to be able to pick up. And he introduced me to Jazz.
We were playing some light, Pop Jazz on the gig and Carl could sit at the piano, or pick up a guitar and actually blow on those tunes. And myself, who at that time was considered a pretty good guitar player and an accomplished Rock improviser, was kind of challenged by this. So I thought, “Well, I’m supposed to be a pretty good guitar player so I’m going to figure this stuff out!”…just as a challenge. I said to myself that I would fool around with this stuff for a month and get it…lol. Yes indeed! Now that was how many years ago? And I’m still fooling around trying to get it!
JGL: Were you listening to Jazz at that point?
MG: Not really. Other than listening to Steve Howe (Yes Guitarist) who claimed to have liked Barney Kessel along with all the other guys. And he actually played lines and didn’t bend strings that much. So from then until today, I got the bug. I got bitten really bad and I just kept on doing it. I gave up the Classical Guitar thing, which while not a lost cause…well…how may people actually earn their living as Concert Guitarists? I mean, apart from those guys who started learning Classical Guitar when they were five years old? It was not to be.
So anyway, from then until today I have been pursuing the goal. THE goal, with a capital G!
JGL: What is the goal?
MG: I think the goal changes as time goes on. The primary goal was to be able to play a Jazz tune, a standard, rhythm changes, anything really. To be able to know some tunes and to actually sound like you know what you were doing. To know what you are doing above and beyond just knowing to play the Dorian mode over a minor 7th chord…to sound like I actually know this language!
So that was the primary goal. And I case it is still the fundamental goal, to be able to sound like a real Jazz Guitar player. Whatever that means! But I think now, for me, the goal is to have an identity. To have a way of playing that is mine! And I’m not saying unique…I mean, how many players around the world truly have a unique way of playing? Those are the giants. But at least something that sounds like me, and contains things that I want to be there. Again, that changes, although not as rapidly as it did along time ago, where it would change from month to month. I would hear a new guy and think…”Yes, that’s what I want to sound like”. But now it boils down to, I know what I like and I like what I know. And I’m trying to shape my playing to that which I like and that which I know, and to be consistent in that little universe of mine.
JGL: So, when you got the bug and you started the challenge of trying to figure this music out, who did you seek out learn this music? Records? Private study?
MG: The first recordings I remember of a Jazz Guitar player just floored me a lot ‘cause I didn’t really know who Joe Pass and like I said, I had heard about Barney Kessel through Steve Howe, but beyond that it was a name only and not music. But thanks to Carl, who I mentioned earlier, he introduced me to Grant Green. He stuck on a cassette for me and said “listen to this guy”. I think it might have been something from the “I Want To Hold Your Hand” album on Blue Note. So I heard that and I went “ah ha…so this is Jazz Guitar!” At least relative to what I wanted to play…
JGL: And you could hear it…
MG: Yeah. Actually, before that, I was becoming aware of guys like John McLaughlin and Al Dimeola you know, the fusion stuff. And without having the knowledge of the more traditional American Guitar players, I guess I though that was it. McLaughlin’s “My Goal’s Beyond” album was Jazz Guitar to me. And it was during that time of the 1970’s where there was this brand new way of playing Jazz Guitar. Jazz Rock! Fusion!
But I would read the liner notes on the back of albums, and they would all mention names like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and once in a while I would even see Wes Montgomery stuck in there. So I figured if all these guys were great, and this is who they listened to, then I’m going to listen to them to if there’s to be any hope. These guys seemed to be the Golden Path, so that was another road which brought me to the core of the experience.
JGL: How old were you then?
MG: 24? In fact, about a year before I was in my car and I heard a tune on the radio and after it was over, the announcer said that it was a guitarist from Montreal by the name of Peter Leitch. It blew me away. At the time, I had switched CEGEP to Three Rivers right after I came back from that summer of discovering Jazz, and I was taking Jazz Guitar lessons. It was alright, but the teacher did not sound like Peter Leitch. So I thought, “well…”..at that time I wasn’t living in Montreal yet, but I was playing in a Fusion band who were out of Montreal and I was pretty much on my way. I was on the cusp of moving to Montreal. So I looked up Peter Leitch, I don’t remember how, and I took three lessons with him which really gave me a solid path to what was supposed to be the way to get where I figured I needed to go.
