JGS Jay Roberts Interview, Feb 28, 2013
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I met up with Jay Roberts at the NAMM Show in Anaheim in January of this year at the Concert he put on one night after the show for the upcoming documentary that he is making on his father, the late great guitar genius Howard Roberts. We got to play together that night and Jay was literally showing everyone the encyclopedia of what could be done on a guitar in his solos, and I decided I wanted to do an interview with him not only on his father and the upcoming movie, but also his own considerable achievements on the instrument. We talked a few weeks later after he had done his own set of interviews with some of the people that will be in the documentary in Hollywood, and also ended up talking about a number of other stellar guitarists he has gotten to know in his journey with the guitar.- Doug Perkins, JGS

DP: So Jay, I know you have this big project going on right now in getting a movie made on the life of your father, Howard Roberts. What can you tell us about what will be in the film, as well as the people you’ve interviewed so far?

JR: Well, it’s kind of a two-sided project, it includes a CD and a DVD documentary that will include some concert footage that we’re going to do showing the making of the recordings for the CD, documenting the player colleges that he (Howard Roberts) worked with in the studios back in the day. There’s going to be a lot of stories from the studio days as well with Carol Kaye for example, which is a very interesting side of this project. Also the movie talks about his years with MI (Musician’s Institute) and his influence on the school and guitar education in general. There’s also going to be some unheard recordings and photos that we have in archives that we really want to share with people. Currently we are in search of video footage, and that’s proving to be very rare and hard to come by, so if anybody HAS any footage of HR, it would be great if they could contact me. There was a lot of stuff from the GIT days, but when the lawsuit went down, I think the attorneys had them throw all of that footage out….

DP: Ooohhh….

JR: And you know Beth (Beth Marlis, MI VP), she went looking for that stuff and she couldn’t find anything. So if you hear of anything, let us know about it.

DP: Sure, I would think that someone reading this that was an MI Alumni or HR seminar attendee from back then will have something that they could contribute, they can email us here at jazzguitarsociety.com.

JR: Yeah, that would just be beautiful if we could add something like that. We’re going to be doing the recording of the CD at Capitol in LA, and also up here in Seattle at studio X. We’ve got some great players lined up play on it like Don Mock, who helped my dad and Pat Hicks start MI, and the great bass player Dan Dean. I just received an email from Dave Grusin, and there is a good chance that he is going to play on it as well. The musician line up is quite impressive, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with these guys. Ralph Humphreys , Chuck Berghofer, Carol Kaye and Mike Lang will hold down the rhythm section in the LA session. They all worked a lot with HR, and Chuck recorded bass on at lease 8 of HR’s albums. So that’s real cool. We also have some killer guitar players tracking with us on the project: Howard Alden, Mitch Holder. Mike Anthony, Bob Bain and Tim May, as of now, but I’m sure there will be others. We’ll cover several of HR’s original tunes on the ÇD – I actually didn’t know how many tunes he had written but as I was going over the discography, I was amazed that there was something like over 30 tunes there. So I ended up changing direction on the tune selection and now all of the tunes are going to be his original stuff.

DP: That sounds really exciting, I’m really looking forward to seeing and hearing this! Well, now I wanted to shift gears here and talk about YOU as a musician. It’s been my experience in observing the offspring of great musicians that they either will pick an instrument other than the one their famous parent played, or they will play the same one and fall far short of their parent’s abilities. You are on the short list of the ones that picked their parent’s instrument that really have made their own name on the instrument and really have technical abilities equal to the parent. If I remember right from discussions we’ve had in the past, Howard was at least your main teacher, if not your only teacher – can you describe what it was like to be a guitarist growing up under that kind of parental shadow, and what it was like actually having your dad as your teacher?

