CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

The Pedal Steel Guitar Slides Into Jazz

A look at a unique instrument and the artists with a desire to push it forward

Chuck Campbell of the Campbell Brothers
Chuck Campbell of the Campbell Brothers (courtesy of Mitch Greenhill)

When Charles Lloyd was a teenager in 1950s Memphis, he played saxophone in a jazz and R&B band that crossed the Mississippi River to play the all-night roadhouses in West Memphis, Arkansas. Those clubs presented white country bands in the afternoons, and the ever-inquisitive Lloyd often checked them out. He was soon captivated by the sound of the steel guitar, an instrument that could slide through microtones like a trombone, squeal like a trumpet, and sizzle like an electric guitar. Ultimately, though, it sounded like nothing in the jazz world.

He was further fascinated by Al Vescovo, the steel player for the Snearly Ranch Boys who collected Art Tatum and Duke Ellington records and often hung around after his gig to hear Lloyd play Lester Young licks. The two adolescents got together to play and explore the possibilities of the steel guitar in a jazz context. But it was not to be.

“The neighbors came to my mom,” Lloyd remembers, “and said, ‘What’s with this white boy coming around?’ They thought I was punking out. So we had to stop getting together, but it was never about that; it was always about the music. Al knew there was more to music than those three or four chords, and he wanted to climb up on the rooftop where I was. Though Al and I weren’t able to keep playing together, I never lost that dream of playing jazz with a steel guitarist. You have these dreams, and across the decades they can come true. And they did, when I met Greg.”

He’s referring to Greg Leisz, the pedal steel guitarist that Lloyd met through Bill Frisell. The saxophonist was so excited by the combination of instruments that he formed a new band, Charles Lloyd & the Marvels (featuring Leisz, Frisell, drummer Eric Harland, and bassist Reuben Rogers), just to showcase that interaction. The quintet’s two albums have featured vocals by Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, and Norah Jones, but the instrumental tracks, pitting the throaty shouts of the tenor sax against the slippery sobs of the steel guitar, were the truly groundbreaking events.

And the Marvels are merely the highest-profile example of a broader movement integrating the steel guitar into jazz. Susan Alcorn, the dazzling avant-gardist, brought her steel into the Mary Halvorson Octet, and now Halvorson has returned the favor by joining the Susan Alcorn Quintet, Alcorn’s first-ever project with a conventional jazz rhythm section: bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Ryan Sawyer. With violinist Mark Feldman completing the lineup, the quintet’s debut album Pedernal is due this fall.

Leisz and Alcorn both got their start playing in country and/or Americana bands, but their virtuosity and curiosity pushed them in the direction of jazz and its greater freedom. The same was true for pedal steel guitarist Reuben “Lucky Oceans” Gosfield, a co-founder of Asleep at the Wheel, the Western-swing revivalists who often played Count Basie and Louis Jordan songs. Gosfield now lives in Australia, where he frequently plays in jazz and world-music settings.

Chuck Campbell comes out of a different non-jazz background: Sacred Steel. That’s the name for the liturgical music of the House of God, a small African-American congregation that uses steel guitars as its primary instruments. Campbell found it a short leap from the gospel/blues roots of Sacred Steel to the Miles Davis and John Coltrane tributes that his band, the Campbell Brothers, was invited to join. The quintet’s Sacred Steel version of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme has become a popular touring production in recent years.

By contrast, Heather Leigh, a West Virginian now living in Scotland, never had much experience in blues or country music; instead she plunged right into jazz, free improv, and progressive rock with her pedal steel. She often performs on stage and in the studio with German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, and on her own projects she combines the high, eerie sound of the instrument with the high, eerie sound of her voice.

Despite the differences in their pedigrees, though, all these players share two things: a deep love for a unique instrument and a desire to push it further.

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.