"I've come up with the theory that the music is within. We don't bring it in; it's already there. We have to figure out how to get it out."
When interviewing Howard Roberts in June of '91 I did not know he had cancer. To fulfill a writing course assignment on interviewing, no one but Howard would do. I was willing to fly from Arizona to Seattle for the privilege. I had been a student of Howards back in the , 50's, in North Hollywood, California.
His influence on my musical life and the lives of others is unmeasurable. Although he physically stopped in June 1992, his impact will never stop.
There are many good guitar players, but great ones are rare. Howard will always be an icon of jazz. How fortunate is this writer/student to have spent two hours soaking in wisdom from him. Here is Howard's last interview, and counsel.
The scents and sounds of a Seattle waterfront restaurant provided our background. The morning also proved a thrill for two young men in a booth across the aisle. They had been catching some of our conversation. Finally one leaned over and interrupted us. "I play guitar too. Next month I am going to, The Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood. Have you ever heard of G.I.T. ?"
"I founded it," replied Roberts. I had the pleasure of introducing the boy to Howard. The look on the young man's face was priceless. A special start for that young man's training.
As the two boys listened to the interview they learned as I did what Roberts was up to those days.
The studio jazz great had his fingers on more than frets. Recording an album, working a studio job, designing a guitar and amp, or co-founding the Guitar Institute of Technology would be enough for most, but Roberts didn't stop there. He had completed the Guitar Compendium, a three volume resource for guitarists, and a children's method, Chroma. "Chroma is as new and different as the compendium," said Howard. For fifteen years serious jazz guitarists gleaned Roberts techniques from his GPI (Guitar Player Magazine) workshop column. Now they can research any subject from the Compendium.
The questions began:
Q. Why the compendium?
A. When students would ask me what materials they could use to prepare for G.I. T. all I could find were books on how to play like this guy or like that guy, or whoever's hot. Having had to struggle so hard for a modem music education myself, especially in guitar, I knew their problems. What I had needed early on was non-existent for guitar. I had to dig for things like, diatonic harmony and voice leading from orchestrators, musicologists, and composers, and I ended up with an enormous body of work. So with Garry Hagberg, a guitar teacher and philosopher, from Oregon University, and over 12 grueling years, we compiled the Compendium. Now a guitarist can use it like a menu, plugging in wherever he needs help.
Q. Why are you writing for beginners?
A. Chroma is the only work I've done for beginners. It came to my attention that about 85% of them drop out in about the first month. I concluded that a lot of the cause was they were unable to play complete music, first, playing some chords. Playing a few hard chords with nothing going on is hardly rewarding. So we came up with a program that enables beginners to play complete music right from the beginning. We've tested it in public schools extensively, turning the drop-out rate from 85% to less than 8% in over a year .
Q. How did you get started on guitar?
A. It was almost a mystical experience. I woke up out of a dead sleep one hot afternoon in Phoenix when I was seven and said, "I want to play guitar," and that was it. I could never figure out why. I was all of a sudden consumed. I made my first guitar out of boards and bailing wire; it didn't work. Finally my folks got me an $18 Kalamazoo. Getting married at sixteen and becoming a father slowed me down. I worked as a truck driver, and did manual labor, playing weekends. Divorced by 18, 1 started my first full time job in a Phoenix night club, The Green Gables, making twice as much money, and wearing clean clothes. I thought that was something.
Q. How would you describe your style ?
A. Driven by improvisation -- not knowing what will come moment by moment. The other thing is, I like to play like a singer. I hate mindless tinkling guitar.
Q. How did you break into studio work?
A. Thanks to the rain. L. A. had been soaked under a two week deluge keeping Bob Bain, a busy studio man, from getting to the job. I lived on the other side of the flood problem, so he called me to take his place. I was the only guy who could get there. I've been there ever since.
Q. What's the hardest part of studio work?
A. The hardest music to play is Tom & Jerry -- cartoons. The music makes absolutely no sense, as music. You can't get into hearing it. There's nothing to hear--'bleep!, blop! scratch!' and it comes fast; everything's first take. That'll change the way you look at life.