And I remember Peter Leitch said a couple of things to me which remain with me to this day and I now tell my students the same. These were real gems and they are: Jazz is like a language. You learn words, with words you make sentences, with sentences you make paragraphs, with paragraphs you make chapters, etc. etc…which turns out to be a story. And the second thing he told me which I’ll always remember is: it takes a long time to get good, but if you persist you’ll get there.
MG: And I never gave up! I’m still trying to make it and I’m still trying to get there and I’m gonna persist, I’m not gonna give up.
JGL: Good! You know, that’s the beauty of Jazz, I mean, aside from the commercial aspects involved with the business of Jazz, you could literally make it when you’re 73 years of age.
JGL: The longer you keep at it, the better you get (hopefully), the more mature you become, which I believe is the essence, and nature of a life committed to the study of Jazz.
MG: Yes! Making it, at least to me, the goal isn’t to make it on in a world recognition or even national recognition sense, but rather it is a personal achievement. Making it is when I do a gig or a recording and as I’m listening back I find myself thinking “Yeah, that was OK!”
JGL: Well Mike, I have no doubt that is going to come for many of us one day…maybe sooner, maybe later. Just as an aside, what kind of music were you playing in the Fusion band?
MG: All original compositions…
JGL: And there was an audience for that?
MG: As a mater of fact, yes.
JGL: At that time…
MG: At that time. It was again, right at the end of an era, like when I was playing rock in the clubs in Quebec. So it was right at the end before Disco hit, and the audience loved it and I had a great time. But, it came to an abrupt end along with the prog rock thing, which you may well remember.
JGL: I do. So what did Disco do to working musicians such as yourself at the time?
MG: It brought in DJ’s. I mean the music had changed and Blues, Rock, improvised music, Disco reduced it all. Not to put it down, because I’m not the type to think that one music is better than something else. And even though there were commercial bands playing Disco, I got off that wagon.
JGL: So what were doing during those years? You have already mentioned that you took a few lessons with Leitch…
MG: Yes, three lessons. Then I took a lesson from a local piano player, Art Roberts, and we hit it off very nicely. He asked me to join his band which was a rehearsing band and not a gigging band. And I ended up hanging out with Art for many years. All the while I kept on asking him questions incessantly and probably was a big pain in the butt most of the time! We talked about music all the time and he turned me on to all kinds of music. In retrospect, that was probably my biggest learning experience.
JGL: He was THE teacher…
MG: He was the mentor. And all the while, I was playing many club dates, bar mitzvah’s weddings…actually, that was a big learning experience because I didn’t have any fake books for this music, I was just playing with older guys who already knew the tunes. It helped me in a way of getting to a tune and learning it on the spot, so by the time the second chorus came around I had pretty much figured the tune out by ear.
I think that’s another valuable experience and I hope that there is still that type of scene out there for musician to latch onto, because in the end it’s a skill that is very, very necessary in Jazz. To be on a stage, listening to what the guys are playing, and to be able to understand and assimilate what everybody is doing immediately is very important. And the same when learning a tune. Instead of running to the fake book, put on the recording and try to figure out the tune by ear as efficiently and quickly as you can, which is what I’ve been doing since the days of Hendrix. I would put on Hendrix’ Manic Depression and try to figure out what he was doing.
But again, all of these experiences, playing in all the various different bands, comes down to basically the only way to learn how to play is to play. And never, at least in the beginning, turn down gigs because it’s not the kind of music you like. Doesn’t matter if it’s a sugar shack band, a rock band, a Bar Mitzvah band, a disco band, just do it!
JGL: I totally agree with you. There’s nothing like just diving in. I had a talk about this same issue with a student a few days ago basically telling him, “…if you fall/fail, get back up and do it again until you fall/fail less and less.” How many times did Charlie Parker get kicked off the bandstand at the beginning of his career?! He kept on playing and wood-shedding until he “got it right” so to speak.
MG: Exactly! When you take the training wheels off the bike, you are doomed to fall more than once. But you get back up on the bike, put on a band-aid and ride.
JGL: So did you have “big ears” from the outset?
MG: I don’t know about having big ears from the outset but they eventually did get bigger by forcing the issue.
JGL: So having accepted the challenge to learn Jazz Guitar and having immersed yourself in it…were there any defining moments when you were younger that made you think “that’s it! I’m getting there!?”
