Memoirs of a Sideman: Three from the 21st Century Allan Holdsworth, Mark O’Connor, Didier Lockwood

Allan Holdsworth
I wish to thank three very special musicians who enriched my life in the first five years of the 21st century.

First of all, you need to know about Allan Holdsworth. Allan is, for my money, the greatest guitarist and composer of modern electronic music on the face of the planet.

One night, while playing my regular solo jazz guitar gig at the time in San Diego, Mr. Holdsworth came into the restaurant to have a drink and sit at the bar.  I was involved with playing, staring at my fret board and didn’t see him.  After about an hour of playing, I was getting ready to take a break and the bartender rushed up to me and said,

“Art, didn’t you see Allan Holdsworth come into the club?  He’s sitting over there at the bar and he asked me who you were.”

I immediately set down my guitar and went over to introduce myself.  He was and is the most humble of persons.  He told me, before I could get a word out of my mouth, that he loved my guitar playing—

“Your bebop is just great, I can’t do it myself, tried to play solo in London at the “Pizza in the Park” club and fell on my ass, I don’t know how you do it.”

This, from someone I went to see in concert three times in three different cities. This, from a guitar hero to thousands of music fans world -wide.  I finally managed to tell him how great I thought he was and he just looked shyly at the floor and put his arm on my shoulder with a gesture of immediate friendship and camaraderie.

We both being smokers at the time, stepped outside to have a cigarette.  I told him about the time I saw him in concert when his technician was having one hell of a time trying to get all the outboard gear working.

“Allan, I felt I knew you at that moment.  Here this guy was sweating bullets trying to patch in one of your effects that just didn’t want to work and I saw you sneak out onto the stage, offered him a beer and told him to relax, that you could get through the night without it.  I’ve always loved your guitar playing but this incident showed me who you were—a fucking nice guy!”

Allan smiled while taking a drag on his cigarette and told me he’d be right back.  He returned shortly with a copy of his new album at the time.  He then asked me for my phone number and soon he left off into the night.

Two days later I got home from LA where I was visiting friends and checked my messages. There was one from Allan asking me if it wouldn’t be too much trouble to open up solo for two concerts of his trio.  There would be one concert in LA, and one in San Diego.  “...If it wouldn’t be too much trouble!”  Are you kidding me?

Of course I got back to him as quickly as possible.  This guy is so great that he negotiated my fee with the concert promoters and ran around to collect my money for me at the end of the gig!  This is another example of pure Class of the first degree.

Although I was thrilled to have been asked to open up solo for Allan and the trio, I will have to admit that I was a bit apprehensive. After all, his fans might not “plug in” to my wacky versions of American standards.  Once again this was a very risky move on my part.

The first gig was in San Diego at the “B” street theater.  The place was jammed.  I set up my amp on the left hand lip of the stage, did a brief sound check for the house engineer, then drifted back to Allan’s dressing room to say hello.  He jumped off the couch to greet me and introduced me to his musicians with a warm series of compliments.  He did his best to make me feel as comfortable as possible under these “dare devil” circumstances.

I finally got up the nerve to ask him why he chose me as an opening act?  He moved his head in closely to my ear and said, “Because when I leave the recruiting of an opening act to my management, they always hire some guy who tries to sound just like me.  It drives me fucking nuts:  I have a hard time going on stage after I’ve heard all of my licks shoved down my throat for forty five minutes!”

Thankfully enough, my playing was well received by his fans.  Of course, one reason for doing the gig in the first place was to hear his creative juices flow live again. So I naturally hung around after my set to hear him go at it.  A curious experience occurred after his, what I would term as a quite magnificent performance.  I went backstage to his dressing room to congratulate him and he was in a rage.  Unbelievable!  He was yelling at himself and putting himself down for playing horribly.  I stood in my place, frozen in position as the ranting and raving continued.  Suddenly, I realized someone was standing next to me.  I slowly turned my head and was greeted by his personal sound technician who having my attention, quietly said with a smile, “I’ve been listening to this same scenario for over twenty years now.”

I thought to myself: there are perfectionists and then there is Allan Holdsworth.

After moving to France, I didn’t see Allan for over three years.  He played in Nice, France  in October of 2006, and I went to see him.  After the show I went backstage and when he saw me, the first thing out of his mouth was,  “...I’ve never forgotten your guitar playing”.  This statement goes way beyond a compliment into the area of the “unbelievable”, coming from such a genius and truly, one of the nicest people on the face of the planet.  I’m not sure when I will be able to see Allan again, but I will certainly always remember his gracious manner and impeccable genius.
The second “nicest guy you’ll ever meet” is the great American fiddler, violinist, composer and educator, Mark
Mark O'Connor

Mark moved to San Diego in the early part of the new century and we met at his premier solo concert in San Diego at the Museum of Art in Balboa Park. Mark came out on stage and for an hour or more amazed all in attendance, including myself, with his incredible fiddle “wizardry”, touching bases with Texas style, Bluegrass and Celtic fiddle as well as as a solo tribute to Stephane Grappelli which was truly heartfelt.  I found out later that Mark had played guitar for Stephane when he was in his teens.

