Nile Rodgers: From Jazz Roots

More than four hitmaking decades into his career, the leader of Chic still regards jazz as an inherent part of who he is

Nile Rodgers
Nile Rodgers (photo: Jill Furmanovsky)

There’s a story Nile Rodgers likes to share, an early career lesson. It was at the onset of the 1970s; the precocious guitarist—still a teenager yet already with years of classical and jazz training under his belt—was starting to get calls for gigs. “$15 was the going rate for pickup gigs back then,” he relates. “15 cents, we’d call it. I’d say, ‘Hmm, let me think about it.’ Of course I said yes—I wasn’t turning anything down. If they had said 10 dollars I would have said yes.”

Some gigs Rodgers fancied, but one left him less than inspired, and his guitar teacher at the time noticed “a sour look on my face and said, ‘Hey Nile, what’s wrong, man?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m doing a bullshit R&B/boogaloo gig tonight.’ He said, ‘Wait—what do you mean bullshit gig?’ I said, ‘I have to play songs in the Top 40,’ and I specifically referenced a song called ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by the Archies, saying, ‘It’s corny, it’s bubble gum.’”

His teacher’s response caught him off-guard: “He said, ‘Nile, millions of people love “Sugar, Sugar.” What makes you believe that you’re the ultimate consumer?’ I looked at him and was befuddled because he’s a straight-ahead jazz guy. Then he said, ‘I just want to tell you something—every single song that makes it into the Top 40 is a great composition. You know why? Because it speaks to the souls of a million strangers.’”

Rodgers still laughs at the irony that such a lightbulb moment came from the lips of a guitarist who had subbed for Wes Montgomery in the ’60s and played a hollowbody Gibson. “It was my jazz teacher, Ted Dunbar, who taught me to not be a jazz nerd. He was amazing—the way he thought about music, about playing music as a profession. A great player too—he wound up replacing John McLaughlin in Tony Williams’ Lifetime before Allan Holdsworth. I got to know Ted because he was one of the two players Dr. Billy Taylor had hired to teach jazz guitar at Jazzmobile when I went there; Roland Prince was the other one. Ted was my mentor.”

Jazz is certainly not the first genre that pops to mind when the name Nile Rodgers is mentioned. On first meeting the 66-year-old—and encountering his nonstop energy and boisterous spirit—it’s a challenge to balance his humble beginnings and the dizzying pop heights he’s achieved. In the last years of the ’70s as co-founder of Chic, he helped generate a series of disco-era igniters that still endure: “Everybody Dance,” “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “Good Times,” “Le Freak.” In the ’80s and ’90s, Rodgers was the hot composer and producer of hits, relied on by such pop headliners as Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Duran Duran, and Madonna. As recently as 2013, he stood in the spotlight again as co-writer of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself to Dance”—two of the most ubiquitous songs of that year, collaborations with the faceless electronic dance group and singer/producer Pharrell Williams.

Through it all Rodgers maintained a signature guitar style that betrays the influence of both Dunbar’s training and the guidance of his fellow Chic co-founder, bassist Bernard Edwards, initially a guitarist as well. Rodgers credits the latter for helping develop his syncopated rhythm technique, all upbeat strumming of fragmented chords and deft left-hand muting: the choppy effect Edwards called “chucking.” Favoring a Fender Stratocaster once he set aside his hollowbody Gibson, Rodgers opted for a clean, uncluttered tone that created a balanced effect when switching between chords and single-note lines: a sound still as recognizable and influential as the dance-floor hits he helped create.

In the nostalgia cycles that resound online and through streaming services, Rodgers seems destined for a life of perpetual pop/dance stardom, where the beat never drops and mirror balls never stop spinning. Jazz? In 2019? Whatever it once meant to the guitarist, one might expect it to be a long-forgotten passion, or at best deeply buried.

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One would be mistaken. Rodgers still talks about jazz and thinks about it a lot. It’s there when he speaks of his earliest years, growing up in Manhattan’s West Village, hanging at jazz clubs with no higher aspiration than to be one of the cats. It’s still there every time he picks up the Strat, with an approach that betrays an undying appreciation for his training—even when playing music other than jazz. “There’s this hysterical video online of me on the BBC, with [DJ] Pete Tong,” he says. “This was the first time they were playing ‘Get Lucky’ and they asked, ‘Hey man, you want to play along with it?’ So I pick up my guitar and I’m listening—but I haven’t heard it in months and it stops me in my tracks. I mean harmonically I got it instantly, but I was getting into the secondary line and the rhythmic pattern of what I played and was listening deeply. Then somebody yelled out, ‘Hey, it’s only four chords!’ They couldn’t hear it the way I was hearing it.”

The depth and discipline is second nature to Rodgers. The fact that he posted this video online also betrays an up-to-date comfort with managing his social media imprint: shooting and sharing onstage and backstage moments as he continues to travel around the world, headlining as the sole surviving member of Chic, participating in high-profile music events, accepting awards and such appointments as the new Chief Creative Advisor position at Abbey Road Studios.

His guitar—and jazz—are always within reach. Rodgers mentions another video: “I posted something back in October when I was in Paris and we were supposed to be on two TV shows but because Charles Aznavour died they were canceled. So there’s this video of me on the sofa practicing bebop, shredding and using inner voicings, the George Van Eps technique—all this cool diatonic voice-leading that makes you sound like a piano player. You can read the comments. People never hear me play like that—but that’s who I am.”

The following conversation was recorded at the Power Station, the midtown Manhattan studio (now owned by Berklee College of Music) that Chic helped inaugurate when it first opened in 1977, a full-circle moment that amuses Rodgers no end. “Man, they were still building the recording rooms when we were working on ‘Everybody Dance’ and the five tracks that completed the first album. Then we stayed here—Studio B became our home, while the big rock & roll acts went to Studio A. It’s incredible it’s still here, but so am I!”

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.