MG: Sure. I mean I can’t put my finger on any specific moment, but there were little moments of discovery. Meaning, if I had a problem with the bridge to “Have You Met Miss Jones”, I can’t get it, I can’t get it, and then one day I GET it…or you finally figure out something and you think, “Oh! Is that all it really is?” Most of my moments were like that. It wasn’t like there was something extremely complex and then I just got it. It’s more like, “…is that all it is? Why didn’t I see that six months ago?”
Take the bridge to the “Girl From Ipanema”, simple as pie. But at the beginning it was like “this is weird! I can’t negotiate these changes! It’s not coming to me.” Then one day you wake up and it’s like “Oh!” Like the last four bars to “Tune Up”, the same thing. So I remember those moments, where all the tumblers fell into place and I went “Oh! Is that all it is!?”
Now I’m not saying that it’s all a secret riddle, but it isn’t rocket science either. It’s the beauty of simplicity. And they still happen once in a while, but not that often because I have the experience.
JGL: So before you had your small moments of discovery, how would you approach a song like the “Girl From Ipanema”?
MG: Chord to chord…
JGL: You mean scale/chord association?
MG: Yes…although that’s not the way I feel you should learn it. A scale to me is simply the alphabet. It’s the same as saying “ok…now you know the alphabet, go write a poem.” Well, what is your poem going to be? Your poem is going to be P, X, R, S, T, V, A, Z, Y. That’s not a poem. I mean, in order to go from the alphabet to writing a poem, you have to learn words, grammar, you have to know what literature has come before, it’s vast! Between the alphabet and William Shakespeare it’s huge.
A lot of method books that are on the market, rightly or wrongly, and I say wrongly, all pretty much say the same thing. When you see a minor 7th chord you play a Dorian mode, when you a Dom 7th chord you play a Mixolydian scale, when you see a Major 7th chord you play such and such. Or when you see this or that chord you play this or that scale and/or arpeggio. Well yeah! It’s going to work and will be sonically and harmonically correct, but it’s not Jazz. It has nothing to do with Jazz. It’s just a bunch of direct notes. But obviously you have to start somewhere. Is it a good place to start however? It’s questionable! I think a good place to start would be to listen to a recording of Stan Getz playing “Girl From Ipanema” and just copy his “words” by listening. If you like an idea that he plays at a particular spot, try and learn it by ear. Then it’s like, “well, if I play the same idea at the same spot then it should sound good ‘cause Getz does the same thing and it sounds good for him.”
Actually, that was the way I learned Rock in the beginning by listening to Clapton and Hendrix. Scale? What’s a scale? I didn’t know what a scale was. But I knew a Clapton lick, I knew what a Hendrix lick was, or a BB King lick. And it sounds good in the Blues structure where he does it so it’s going to sound good in the Blues structure when I do it. I mean it won’t sound as good as those guys but it will sound like I know how to play.
And then you get into the whole Jazz thing and you get under the impression that this is really complicated and has nothing to do with Rock and Blues. It has everything to do with Rock and Blues! It’s the same learning process whether you are learning Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” or John Coltrane’ “Giant Steps”.
So, getting back to “Girl From Ipanema”, I originally did approach by this “paint by numbers” chord/scale relationship approach, but it all sounded disjointed to me. There was no sense of continuity or understanding. Just vague correctness. And that’s not Jazz, that’s not very good actually…lol…I don’t want my playing to be vaguely correct!
But what I ended up finding out is that an enormous amount of musical information is in the melody. More then you’d ever think. How to phrase, what the beautiful notes are, how the “story” develops. The melody on a standard is the story and has “words”. So I listened to the melody of “Girl From Ipanema” and therein I found the key to open the door (sings the melody). You hear it…it’s going up and moving from major to minor. Ahhhh…is that all it is? Divine revelation! So now I can construct an unlimited amount of solos on the bridge, and they’ll all contain that simple information and won’t sound bad. In fact, much of it will sound good.
I have this motto, and it all ties in, it was a statement that I heard from Aaron Copeland: Music should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. And that really struck me. Ever since then that has been my motto, my “mode de jouer”. Don’t forget, simplicity doesn’t mean easy. Paganini Violin Concertos, as complex as they are, are as simple as possible for the end he wanted to reach. Giant Steps solo is as simple as possible for the effect that Coltrane was looking for.
JGL: I guess simplicity is all relative however. I’m sure that Paganini or Coltrane weren’t thinking…”hmmm…how difficult can I make this tune for everybody else?”