I was scheduled to open the first annual “Jazz Guitar Festival” in Balboa Park two days after his concert.  I asked him if he’d like to come and sit in with my trio.  Now, keep in mind, he’s never met me, and never heard me play.  The next day, I received an email from Mark.  It opened up with, “...hello my new friend” and continued by informing me that he would be there, could we play “Lady be Good?” I replied immediately, “You bet!”

On the day of the festival, I took the stand with my trio and played an opening piece.  I didn’t see Mark anywhere, but what the hell, maybe he just couldn’t make it.  Then, while receiving applause from the audience, I saw Mark out of the corner of my eye, ready to go, fiddle and bow in hand.  I announced to the audience that I had a special surprise for them, and onto the stage he came to tumultuous applause.  We played, and the trio did their best to provide him with fire and good energy.  The crowd went wild and after our brief musical encounter, he left the stage to listen to all the other jazz guitarists featured that day.  There were about a dozen great players including, Peter Sprague and Mundell Lowe.

Two days later, Mark called me to come and rehearse with him at his ranch in North County.

Thus began a musical relationship that lasted over a year.  At the time we had first met I was in the middle of preparing a special series for the San Diego Museum of Art, entitled, “The History of Jazz Guitar”.  The opportunity to become involved with this project was solely due to Wes Brusted, the managing director of Museum Special Events at the time.  Wes is one of those unique entrepreneurs who constantly searches for unusual performance packages that offer to the public real artists doing real art.  It has totally been my pleasure and privilege to work with Wes Brusted over the years.

At any rate, while preparing the weekly programs for the theater at the museum, I had planned on one evening dedicated to “Swing” guitar and its history, including a live performance of the “Hot Club” of France repertoire that originally featured Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.

I knew it was a little ballsy on my part, but I called Mark O’Connor to see if he would be interested in participating in this series and of course, if his busy “touring” schedule would allow it.  He said that he would check with his management in New York and get right back to me. Thirty minutes later he called back to tell me we were on.

Mark had been a “Sideman” for decades before we met.  I wasn’t completely sure how to handle the rehearsal and the gig itself with Mark there.  After all, he was and is a huge star.  What would his attitude be like?  I should have guessed.  On the day of the gig, he was on time and ready to go, waiting for my instructions on solo order, tunes to play and where to sit on stage.  He had completely adapted his consciousness to a “Sideman’s” personality.  It was my gig and he was there to help.  The budget wasn’t very huge and although he had accepted what I’d offered him, in the end, he told me to keep the fee, it had just been a pleasure to play together.  An encore example of class personified.

During that time we worked together, we did concerts and club gigs in a quartet setting in and outside of San Diego.  Mark was also generous enough to endorse my first violin CD, “Bar Talk” with Dwayne Smith on piano.

I helped Mark out at his famous week long “fiddle camp” held in San Diego every July into August, and learned a great deal from this mild, jovial virtuoso who continued to encourage me about my fiddle playing by featuring me in a two-violin concert later on at the same theater in Balboa Park in San Diego.

There I was on stage with Mark, swapping licks and loving every minute of it.  Mark wanted to interview me between tunes we played together to ask me questions about how I got into wanting to play the violin and to inform the audience about the rigors of trying to play the violin: possibly the hardest instrument on the face of the planet to become involved with.

At one point in performing one of our friendly “dueling fiddle” swing jazz pieces I went for a lick in tenth position on the fiddle (that’s really up in the ozone folks) and somehow survived it.  At the conclusion of the performance we went back into our interview mode and Mark asked me,

“Wow, Art, what were you thinking when you went way up on the E string for that lick.  Did you hear a bird flying off into the sunset or what?”

I thought about if for a few seconds and responded,  “Well, Mark, I paid for the whole damn fiddle and I try to use all of it.”

Everyone in attendance, including Mark and the band, broke up and the rest of the night went beautifully.

Mark is a very giving person by nature.  Everyone who has ever met him knows that his philosophy of life is simple: to be a great human being is just as important as being a great player.

Didier Lockwood
Finally, last but not least, is the French jazz violin virtuoso, Didier Lockwood.

I first met Didier at the Juan Les Pins jazz festival near Antibes.  I was performing with a trio of French musicians and Didier with his trio. I went backstage and introduced myself by telling him I was playing guitar with Mark O’Connor before I moved to France.  He warmed up to me immediately and noticed I had my violin case with me.  We immediately began talking violin and the French press took a picture of us together, he with his arm wrapped around me smiling profusely.

Didier is not that well known in the US. In Europe, he is the successor to Stephane Grapelli, and he also plays alto sax, trumpet and piano wonderfully, and is a great composer to top it off.  A true contemporary genius, he is equally at home with traditional jazz and the most modern of new music concepts.

About one year later I noticed that he was doing a duo concert in Biot, an ancient village about forty-five minutes from Monaco.

I took a chance and wrote a short composition for him, and took it with me to offer it to him if I might have the opportunity to see him before or after the concert.

