(Pic: Jay Geils with author Tom Guerra holding Jay's 1959 Les Paul)
Jay Geils Plays Jazz!
If you grew up in the 1970's the name “J. Geils” conjures up images of a 5 piece band playing raucous rock and roll to hip shaking partyers…Led by guitarist John ”Jay” Geils, (not “Jerome” as many have thought), the group toured the world and recorded more than a dozen albums for Atlantic and EMI which sold millions before parting ways in the early 1980's. Originally concentrating on blues, R&B and soul, The J Geils Band later adopted more of a straight ahead rock and roll sound resulting in numerous hit singles including the blockbusters “Freeze Frame” and “Centerfold.”
Over the past 15 years, Jay has shifted focus from playing blues and rock and roll to immersing himself in the jazz and swing of the 1940's and 1950's. In fact, he has managed to channel Charlie Christian in his tone, choice of notes and instruments, which is quite apparent on his recent recording “Jay Geils Plays Jazz” and the cd and dvd entitled “New Guitar Summit” with fellow guitar heavyweights Duke Robillard and Gerry Beaudoin (featured in the Dec. 08 VG). “ Summit ” is a rich hybrid of jazz and blues featuring three-part harmony guitars played at a level few achieve. Along with Gerry and Duke, Jay is in process of releasing another “New Guitar Summit” cd which also features Randy Bachman as a special guest. In addition, Jay has also recorded a followup to the “Plays Jazz” cd, which will be released in the near future.
Jay was gracious enough to discuss his influences, favorite instruments, and memories with VG while revealing an awe inspiring collection of instruments, which include vintage D'Angelico, Gibson, Gretsch, Epiphone, Rodier and Stromberg archtops, and his complete series of Gibson tweed amplifiers. The pièce de résistance, however, is his 1959 flametop Les Paul, which appeared on every J. Geils Band record and all of their early stage performances.
TG: Jay, a lot of people are surprised to hear how much your style of guitar playing has changed since your days with the J. Geils Band, when you were playing mostly blues, R&B and rock and roll…Did you always have an interest in the more straightforward jazz and traditional swing stuff?
Jay: Yeah, always…My father was a big jazz fan, so that's all I was exposed to as a kid. I saw Louis Armstrong and the Allstars live, when I was 11 or something, in 1957 and I was a trumpet player before picking up guitar. By the late 50's, name groups like Maynard Ferguson, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck were starting to do concerts at high school and college auditoriums. Plus, all the music that was playing in my house when I was a kid was big band…Basie, Ellington, Goodman. I didn't start playing the guitar until I was a senior in high school.
TG: And what kind of music were you playing when you finally picked up a guitar? Did you get right into the blues?
Jay: No, actually I was a fingerpicker and played only folk…Folk music was a big scene up in Boston in the early ‘60's, with guys like Tom Rush and Dave Van Ronk. But it was around this same time that we were listening to a jazz station out of New York called WRBR, and every Sunday afternoon they'd have a blues show, and they played music by guys with names like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and I was like ‘Wow, what's that? That's cool! I like that!' and could actually play it, so that got me into the blues. But there wasn't a lot of Chicago blues in Boston or Cambridge in '64 or '65, it wasn't until after Dylan went electric at Newport (1965) that the Club 47 and The Unicorn started happening. And around this time I met (Magic) Dick and Danny (Klein) and we were actually thinking of moving to Chicago because that's where Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite and Mike Bloomfield were playing all the time…But what happened was, all of those Chicago acts started coming to Boston and Cambridge . We used to stand outside the Club 47 and help Muddy Waters unload his station wagon, and we got to know Muddy and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells.
TG: Was Bloomfield a big influence on you early on?
Jay: Early on, until I discovered BB King.
TG: Bloomfield 's biggest influence…
TG: So, is BB your main influence?
