Portraits in Strings
Of all of jazz’s instrumentalists, the guitarists may have sacrificed the most. The guitar was the official instrument of the blues, thus becoming the definitive instrument of rock ’n’ roll and a principal of American popular music and culture. In those idioms it’s been the implement of endless grandstanding, where speed and sonics replace empathy and harmonic finesse. Jazz guitar, though incendiary and ostentatious at times, originated in the rhythm section: Look back 70 years to the big-band era and you’ll find guitarists supporting the horn section with steady comping for hours on end, in exchange for a scant few bars of solo time. With Charlie Christian’s arrival the instrument’s stature exploded, and with fusion it took on radical timbres, but the humility of jazz guitar remains today. The men photographed on the following pages dare to elevate the music above the instrument, when they could so easily reap the rewards of dumbing it down.
Originally published in July/August 2007