As luck would have it, I arrived early and found that he and his pianist were dining in one of the small bistros near the medieval church where the concert was to be performed.  I hesitated to approach him, but then he noticed me and waved me over.  He gave me a warm hello, introduced me to Dimitri Naiditch his pianist, and invited me to join him for a glass of wine.  While we were talking, he noticed the package I clutched under my arm and asked me what it was.  I told him that it was just a little piece I had written in dedication to him.  He motioned to me with his arm to offer it up immediately.  He took a brief look at it, thanked me and set it down on the chair next to him.  A few minutes later, his manager arrived to tell him that they needed to do a brief sound check for ten minutes or so and then to return to continue their dinner.  Didier grabbed the music and told me he’d be right back, as he and Dimitri headed off to the church.

In the meantime, my wife Patricia arrived and we began to dine ourselves before the concert.  Didier and Dimitri arrived forty five minutes later and passed by our table, smiling as they both said, “...Nice tune!”

Patricia and I finished our meal and headed for our seats in the church.  The concert was fantastic, as Didier and Dimitri wove in and out of classical and jazz themes with the most expert of improvisational dialogue.

Then it happened.  For the encore, Didier stepped up to the microphone and told the audience how touched he was when anyone wrote a piece of music for him.  My heart began to beat faster.  He announced my presence and told the audience that he and Dimitri would “try” to play my piece as an encore.  They played it beautifully and gave me the thrill of a lifetime.  Totally unexpected, these world renowned musicians performed one of my meager efforts on the spot as if they’d been playing it for weeks.

This is the kind of kinship that real, dedicated musicians are known for.  We are all brothers under the skin and this type of generosity and recognition is shared by nearly all artists who have paid their dues and strive for greatness, whether or not they ever achieve that elusive term, “great”.

I have spent a lifetime dedicated to, and working within the structures of that art form known as “Music”.  I was never destined to become what some would refer to as “Famous”, but I have had the privilege of contributing my meager skills for over four decades, side by side with many great and “Famous” performers in the role of a “Sideman”.  As I explained in the first few pages of this book, music found me, I did not find music.  Fortunately, I was in the right place at the right time and reaped the rewards, and paid the necessary dues to see the world and experience the friendships and talents of so many creative people.

Truly, I have lived and continue to live a blessed life.

By the way, the lady downstairs is continuing to improve on her piano.  I have no doubt that someday she’ll be giving a recital somewhere in the neighborhood:  I’ll be there.

Jazz History: South Central Los Angeles

Billie Holiday and other African American performers stayed at the Dunbar when working in LA.

From approximately 1920 to 1955, Central Avenue was the heart of the African-American community in Los Angeles, with active Rhythm and Blues and Jazz music scenes. Local luminaries included Eric Dolphy, Art Pepper, Chico Hamilton, and Charles Mingus. Other jazz and R&B musicians associated with Central Avenue in LA include Benny Carter, Buddy Collette, Dexter Gordon, Lionel Hampton, Hampton Hawes, Big Jay McNeely, Johnny Otis, Shifty Henry, Charlie Parker (briefly), Gerald Wilson, Onzy Matthews and Teddy Wilson. 

In its heyday, the Dunbar was ground zero for the West Coast jazz scene

Commenting on its historical prominence, Wynton Marsallis once remarked that "Central Avenue was the 52nd Street of Los Angeles. Although Central Avenue is no longer the thriving jazz center it was, its legacy is preserved by the Central Avenue Jazz Festival and a small number of jazz clubs, including 2nd Street Jazz in Little Tokyo.

Lionel Hampton composed and performed a tune called "Central Avenue Breakdown". Dave Alvin's tribute to Big Joe Turner, "The Boss of the Blues", describes a drive down Central Avenue and Turner's reminiscences about the scene.

Central Avenue was a place where barriers were broken, as it was the preeminent place for black jazz musicians to showcase their work. Central Avenue was the heart of music that was distinctly American. You can't really say that about any other type of music, and this is what people will remember it for. Jazz on Central helped to sustain the South Los Angeles region from the 1930s until the early 1950s. This mural was a direct result of jazz scene and depicts famous musicians and prominent African-American citizens in Los Angeles through the 1980s. 

In 1974, the Dunbar became Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 131.

The Dunbar,
originally known as the Hotel Somerville, became known in the 1930s and 1940s as "the hub of Los Angeles black culture," and "the heart of Saturday night Los Angeles." In its heyday, it was known as "a West Coast mixture of the Waldorf-Astoria and the Cotton Club."The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner described the Dunbar this way:

"It was once the most glorious place on 'the Avenue.' At the Dunbar Hotel … you could dance to the sounds of Cab Calloway, laugh till your stomach hurt with Redd Foxx and maybe, just maybe, get a room near Billie Holiday or Duke Ellington."

The Dunbar hosted prominent African Americans traveling to Los Angeles, including Duke Ellington, Joe Louis, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and Josephine Baker. The Dunbar was “the gathering spot for the crème de la crème of black society, the hotel for performers who could entertain in white hotels but not sleep in them.”

The Dunbar also became the place where African American political and intellectual leaders and writers, including Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall and James Weldon Johnson, gathered. It has been described as “a place where the future of black America was discussed every night of the week in the lobby.” Celes King, whose family owned the Dunbar in its heyday, said, “They were very serious discussions between people like W. E. B. Du Bois (founder of the NAACP), doctors, lawyers, educators and other professionals. This was the place where many of them put together the plans to improve the life style of their people.”

