Guitarist Chris Flory has been a fixture on the New York jazz scene since the late ’70s, touring with Benny Goodman’s last ensemble and with one of Scott Hamilton’s first groups. During his early career, Flory’s great sense of time and his Charlie Christian-influenced style made him a favorite with jazz greats Roy Eldridge and Hank Jones, and with vocalists Rosemary Clooney and Maxine Sullivan, with whom he recorded and toured.
Chris Flory focuses on his blues playing with his latest CD, For You, with pianist/organist Mike LaDonne, and talked to me about his rock roots in our conversation for my Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired radio show in 2003.
How did you first get into music?
When the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came out in the mid-sixties is when I first started playing the guitar. I think I played my first actual paid gig when I was thirteen. We were mainly copying the pop hits of the time. A lot of my favorite stuff at the time was more blues-influenced. This sort of second wave of British bands. The Rolling Stones were around at the same time as the Beatles and I liked them better than the Beatles. Whoever had more virtuoso guitar-playing was who I liked. There was another English group, the Yardbirds, and they had real guitar players. Eric Clapton did a stint with the Yardbirds. I only understood a little later than that was how all of those players even the Rolling Stones were totally influenced by black American blues and how much they aspired to play like that. And I started hearing these names like B.B. King and Albert King and I remember I had a friend’s older brother had gotten this 45 of this Albert King tune called “Cross-Cut Saw.” It just blew us away.
When I was playing in these rock bands, we considered ourselves very avant garde. We were more into the esoteric instrumental stuff, which is how I think I developed into jazz. We were under a lot of pressure from the teenaged public to play dance music, which was mostly soul music. It’s kind of ironic, because this was an all-white little town in upstate New York around 1966 or 1967. But there were certain of these soul hits, and certainly anything that James Brown did, that was so infectious. The beat or the bass in that music was such that you can’t help but be affected by the groove of it. All of that stuff has gone into influence how I feel about music or at least how I feel about what I play. The importance of a drive to the time and everything like that.
As I was looking over the tunes that you had said really influenced you, I think of this groove factor. You’re really all about groove. It’s given me a different groove with my playing because I’ve always been this big energy swing kind of player myself. But I think the groove is really hard to describe. How do you describe that? What’s the difference between groove and swing?
This is not to put down the current jazz in the schools or university thing…but there’s a certain feel that when jazz was sort of the pop music and it was the dance music, if you come up with that sense of playing, that it’s gotta have that time feel. For me the swing factor and the groove factor are identical. In jazz, the swing thing is just on the other side of the beat, it’s with an emphasis on the two and four, rather than in rock related stuff, the emphasis is usually on the one and three. Within rock there’s plenty of less rhythmically effective stuff, though it may be interesting in other ways like with the lyrics, but generally what has always gotten to me is the stuff with the rhythmic muscularity to it. And the same way in jazz. There’s a lot of jazz that, even if it’s on that swinging side of the beat, emphasizing the second and fourth beat, it has this lightness that doesn’t really speak to me as much.
Do you feel the influence of these different styles or people consciously when you’re playing?
Some of it I’m conscious of. Speaking of these early influences upon me and even admitting to being influenced by rock certainly, maybe I can admit that I was influenced by blues, but it’s taken some years before I can accept that. I find that generally a lot of jazz players who I play with and who are my age, the ones who had this same experience of being out in front of people playing a rhythmic kind of music before they really even knew what they were doing, they tend to be able to communicate something – more fun and more enthusiasm – because it isn’t academic. Your first memories of performing are from when it was this sort of raw, maybe ignorant, emotion. A major turning point for me was when I was exposed to Charlie Christian. I was about sixteen or seventeen. My family had just moved. It wasn’t working out for me to have my own rock band. I was sick of anything involving vocals. We never had any good singers anyway. Our singers stank.
Hard to have a rock band if you don’t have a singer.
A more sophisticated format seemed to me to be the way to go to express myself. Although I’m mostly self-taught, it was really crucial that I had some lessons right when I was seventeen or eighteen. It was right at the time I started to listen to real jazz, like Charlie Parker. It’s funny. There isn’t that much bebop playing in my playing. It’s a more subtle influence. But that was the first stuff I gravitated to – Charlie Parker. There was some early Charlie Parker stuff that has this guitarist named Tiny Grimes. I was thrilled when I was first in New York when I was seventeen and I saw a little notice on a bulletin board saying, “For guitar lessons, call Tiny Grimes.”
That must have blown your mind.
It was really thrilling. It was pretty cool for a seventeen year old kid to take a series of buses over to Harlem. I got out and he met me. He was walking his dog. We went up to his little SRO place and he gave me this lesson. It’s funny. I only took two lessons from him because I was looking for something a little more comprehensive. At the same time, with my own teaching, there is always some of the first lesson that he gave me because he respected me enough to see that I had some understanding of what was going on. “Okay, we’re going to play blues and you just do exactly what I do.” And he’d play a little lick and I’d copy it. Of course I had a solid-body guitar with really light strings on it and I’d put this vibrato on everything. And he’d say, “No vibrato, that’s not jazz.” On the other hand, I use a certain amount of vibrato now. I bend strings. That’s more having done what I’ve done for long enough that I can incorporate the way that I played before.