JR: Yeah, well, first of all I am constantly amazed at his playing as I go back and listen to the recordings…it’s absolutely stunning, I mean, as I’m getting more accomplished as a player I’m able to recognize more of what it was that he was really doing, so that absolutely floors me….but yeah, it’s a tall order, I realized early on that I wasn’t going to be following in his footsteps. To this day, I haven’t really run across any players that have his tone, phrasing and musical ideas, and he’s absolutely unique in that he can be identified on any of his recordings by his impeccable technique. It’s absolutely mind blowing really, there’s so many wonderful guitar players out there today, but I think he still really stands out and has his own unique style. So he was a huge influence on me from the start, I mean, we were best of friends…

DP: Really?

JR: Yeah, I mean, we hung out EVERY night together, especially after I moved out of the house at 18….

DP: (Laughs)

JR: …and we just loved hanging together and working on projects together, and of course playing, you know. I helped him with several guitar educational books he was working on and projects of that nature, but as far as the learning goes, he TAUGHT me how to learn, that was the biggest thing. He taught me how to go about tackling a subject or issue on the guitar. If I asked him to like show me a chord or something, he wouldn’t really do that – like, “Hey, show me an minor 9th chord”, he’d say, “Oh, that’s in my books downstairs, go look it up yourself” (Both laugh) He wouldn’t really show me that kind of thing, but he would show me how to learn it, how to retain it, how to visualize, how to train my ear, all those types of things.

In fact, one of the stories that’s really interesting is that we’d spend a lot of time playing in the dark – we’d do dark room training and we’d flip the lights out and he would tell me to just solo on one string, and he would start playing these really cool lush chord changes and modulating all over the place, and then I would just track it on that one string – and by doing that you develop what we called “elephant ears”, you know (laughs). And then every now and then I’d cheat and hit the second string and he’d go “Stop!” and then he’d turn the light on and he’d grab some tape and he’d TAPE UP my other 5 strings, so I couldn’t actually hit them at all! (Both Laughing)

DP: That’s great, that’s really cool!

JR: So then we’d graduate to two strings, so maybe I’d just have strings 3 and 4 and the rest would be taped up. And then when you finally have 3 strings it’s really liberating, you know, it really frees you up! He called it “the power of limitation”, and it really works. As a player I realized early on that I had to do my own thing, because with all the TV shows and studio work that he had done, if I tried to compare myself to that I would have never gotten out of the shoot, and now I have developed my own voice.

DP: So, did you ever start off with just a guitar teacher that said, “This note’s a C” and “This is an F chord”, or did you just….

JR: Yeah, well you know, I grew up in North Bend Oregon, and my did really didn’t want to have that relationship with me when I was first starting on the guitar, so he actually hired a guy to give me lessons. I think that we actually started working out of the accelerator; I don’t know if you remember that from the GIT days….

DP: Yup!

JR: So that was a bit more advanced, but that guy sort of walked me through a lot of my dad’s material and he was my formal teacher for about 3 months or something like that, and then that was it as far as formal training goes. I then fast tracked it, and started teaching at 14. That really put things in focus for me. HR called it “earn while you learn”.

DP: OK, so speaking of your dad, when I went to MI we transcribed a lot of his solos, and what always hit me was – and I don’t know if this is what people usually think of him for – on all of those sort of “pop/jazz” hits that he had out in the early 60s, what always impressed me was just how concisely he could play this really great solo, that was interesting, no wasted notes, but just “hip” still, you know?

JR: Yeah, no kidding, and it’s so musical too, they really make musical sense, the solos actually sound like melodies…

DP: Yup – exactly! And they were all done live.

JR: (Laughs) Yeah, and a lot of them were first takes, they didn’t really do overdubbing back then per se. I think that the quality of the session players back then was very high, because it was all live recording. These days we punch in and we fix shit all the time. We spend more time on the editing side. Back then, they spent more time on how to actually PLAY it. It was really a different world back then, very admirable.

DR: Well, there was no choice in that you couldn’t go back and digitally fix anything back then, but on the other hand, there was a lot more work so that everyone was playing all of the time so their chops were always up. OK, so, other than your father – who were your guitar heroes growing up, and who do you listen to now?