More than anything, the Dunbar is remembered for its role in the Central Avenue jazz scene. The nightclub at the Dunbar was the home-away-from-home for, and the stage for performances by, artists including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Nat King Cole. Even Ray Charles stayed at the Dunbar when he first moved to Los Angeles.

In addition to the main nightclub, former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson opened his Showboat nightclub at the Dunbar in the 1930s. "Jack Johnson … ran his Showboat nightclub in one corner, and black bands practiced on the mezzanine for acts across town later that night."

The hotel was also popular with the white community, and many from Hollywood spent their Saturday nights at the Dunbar and surrounding clubs. Celes King recalled once when Bing Crosby bounced a check at the hotel, and her father (the hotel's owner) kept Crosby's check. "It was a big joke between them."

Duke Ellington at Club alabam 1945. Source: Corbis Images
The nightclub at the Dunbar was the home-away-from-home for, and the stage for performances by, artists including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Nat King Cole. Even Ray Charles stayed at the Dunbar when he first moved to Los Angeles.

Making a night of it with Louie Armstrong at the Club Alabam circa 1945.

The neighborhood was also the home of other famous jazz clubs, including Club Alabam (next door), the Last Word (across the street), and the Downbeat (nearby). Even local musicians who were playing at other Central Avenue clubs would gather at the Dunbar. Lee Young, the drummer who led a band at the Club Alabam, recalled: “The fellows in the band – Charles Mingus, Art Pepper, all of us – would hang out between sets next door at the Dunbar . . . Between the club and the hotel you'd see movie stars and all the big show business names of the day.” 

The Rockettes at Club Alabam, Dunbar Hotel, Central Ave.

Musician Jack Kelson recalled the sidewalk in front of the Dunbar as the most desirable place to hang out on the city's coolest street. He said, "That's my favorite spot on Central Avenue, that spot in the front of the Dunbar Hotel, because that to me was the hippest, most intimate, key spot of all the activity. That's where all the night people hung out: the sportsmen, the businessmen, the dancers, everybody in show business, people who were somebody stayed at the hotel. … by far that block, that Dunbar Hotel, for me was it. And it was it for, it seemed to me, everybody else. Sooner or later you walked in front of that hotel, and that's where everybody congregated."

Another writer recalled the area around the Dunbar as "a place where people love to congregate and have a good time, check out the new models and pick up on the latest lingo." The Dunbar built a reputation in the 1930s as "the symbol of L.A.'s black nightlife," as "regular jamming sessions and meetings in the hotel lobby elevated the structure to a practically mythical status." Lionel Hampton had fond memories of jam sessions and practices on the Dunbar's mezzanine. Hampton recalled, "Everybody that was anybody showed up at the Dunbar. I remember a chauffeur would drive Stepin Fetchit, the movie star, up to the curb in a big Packard, and he'd look out the window at all the folks."

View of the Mezzanine of the Hotel Somerville aka The Dunbar where you could see many of the top Jazz performers of the day. 
In his autobiography, Buck Clayton shared some of his memories of the Dunbar. He recalled the Dunbar as “jumping” with loads of people trying to get a glimpse of the celebrities, and parties thrown by Duke Ellington and his guys with “chicks and champagne everywhere.” Clayton recalled an instance when Ellington and his orchestra came to Los Angeles shortly after the 1932 release of the song It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing).[ Ellington’s band was in the Dunbar restaurant when the song came on the jukebox. It was the first time since leaving New York that they had heard their recording. Clayton described the band's response: “So much rhythm I've never heard, as guys were beating on the tables, instrument cases or anything else they could beat on with knives, forks, rolled-up newspapers or anything else they could find to make rhythm. It was absolutely crazy.”

Mongrel Patriot Review: Musician and Writer Art Johnson

Judging by his work with Tim Buckley, Manly P. Hall, Robert Altman, Lena Horne, this cool cat, sideman to legends, is to the best of my knowledge the original Silverlake hipster. Art Johnson started living there in the early 80’s. His monastic cell featured fabulous musical instruments and a lean but weighty collection of old esoteric tomes. He and his circle of mostly musician and poet friends were definitely up to something, and where else could you see an original edition of Blake, the set put together by Yeats? He was a moody bastard, some girl in France. When he’d see her music would pour out of him like a mockingbird in spring.

Where do you even start to tell stories about this guy? He has played an orchestra of instruments including Renaissance lute, and when I say play I mean really play the hell out of an instrument the way it’s meant to be played, with plenty of research and practice.

He toured with Lena Horne, Tim Buckley, Paul Horn, The Association, Pat Boone, Allan Holdsworth, Jobim, Engelbert Humperdinck while working on music for TV shows and in movies.

I’ve heard tales of the naked nymphs of Laurel Canyon with silver trays full of illegal treats at the house of Stills or some other mainstay of the hippie scene. Ever hear of Skip Battin, member of The Byrds, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and the Flying Burrito Brothers? He played in a pioneer fusion band in Laurel Canyon with Art on guitar. But that’s just Laurel Canyon.

