Ted Dunbar: Teacher Man to Nile Rodgers, Kevin Eubanks, and Many Others

Illustrious students remember their guitar mentor

Ted Dunbar (far right) with (left to right) Victor Gaskin, Joe Newman, and David Lee, Jr. at Boomers, New York, 1974 (photo: Raymond Ross Archives/CTSIMAGES)
Ted Dunbar (far right) with (left to right) Victor Gaskin, Joe Newman, and David Lee, Jr. at Boomers, New York, 1974 (photo: Raymond Ross Archives/CTSIMAGES)

The full legacy of some musicians can be gauged as much by tracing their impact on those they trained as by their own performances. Guitarist Ted Dunbar (1937-1998) is the perfect example, remembered today with reverence by the numerous guitarists who studied with him. Their collective résumé is an impressive swath of experiences and success: Nile Rodgers (Chic), Vernon Reid (Living Colour), Kevin Eubanks (The Tonight Show with Jay Leno), Rodney Jones (The Rosie O’Donnell Show), Trey Anastasio (Phish), Peter Bernstein, and many others.

Dunbar landed in New York City in the mid-’60s by way of his native Texas, where he’d trained to be a pharmacist while playing with the likes of Arnett Cobb and Joe Turner, and then Indianapolis, where he studied with David Baker at Indiana University and played with Wes Montgomery and his brothers. Within 10 years, he was an in-demand sideman for Gil Evans, Frank Foster, Sonny Rollins, Ron Carter, and—notably—Tony Williams’ Lifetime, valued for his clear-toned playing and an ability to handle a wide range of modern flavors, from postbop and soul-jazz to freer forms and feels. Dunbar simultaneously pursued an instructor role, first with Jazzmobile, then at Rutgers University and other jazz programs in the Northeast.

His students today recall Dunbar with fondness and gratitude—and still with a degree of intimidation, in part because of the guitarist’s intense nuts-and-bolts focus on jazz theory, which inspired him to write four books relating to George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic concepts, including A System of Tonal Convergence for Improvisers, Composers, and Arrangers (1975).

“He was a super theoretician,” remembers Rodgers, who began studying with Dunbar in 1970. “He’d say, ‘Connect the shit, Nile. Connect the shit. Make it sound like music.’ I’d look at him and say, ‘Here you want me to be rigid and now you want me to bend, I don’t get it.’ Later I realized what he was saying—you want to be a composer and make people happy? Well, you’re composing on the spot, but you live by these rules that you can break at will. Learn the rules so you know when and how to break them.”

Vernon Reid, who like Rodgers came to know Dunbar through Jazzmobile workshops in the ’70s, relates: “Mr. Dunbar had a serious and imposing afro-ed and dark, dashiki-ed presence … somewhat cantankerous and deeply philosophical. If he smiled, it felt like a rare gift. He emphasized the importance of having a strong sense of internal time, being suspicious of the mischievous machinations of drummers. I clearly remember a lively back-and-forth between a student and himself about whether or not a note an octave above was the same note. That discussion fairly crackled.”

Peter Bernstein became a student of Dunbar’s in the mid-’80s at Rutgers. “I still think of him as one of my favorite humans,” he says, “very wise, disciplined, intelligent—and also from Texas who could really play the blues. As a teacher, he was always talking about that balance—the head and the heart, the instinct and the learning. I met him at a very impressionable time of my life and maybe wasn’t all the way ready for him, because he made me ask serious questions about myself and my choice of music. Why do I want to do this? Is this who I’m supposed to be?”

“I would call his teaching approach ‘complete immersion,’” recalls Trey Anastasio, who attended a University of Massachusetts workshop with Dunbar in the early ’90s. “He told us that we should have a music stand in every room, including the bathroom, learn every jazz standard in all 12 keys, and immediately break up with our girlfriends or boyfriends, because the guitar was everything to us now. He opened my mind about the fingerboard, harmony, and methods of practicing that would prepare me for any musical idea that came down the pike while I was improvising. A lot of what I learned from him also crept into the way I write. l love his book A System of Total Convergence and have carried it around with me since I studied with him.”

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Most of Dunbar’s students recall the tasks he would give them, like a list of 40 tunes they had to know inside and out: ballads, bebop workhorses, a few modal numbers. “The key, as I understood it,” Bernstein says, “and this has continued to stick with me 34 years later, is to figure what any tune has to teach you about how music works. Whether it was a Horace Silver or a Cole Porter tune, every piece of music has a lesson—or several—for you to extract. In other words, the music makes the ‘rules,’ music is not made from the ‘rules.’”

Other students remember unusual exercises Dunbar assigned, like playing an entire ballad and solo using only five frets on the fingerboard. “He would say, ‘Take off the top E string and the bottom E string, and practice all week just like that,’” Kevin Eubanks says, laughing. “I would say, ‘What for?’ And he’d say, ‘After a week, you tell me what for.’”

Eubanks met Dunbar through Slide Hampton and, after a few impromptu lessons and friendly conversations, accepted the guitarist’s offer to take over his Rutgers classes for a semester. “I said on one condition: if he gave me lessons while I was teaching for him,” Eubanks says. In that year Dunbar revealed his personal life philosophy, which regarded music as but one aspect of understanding one’s purpose. That could be a daunting lesson in itself: If music is life, then one’s musical understanding necessitates a more universal path of self-education.

“He spoke about tonality and harmony mixed in with numerology and astrology,” Eubanks remembers. “He was really deep into these things—palmistry, acronology—all of these things were part of the same thing for him. We would never just talk about a musical thought without it being a part of a constellation of other thoughts. He’d give me some really difficult exercise and I would say, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t hear it.’ He’d say, ‘You hit it right on the head. It’s not your technique, it’s that you’re not hearing it.’ That was a point that he always drove in—once you start hearing it, you’ll be amazed at how your fingers and everything fall into place. That was a huge lesson I learned.”

Eubanks remained close to Dunbar for years after, even during his days as musical director for talk-show host Jay Leno: “We stayed in touch and would have conversations, especially after I went to L.A. He’d do astrological charts for me—he said, ‘I’m going to look out for you. I’ll do a chart that will take you in depth through the next six months, the next three years, and one for the next 10 or 15 [laughs].’ He would send me tapes—you know, cassettes—with a lot of information on them that might take me three months to figure out. He just kept teaching me up until the end.”

Dunbar succumbed to a stroke in 1998. He was still teaching at the time and had released a number of well-received recordings under his own name, including Opening Remarks (1978), Secundum Artem (1980), Jazz Guitarist (1982), Gentle Time Alone (1994), and a collaboration with Kenny Barron (In Tandem, 1980). The New York Times marked Dunbar’s passing, commending him for a sound that was “warm and clean” and for playing “his own ideas, and his solos regularly used both modern harmonies and blues motifs.” The obituary noted his role as an instructor and that, while pursuing his music career, “he also continued to practice pharmacy, his first profession, along with numerology and astrology.”

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.