Thursday, August 21, 2008

The American Guitar Museum

The reason for early jazz bands using banjos and never guitars was simply because guitars were not loud enough. But by utilizing brand new recording and amplification techniques, Eddie Lang played his guitar in the movie “The Big Broadcast of 1932” and banjo players immediately recognized that guitarists would soon be filling their chairs on the bandstand. Pawn shops soon filled up with banjos, and guitar craftsmanship produced lush sounding quality instruments that were in enormous demand.

The American Guitar Museum located in New Hyde Park, Long Island exhibits the finest work of craftsmen that poured their skill and love into this wonderful instrument. The museum puts us in touch with both the guitar’s history and its future.

It’s only fitting that the person responsible for establishing this museum would not only be a guitar player and collector, but as he is affectionately called the “Guitar Doctor” Chris X. Ambadjes is one of the finest luthiers in the business having conceived a guitar museum about 33 years ago, Chris was able to bring his dream to fruition about 16 years ago. Fortunately Chris’ friends, Demo Manolis, the late great Wayne L. Wright and a few others were willing to make this museum a reality. The friends pooled their resources and they formed a board of directors there.

The American Guitar museum possesses an authentic charm. Its home is a restored three-story colonial building that is one of the original farmhouses in the area. Stepping through the outer gates (which by the way are made in the shape of guitars) and entering the main door, you can’t help being caught up in the pictures that seem to be everywhere. These are pictures of the great players of both today and yester-year.

Moving on to the main room right in front at eye level stands one gorgeous oval-holed D’Aquisto New Yorker on loan from the talented player, Joe Carbone. Before his untimely death, luthier Jimmy D’Aquisto was considered the greatest guitar builder alive. For this beautiful sun-burst instrument he would charge about $50,000 with a three year wait.

The main room’s ceiling is certainly worth a look. It’s designed like the inside of an archtop guitar with f-holes, cross-bracing and wood grain all painted into the ceiling. A Showcase at the front of the room holds some of the original punches used to manufacture picks around 1910. These punches were contributed by the D’Andrea Company of Long Island, which is still in business today. If you have a pick in your pocket, there’s a 90% chance that the D’Andrea Company made it. The picks were originally made by punching out little tortoise shell plates in different shapes.

The Guitar Museum is just chock full of luthier tools, various tailpieces, books, blueprints, biographies of various players and histories of some of the guitars gracing its walls. One piece impossible to miss sits on the right side of the room. This is a 400 lb. press from the Strad-o-Lin Company that was used to bend the sides and tops of guitars and mandolins. It dates back to the 1890’s.

One of the oldest guitars in the museum was built in 1861. Chris Ambadjes says, “We like to tell the kids that come for a tour that this guitar is from Abraham Lincoln’s time and they get a kick out of that.” It’s exhibited in its original hard shelled case.

Two guitars that always get a lot of attention are the 1965 Olympic White Strat that belonged to a friend of Jimi Hendrix which Jimi played on occasion; and the other eye-catcher is a mint condition dark wood-grained Les Paul which Les himself contributed to the museum containing the inscription “To Chris, from Les ‘Keep On Pickin’.”

In addition to Les Paul’s signature model, there are a number of cherished Gibsons on display. A few of the most valuable Gibsons belonged to one of New York City’s finest musicians, Jack Hotop. Jack played in the opening of such Broadway hits as “Oklahoma” and “Annie.” He fell in love with the sound of the first 1957 ES-175 with a PAF pickup (better known as the humbucking pickup). This guitar was used as a demonstrator model by Gibson and Jack begged Gibson for that particular instrument. He was forced to wait until it was shown around the country before Gibson would let him have it. Jack later used this ES-175 when he played for the opening of “West Side Story.”

Two of the newest items in The American Guitar Museum are a pickup winding machine that jazz innovator Attila Zoller made and the mixing board that was used in Woody Allen’s classic movie “Radio Days”.

What this museum boasts of is its wonderful collection of both rare and beautiful instruments – What Chris calls “the cream of the cream.” Ambadjes has a particular love for the D’Angelico archtop guitar and who can blame him. John D’Angelico is considered by many to have been the “Stradivari of guitars.” Appraisals place these guitars between $25,000 - $75,000 on the average, with some being even higher. Quite an investment when you consider their original price tag of about $695.00!