JR: Wow, now that’s a loaded question there…well, many people don’t know that drums were actually my first instrument, and I still enjoy playing, so the groove is a big part, and I listen to guys like Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Dennis Chambers; and of course, the guitar players that they tend to work with are top notch guys. So I enjoy listening to that style of music, which is kind of like a jazz-fusion approach. And in that realm I like guys like Don Mock, Frank Gambale, and Scott Henderson, as well as guys like Guthrie Govan. But my heart’s really with the jazz players like H.R, and guys like George Barnes who’s just amazing; Howard Alden, Frank Vignola. And Vic Juris, I really love his playing a lot, and of course, George Benson and Jim Hall, those kind of guys. There’re so many new guys out there right now. Julian Lage, for example, is a really marvelous musician. I also enjoy guys like Brent Mason, Bireli Legrand and the pedal steel guy Paul Franklin, so it’s kind of all over the map really.

DP: You know, I have actually gone on record in print saying that Julian Lage was the best pick-style guitar player in the world (laughing)… Well, it’s very hard to make a statement like that I know, but I just never seen anybody with such technical command of the guitar…

JR: Well, you know, he’s right there…I remember you telling me about this guy being the best player that you’ve heard, this was several months ago and I said “whoa – that’s a pretty profound statement”, and then I went to listen to him and “holy shit!”
He’s got “Mad Skills”, as they say.

DP: Well, you know what happened was that I was in Hollywood planning the MI Reunion with Beth Marlis and Pat Hicks, and Julian was playing that night at Catalina Bar & Grill and so I told them “we have to go”, and Beth was hip to him but Pat wasn’t. So I told him, “Pat. I’m sorry, but your jaw’s going to be on the floor”, and he said “yeah, yeah, yeah” you know, and so when he heard him his jaw literally WAS on the floor, the look of stunned disbelief was pretty funny!

JR: Wow, yeah, there’s some great footage of him with a guy named Mike Moreno sitting playing ”All The Things You Are”….

DP: Sitting out on a university steps, both playing through two channels of the same Fender Twin,….

JR: Oh, yeah, that was just unreal, just amazing……

DP: Yeah, well those guys are sort of carrying on in a way the tradition of your dad. I’ve always thought of Howard as sort of a “Renaissance man” musician, he wasn’t stuck really on an instrument or an era, and he just seemed to be immersed in more than music, with the science of learning and all of that.

JR: Yeah, the educational part of it especially – back in the 50’s and 60s guitar guys didn’t really want to share their points of view on how to play much, every one sort of kept everything a secret. And from what I’ve heard, H.R. was one of the first that was open to not only sharing the approach, but also teaching you how to do it. He’s really changed the way that guitar education developed, I think.

DP: Didn’t he have as his mentor – or sort of co-learner”, really – a pianist back in Arizona?

DP: He had a couple of guys – his first guitar teacher was a guy named (early Jimmy Dorsey & Red Nichols guitarist) Horace Hatchett, who ended up being an instructor for a lot of other greats like Carol Kaye and Barry Zweig. But he did have a lot of other guys that were really influential for him, including Fabian Andre that he studied the Schillinger system with, as well as his roommate, guitarist Howard Heitmeyer.

Speaking of music education I know you own and operate the Roberts Music Institute in Seattle, WA, and have had a lot of great guitarists teach under you there – can you tell us a bit about the school and what you do there?

