Jul 13

The Heart of the Beat

As a faithful listener to public broadcasting, and especially our local NPR station, WBEZ-FM, I have had my share of “driveway moments”–when I become so engrossed in an unexpected story that I stop what I was doing to continue listening. I often turn on the radio in the kitchen while I’m cooking or doing dishes. More often than not, it’s in the middle of a program or story.

Tonight I stumbled on an episode of the Canadian Broadcasting program, “Ideas.” I’ve heard it a few times, mostly by chance, and have usually found it interesting. The 1 July program on synchrony was enthralling. (Merriam-Webster defines “synchrony” as “a state in which things happen, move, or exist at the same time.”)

The CBC website summarized it this way:

What is it about rhythm, pattern, and synchronization that fascinate us? How do pacemaker cells in a heart synchronize? How can thousands of people unconsciously walk in step? There are so many recurring patterns in nature like ripples in sand and the stripes of a zebra. In speaking with musicians, mathematicians, and psychologists, filmmaker Tess Girard explores the idea of rhythm and what it means to us.

You can listen to the hour-long program from the website above or download a podcast from this page. I highly recommend it.


Jun 13

My Fifth Anniversary

I took my first electric guitar lesson with Jim Goelitz at Kagan & Gaines Music five years ago today on Wednesday, 25 June 2008. It has turned out to be a life-changing date. I’ve continued to take weekly lessons except when I’m out of town or when Jim is on vacation. When I started out, I had no idea where learning to play blues guitar might lead.

Learning to play the guitar turned out to be more challenging than I had imagined, but I also found that with each day I improved. I’ve always enjoyed learning new things and never found practicing a burden (just a challenge at times to fit in a busy day). Even when I felt frustrated learning a new chord or riff, I was encouraged by the knowledge that if I kept practicing I would eventually get the hang of it. And I always have–even if it took longer than I imagined it should have.

Almost two years ago on Friday, 29 July 2011, I attended my first weekly class with the K&G ensemble–ably led/taught by Jim Goelitz. Participating in that group has accelerated my learning process and expanded my skills in many ways. It’s also–as others in the group agree–the highlight of my week. Since I joined the group, we have performed in public six times. I would like to have more opportunities to perform and hope we can find some new venues.

It’s hard to describe what I’ve learned in the last five years. I’ve learned to play scales, chords, riffs and songs with increasing ease. I feel a much greater facility on the fretboard and an increased comfort level when playing with the group. I’ve long thought of myself as an introvert, so performing in public in front of people is quite a stretch of my previous identity. Performing is still a source of anxiety, but it has diminished considerably. Jim has often encouraged me to “dig in” and play with “more attitude,” especially when soloing. I’m working on letting go of my usual sense of restraint. I’ve come up with a new musical motto: “It’s Time to Get Nasty.”

I feel a sense of accomplishment with what I’ve learned in the past five years and have even begun to think of myself as a musician and a guitarist. Music is a lifelong path. I’m often reminded of how much I still want to learn and know that will always be the case. It’s one of the appeals of playing music.

May 13

Buddy Guy: “When I Left Home: My Story” (2012)

Guy, Buddy - When I Left Home (2012) cover

If you’ve seen one of Buddy Guy’s full out, wild man blues performances, you might not expect the humility and modesty that underlies the life story he tells in When I Left Home. With David Ritz as co-author, Guy recounts key memories in his life, many of them involving meaningful encounters with blues musicians he admired. While I consider Buddy Guy one of the major blues performers alive today, he points humbly to such towering figures as Guitar Slim, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and B.B. King as the originals from whom he learned. B.B. is the only one of these bluesmen who are still living.

Buddy Guy was born George Guy on July 30, 1936 in Lettsworth, Louisiana. While today Guy is a highly successful performer, award-winning recording artist and blues club owner, much of his book details the struggles to eke out a living while performing and recording. For many years he drove a tow-truck in Chicago, because he couldn’t make enough from playing in clubs and as a sideman in Chess Records studio recordings. These struggles are typical of blues musicians of his generation who often earned little or nothing from their recordings and couldn’t earn a living from performing.

The style of the book captures Buddy Guy’s voice as he talks about his life and you can feel his presence. It’s a breezy and enjoyable read. This is by no means a complete autobiography, but rather highlights of a life. Guy deserves a more detailed biography that will fill in his rich history as a bluesman. Nevertheless, When I Left Home succeeds in giving us a flavor of this remarkable life.