How fitting, that D’Angelico started making his custom guitars the same year as “The Big Broadcast of 1932.” 1,164 beautiful custom guitars and mandolins were built bearing his name by the time of his death in 1964.

At the museum there are roughly 10 D’Angelicos on display, two of which are “one of a kind.” Though it’s accurate to say all D’Angelicos are unique, they all are either guitars or mandolins; all that is, except for these two. Sitting appropriately in a baby’s cradle is the first of these unique acquisitions. It is an 18” tall baby jazz uke. Benny Mortell pleaded with John D’ Angelico to build this to use as a wedding proposal to his wife. The finger board contains the inscription “To My Dearest Rose From Ben.” The newest addition to the museum is called a Cellar (pronounced ché lâr). This is John D’s largest masterwork and it is the only other instrument that does not fall into the category of either guitar or mandolin. Alongside these two priceless pieces you’ll find the 1942 Excel, which was played by its owner Benny Mortell, in the film “The Godfather” in both the wedding scene and on the soundtrack. Next to this is a 1946 New Yorker. There is a left-handed D’Angelico that has been used by Wayne Wright (rhythm guitarist for Les Paul, George Barnes, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee).

“Nothing in this life is free” — not true anymore, because a tour of the American Guitar Museum is just that FREE! Guitar aficionados, class tours and families alike have had mini-lessons on guitar building, how guitar pickups work, how fretboard in-lays are inserted and an overall history of America’s most popular instrument. Note too that Chris Ambadjes repairs fretted instruments of all kinds right on the premises and there are a number of excellent music teachers present also.

So pay a visit to this little treasure where the love of its owners is evident throughout. This is really a present to the world. It just so happens it’s been gift wrapped in Long Island, New York.

The American Guitar Museum
180 New Hyde Park Road
New Hyde Park, NY 11040

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Hot Guitar - By Jack Wilkins

By 1982 I’d been playing my Gibson guitar for over 20 years. I love this guitar! I know her and she knows me. It’s a relationship based on trust, understanding, and time. Don’t tell her this, but she was not my first or even second love.

Imagine this scenario: Eighteen years old, just out of high school, and trying to decide what to do with my life. I knew I wanted to play guitar but should I go to college and get a degree “to have something to fall back on” as my parents used to say- kind of a built-in failure mechanism if you think about it- or should I begin getting experience playing?

Colleges in those days (1962) didn’t offer degrees in jazz guitar. I couldn’t see spending four years at a college where jazz wasn’t accepted and you had to study classical guitar to get a degree. It wasn’t for me. I decided to learn by playing local jobs, practicing and asking questions, which I still do today. To supplement my income, I took a job at a local music store where I gave lessons. Not bad for the time, about $8 an hour, and 15 or 16 hours a week.

Something was wrong though. I was improving my technique by leaps and bounds. Practicing 5 hours a day can do that. The guitar I had at the time was not up to my level of play, however. I think it was an old Kay guitar. It was all right before, but I was now ready for a great instrument. Mind you, I was still too young to realize I needed a better instrument. Things I practiced, however, would not come off quite the way I heard them in my head, and I felt as if I were coming to a dead end. The answers were never far away though.

One day, as I came into the music store to teach, I saw a guitar that spoke to me - a beautiful blond pre-war, non-cutaway Gibson L-5. Rare and exceptional! Where did it come from? Was it for sale? Could I borrow it for the rest of my life? When I picked it up to play it, I couldn’t believe it! The things I practiced that couldn’t quite come off before were now perfect! I had to have it.

I asked the owner of the store, “What’s the deal here?”
He said, “If you like it so much, why not buy it?”
“How much?” I said
“Fifty dollars.”
“Fifty dollars?” I said, “Oh ok, I guess that’s fine.”

Okay? It was worth $500 dollars. I bought it and took it home and played and played and played. It was amazing. It wasn’t just great, it was divine. It was really mine and like a part of me that was just beginning to be discovered. Still, how could it only be worth $50 dollars? I took it to my repairman, guitar builder and inventor friend Ray Mattey. (Ralph Matteo was his real name). He was kind of a mentor to me and I liked him very much. He was always encouraging and helpful, you might say from the “Old School”. I love people like that. A little like Fezziwig in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”. He discovered a serious crack in the joining of the neck and body and told me it had to be fixed or it would fall apart some day. I trusted his judgement and said, “Okay Ray, see what magic you can perform.”