JR: Well, RMI is basically a performance based music school that that applies accelerated learning techniques that were inspired by HR, and his many educational books and approaches. We’re going into our eighth year at our Belleview location, and we service a wide range of students, including many business professionals from Microsoft and Boeing as well as kids. Like I mentioned, I’ve been teaching since I was 14 and now I’ve really been able to share the philosophies and techniques that I grew up with, on a much larger level, and of course I am very grateful to have the opportunity to do that. When I started teaching, I really didn’t know how to play very well (laughs), and I remember I had these three adults come in to take a group lesson, and they started to say “Hey, we know your dad’s Howard Roberts” – they started grilling me at the same time on really tough shit – and they said stuff like “We wanna learn the five fingering patterns” and I was like “ahh….yeah….OK, uh, I’ll have that for you next week”. And that forced me to go home and get the books out and learn that stuff – of course, those guys never came BACK again (both laugh), they just took that one lesson and that was it, but it was a real eye opener for me. But I was encouraged by my dad that this idea of “earn while you learn” was really the way to go about it, and it was just so much better than doing a paper route and all that type of thing (both laugh).

So I started teaching a full schedule, 40-50 students a week and once I got to 50,000 private guitar lessons….literally

DP: Whoa!!!!!

JR: …I quit counting, and that was 15 years ago probably! And so then I literally said “I need to take a couple of years off and then start a school where I can share this with a larger group of people”. RMI has about 15 instructors teaching currently and so at this point it’s probably over 100,000 students, which is a frightening reality…..

DP: Now, let’s back up – did you say that you had taught 50,000 or 15,000 lessons?

JR: 50,000 – well, you figure 40 students a week since I was 18, and that’s been 30 years now – and sometimes it was more students than that. I was also teaching bass and drums, which probably kept my sanity together. If it was all guitar lessons, I would have probably gone nuts.

DP: Ah…..YEEEAAAH!!!!

JR: So that was before the school, now I’m just teaching a handful of guys a week and doing the big picture stuff of keeping the school going, the admin stuff, that kind of thing. I have actually been enjoying doing Skype lessons with guys all over the country. It works better than I imagined.

DP: So when I was at the NAMM after-party concert you threw, you gave people that contributed to the project your new duo CD with Ben Lacy and it’s really great. I know Ben is on a completely different coast from you, how long have you had that duo, and how did it start?

JR: Ben I met at the NAMM show playing for the Brian Moore guitar company, in what I’m guessing must have been around 2002. Basically, I was hired to play at their booth and I had my little play-along tracks, and I walk up to the booth and there’s this guy playing all of this AMAZING stuff and I’m going “there’s NO WAY I’m going to sit there and play with my Jamey Aebersold tracks after this guy just tore it up!”. And so he’s just like, “Hey, man, just sit down, we’ll just play together”, so I said, “Well, what are we going to play?” And he said “I don’t know, I’ll just lay down a pocket, and you just noodle away” (Laughs) And so that was it., that was the start of our relationship. And we really only get a chance to play once a year at the NAMM show, and so it was great to have the opportunity to do the CD, because he came up to my place for a week and all we did was play guitar 14 hours a day.

He’s a very unique player in that I’ve never seen anyone else that does what he does, and people need to check out some of his solo stuff on YouTube. So he’s a really incredible finger-style player and the wild thing is that I’d never seen him play with a pick in all the years that we’d known each other, because we would room together at the show and play all day and then woodshed all night and just burn for hours. So I’d never heard him play with a pick before and I didn’t think he could – and this is after 4 years of hanging with him – and then one day he reaches into his guitar bag and pulls out this big freezer bag FULL of about 100 purple tortex picks. And it’s the end of the show and we’re getting ready to go out to eat and here’s all of the people from the guitar company and we’re all looking at each other going “what the HELL?”, and he proceeds to take out a pick and play all of this INSANE stuff like Van Halen solos and Steve Morse stuff – all note for note! And I’m going “what?” and he’s doing all this Yngwie (Malmsteen) and Al Di Meola and he’s just got this FIERCE right hand picking technique. And it literally upset my stomach, I wasn’t even able to eat dinner after that! (Both laugh hard) And I was like “You bastard! How the hell do you do that?”, and he said that he would woodshed with the metronome and crank the speed up and up, for years, until he literally got sick, physically, so he quit the drills and threw the pick away. Plus he said that he had a hard time finding guys to play with – he lives in Kentucky – and so he said he started playing this finger-style thing so he could just basically be the whole band himself. He is back to shedding the pick again, though. His mom told me that she always knew when has we as sleeping – because she would just hear “tick- tick- tick- tick- tick- tick“ from the metronome when he nodded off.