Jay: To me, the big three are BB King, T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian, in a reverse chronological order. Charlie Christian was clearly the first guy who clearly understood that the electric guitar could be a solo instrument. His style has not a lot to do with T-Bone and BB, but it certainly laid the foundation. There's a few bent notes and there's the passing chords that BB used here and there. And then T-Bone was the guy who put it into the next setting…I mean, the first two choruses of his first recording is him playing solo electric guitar, and that's 1942. He was bending strings and using 9ths, and nobody had heard that before. And then BB took it from T-Bone and added the jazz influences. BB was the first one to bend up to a pitch and hold it, he invented that…and that's the hallmark of all blues and rock and roll guitar playing today. I do a lecture on this to demonstrate it… I've done it at Harvard and Holy Cross. And it's probably going on in 12,000 garages right now (laughs). So as far as influences, those are the big three for me but obviously I've listened to Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, anything that makes me go ‘Oooh, what's that?' (laughs). Actually, Bloomfield turned me onto Albert King.
TG: Did you know him well?
Jay: I only saw him two days when Electric Flag was in town, but he hung out at our apartment the night before the show and I sat in with The Flag the night of the gig. He was great. That night he at our apartment, and we were talking about Albert King. This was right around the time that Albert's “Born Under a Bad Sign” came out. Bloomfield kept saying “You've GOT to get this record…let's go out, you've gotta get this right now” and I said ‘Mike, this is Boston , there are no records stores open at 12:30 in the morning.' But I got it the next day.
Another big influence on me because up until the last three or four years I was playing with (Magic) Dick, was the Chess session guys….Matt Murphy, Louis Myers, Luther Tucker, Robert Junior Lockwood, all the guys on the Little Walter records, because they were playing all those cool little figures behind the harmonica player and I learned all of them. So that was a secondary influence only because I was playing with a harp player, but I enjoyed that backup role.
TG: What was your first really good guitar and amp setup?
Jay: It was a 196? Gibson ES-345 and an Ampeg Gemini. I couldn't afford a Fender, and Ampegs were cheaper. When I first saw B.B. it was the Spring of '67, and it was the same band as “Blues is King”, which was recorded in November of '66, and he had a red 355 and a Fender Super Reverb, so that's what I wanted, but I couldn't afford either one. So I found a used 345 and that was close enough.
TG: So how did it go from just that 345 to ALL THIS (pointing to the dozens of vintage guitars on the walls). Did you get your 1959 Les Paul next?
Jay: (picking up 1959 Les Paul) I had heard the first Bluesbreakers album with Clapton and then read an interview in I think Guitar Player where Bloomfield said that he had discovered the Les Paul so I had been looking around for one. I had gone down to New York and picked up a '56 Les Paul Custom, the one with the alnico and P90, and I was playing that, and it sounded okay, but it wasn't the sound I was looking for, but it was close. Anyway, The J. Geils Blues Band was playing a gig in late '68 / early ‘69, unbelievably enough, at Worcester Tech (the school Jay attended when he first moved to the area) and as we were packing up, a kid came up to me with that guitar (points to his 1959 burst). It had been screwed with, it had a tailpiece, the guard was missing, it had been painted with a brush with varnish, but I knew what it was. And he said “Do you wanna buy this guitar, because I'm switching to classical and I need $600 bucks?” I said ‘I don't have $600 but I have this Les Paul Custom that I just paid $600 for…I'll swap you even.' And he did, so I walked away with that guitar. I then took it to Eddy Murray, he had his own little space in Wurlitzer Music and told him to make it look like it was supposed to. He scraped away the varnish and we found the parts it needed. In keeping with the times, I took the covers off the PAFs. That is the only guitar I've ever seen that has that particular combination of the two zebra pickups. That guitar was on every album we ever did, and I toured with it up until I got the Flying V, which was a '58. That was another $600 guitar…actually I didn't pay for that either, I traded an ES350T and a National Steel for it. But I call that Les Paul the “lunch pail Les Paul”, and that guitar and that amp (points to a vintage tweed Gibson GA40) was used on almost all the solos on all the J. Geils band records. (Jay then handed me the Les Paul)…
TG: WOW, that is one ridiculously light Les Paul, and it has an incredibly tight flame to it. Moving to amplifiers, what were you using live with the Geils band?