Magic is the only word for people like Ray. I didn’t care how much it would cost and Ray would always be very reasonable with me anyway. I remember that it cost $200, but it was worth every penny to have my guitar in good shape. It would be a massive repair job, however. The problem was that I wouldn’t get my guitar back for about two months. That hurt!

At about the same time in my life, I took occasional lessons from another wonderful person named Sid Margolis. Between Sid and Ray, I had two of the finest mentors a young man could have. Sid taught me many valuable techniques and shared a certain awareness that only a seasoned professional can give. Sid hadn’t heard about my new guitar so I was very anxious to tell him about it. As usual with Sid, he was very kind and listened with care and interest. As soon as I started to describe the guitar, his face went ashen. As gently as he could, he said. “Jack, that sounds like the guitar that was stolen from me some time ago.”

Now it was my turn to be ashen. I kind of panicked. If it were Sid’s guitar, I’d have to give it back to him. But what if it wasn’t? The only way to find out was to bring it to him. There was no serial number on the guitar to prove anything but Sid would know. Co-incidentally, Ray completed the repair on the guitar that day. I left Sid’s not thinking about the lesson and raced to Ray’s shop. The guitar was ready and it was beautiful! It seemed to glisten and almost seemed alive. (Wood is alive) I told Ray what a masterful job he did and explained about Sid. Ray said, “Oh no, it can’t be true. This is your guitar.”

When I arrived back to Sid’s with the guitar, my heart was beating so fast I thought I’d pass out. When I opened the case, I focused on Sid’s face to see his reaction. It was joyful. Then it was sad. I knew he felt badly about me. I realized I must give up my guitar. I suppose some people might say, “Well, you bought it fair and square and there was no proof of ownership” and so forth, but the truth was, it was his and he was my friend. The details about the man who owned the music store aren’t really important. Suffice to say the shop owner had purchased the guitar in an unsavory fashion. That’s why it was only $50.

Sid settled with Ray. Poor Ray! He had put his heart and soul into fixing the instrument for me, not that he wouldn’t have done an excellent job anyway, but somehow when you do things for someone who’s especially close, it seems to have more meaning. I felt sort of lost after that. I couldn’t go back to the music store, and I couldn’t go back to playing my old guitar.

Sid called me a few days later with a solution to everything. “Teach for me,” he said. I wasn’t sure he really needed me but I readily accepted. He would give me invaluable guidance and I would make some money. Sid had another idea. Why don’t I buy this other Gibson L-5 that he bought to replace the stolen one. It was a sunburst 1961 cutaway with a floating DeArmond pick up. Nice guitar! Very nice! “Okay,” I said, and he sold it to me for $250, the amount I would have spent on Sid’s stolen guitar anyway. Everything worked out perfectly. I taught at Sid’s and learned a great deal. I played my new 1961 Gibson and learned to love it as much as my first love. This 1961 Gibson would qualify as my second true love.

Sometime after that, a good friend named Burt Linden gave me an old Gibson L-7. It needed repair and as usual, Ray Mattey did his magic. I hardly played the L-7 because of my second love, the 1961 L-5. I kept the L-7 as a spare guitar. Of course, this L-7 is now my third and true love. What happened to my second love, the once new L-5 that Sid Margolis had sold me? Six years after I purchased it, it was stolen. I’d like to think that someday someone will give it back to me the way I returned Sid’s guitar to him. “What goes around, comes around”- right? I’m waiting.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The "Windows" Recording - By Jack Wilkins

For this discussion I’d like to take you back in time to 1972! (A long time ago). It was my first recording under my own name for the Mainstream label. I had just finished a session with saxophone great Paul Jeffrey- his album “Watershed” was from 1971.My record “Windows” was released in ’73. It featured Michael Moore on bass, and Bill Goodwin on drums. The guitar I was using at the time was an old Gibson L7 from I think 1951. It was in bad shape with all kinds of scratches and nicks. A pickup was drilled into the body so it wasn’t worth anything to the vintage collectors. It had a very long and worthy past and was one of the best sounding instruments I ever played.