Art has played Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Sporting Club in Monte-Carlo and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, not to mention Shelly’s Mann Hole. But his gigs in the black clubs of downtown San Diego in the sixties, and in the last of the Los Angeles joints in Crenshaw, were just as thrilling.

Art is also a dedicated writer, a published poet and novelist with a decidedly metaphysical slant to his work. His most recent book The Devil’s Violin combines a mystery about the disappearance of Paganini’s violin with a symbolist’s deep resonances and arcane references.

In the picture above he holds the first guitar he built; it later became my very first serious guitar. I remember mutely longing after it, for its great sustain, meaty tone and gunmetal blue and black finish. Eventually he sold it to us cheap so we could have a good axe. That’s what it looked like before riot grrrl inspired me to plaster it with stickers. When it was new, on that balcony, that’s right, in Silverlake, in the 1990s.

Ronnie plays Art’s guitar the night Lucid Nation opened for Bikini Kill.

I’ve been lucky to have great mentors like Art. From his exasperation when I tried to play power chords with dainty fingertips (to which he responded: “Dudette, they were sharecroppers with big scarred hands, just put your fingers over there and play the goddamn song.” To his wise advice: “When they stop telling you how good you are is when you’re really getting good,” but then to the sobering revelation “they call you a genius then they never call you.” Never ending punch lines interweaved with insights from Plato or Blavatsky, but then back to the punch lines. Not only could I ask him any question about music, he even appreciated my rejection of it as punk took over my life.

These days Art lives on the Mediterranean with that love of his life he waited so long for, a painter it turns out. He’s an inspiration to everyone who dares to take a less traveled path. I’m delighted to introduce you to a true friend of the arts.

Your father had something to do with inventing color TV? Was he truly evil or just twisted?

Evil and twisted may both apply. He was an electronic genius and even in the early fifties we had televisions all over the house. The first color set was in 1959—where else? In our house.

What was it like growing up as a quirky musician in the America of the 1950s?

Actually I didn’t start playing the guitar until 1963. I was seventeen. When I worked with Alan Holdsworth opening up solo for his trio at his request a few times in California before I left for Europe I found out that he didn’t start until he was seventeen also! We were both told that we didn’t stand a chance of making anything of ourselves because we started too late. Great laughs.

However, I began to become aware of music in the 1950’s. You had a telephone in your house, black and white TV, radio, phonograph players and most homes had a piano. In our house there was no music played. I started on the accordion at the age of seven. By the time I was eleven, after four years with the accordion, I hated music.  Later when I was maybe fourteen I heard for the first time on the radio, Andre Segovia, Barney Kessel, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. This was all before the Beatles became a band!

America was much different then. It is hard to explain to people the simplicity of life and the uniqueness of choosing a musical direction. There were not hordes of musicians in those days, particularly in the jazz field. It was a very select club and hard to enter. There were no cassettes, no instruction books, no videos, no cable, no computers. Christ, the Walkman cassette player didn’t come on the scene until 1979.

You had vinyl records and a turntable. You listened and tried to copy what you heard from the great players and then you went out at night to clubs to listen some more. You practiced and you listened. That was it. If you got lucky maybe a jam session would get you some attention. It was definitely not an easy path. The one advantage during the 50’s and 60’s was the amount of nightclubs and bars that had live music. That element does not exist today and it is too bad. In those days it was hard to get lessons because the musicians who were playing out a lot didn’t have time to teach or just didn’t want to.

One night a few years back I was working with a famous jazz pianist for a club gig with a quartet. On one of our breaks, I asked him if he ever taught. He turned to me and said, “fuck ‘em, let them learn it the hard way like we did.” A blunt response but I got it!

You studied guitar with the great Barney Kessel, tell us a little about him and what he meant to you.

There isn’t enough room on the net to answer this question fully. Briefly, I took a handful of lessons from Barney after arriving in LA in the late 60’s. He then moved to Europe and I didn’t see him again until he returned two years later. My real time with the maestro started in San Diego after we both ran into each other at the bank, neither knowing that we had moved to SD. I spent the last ten years of his life with him and he was like an advisor/father figure to me. He produced my “Solo Jazz Guitar” CD and to my knowledge I think I am the only guitar player he ever endorsed. He was one of the funniest mo-fos I ever knew and of course the godfather of all modern electric guitar playing. He took over from Charlie Christian and bumped it up a few notches. He was a real friend as well as a mentor.

Your first gigs involved some locales that most musicians of the time who shared your tender age and pigment would never have dared? Tell us about that one when the gun dropped out of somebody’s suit on the dance floor.

Actually I would say that I owe most of my true schooling to the black community of musicians and vocalists that I have worked with over the years. When I was nineteen I went to late-night all black jam sessions in downtown San Diego which at the time was a risky place to be. The first night I tried to sit in a man pulled a knife on me when I went into the head to wash my hands. I stood my ground and stared him down. He smiled while folding up the cutlery and said, “…you’re alright, my man, you can stay.”

My truly treasured years were spent at Memory Lane in the Crenshaw district on the south side of LA. Between 1970-81, I played there with Willie Bobo, Papa John Creech, O.C. Smith, Eddie ‘cleanhead”, Charles Brown, Big jay McNeely and many others. Generally, I was the only white guy within miles of 101st and Adams.