(Pic: Jay Geils and his 1961 Ferrari 250 GTE, aka the "2+2")
Jay: In the early days I was using a hotrodded Fender Bandmaster Reverb head through 2 EV SRO's and then eventually we moved up to 100 watt Music Mans, but still using that 1959 guitar, which I used from our first tour, which was in Spring of '71, going across the country opening for Black Sabbath. I had a couple of others too, including a totally mint 1958 cherry sunburst Les Paul, that I paid $800 for and sold for $2400 and thought that I had made a killing (laughs). But there was always something about that '59.
TG: So is that actually your “desert island guitar”?
Jay: It actually could be for sale, as I don't play it anymore. I have the original brown case too which has stickers from all over the world. There's a picture on the back of “The Morning After” (J. Geils Band second album) where we're sitting in an airport, and there are two brown Les Paul cases, and one of them is that guitar and that case.
TG: So you had a couple core guitars, but always was on the lookout for others?
Jay: During the ‘70's and the ‘80's, the whole rock and roll period, I had guitars that I needed for the studio…I had a Tele and a Strat and a Martin D28, and a Dan Armstrong plexiglass that I played slide on, but the main gigging guitars were the Les Paul, the V and later a couple of Gibson L6-S's. So what happened was that when the band broke up, and a lot of the guitars were band guitars that I wasn't that interested in, so from 84-92 I only had the Les Paul and the 345, because I was deep into the car business world (Note: Jay was a founding partner of KTR Motorsports, a company specializing in vintage European sports cars).
But it wasn't until the early ‘90's, that Dick and I got together to form “Bluestime” that I got more into the swing jazz thing, and that's when I started buying this stuff. I wanted an ES-150 Charlie Christian guitar, and I wanted an ES-5, and I've always been a big fan and student of the big band rhythm guitar thing, so that led to all the acoustic archtops.
(Note: Other guitars in Jay's collection include a Gibson L5 previously owned by Allen Roos (sp?) and Howard Alden, a blonde Gibson ES-250 guitar like Charlie Christian's and matching EH-150 and EH-185 to go with it, a Stromberg Master 400, three D'Angelico's, a complete collection of 1950's Gibson amps, all three stairstep peghead guitars made by Gibson, several 1940's Epiphones, a blonde ES-5, a blonde ES-350, a Charlie Christian tenor guitar, a blonde non cut Super 400 and a cutaway 1959 blond Super 400).
TG: This music that you're playing currently requires a pretty advanced technique. Were you always interested in learning this style and did you actively woodshed in your years since the Geils band?
Jay: I had heard jazz guitar players since I was a kid. There's a pretty famous Columbia lp, the first in a series that they did called “Benny Goodman Combos”, it was CL500 and I still have it. It was an early retrospective of all the small Benny Goodman groups, and three or four of the cuts were of the sextet with Charlie Christian and I was like ‘Ooooh, what's that?' (laughs). I wasn't a big electric guitar fan as a kid…I bought some R&B singles, people like Little Richard and Fats Domino, but I never bought an Elvis Presley record or rock and roll record. Part of that influence was from my father, who was into Basie and Ellington and the black groups. I knew a lot of those tunes in my head but didn't know how to play them, so working some with Gerry and getting all the fake books made me realize how it all works. There's a natural progression from playing blues to the next step, which are rhythm changes, which is the classic American song form. In the “A” section, it's like a bunch of blues turnarounds, and then you have to deal with the bridge, which is where Charlie Christian comes in, because he was great at running the chords through the bridge, which is like a cycle of fifths or fourths. And from there, you can apply what you've learned previously…
TG: Did you learn by reading music?
Jay: I can read music, but everything I learned I learned off records.
TG: Tell us about the new album and the group you're playing with now…
Jay: Well, the group changes nightly (laughs)… What we do is the classic jazz thing…there may be some preferred rhythm section guys but everyone knows the tunes so people come and go based on who's available.
The new record with The New Guitar Summit called “Shivers” features John Turner on bass and Les Harris on drums and Gerry Beaudoin, me and Duke Robillard on guitars. It's on Stony Plain Records.