Mainstream produced most of their recordings at the old Mercury studios on West 57th street. It was a rather large room and with just a trio in session, I felt at first that it would be much too echoing. The amp I was using was an old Ampeg GT10. Very big and booming. A forerunner to the Roland Jazz Chorus with two 12-inch speakers. My concern was for real. The first take we did sounded awful! Very washed out because of the echo. Since producer Bob Shad was not at the session because of some family problem, it was up to me to find a way to make this work. It was in fact the only recording I ever performed without a producer. (Except for Jazz Guitar Christmas). I was lucky enough to have Ernie Wilkins (no relation) on the recording console. He was very agreeable to any suggestions on how we could make a go of this. I thought we should play as soft as possible without sacrificing the playing. I turned that amp down to about a 2. (Not eleven!) I had Ernie raise the volume in our headphones and we nailed it. We finished the whole session in 6 hours. An hour a tune. After a little layering, we had an unmixed recording.

The mixing part was the most fun I can remember in a studio. Still minus Bob Shad, I had all the time I needed to experiment with sounds and dynamics. When a phrase I played was a little bit lost in the low register, I simply raised it up in the mix! How simple is that? I added some snazzy EQ on the solo of “Red Clay”. It was a very satisfying experience for us all. We managed to take a possible disaster and turn into a winner. I still say that session is one of the best recorded of all my solo and sideman sessions.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lotte Jacobi in and out of the Jazz Age

Years ago, I went door to door speaking to people about the Bible. It was something I grew up doing. It was on one of these times going door to door in Dearing, New Hampshire that I came upon a little woman that was in her mid seventies. She opened the door and said "come on in look around and I will be right with you."

I was quite surprised that someone up in years, would be so trusting, but I thought maybe I have a friendly face. When she came back and asked "are you ready"
I was surprised, and then she realized that I wasn't there to have my photograph taken. As I could see in the few minutes I was there, she was a wonderful photographer and had pictures on her wall of people that anyone could identify as well as others that just looked important and interesting. I saw before me pictures of Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Frost J. D. Salinger, Paul Robeson and Max Planck.

After laughing at the fact that we both assumed to know who the other was, and were both wrong, she told me a little about herself. Her name was Lotte Jacobi and she had been a photographer since she was a young girl in Germany.

About a month after first meeting Lotte, I asked if I could interview her. I would love to write a story about her for Readers Digest, I told her. I brought her some cut flowers the day of our meeting and she spent about 10 minutes looking all over for a vase that would accommodate them, after which she told me, should I come back again, please don't bring me flowers. She had plenty in her back yard and she even had her own beehives too, as she was a beekeeper.

Lotte told me that she had been a friend of Albert Einstein in Germany and that her friendship continued after they both arrived in America, after fleeing Hitler. You will see Lotte's pictures in many books on Einstein, because he always insisted that her photos be used.

A few years ago, while I was still living in New York City, I had a chance to visit the Jewish Museum. The museum was having a full exhibit of Lotte Jacobi, who has been called by some to be the finest female photographer of the 20th Century. Gracing much of a full wing of the Museum, I was able to view many of the same pictures I had seen back in 1973 on the walls of her studio there in Deering, N.H. Lotte was someone that befriended many of the talented musicians, dancers and scientists of her day. She portrayed them in ways that no one else did prior to her. Lotte was very clear to point out that she didn't wish to have any preconceived ideas about any of her subjects.

Recently I was thinking about the game that is played called "The Six Degrees of Separation Of Kevin Bacon". The idea of the game is that Kevin Bacon as an end point can be linked in Hollywood by six degrees or less to almost any other performer. It made me laugh, because using that premise, having known Lotte Jacobi means that there is only one degree of separation from me to Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, J.D. Salinger or Robert Frost as well as other very famous people. Of course, in reality it doesn't mean anything, since I never met any of them. But, what is something I'll always be grateful for is to have met such a gracious artist as the one and only Lotte Jacobi herself!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Wayne Wright Shared The Whole Notes

On Friday (May 9th, 2008) the world lost a great musician and a wonderful human being named Wayne Wright.

Everyone that came to know Wayne Wright would have their own personal “Wayne’s World” story. Peter Pan must have still left some fairy dust on him, because he was always impish and wanted nothing to do with too serious a world. And yet it was Wayne that would always help someone to look at themselves when things kept going wrong. He gave out life lessons, while keeping his wonderful sense of humor.

