New York based Jazz Guitarist Peter Leitch was one of the first mainstream Jazz Guitarists I had ever heard when I first starting to get into this music back in the late 70s/early 80s. For me, he was the quintessential Jazzer and while I have yet to see him perform live, it is my hope that I do just that one day soon.
In this interview, Peter talks about his early days coming up in Montreal a nice lesson on the local Jazz scene back in the day his new book, his new solo CD and how he got into his other passion, photography. A must read for those wanting a glimpse into what its like trying to make a living solely as a Jazz musician.
Interview by Lyle Robinson via email 2013.
“If formal jazz education had existed when I began trying to play, it would have saved me a lot of time, and made me a better guitarist not necessarily a better jazz player. That said, however, the way I learned on the bandstand with older more experienced and accomplished musicians- -and in the woodshed with records, and hanging out and taking informal lessons”
JGL: Hi Peter and thanks for taking the time to do this interview with Jazz Guitar Life. First off, the usual question…how old are you?
PL: I am 68 years old.
JGL: And what geographical area do you live in?
PL: I live in New York, in Greenwich Village.
JGL: Lets get into a little of your background. Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?
PL: Not really. We listened to the radio a lot in the 1950s. Although I liked certain songs, I cannot say there was a strong musical interest.
JGL: Could you recall for us, 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!
PL: I remember hearing Appointment in Ghana by Jackie McLean on CBC radio, and being transfixed by it. It was the first music I had ever heard that really moved me in any way. I also heard Milestones by Miles Davis on CBC radio. I ran out and bought them!
JGL: Nice! Was that the defining moment when you decided that Jazz Guitar would/could be your career path?
PL: No, I became a musician almost by default, as I had no motivation in any other direction. There was a lot of work in Montreal in the 1960s, gigs where you could learn your craft on the bandstand. I somehow drifted into that world.
JGL: And in that world if you were stuck on a desert island, and assuming you had a full working stereo system and electricity to run it which 5 albums would you want by your side?
PL: I just cant limit it to five. Even if it were ten it would keep changing: Miles, Trane, Monk, Mobley, McLean, Burrell, Glenn Gould, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown etc. etc.
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?
PL: It has been quite difficult. In my earlier days in Montreal and Toronto, I played many different kinds of music (in nightclubs accompanying floor shows, different kinds of singers, television and recording studio work, etc.)
JGL: Lets switch over to gear for a moment. What guitars are you using these days and what brand(s) of amplifiers are you running through? Is there a particular grouping of guitar to amp that you fall back on, or will any old thing do the trick?
PL: My main guitar is an Atilla Zoller model Hofner, built in the 1970s. I bought this from Atilla himself in 1993. I also have a Ramirez nylon string guitar, and an old 1950s ES 175. I have several Polytone mini brute amplifiers. In a large venue, sometimes I will take a line out of the amp and run it through the house system. (or just put a microphone in front of the amp.) or both, if the sound person knows what he/she is doing, which doesnt always happen. I’m generally not comfortable playing other peoples instruments.
JGL: Speaking of other people, who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
PL: The radio. Good jazz radio from Newark, NJ. WBGO fm, 88.3 and WKCR fm, New York, 89.9 (and some old favorite recordings that I keep going back to.)
JGL: Has there been on individual who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist/artist and why?
PL: No, there is really no one individual that I could say was most influential in my life. I have been fortunate to have heard and worked with many great musicians and artists and all of them have been influential or inspiring on some level. Playing with pianist Sadik Hakim and saxophonist Billy Robinson in Montreal in the late 1960s and early 70s was very important to my development as a jazz musician.
JGL: As a former Montrealer, you must have had the opportunity to hang and play with Nelson Symonds and his cousin Ivan, not to mention the huge pool of Jazz talent Montreal had back in the day? What was your take on the scene back then and are there any fond memories of that era that you would like to share with us?
PL: Montreal was really happening in the early and mid 1960s. Montreal was on the jazz circuit. I got to hear all the great players—the masters—coming through town, performing at the Windsor Penthouse, the Tete de lArt, and a couple of years later at the Jazz Hot on St. Catherine Street East. Monk, Miles, Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Pepper Adams, Jimmy Heath, Jackie McLean, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Rene Thomas, Art Farmer with Jim Hall, Sonny Red (with Nelson Symonds), Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers—the great sextet with Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton and Reggie Workman. The Whose Who of jazz. The golden age of jazz was right there before my eyes and ears.