I've also got another album out on Stony Plain Records called “J. Geils Plays Jazz” and have a second one in the can where I did one tune from 1940-something where I play electric guitar, acoustic guitar and vibes, all on period correct stuff. I played the 1940 ES-250 through the Gibson 185 amp, mic'd it with my 1939 Western Electric microphone, and I played the rhythm on the Allen Roos, Howard Alden Gibson L5, and it's on a tune that Charlie did with Lionel Hampton called “One Sweet Letter From You.”
TG: You came out of the era of the big guitar hero, but you managed to avoid all the excess wanking that made a lot of records seem self-indulgent and ultimately sound very dated.
Jay: Ahh, electronic masturbation! (laughs). I tried to be musical. As much as I love John Coltrane and Miles Davis, I love melody. Plus, as the band progressed, there was more and more pressure on us from the labels to produce hit records. So, some of those later solos were constructed as part of the melody.
TG: Like on “One Last Kiss”, your lead guitar part is also the melody of the song.
Jay: Right…or the solo to “Just Can't Wait” (sings the solo)…all on that Les Paul!
TG: Obviously , you've seen great changes in the music industry since you started. How do you go about publicity, distribution and booking these days?
Jay: Gerry Beaudoin and I have our own label called “Francesca Records” and basically, we get to do what we like….the “Jay Geils Plays Jazz” album is an example of that, I did that totally myself, just the shit that I wanted to do with the guys I wanted to do it with.
TG: In a lot of ways, you are keeping this style of music alive…
Jay: I look at this like I looked at Bluestime, because we didn't want to be one of those “rock it up” blues bands. I mean, I can appreciate Stevie Ray Vaughn and that he was a great player, but nobody was doing the Chicago stuff the authentic way and so that was our niche with that. We played around the States, went to Europe, went to Japan . We didn't make a lot of money, but we did okay. We made it as exciting as we could while in the realm of keeping it reasonably authentic because there is nobody else doing it…you just can't hear Little Walter anymore. And it's the same thing here, you just can't go out and hear the Benny Goodman Sextet anywhere, but you can come here me and Gerry…It's not like we're trying to recreate it, but we're trying to have the same feel. And the people that come out, they're all tapping their feet…so that's the good side. Some people come because they remember it too…
I often say at the beginning of the show, ‘Welcome to our living room' because if we weren't here, we'd be doing this anyway.
TG: Jay, what do you feel have been the highlights of your career?
Jay: Playing next to BB King four years ago…I've known him since 1969, and never got to actually play with him. So that was a big deal to me, we did like 17 shows and he was great. Our paths have crossed numerous times, and we never got to do it toe to toe…and he was just terrific. He would do his whole show and finish with “The Thrill is Gone”, and the band would go into a little vamp, and he'd say “and now my special guests tonight, J. Geils and Magic Dick” and his crew guys would put a chair on either side of BB, and we'd sit on either side of him and just jam. That's just the latest one…I mean, touring with The Stones for two months in Europe (in 1982) wasn't too hard to take (laughs)…
One of the biggest thrills in the last ten years was playing with Bucky Pizzarelli…he's a guy who's old enough and played with everybody, that you can ask about some obscure jazz guitar player, and he either knows of him and or has played with him.
My best experiences over the years have been playing with the old blues guys, many times with (Magic) Dick…James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Muddy Waters…sat in with the Muddy Waters band long before Jerry Portnoy was in it! We knew his stuff… One time, I think it was in Paul's Mall in the late ‘60's, and Muddy called us up to play. He called one of his classics out, and Dick just KNEW the harp part…Muddy sang his first line, and Dick just nailed the Little Walter harp fill. Muddy looked around like he was seeing a ghost. I was just playing my little rhythm parts, and then I got off a couple of the right things, , and he looked at me and gave me a little smile. To me, those moments when you get to be on the same playing field as your heroes and they actually acknowledge that you know what you're doing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: To date, East Coast guitarist/songwriter Tom Guerra has just released the fourth critically acclaimed rock and roll cd with indie rockers Mambo Sons, entitled "Heavy Days". For more info, see www.MamboSons.com
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