Q. What do you think the future holds for guitarists in the studio field?
A. Studio work is an entirely different ball game now. Previously, recording was done with a live band or orchestra, perfect takes, nobody would make mistakes. Now, with all the multi-track and digital capabilities for recording I hardly ever see a band. I am there all by myself. If I make a mistake nobody cares. They say, 'Don't worry about that,' because they can take that note from another place and drop it in digitally.
The future is mystifying. I was talking to a great guitar player the other day who is working on an album. He had his piano player phone in a part by modem into his computer in the middle of the night while he was sleeping -- one computer talking to another.
From the standpoint of the industry I don't have any idea where it's going, but from the standpoint of music I don't think that's going to ever change in our lifetime.
I asked the students at G.I.T. a couple of weeks ago, 'Look if there was never any more studio work, or any place to play live, ever again (people don't go out to clubs any more) would you still want to be musicians?' A firm, "Yes."
Q. If you could start over would you do things differently?
A. I'd do it the same way. PRAXIS: to learn by doing-- take action. Go sit down with a band and play. You hear a song--play it. There are two classic theories of learning: 1. Study the theory, and then get the music out of it. 2. In Praxis it's the other way around. You go to the music first, start doing it, then extrapolate the theory after you are doing it.
Q. How would you compare guitarists of today to those of 20 years ago?
A. I don't think there's any difference. It's been said, 'Fashions come and go but style endures.' A guy can play today's fashions with style, and another can play today's fashion but without style.
Q. Most know you designed the Howard Robert's guitar put out by Gibson, but what type amp are you using ?
A. One that's no longer made-- a Benson. I founded the company, and Ronnie Benson and I developed those amps. We got so discouraged with the business end of it though, we said, 'What the heck.' But they're great amps!
Q. How did you get into studying Bach while in the jazz life?
A. I had a case of terminal ignorance. It bugged me, so I started studying music history at U.S.C. and composition privately. Whenever you study composition you inevitably encounter Bach right off the bat. You can't get across the room without running into him and the other greats. Analyzing Bach absolutely influenced my jazz playing.
Q. Have you had any drastic style changes along the way?
A. I've made some pretty radical departures. I am fascinated with experimental or avant-garde ( I don't know if those terms are really right). There are so many new ways to go about fashioning music. I messed with a 12 tone concerto, and I made some albums that were pretty radical, Antelope Freeway was one. They were not jazz albums they were -- something else.
Q. What was your first album ?
A. "Mr. Roberts Plays Guitar, " it was originally recorded on Verve and has been released on a number of labels since then. It's presently being released in Japan and sold here. That album was made in about 1955 and has never been out of print, but I've never seen a royalty statement -- on it or any of my albums. That's the music business. I've put out about 25 albums.
Q. Were there periods in your studio career that seemed dormant or dull?
A. When the rock and roll hit about 1955 boy guitar playing turned real dumb, overnight dumb. I'd go to work at 8:00 in the morning and some days I'd sit there and strum on a "G" chord -- all-day-long! Who likes that? Everything turned into IV-V-I, open "E" chords. I'd go on a studio call, and I'd sit there until here came the big "E" chord again.
Q. Any advice for the new crop of guitarist?
A. Again PRAXIS -- get out there and play. Another thought. Guitar players tend to live in this sea of how to play like this guy and like that guy I and they never get to address the subject of the music that's within them. Music is internal. We need to learn how to get it out. It turns out that just about everybody on the planet walks around with music running through their heads all day long. I've come up with the theory that the music is within. We don't bring it in; it's already there. We have to figure out how to get it out.
Q. Where do you go from here ?
A. I put everything on hold while I've been working on the Compendium and Chroma, but now I am just about through. Next I'm going back to my former self -- whoever that was. I'm talking to a few labels now.
Musicians know what his former self was and always will be, an icon of Jazz. Howard's probably jammin' out in some heavenly gig now. Howard, we haven't forgotten you!