MG: More like, “how can I make this work in the most economical way possible?” Economy is simplicity. In simplicity there is infinite complexity, and in complexity, there is infinite simplicity…
JGL: LOL…Yin and Yang…
JGL: This is pretty heady stuff which leads me to my next question. Given that you teach at four higher learning institutions, do you have to follow a prescribed methodology or curriculum that goes against how you personally view your craft as an artist?
MG: No! Luckily, in those places, the teachers are pretty much given freedom of thought. And each teacher teaches differently, which is a good thing. If we each had to follow a certain curriculum each teacher would sound the same. So this way, if someone wanted to switched from one teacher to the next then that’s possible. I would never get offended by this. Students’ normally have two reactions to my teaching, they either love it or they hate it. Which I kind of like. At least they are not indifferent.
The term teacher however, I’m reluctant to use that term to describe myself. Wayne Shorter (saxophonist) said, “Jazz can be learned, but it cannot be taught.” The more I do it, the more I see the wisdom in those words. So, I see myself as a learning enhancer, a learning raconteur, a guitar buddy…something like that…
JGL: A sharer? A passer-down of the knowledge…
MG: Yes. At best, the least I can be is someone who inspires somebody by my enthusiasm towards this music and guitar. I also believe that to teach I need to also be doing gigs in Jazz, which is why I get hired to teach. I can’t see myself as being someone who shows things to somebody else without having first done it myself. And/or have discovered what I consider to be pertinent. I discover, and continue to discover through playing, so when I go give a lesson I have all these little tricks and approaches in my mind and can advise a student who is having trouble with a particular issue because I probably had the same issue at one point and found a solution to work it through. So I am a teacher I guess, but I’m a teacher who plays…or, a player who teaches! But they have to go together.
I remember asking Kenny Burrell for a guitar lesson many years ago in the late‘70’s at the Rising Sun (A great Jazz club in Montreal, long since closed). And it was one of those moments, like the first time I saw George Benson live. I was like “Oh…this is the real deal!” Or like when I saw Ed Bickert, which was not that long ago. You see where the level is at, where the level is really supposed to be.
So anyway, Kenney Burrell, being the esteemed gentleman he always is says, “I wish I could say yes, but I just don’t do that.” Now of course he was already established at this point, but, he was working at the Rising Sun and probably not making that much money, and I was offering to give him forty bucks or more, and way back then that was a lot of money. But he let me down gentle and that has bothered me ever since. Why didn’t Kenny Burrell give me a lesson!? I don’t think he said no to be mean, and there’s something to be said for someone who believes that no, there’s no such thing as showing somebody how to do this.
JGL: It’s not as easy as asking someone, “How do you play this thing…or…whatnots should I be using over this sequence of chords…”
MG: Right! He was probably thinking, “Well, if you want to know how I play something, go buy my records! It’s all there and you can figure it out by yourself. Then you will learn how I play guitar.”
JGL: Nice! Let’s move on to a question that is usually always at the core of a musician’s life: How do you make a living being a Jazz Guitarist? I mean apart from teaching, what else do you do to survive as a Jazz musician?
MG: Well, before I started teaching, at least ten years before, I did gigs. Now, that was a different time, a different era, it was past the heyday of gigs. When I first became a professional guitar player, it was right at the end of the Prog Rock (Progressive Rock) movement in Quebec. And there were still a lot of hotels in the province featuring bands, usually rock bands or occasionally a Pop band, but still, a live band. And in respect, to a degree, it was still possible to survive, make a living, however you define making a living. But it was possible to take care of your basic monetary needs. And then, almost from one year to the next, Disco came in, and all of a sudden you had clubs with a huge mirror ball hanging from the ceiling and a disk jockey. Disco was it, which meant no live bands. And it was really drastic, it wasn’t even a transition from one music to the next, it was a shock! And suddenly the gigs started to dry up pretty quick. So the ability to get gigs every week for pay became very difficult. None the less I managed to hook on to a number of things during that period. I remember playing with some Québécois vadettes, I remember playing with Cesar St. Urbain. I remember playing with a female pop star named Chaline who had a couple of hits. I also did a lot of Bar Mitzvahs and Jewish Wedding type gigs. I remember backing up comedians! All you had to do was play the punch line to each joke. So basically, I took absolutely any gig that anyone ever offered me whether I was prepared musically for it or not. I had no choice and I always believed that in order to become a better musician you have to take gigs that may not be to your taste and that you have to learn how to swim or drown. And in my case I learned how to swim…or at least dog paddle!