In 1980-81, I worked there with the two great singers O.C. Smith, and Spanky Wilson. We performed Friday and Saturday nights and a Sunday brunch.

The people of the black community were all class. They came dressed up like the evening meant something. One night there was a local who had tilted the bottle a few too many times. O.C. was singing a ballad, the lights were low and the crowd was really into it. You could hear a pin drop there was such a hush of concentration.

Then it happened. The MF started to walk across the dance floor in front of O.C., weaving like hell ready to fall over with each step. He got about halfway across when his silver-plated, pearl-handled .38 Colt oozed its way out his pants and smacked the parquet-wood with a loud thud. He was so stoned he didn’t realize what had just happened. He had a goal: get to the other side of the room.

O.C. Smith
O.C. was singing with his eyes closed. The sound pulled him out of his reverie. Without missing a beat he quickly assessed the situation and calmly said, “…dropped your piece bros.” and went right back into the song with nothing lost. We all froze.   There was a dramatic pause in the room then O.C. suddenly realized what had just taken place and he began to laugh and the whole room joined him as a roar rang-out along the walls.

The owners Larry and George simply picked up the gun, stuffed it in the customer’s waistband and escorted him to the front door.

He was back the next night sober as hell: didn’t remember anything.

Shit happened then that you could not make up. Memory Lane was the last of the real nightclubs that were born before World War II or just after that. It had an atmosphere, which has since then disappeared for the most part.

You once told me that Laurel Canyon in the early 1960’s was unlike anywhere you ever were before or after. Tell us some highlights and lowlifes of the time?

It was like living in Shakespeare’s “Mid Summer’s Nights’ Dream”. Here you were in the middle of LA in a mountain/forest. The nights were magic – you could feel the fairy dust in the atmosphere. In those days it was the exclusive residence for all of the west coast crazies. Poets, authors, philosophers, folk musicians, jazz and rock players, beatniks, hippies, singer-songwriter’s, you name it. Add to that the newly emerging drug culture and you’ve got a hell of cocktail! Once again, I must remind folks that it was simple times, life etc.

As an example of the lifestyle, I rehearsed nearly every day in 1969 up Lookout Mountain in an experimental fusion trio with Skip Battin (later bass player with the Byrds) and Eddie Ho (drummer with Zappa). We had a rehearsal garage next door to “Papa” John Phillips. One afternoon when we came out for a break he was standing there smoking a joint and he said, “…what in hell is that shit supposed to be?” The three of us looked at each other stoned out of our minds and just start laughing. That was Laurel Canyon.

You were voted most promising jazz guitarist by Leonard Feather after your performance at the Monterey jazz festival in 1970. How did that impact you life and career?

It was really weird because just before I walked on stage I got the word that Hendrix had just died. That’s right I’m walking out to play Monterey a few hours after Hendrix passed, whose career was made on that stage three years earlier. I don’t remember a damn thing about the performance. I guess it was ok because LF gave me a nice review. Actually reviews can have very little impact on a career unless you are already famous! But the reviews I received when I first came on the scene in ’68 were very beneficial. The music business is like anything else. Right time/right place.

Art rocks the pink trousers (L) with Tim Buckley at Knebworth in 1974.

What was it like touring with Tim Buckley? Was that the first time you felt yourself levitate on stage?

I was recommended for that gig by James T. Fielder, the original bass player with Blood, Sweat and Tears. I arrived for the audition and Tim was already there playing his Fender electric 12 string like a mad devil. He was a great guitar player and I’m not sure the public really knew that. So I introduced myself and we began to jam just the two of us. He said, “I can tell you love Django Rheindhart…wanna jam on Sweet Georgia Brown? And off we went. Tim was a unique person. Our first gig was a concert in Detroit in 1974 at the State Theatre downtown. We were opening up for Chick Correa. We were all over it from the first tune. When my guitar solo came up Tim looked over at me and motioned with his head to come where he was into the spotlight. I will have to admit that in those days I was quite a guitarist with mega-chops and ideas to match. Tim egged me on “…kick their fucking ass Artie…” he yelled at me just as I arrived center stage…and guess what? I did! Honest to gosh truth I got so into it that I felt my feet lift off of the stage…serious. The crowd went nuts and for over a year we did this all over the globe. We were planning on recording when he overdosed. It’s funny, I remember teaching a four-year-old Jeff Buckley how to cross the street by looking at the walk/don’t walk signs. Lotta time slipped by since those days.

Please tell us your favorite Miles Davis story.

Well actually I only have one. I was playing with Shelly Manne’s group on a Thursday night and Miles was due in to play that weekend at the Mann Hole, Shelly’s club. We were in the middle of the first set when I saw a black man in a white mink coat and hat walk in the club. Shit, it’s Miles I thought to myself. I tried to pretend that he wasn’t there. When we took a break Miles and Shelly were talking by the bar. Suddenly Miles broke away and came over where I was standing. He got right in my face, looked up at me and said, “You know what?” and I said “nope” and he said “…You don’t play too bad for a white boy.” Without thinking I responded “…Thank you God.” He smiled.