What I liked in rock guitar or blues guitar and what I’ve liked in jazz guitar is the importance of getting a really good sound, which is paramount to me. I’m really glad that I seem to have a sense of that. There were rock and blues guys that I wasn’t as impressed by as everyone else seemed to be, because the sound was not beautiful. That sound that Albert King got. And then Jimi Hendrix. That was amazing when I heard that stuff around the age of fourteen or whatever. That was everything I wanted to hear at the time.
By the time I was a few years older and I’d really become a jazz player, sometimes I’d feel like I spent practically twenty years trying to live down the fact that I played that way or liked that stuff.
Why do you say that?
I don’t know. When you’re in your early twenties, you…
You’re not known as a rock and roll guy.
It was strictly just for myself. Then maybe I got amused at the shock value of it. Say, when I had a gig with Benny Goodman. I was appropriate to play in his sextet. I had really absorbed my Charlie Christian and I was very influenced by him. My sound and attack still is very much rooted in that. I remember hearing that tune, “Topsy,” which was recorded at a live jam session at Minton’s in 1941. I remember also that I even tried to fool around with that song and learn what was going on in the chord changes by ear. It’s a fairly simple tune, but partly because it was in a minor key, it was more accessible to me, maybe because of the rock thing. But then the bridge would come and I wouldn’t know what the hell was going on. I switched teachers. I got with a more traditional type of teacher who taught me a whole bunch of different fingerings for major scales and minor scales. It was understanding a whole different way of playing chords because in self-taught rock playing you learn a very simple set of chords and those chords suffice to play most of the stuff you’re playing. After less than a year of that, I understood stuff enough that I could understand them structurally. Then it was a lot of playing along and imitating. I spent hours and hours working out one chorus of some of these Charlie Christian things.
In the way exactly that he had done it?
Yes, so I was able to play it right along with it. I’d either play it independently or along with the recording.
Why did Charlie Christian speak to you so much?
I think there’s a connection. There’s certainly the rhythmic authority. It’s a good sound in a completely different context. It’s not bending and sustaining notes on these light strings, but there’s a similar kind of passion there. I think that’s the bottom line.
As far as your playing, I’m always struck by the emotional sincerity of it. I think a lot of people are very in their head when they play. Jazz musicians, classical musicians, rock musicians, whatever the music. It’s all about the intellectual decision. But you’re about the emotional part of it, which these people, whether they’re rock or jazz, they’re all soul players. That seems like a pattern of what you’re drawn to.
Well, it really is just that. It’s what’s come naturally to me.
I was interested in the Pee Wee Crayton, because I wasn’t familiar with him. The recording you brought in is unbelievable in terms of that emotional commitment. It just breaks your heart.
It’s just a little perfect gem. It’s actually very derivative. He was heavily influenced by a really great blues guitarist, T-Bone Walker, who I didn’t really even get to listen to before I was an established jazz player. I think T-Bone’s playing spoke to me more when I knew my way around jazz guitar because he was a more schooled kind of blues musician. Any real arch blues fan will tell you the real importance of T-Bone’s work. On this thing by Pee Wee Crayton, there are certain things that are almost directly stolen from T-Bone Walker, but that’s what all this music is about for me. Just absorbing and gathering influences and putting your own spin on it. I think if you have the sort of emotional strength or sincerity that stamps your own work, something comes out new. And hopefully something comes out beautiful.
I’m also interested in talking with you about something on your liner notes on the most recent CD, talking about the swing craze and all of that. This is a subject that I get a lot because no one knows what stride piano is. So when they come up to me, as an easy way to tell them what I do, I tell them I play swing music, just because it gives them a vague idea of what it is. You specifically address this which I loved, saying that in the ’90s, the whole swing craze was really more about jump blues and early R&B music.
The liner notes writer, Bob Porter, a great jazz DJ and writer, paraphrased what I said. But he got the gist that I was a little bugged by this whole swing revival craze. The thing we hear about every ten years is that, “Jazz is coming back!” Or “The big bands are coming back!” Something is always coming back. And this “thing” came back and it was taking the most simple novelty aspects of players like Louie Jordan and maybe Wynonie Harris and a few others and then reproducing it. I’m not going to name names here of these neo-swing bands. The real wave of that thing has died or cut back a little, which I know from getting fewer jobs with one of these groups that I sometimes freelance for. They were much hotter in the mid or late ’90s. It’s so based around the dancers, which is great. It’s a nice thing to be playing for dancers, but it becomes it’s own end. It’s amazing because these dancers will listen to the real thing, by someone like Louie Jordan, and then they’ll listen to the cover made by some 25-year-olds in 1996 and to me it sounds totally different. One of the stamps of it seems to be a very heavy-handed bass and drums, and not just because things are recorded more that way now. It’s the way it’s played. For myself, I’m a little touchy about being associated with that kind of stuff because I don’t really fit into a pigeonhole exactly and people want to put you in one. I certainly don’t qualify as an avant-garde jazz player. And I don’t really qualify as a hard-bop player either, even though I draw from some of that material. Because I draw from a lot of the classic jazz from the ’20s through the ’60s, or maybe because I’m influenced by Charlie Christian a lot, they want to call me a swing player.
Now I can tell everyone that you’re really influenced by Jimi Hendrix.
I get sick of it [being pigeonholed as swing musician]. I remember my friend Scott Hamilton once said, “Oh yea, that swing thing…that’s the kiss of death for your career.”
To listen to the entire conversation with Chris Flory, along with his music and the music that influenced him, or to hear interviews with other notable people inspired by jazz, go to Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired web site.