But if we’re speaking solely of Jazz gigs, I don’t think, unless you are a huge Jazz star, that you can survive solely on Jazz gigs. And I’m no exception. Those I know, who can pull this off are good Bass players. If you think about it, unless you are in a band with an Organ player, pretty much everyone else needs a Bass player! A duo, a trio, a country band, a polka band, nearly every style band needs a Bass player. Lots of bands don’t have drummers, lots of restaurant bands don’t have drummers, but they usually have a Bass player. And if you are good, so much the better. So I often tell my students to pick up the Bass. I should have done that many years ago. If I would have developed my Bass playing to the level that I tried to develop my Guitar playing, I probably would have gigged a lot more.
So, the teaching therefore subsidizes the Jazz habit. Or…I’ve known a lot of people who have other professions subsidizing their Jazz habit, and they are as good, or better, than those full-time Jazz players. Of course it would be more fun if that’s all you did, but it doesn’t mean that those who are part-timers are less of a musician than the full-time player.
JGL: Exactly! I have met and interviewed a bunch of “part-timers” who have day jobs but who also have a very healthy performing and recording career. It’s the best of both worlds because they do not have to worry about making a living so they can focus on what’s important to them musically….
MG: And they don’t get bitter like a lot of players do! Do you remember Ivan Symonds (Montreal Jazz Guitar player and the great late Nelson Symonds cousin)?
JGL: Of course!
MG: Well, he was a mechanic all his life. Fixed cars and played great!
JGL: True. Have you ever thought of another profession?
MG: No. Like I mentioned, the teaching happened for me, and I guess you could call that my “other” profession.
JGL: Was, and is, your teaching more private students, or institutional?
MG: Well, it started out, way back, every once in a while someone would approach me and ask if I would give them lessons, and I would always say “yes”. So, I did start off teaching privately. And I did not have a set plan for teaching, I basically just taught what I knew. And that continues to this day. Every once in a while, someone will give me a call out of the blue and ask for lessons. And I’m always accommodating.
The institutional based teaching just came by itself. In around 1987 or 88 I started at McGill (University in Montreal). I was asked by Kevin Dean if I would like to give some guitar lessons at McGill and I said “of course!” And then, in 1992, I got a call from the University de Sherbrooke asking if I would come in for a teaching audition. So I went in and was hired to teach there. A year later, Bishops University, in Lennoxville, had heard of me at Sherbrooke and asked if I would also teach music at their school as well. So I did. Then about 7 or 8 years ago, I got a call from Universite de Montreal…you know, Reno DeStefano…and he asked me if I would like teaching here. And I said “OK!” So it just snowballed.
JGL: So you’re continuously commuting back and forth each week!?
JGL: Let’s talk a bit about what’s going on now. I recently caught a show of yours with your band Organ-ization. How did this group come about?
MG: Well, Organ-ization is a trio, and the two founding members are myself and Lorrie Drummond, who is the organist. Lorrie and I had known each other through the years and the group originally began as a few jams here and there with Lorrie, myself and some drummers playing standards. Then we began to each bring in a few originals and at one point decided to put out a CD and put a name to the group. We also began to get some gigs and it suddenly turned into a group. And here we are, eight or nine years later, and it’s still going strong.
JGL: And you now have three CD’s with that group?
MG: Yes, and I have two CD’s under my own name.
JGL: Are those CD’s all originals, or are they a mix of standards and originals?
MG: On my two CD’s there is only one standard, “Georgia On My Mind” and the rest are originals. On the first Organ-ization CD, there’s about forty percent standards and 60 percent originals. Our second CD roughly has about the same. Lately, the focus has been much more on original compositions.
JGL: Is there a reason why you record more original tunes than standards?
MG: I think that things follow a certain fashion. For example, even though you would have tunes like “Moose The Mooch” and “Yardbird Suite” and tunes like, which were considered to be quote-unquote, originals, most were still based, if not all, on standard chord progressions. So it allowed you to write a head but not pay any royalties.
Then the hard-bop era came in and the jazz guys started focusing on original music again. And I say again because early jazz, from New Orleans and that ear, all featured original music. Jelly Roll Morton played mostly all original music…and that was the fashion. That mostly went away when the Bop movement came onto the scene, at least when it came down to writing 100 percent original music.