Buddy Guy tells good stories, but the real story is in his high-energy guitar playing and singing. He’s at his best live–he’s a consummate showman, so don’t miss a chance to see him perform. You’d never guess from the intensity and enthusiasm of his performances that he was almost 77, but you never know when your “last chance” to see him might come.

Buddy Guy will play this summer on Saturday, June 15 at Blues on the Fox in Aurora, IL and at the Ravinia Festival on Saturday, August 17, 2013. Every January, he plays Thursday through Sunday at his club, Buddy Guy’s Legends in downtown Chicago.


Jul 11

Blues Ensemble Class Announced

The big news at my guitar lesson today was that Jim Goelitz has finally organized a blues ensemble class. It will meet Fridays from 5:00 to 6:00 starting August 5. He gave me a CD with the thirteen songs we’ll prepare. It’s quite a diverse selection with pieces by Albert King (“Crosscut Saw”) and B.B. King (“The Thrill is Gone”) as well as by musicians I don’t know. I’m really psyched. This is very timely and is just what I’ve been wanting. Jim had been trying to start an ensemble for some time. Some of the students were in a previous jazz ensemble with Jim.

We spent most of my lesson going over aspects of the first three songs we will work on. He gave me a chart for Otis Rush’s “Feel So Bad.” I plan to take the CD on our upcoming road trip to listen to at least a couple of times. I’m sure I’ll be listening to those songs a lot in the coming weeks.

Jul 11

A Big Step: Playing with Others

This was a Big Day for me: it was the first time I’ve played my guitar with other musicians. I went over to Jeff’s at 8:00 and after his friend Cesar arrived, the three of us played together for an hour or so.

It didn’t go as badly as I feared. I didn’t feel embarrassed or humiliated and while I was probably tense, the atmosphere was loose enough that I had fun. I played some reasonably good leads, but had trouble (as I had anticipated) keeping my place when I played rhythm. In part it was so loud with both the bass and drums in a basement room that it was hard to hear the chord changes.

Jeff would pick a song, and usually said what key it was in. Mostly I wasn’t familiar with the songs. He did a version of Albert King’s “Crosscut Saw” that was in a different key than I was used to, but at least it was a familiar song. For one song, Jeff sang the notes of an accent lick he wanted me to play. I managed to figure out the notes, which pleased me.

On the whole, I felt it was a successful experiment, at least from my point of view. I hope Jeff will be interested in repeating the experiment, though Cesar took his drums home at the end of the evening.

About 10:30 we headed over to the Harlem Avenue Lounge, which has an open mic blues jam on Thursdays. Jeff signed up to play and strongly encouraged me to sign up. I had taken my guitar home to avoid that possibility. Because I was still recovering from a bad cold, I was really pushing it to go at all and should probably have gone home to bed. However, I hope eventually to get up the courage to sign up and play.

I’m glad I went. It was a fun time, and it was good to hang out with Jeff. He knows a lot of the Lounge regulars. I asked him when he first started playing, and he said in junior high, when he was about 12. I wish I’d started that early. At one point in the evening, he mentioned playing with Junior Wells. I’ll bet he’s got a lot of fascinating stories to tell about the guys he’s played with over the years.

Jul 11

An Invitation to Play

Jeff, a friend who has played electric bass in blues bands since he was in junior high, called and asked me to come over Thursday night to play guitar with him and Cesar, a drummer friend. I felt a good deal of trepidation, but I agreed. I have no idea what I’m getting into or how this will work. I’m assuming he knows songs. Will he sing? I’ll do what I can to keep up. I’m actually slightly more worried about playing rhythm than playing lead, but both could be a challenge in a live situation with music I don’t know. Jeff said we might play for an hour or two. That’s more than I’ve ever played in one day.

This inspired me to practice more yesterday and I did 90 minutes. I’d like to do that today, though in some ways it feels too late to prepare. I know what I know and will have to make do with that. As my teacher often says, “it’s not what you know, it’s what you can do with what you know.” He has also said something to the effect that it’s not the notes (the technical skill), it’s the feeling in the notes. That’s what I’ll have to remember: it’s about the feeling. I’ll also have to let go of my perfectionism and serve the music humbly as best I can.