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!