You toured with Lena Horne accompanist and occasional arranger. Tell the people what she told you in the limo when you thought you were going to get fired.

We were doing two shows a might at that venue in Toronto. Lena really only had one complete set. It was the second show of the last night. So when the crowd stayed over from the first show she got really nervous. She was afraid they would notice that she was doing the same set again. She started to yell at the band on stage because she was forgetting her lyrics she was so wigged out. She didn’t realize that she could have just been reciting the phone book from the greater Toronto area and they would have been happy. Anyway the vibe was really bad.

After the show her management said there would be a band meeting. I chose to forego the privilege and I went back to my room. The next day we were due to fly out back to the states. Her limo was in front of the hotel. I started to head for the band van when her manager told me that Lena wanted me to ride with her. I thought: “okay, time to look for a new job.” She and I were squeezed into the back seat. We drove for a few minutes she didn’t say a word. I waited. Finally she looked over at me and said “…all us canaries are a pain in the ass, right?” Without hesitation I looked at her and said, “You got that one right!” A few moments went by then she grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze. Real class. She, in her silent way apologized.

More fun to tour with Lena Horne or Paul Horn?

Loads of fun with both – just different.

Is it true that Pat Boone’s shows attracted the nastiest groupies?

No comment.

You worked on soundtracks for the classic Robert Altman films Nashville and Welcome to L.A. What was that experience like, and how did it differ from the work you did for television soundtracks?

Things were loose on Altman’s set. He was an improviser. They’d be setting up for a scene and he’d wander over to Harvey Keitel or Geraldine Chaplin or whoever and whisper something in their ear. They’d give him a funny look and then with that child-like look in his eyes he’d say,” …okay, let’s try one.” I never saw him with a script in his hand.

At 20th Century Fox, or Universal or Warner’s it was like a military drill. Play this music perfectly or you’ll be shot at sunrise. There was no improvisation on the lots in those days—all business.

How did you become friends with Manly P. Hall?

That’s a tough question to answer. I never had the feeling that Mr. Hall was compelled to have his time wasted by people whom he could not experience a certain mood or atmosphere with. His social circle included Hollywood stars, dignitaries, schoolteachers and janitors. He seldom engaged in intellectual conversation. If someone tried to drag him into a dissertation on a certain Neo-Platonist he would reply by asking the person what chance he or she thought the LA Dodgers had this season. I was around him several days a week for seven years. He guided me without formality, he encouraged me without obvious intent and he most of all laughed with me when I would roll out my 1961 Pontiac and give him a ride home. I never tried to engage him in intellectual exchange. I thought that he probably didn’t need my take on the twelve books of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

I actually started working there recording his Sunday lectures from 1982-88. I loved going into his office to get him for his lecture and finding him bent over the comic strip section of the New York Times with that mischievous smile on his face.

Tell us your favorite story or two about your time at the PRS.

In the early eighties after I started working there part-time I became absorbed in reading and writing poetry. From the ancient Greeks to the 20th century I couldn’t get enough. I read bios, histories of the times the poets lived, their letters, their influences, books on the Hermetic Arts, etc, I never mentioned it to Mr. Hall. Why should I? He has better things to think about.

But one day I was driving him home at the end of the day and he didn’t utter a word. I took the cue and kept my mouth shut. When I pulled into his driveway and made the turn to let him out, he opened the door and turned to me and said, “You know that poetry is one of the best means of initiation into the mysteries.” Boom! Bomb dropped. He alighted from the car on his own, gave me one of his unique smiles where it seems his eyes become oriental and he wished me a good evening.

That should do it.

You’ve preformed Brazilian music with Jobim, blues violin, traditional jazz and fusion, you’ve played every instrument on rock and pop recordings, performed classical and you’ve performed Renaissance lute recitals, what inspires you to study so many different instruments and styles of music?

I think it is just the fact that I’ve spent a lifetime as a curious person. If something attracts me I have to investigate it. The guitar is one of the most unique instruments on the face of the planet. It is comfortable with all styles of world music including Classical, jazz, folk, rock, Country Western, Flamenco, African, and on and on.

My own desire has always been linked to the need to replicate the sound—to experience the creation of the sound. Of course, it also helps to be out of your fuckin’ mind! My time spent on the violin, the most difficult of all instruments to play, was merely intellectual revolution. You can’t push a button or program a sound-byte, you have to really be able to make the sound—the violin is the most satisfying to play when you have it under control. The problem is that doesn’t happen very often.

How many years have you been writing poetry? What is your goal as a poet?

Nearly 35 years. I don’t think poets can afford goals. It is the personal reflection of the universal as it applies to the subjective interpretation of experience. Poetry is the thinking of feelings. A goal? To not have someone throw it away after I’m dead.

One of the most amazing things about your career of great accomplishments is that you had to fight disabilities to do so. Where did you find the courage and dedication?

I was just too stupid to realize I was handicapped. It’s that simple. I never thought about how to cross the road—I just went over to other side. Period.

You live in Monaco now. What do you like better about Europe? How does America look from over there?