I heard a lot of great music at the first Black Bottom club (1964-65?) which was in a basement on St. Antoine Street a few doors west of Mountain Street. The amazing guitarist Nelson Symonds was blowing the roof off the place every night, along with Norman Griffith (later Villeneuve), Charlie Biddle, Noble Samuels, Charlie Duncan, Buddy Jones, Clayton Johnson and many others, including Ed Curry, a great singer from Brooklyn. He had a wonderful repertoire of standards and blues—Day In, Day Out, In the Still of the Night, That Old Black Magic, Polka Dots and Moonbeams, and a fantastic arrangement of Old Man River. They would often play until 7 or 8 in the morning. Visiting musicians from out of town would hang out there after their gigs. The place had no liquor license, and served great chicken wings. The club later moved to a larger space with a liquor license on St. Paul Street in Old Montreal.
Nelson was truly an underground legend. Several name bandleaders (including John Coltrane) wanted to take him on the road, but he didn’t want to travel, and had previously run into immigration problems in the U.S. Many years later when I met the great drummer Billy Higgins in New York and he heard I was from Montreal, he asked after Nelson. I cant say that Nelson was a direct influence, but he was definitely an inspiration. No one, including Wes, could throw around block chords the way Nelson did in his prime. He played with such passion.
Sonny Greenwich was in and out of Montreal then, and used to sit in at the Black Bottom. He was and is a genuine innovator, with a very original sound and style. He was really the first to bring the innovations of Coltrane to the guitar.
Ivan Symonds was the cousin of Nelson Symonds, and a great guitarist in his own right. He had an indomitable spirit, and a huge capacity for playing music. I remember hearing him and Nelson and Sonny Greenwich play until daybreak one morning at the Black Bottom. He worked as an auto mechanic during the day, and played at night. He heard me play somewhere, probably at L’Enfer, (an after hours coffee house) and invited me to come over to his house with my guitar. This was the beginning of a beautiful mentor/student relationship. We would play tunes and he would stop me and say, No—try it this way or Use this chord here, and show me all kinds of different fingerings and harmonic substitutions. He started occasionally sending me as a replacement on gigs. I used to sub for him in the downstairs lounge at Rockheads Paradise, and other spots in the area. A couple of times he sent me to sub at the Esquire Show Bar with rhythm and blues acts who had come to town minus a guitarist. The Esquire was a long-established American-style showplace with a horseshoe shaped bar surrounding the stage, and a little bar off to the side, which was populated by suspicious characters.
Another brilliant guitarist who was an early teacher/mentor to me in the early 60s was Billy White. He had a great musical mind, and he always looked sharp in those days, often wearing a white suit. I first met him when he was playing with trumpeter/composer Herbie Spanier, with whom I took some lessons in theory and improvisation. Billy and I became friends, and I would go to his house and he would show me things on the guitar. Billy knew all the Monk tunes, and first taught me to play Off Minor and Monks Mood. Billy eventually drifted out of music and died in his forties, in Toronto, as a result of substance abuse.
JGL: Wow. Thanks for that bit of Montreal jazz history Peter. What an era and what memories! Now you are known internationally and domestically as a valued educator with a ton of workshops/clinics under your belt as well as your own guitar ensemble arrangements which you sell privately from your website. 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?
PL: I have a few private students. I find it easier to teach guitarists who have attained a certain level of proficiency. I don’t really have the patience to teach beginners. Just give me a call!
JGL: As such, have you ever considered publishing a Jazz Guitar instructional book or DVD for the inquiring masses?
PL: Yes, I have considered this, incorporating material that I have compiled for use in workshops and clinics, but there seems to be such a glut of published material available now that I haven’t followed through with anything. There is a workshop I did at the last IAJE convention which can be seen on YouTube.
JGL: Apparently, and if I’m wrong, please correct me, you wrote a book titled “Off the Books: A Jazz Life which you present a personal and I am assuming autobiographical account of your experiences with “The inner workings of the jazz ‘business’.” Has this book been published yet and could you talk a bit about why you felt the need to write this book? Is it a “tell all” book and what will, or should, readers get out of it?
PL: Yes, the book is due to be published by Vehicule Press in June 2013 (ed. note: Peters book is already out and can be purchased by clicking on the link below). It is an autobiography/memoir telling about my early years in Montreal, moving to Toronto in 1977, and finally to New York in 1982. It began when I decided to set down some of my experiences (in and out of jazz music) while I could still remember them. As this progressed It seemed as if there was a story there. As well as what my publisher calls the inner workings of the jazz business, the book contains Montreal jazz history, thoughts about music, photography and visual art, bits of pharmacology, urban studies, humorous (I hope!) anecdotes, opinionated riffing and ranting, and even some absurdist fantasy. It may not be a tell all book, but it sure tells a lot!