So the hard bop guys brought it back, especially when Coltrane and Miles, and cats like that started coming out with unique original tunes. Then with the fusion era and so on, the whole idea of being a jazz artist meant that not only were to have an original way of playing, but that you were also able to write original music from the bottom up. And that is more so now these days as the focus, especially with younger players coming up, is on writing original tunes, for better or for worse! The greatest of players are not always the greatest composers. At least with standards, they are true classics and you can’t usually go wrong. “Days of Wine and Roses” is always going to be a great song. And it goes the other way too. The greatest composers aren’t always the greatest instrumentalists.
These days however, you are expected to be able to play the full spectrum of both original tunes and standards.
JGL: So the new Organ-ization CD is all original tunes, as opposed to your previous two CD’s that featured roughly half and half. Was this a conscious choice to do only originals for the new CD?
MG: Well, we had worked on the new tunes a lot and we had also played them in public at our gigs so we felt that this CD should be a reflection of where we were presently as a group.
Another factor is that when you include standards on a recording, it’s not for free. You have to pay for the mechanical rights…actually, I’m not sure of the exact term…but it costs x number of hundreds of dollars. So let’s say you made an album just of standards, it might end up costing a thousand dollars more. And since these indie projects are auto-financed, and we don’t have major labels backing s up, the cost comes out of our own pocket.
That being said, as much as I enjoy doing what I do with Organ-ization, I have independent goals as well and would very much like to put out a CD of standards one day.
JGL: So let me ask you a personal kind of question. You have obviously gone to a lot of expense putting out your own CD’s. And given that the industry, for the most part, is quite different than it was “back in the day”, how do you recoup your investment and why bother in the first place given the scarcity of the market?
MG: Well, I would have to say that it is a non-refundable expense. Maybe you’ll recoup a bit, but since finding a distributor is becoming harder and harder, my experience has been that I’ll make most of my money back by selling the CD’s on a gig.
Having said that, I’m wondering how long even that method will last. I mean, evolution never stops. It used to be vinyl, then cassettes, now it’s CD’s and I think we are in the waning years of CD’s. MP3’s and downloads are what’s happening now and as far as I can tell, that is the next movement in the evolutionary chain. I mean, how many people do you know who walk around with portable CD players (chuckles)?
MG: Exactly. It’s all little MP3 players and iPods. And more and more artists are giving their music away through downloading on the Internet. There’s no packaging. The expense is way less, with no physical product to speak of. It’s all going to be online, virtual music.
I view the CD’s as a modern day calling card, or business card to conduct business and get my name out there. Imagine sending a Jazz festival a cassette! And since the industry has changed in how they select artists for a label, sometimes a CD is the only thing you have to present to someone in order for them to hear you. But where is it all going to be in ten years time? I don’t know.
JGL: Given all that…how do you promote yourself and have you given up on the dream of making it solely as a Jazz Guitarist like a Pat Martino or a Joe Pass?
MG: Good question and kind of apropos. Prior to my teaching and the security that comes with it, I would spend a lot of time and energy into getting interviews for myself, newspaper articles, writing letters to jazz festivals, and so on. I persisted and it does pay off. You know, with every ten CD’s sent out, you might get one, which might seem like a small percentage, but…do you remember, Bernard Primeau (local Montreal drummer)? I heard he used to be on the phone from 9 to 5 working on his career by making phone calls, applying for government grants, setting up small tours, setting up recording sessions, doing all that was possible. And he did have a career! Plus, he had a band truck! How many jazz artists do you know who have their own truck!? And with a logo on it!
So, the second part of your question, have I given up? Let me put it to you this way, if tomorrow morning I woke up and the teaching ceased to exist, I would, because I have to, and more importantly, because I would want to, I would go back to putting the same amount of energy promoting myself as I did prior to teaching. Teaching is a double edged sword. It’s good because it offers security with a monetary value more than most make strictly playing Jazz, while offering you piece of mind to explore varied playing situations on your own terms. But the downside of it is that you do have a reason to slack off from self promotion. Having said that, I’m very happy, because all that I do everyday revolves around music, which is a very big plus. Now it would be great to be a Pat Metheny and when I was young I wanted to be like John McLaughlin, but I’m happy doing what I do.
JGL: As are we! Well, on that positive note Michael we’ll conclude this interview. Thank you for taking the time to speak with Jazz Guitar Life and I wish you nothing but the best in your life and career.
MG: Thank you as well Lyle.
For more information on Micheal, check out his website at http://www.mikegauthierjazz.com/