I’ve been here with my French/Monagasque wife for around 12 years. I haven’t been back to the States since 2009. It would be difficult to describe Europe as ‘better’ than the US, just different. For one thing, France will fit inside of Texas. And Monaco will fit inside Central Park. So there is this aspect that needs to be acknowledged. France is still basically an agricultural, economically driven country: lots of farms, vineyards, and produce stands along the side of the road, etc. There are many cheese commercials on TV! The pace of life is slower, especially in Italy where each day is valued.

In my book “The Devil’s Violin”, there is a description by FBI Agent Chris Clarke about a late afternoon in the plaza of Cremona. He comments on the Italian way of living. It is drawn from real life—something I experienced first-hand.

There are less computers per capita, more readers who want to hold a book and not stare at a screen to read. There is not the tragic tension of terrorist doom, which seems to be dominant in the States. When you go for a drive there are no highway patrol cars on your bumper feeding your license plate into a computer. Bottom line, it’s more relaxed. Also, Sunday is a real day off. Very few stores open.

America is still revered by Europeans for the most part. However, they really can’t understand this thing about constant gun violence, which is occurring more often in the USA. They love to visit the US and always come back with a gleam in their eyes telling everyone what a wonderful time they had and how friendly Americans are.

You recently had your first novel “The Devil’s Violin” published by Story Merchant Books, a blend of Hermetic metaphysics and a thriller with Paganini’s violin front and center. What inspired you to write the book, how is it doing and will you write more?

Actually the book wrote me. I was staying with relatives in a village not far from Parma Italy and before turning out the light one night the names of half a dozen characters came to me with brief descriptions of each. I turned out the light and lay down then flipped the lamp back on and wrote down some notes. I knew better than to think that I would still remember it all the next day.

So, that morning at breakfast, a dozen Italians were asking my wife why I wasn’t eating. She just told them, “…he’s writing a book, he’ll be with us shortly.” I wrote six rough chapters then returned to Nice and shelved it for six months. When I got back to it I just sat down and in a few months the first draft was complete. I re-wrote it several times and almost had a publisher in Ireland put it out but they ran out of funding from the government.

Along comes my long time friend Ronnie Pontiac and he introduces me to Ken Atchity at Story Merchant Books. Ken liked the story but insisted on a complete re-write. So, off we go again. Seven months later it is published as a kindle and paperback and for a first time fiction writer it has become, as Ken states: “…a minor sensation.” I have no figures on sales for it has only been in the market place on Amazon for four months.

The metaphysical aspects of the story are slight and just came to me as part of the progression of the story and nothing more. People are surprised when I tell them that I never use an outline. That habit is probably a hangover from writing poetry. I never expected the Hermetic side of the novel to even make a dent in the consciousness of the reader but several reviewers have explored that aspect of the story.

I haven’t any idea what I’m going to write when I sit down at my desk. It just starts itself and the characters talk to me and offer direction.

I am now writing a spin-off of the Devil’s Violin which has some of the characters involved. I would not call it a sequel but it’s close to it.

I think that it is important for people to realize that the creative process on almost any level is magical. When you write a song, or a poem or compose instrumental music, paint or sculpt, you are making visible, or audible, the invisible. The foundation of transcendental magic is merely the permutation of the elements. An idea is drawn from a universal consciousness and we should never take full credit for our art. There is always something unknown that contributes to our creative process.

That’s the fun of it.

When you’re at home, having played so many kinds of guitar styles, what do you gravitate towards when you practice?

That’s a good question. Honestly, I have two Flamenco guitars from Spain and as I live on the Mediterranean Sea, it’s just across the street from my apartment, and the boats are docked within my view, I generally play MY version of Spanish Guitar. Flamenco mixed with Brazilian and a pinch of jazz thrown in for good measure. I love acoustic guitar over electric although most of my career has been spent dealing with lugging amps around.

 What are your current musical projects?

I am not at this time doing any concerts or club dates. Last year I signed a lifetime contract with ITI Records Incorporated/Warrant music. They are affiliated with Sony’s digital arm, The Orchard. I have several projects available online from ITI records through iTunes or Amazon including straight-ahead jazz, fusion and World beat. My newest project is online now and is a World Jazz CD entitled “One Man”. I’ve composed all of the music and I am playing all of the instruments: Guitars, violin, mandolin, keyboards, bass and programmed drums and percussion. It has been out in digi-format for a few months and over 35 countries have streamed it with the US and India at the top of the list. ITI is releasing it as a CD in august. Your readers can hear a sample at Youtube/ ITIrecords -There is a video along with the track.

I am also their executive consultant which I am donating my time pro-bono. All of my profits from sales I turn back over to the company because they are using the money to develop new talent and get some fresh faces in on the scene. I feel that this is very important for the future of live music as well as recorded works. You reach a point in your life where it is time to give back some of what you got. Simple.

Article Written by Tamra Spivey

Newtopia staff writer TAMRA SPIVEY is a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War and Exile Nation, and associate producer of The Gits documentary. She was art editor and west coast editor of Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation, collaborating on in depth interviews with whistle blower Michael Ruppert, ACLU and record business honcho Danny Goldberg, and grassroots political strategist Larry Tramutola. Follow her on twitter @MongrelPatriot.