JGL: I can only imagine! Speaking of autobiographies, you recently put out a CD titled Self Portrait with a very cool cover shot. From the sound clips I had heard on your site, you are basically playing solo guitar arrangements, with some overdubs, of original tunes and tunes by Ellington and Strayhorn alongside other notable composers. How did this album come about, and what were, if any, the challenges in first, coming up with the solos arrangements and secondly, playing along with an overdubbed track of yourself?
PL: I had to finally face the challenge of a solo recording. Also, I felt I needed a new release, and without a record label it was the only thing I could afford to do. I chose material that I was comfortable with, and the arrangements had been kind of evolving over time. Actually, there are only a couple of original pieces that have overdubs, which I felt that the compositions needed. Mostly it was just sit down and play. The cover shot is a self portrait reflected in a store window on Amsterdam Avenue in New York.
JGL: I’m assuming that you are primarily self-taught, that is, have not attended a McGill or Berklee style institution for Jazz instruction? Whats your take on the whole academic institutional learning versus learning on your own and getting schooled on the bandstand thing?
PL: If formal jazz education had existed when I began trying to play, it would have saved me a lot of time, and made me a better guitarist not necessarily a better jazz player. That said, however, the way I learned on the bandstand with older more experienced and accomplished musicians- -and in the woodshed with records, and hanging out and taking informal lessons with people like Herbie Spanier, Billy White and Ivan Symonds, was all invaluable to me. At the time that I began learning this music (early and mid60s) formal jazz education did not exist, but there were many clubs in Montreal and elsewhere in the province employing live music. You could actually learn your craft while eking out a living. You weren’t always playing jazz, but you were on the bandstand playing your instrument with other musicians and getting paid (however badly) for it. You learned discipline under fire, accompanying floor shows, singers, various kind of Latin music for dancing, etc. Unfortunately this world with its opportunities for apprenticeship and on the job training no longer exists. Today, the academy is producing a lot of great instrumentalists, but few great jazz soloists with individual voices.
JGL: Well, on the subject of individual voices, what is your practice routine like these days? Do you work on specific things or just play tunes?
PL: For the last several months I had been unable to play due to a nerve problem in my left shoulder. (they call it a frozen shoulder). I have been taking physiotherapy which seems to be working, and I have just started playing again and I have returned to my Sunday night gig at Walkers. In the past, my practice routine depended on how much I was working. If I wasn’t working much I would practice a lot more. My practicing sometimes consists of working on specific things: for example any area where I noticed I was getting sloppy. Sometimes I will make up my own exercises which address specific issues. I also spend time just playing through tunes at different tempos, trying to find something new.
JGL: How do you approach improvisation? Is it based on the more traditional chord/scale relationship or are you following a more intuitive inquiry?
PL: My approach has always depended on the situation, the material, and the context. First of all I am concerned with the integrity of the line, and how it relates to the rhythm section. If I am faced with unfamiliar material I will tend to think more about chord changes and such. In a musically comfortable situation I would probably be more concerned with rhythmic and melodic construction (motifs etc.) But in the end, its all in the moment anyway.
JGL: In the interview that you did with yourself, you state, “Ive always been more interested in playing music rather than playing the guitar”. Would you mind expanding on that idea a little more please because it’s something, as I get older, that I think of constantly?
PL: The first music that I encountered that meant something to me was not necessarily guitar oriented music. I probably learned more from listening to horn players and pianists than guitarists. I just happened to play the guitar. I find it to be a difficult instrument to play .I would rather hear a great rhythm section than a great guitar player, although I have my favorites. (Wes, Kenny, Jim Hall, Grant Green, Rene Thomas).
JGL: It sounds like you spend as much time composing and arranging as you do guitar playing! Can you talk a bit about the process of each and how they directly or indirectly affect your guitar playing? Do you compose strictly on guitar or do you use other instruments like piano?
PL: Not having formally studied composition, most of my writing consists of attempts to create an interesting framework for a group of musicians to improvise within, using traditional short or song forms. Most of it is composed on the guitar, although a couple of things were worked out on the piano. I cant really play the piano, but I know the keyboard well enough to find things.
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?
PL: These are two different sets of circumstances, and each has its pros and cons. As a sideman, my main concern would be as an accompanist, trying to make the music sound as good as it can sound in the context that the leader is working in. As a sideman there is a certain freedom from a lot of things you have to think about as a leader. Really, all you have to concern yourself with is how the music sounds and how you can contribute to it. As a leader you have to think about the money, making travel arrangements, presentation, the audience (or lack of it), sound checks, etc, etc. These considerations can sometimes interfere with your playing.
JGL: Then how do you go about marketing yourself? Are there any tools that you have come across that you have found to be effective or do you leave it up to your management/booking agent? And if so, how’s that working out for you?