Wayne was the rhythm guitarist for Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, George Barnes, Les Paul and a host of others. Many people grew as guitarists by being around Wayne. Wayne never considered himself a teacher as much as he viewed his role as a coach. His art was making people listen to themselves, where the melody was going and how they could support the melody at the same time.

Joe Pass introduced me to Wayne and he told us that we’d probably get along well, because we both have an off-beat sense of humor. Wayne made sure he introduced me to lots of great players, such as Tal Farlow, Martin Taylor, Jack Wilkins, Gene Bertoncini and Billy Bauer.

Wayne was surely a character. The last week of his life he was taken off a ventilator system and it was believed that he couldn’t make it past 24 hours, but it was about 3 days later, he woke up and the first words out of his mouth were, “how far did you park the car from here”. Wayne wanted to make a break for it. The very last day of his life, his wife knew she had to talk to him about the inevitable and she asked if there was anything he would care most to be laid out in, Wayne simply said “Surprise me!” That man was just one of a kind.

As terrific a guitarist as Wayne was, that’s not going to be what all his friends miss most. In Wayne we got to see a man whose love for life was truly great, who took such pride in his friends that it almost popped his buttons. We saw too, someone who spoke lovingly of his children Scott and Nancy, of his beautiful granddaughter Jenny and most of all we saw a man that was truly thrilled to have spent his life with his wife JoAnn.

Wayne helped us all pay attention to the whole notes in life and so we’re thankful for having known him and we’ll all miss him so much for that!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Scott Samuels - The Joe Pass of Pop

Scott was extremely flattered when I told him that he was to pop what Joe Pass was to jazz. But those of us that would rush down to the park (Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village, NY that is) after work, would all have to agree that there is something special about Scott's playing.

I've personally sat there on those stone walls for 10 hours straight listening to Scott when he never took a break. He didn't do all the singing, but he did most of it as well as playing with different people as they stopped by to join in.

Anyone that is in New York on a warm summer night should not miss being a part of the 100 or so people that will sing background to a massive list of songs. It can be the Indigo Girls one minute, then Prince, then Queen, lots of Elton John and Billy Joel, Hendrix, James Taylor, Christopher Cross, Hall and Oates, The Temptations, Syreeta or even Britney Spears. Hey, just look at the 1500 or so songs on his song list!

Let Me Connect You With Ella's Room

In 1991 Ella Fitzgerald was performing her last concert at Carnegie Hall and I always would get to see her when Joe Pass played for her, since Joe was a terrific friend.

I called the Hotel that both Joe and Ella were staying at looking to speak with Joe. The person at the switchboard told me that they couldn't find Joe and said "Do you want me to put you through to Ella's room?" I couldn't believe that she asked me that. I was thinking to myself what kind of an idiot would refuse talking to Ella, so I said sure. As it turned out Joe Pass had already come and gone from her room to work out what songs they were to perform together.

A few times previous to this date I had met Ella, but very briefly, only talking to her but a few minutes each time, but when Ella picked up the phone and told me Joe wasn't there somehow she started telling me about how she had just gotten over a cold and how she visited Europe and how much they loved her there and we had a really great 10 - 15 minute conversation and here I was at work never expecting to be talking to the First Lady of Song at all. I wasn't the only one that was surprised that I spoke to Ella, but that night her manager saw me and came over and said "how did you do that?" I said "do what?" He said "talk to Ella for so long on the telephone. Because when her soap operas start she doesn't talk to anyone and I mean anyone, she even kicks me out of the room, and I'm her manager!" I can only guess that she felt like talking that day and was thrilled to be performing there at Carnegie Hall.

That night I didn't actually get a seat out front. Somehow Joe Pass seemed to get me the most memorable ways to see his shows. This night he brought me up to Ella's room where they had two small sliding doors which when opened up were right above the stage and I could look down and see the performance from slightly in back of her.

After the show and all the celebrities paraded up to her room, like Carly Simon and Peter Allen and then Tony Bennet and a long line of people, Joe asked if I wanted to join them for drinks. What an amazing night, not only was I with the finest solo jazz guitarist in the world, the First Lady of Song, but at this hotel lounge (I believe we were on 56th Street) Wes Montgomery's brother, Buddy Montgomery was on the piano. Now how can you get a better night in seeing jazz than that!

Oh, and whoever you were, thanks for putting me through to Ella's room!