DP: Yeah…yeah……wow!!!! Yeah, well, there are “those guys” out there….OK, so, just getting back to the movie, I just wanted to know what was it that made you decide to even undertake? Have you ever produced a film before?

JR: Well, that’s a really good question – no, I haven’t produced a movie before, but the reason why I decided that this was a really important project to do was that HR had such a major influence on not only the jazz scene, but also popular music. He played on TV themes like the Twilight Zone, Batman, The Munsters, Bonanza, Green Acres, and hits like the “Last Train To Clarksville” – undoubtedly one of the most hear guitar players in history – and many people don’t know that HR recorded those tune and also that he dedicated his life to guitar education. Musicians Institute was his brain child and through that was able to generate many wonderful guitarists: Frank Gambale, Scott Henderson, Jennifer Batten, Howard Alden, just to name a few – so several of the players that I enjoy listening to today came right out of that school.

Hollywood in the 50s and 60s produced some amazing music. It was a magical time and I plan on documenting a piece of that era. There’s a movie called “The Wrecking Crew” produced by Denny Tedesco, but it’s largely about (studio guitarist) Tommy Tedesco, his father. I wanted to make a movie with the stories that so many have to tell about HR, from several of the musicians that he worked with. It’s really about sharing the history with the next generation.

DP: OK, I have to ask this question: I remember as a student on a Saturday afternoon with my old black and white TV practicing and watching “Munster Go Home” and there’s the race scene and while Herman is flying around the track in his car there is this boogaloo rock thing and someone is playing this rock guitar solo with all these symmetric diminished licks in it and I went: “Wait a minute, that’s GOT to be Howard Roberts” – was it?”

JR: (Chuckling) Yeah, for sure!!

DR: And so what part is he on “Last Train To Clarksville”? Isn’t there like three guitars on that?

JR: The main lead Tele line – and also on the Twilight Zone, I had to re-record that and I was having a hell of a time getting it to sound like the original, and Don (Mock) told me that it was actually three guitars. So I dissected that and actually figured out how to do it, and I actually have the original guitar that was recorded on – a ’52 Tele – and so that helped to get the tone right (laughs).

So we’ve done several interview so far for the documental, including Bob Bain, Carol Kaye, of course Mitch Holder, Lee Ritenour, and Chuck Berghofer, Tim May, Ron Benson, Mike Anthony, Wolf Marshall, Les Wise, Skunk Baxter, and Jimmy Stewart. And that’s just so far, and there’s several to go. And the stories that these guys are coming up with are just incredible. I’m in the process now of listening to all of these interviews and putting together cue sheets and all of that kind of thing.

DP: Any idea of when you’ll have it out?

JR: Well, right now we’re still in the fund raising stage, I’ve never tackled a project of this magnitude before, but we’re amazed at how well it’s coming together. There’s a tremendous amount of interest and support, which is very encouraging. In fact, we’re hosting a Howard Roberts Project fund raising concert in Bellevue WA at “Bake’s Place” on April 28th with Don Mock, Dan Dean, Barney McClure, Mark Arrington and myself. Any donations can be made through our web site at www.robertsmusicinstitute.com

Then we’re going into the studio right after that, so the first weekend in May we’re going to start tracking this thing up in Seattle, and then planning on finishing the end of the tracking in LA at the end of May. We will mix and edit the documentary this summer, and plan on releasing it by Christmas 2013.

DP: So what are your plans for the future for yourself other than the film? Or is it hard to look ahead of that?