PL: Im not really very good at packaging, branding or marketing communications, so its always been hit or miss. At this point in my life, and with the current state of the jazz business ( if one can even call it a business) I consider myself semi-retired at best. I do have two websites: www.peterleitch.com and www.peterleitch.zenfolio.com.
JGL: For the past ten years or so, you have had a weekly gig at Walkers, a popular restaurant/bar in the Tribeca area of NYC where you’ve played in duo setting featuring either a bass player or saxophone. How do you handle the diversity of instrumentation?
PL: Obviously its easier playing with a bassist. Playing duo with a horn player or a vocalist one has to somehow suggest a whole rhythm section, combining chords and bass lines in such a way that gives the music a sense of forward motion.
JGL: Speaking of duos, do you have a favorite band format (ie: duo, trio, quartet) that you prefer, and if so, why?
PL: No, each format is enjoyable for different reasons. I think its good to play in different formats. It all depends on the musicians you are working with, rather than the format.
JGL: Understood! Tell me Peter, if you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?
PL: I don’t think I could pick just one!
JGL: Any outstanding moments in your career that you would like to share? Similarly, any not-so-outstanding moments you feel you’d like to share? You can change the names to protect the (not so) innocent.
PL: Playing and recording with John Hicks, Ray Drummond and Marvin Smitty Smith. Playing one tune as a guest soloist on a Woody Shaw record. (Solid, Muse 5329).) Playing duets with alto saxophonist Gary Bartz is also up at the top of the list. As for the not-so-outstanding moments, I just try to learn from them and move on.
JGL: That being said, has your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?
PL: I really had no expectations when I began, other than to try to get better at what I was trying to do.
JGL: Once again, in your self-interview, you bemoan the fact that you somewhat lack popular recognition, yet you have recorded upwards 15 CD’s, played with top names in Jazz like Oscar Peterson, Woody Shaw and Brother Jack McDuff to name but a few, have traveled the globe probably more than once, and have managed to make a living playing the music that you love AND are a respected musician in the circles that I hang out in! All that to say, and please don’t take offense to this question, what more do you want and what more is there?
PL: Well, I certainly wasn’t looking for wealth or fame! All I meant was that I wished it had been a little easier to make a living. I was simply expressing frustration that my work was not considered bankable, or even saleable by the industry.
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?
PL: The only thing I can say to this is One day at a time- keep on keepin’ on
JGL: Similarly, anything coming down the pike we should know about?
PL: A new CD is being released this year. It is a live concert recording I did with John Hicks on piano, David Williams on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. It is called California Concert (Jazz House 7004). Also the forthcoming autobiography/memoir “Off The Books: A Jazz Life (Vehicule Press, Montreal).
There will be an exhibition of my photographs ( Nocturne: New York at Night) at the Living Room Gallery (St. Peters Church, Lexington Avenue at Fifty Fourth Street, New York) from August 26, 2013, to October 17, 2013 (ed: obviously these events have already happened)
JGL: If you could do one thing over again, what would that one thing be and why?
PL: There are probably a lot of things I would do differently a second time, but I try not to live with regret, and try to keep moving forward.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar as a career?
PL: 1. Keep a low overhead! 2. All eighth notes are not created equal!
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.
PL: I don’t really think I had a choice. It just happened unfolded, as it were.
JGL: As an aside, what got you involved in photography and why do you only shoot, non-digital “old-school” style black and white photos?
PL: I got involved with photography as a way to avoid thinking about the music business. I have several friends who are accomplished photographers who have been very helpful to me. There are parallels with music and photography. Both are about telling a story.
Actually, I have been doing some digital work in color. I feel that the digital technology is great for color, but I don’t think its there yet for B&W, especially in the area of printing. I still believe in the silver print as an actual object to be displayed, held, admired, criticized, or whatever, rather than a photograph as a collection of virtual information to be disseminated electronically and then forgotten. There is a certain depth, texture, tactility and plasticity, almost an explosive quality, to a good black and white silver print, even if the ability of most people to distinguish such subtleties is becoming a thing of the past. In a digital print, the inks lie clumped on the surface of the paper while in a traditional silver print the image actually becomes an organic part of the paper. It works for color, but from what Ive seen I don’t think digital or inkjet printing is there yet for black and white. I guess I’m just an old fashioned modernist. My feet seem to be mired in the quicksand of the twentieth century.
JGL: Apart from music and photography, what else do you like to do for fun?
PL: Walking around New York City, reading (biography, history, classic detective fiction,) looking at old films, searching for truth.
JGL: Thank you Peter for taking the time to talk with us on Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career and life.
PL: Thank you Lyle.
You can find out more info on Peter by visiting his website at http://peterleitch.com/