JR: Well, I actually put together all of these tunes for the pre-production of this record that were all “sun” related tunes like “When Sunny Gets Blue”, “Sunny” and “Summertime” with all of these different types of grooves, but then the project changed to be all HR originals. So my plan is to go ahead and record all of those as soon as this project is done as another record of my own. Also, once this project is done, I want to go out on the road and do some playing with some of these players and promote the project to get it out there.

DP: Well, I remember seeing video of your duo with Don Mock that you guys have done…at least whenever Don is in guitar mode and not speed-boat mode (laughs)

JR: I just talked to Don the other day and he’s just winding up a hydroplane project that he’s the lead engineer on re-building the original Bill Muncey boat. He plans on being done with that project, in about a year, and then he will be back to guitar mode. Have you heard his version of “Round Midnight”?

DP: Oh, yes, I’ve sent that YouTube video to so many people, it’s so fabulous – if anyone had that written out I’d love to get a copy! I was always blown away by Don, but I didn’t realize that he had recently gotten into that whole Jimmy Wyble “Art of Two Line Improvisation” thing. Jimmy had his own scales and his own way of harmonizing them.

JR: Yeah, Don’s gotten to the point recently that he can pretty much improvise with it…he just has this huge bag of tricks, and when he takes a solo he’s able to sprinkle that stuff all through it…he was showing that stuff to me and….it’s a hand full!

Hey, here’s one from left field, HR was really into boxing, a lot of people don’t know that…way into it.

DP: Really???? Wow!!!

JR: Yeah, he was as serious about that as he was about guitar playing, and in fact he was unsure as to which one to pursue at one point.

DP: Did Jeff Berlin know that? He played with Howard at the school a few times, and he was WAY into boxing. Back when Scott (Henderson) first played with him, he had a tune called “Joe Frasier”.

JR: Really? I did NOT know that! I saw Jeff Berlin at the NAMM show right after I saw you – there was this bass player playing in a booth, and I could here this other bass player down the hall playing all of his licks back at him, but doing it over “All The Things You Are”, and it was Jeff Berlin (laughs). And so I told him that I was doing this documentary and would like to interview him, and he said “Oh man, I’d love to, your dad was the best jazz guitar player that ever lived”, but we had technical problems and just couldn’t do it, it was a real bummer that we didn’t get that. I’m still going to try to hook that up maybe on Skype.

DP: What else would you like to add to what we’ve already covered?

JR: Well, I’d like to say that HR changed my life…and it’s been 20 years since his passing. His story deserves to be shared with the upcoming generations

DP: He CREATED your life! (laughs)

JR: Yeah! There are two great pieces published in his honor, one is Mitch Holder’s excellent book “The Stylings Of Howard Roberts”, and also Mike Evan’s fan web site. And there’s dozens of HR discussion sites and tribute sites around the world – I pulled this quote from one of these guides: “Roberts emerges as a devastating musician who ranks as one of the greatest living jazz guitarists” from Leonard Feather in the LA TIMES…

DP: There you go, also known as “Learned Father”…

JR: ..and here’s a few more quotes to end with: ” His technique is as phenomenal as his ability to put it to hard driving and pulsating use” also from Leonard Feather. And this: “The brilliance of Howard Roberts both enlightens and entertains, he is one of the best guitarists in jazz history” from Phillip Elwood, writing for the San Francisco Examiner.

DP: Those three quotes pretty much sum it all up, Jay, thanks. Well, this has been an amazingly cool thing, the only thing I will add is to once again post the info on the upcoming fund-raiser concert and site. I really am looking forward to hearing the outcome of all of your work as I’m sure are many others, thanks for much for your time and efforts on all of this.

Howard Roberts Project concert in Bellevue WA at “Bake’s Place” on April 28th , 2013 with Don Mock, Dan Dean, Barney McClure, Mark Arrington and Jay Roberts.
Donations can be made through: www.robertsmusicinstitute.com