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Bill Frisell Remembers Johnny Smith

6.25.22 – 6.11.13

Johnny Smith teaching at University of Utah in 1981
Johnny Smith

Toward the end of high school in Denver, hearing Wes Montgomery’s music was this gigantically transformative moment for me. And that led me to trying to find a teacher. Up until that point, I was playing clarinet in the school band and playing guitar in R&B bands and rock bands. This was in the late ’60s. But everything I’d been doing on the guitar I’d learned through listening to records and playing with my friends. When I heard Wes Montgomery, I thought that I had to get a teacher. I was so lucky to find this guy Dale Bruning, who I’m still close with, and he became my guitar teacher. Dale was playing bass with Johnny Smith, so that was when I first heard of him.

It was a couple of years later that I studied with him. I was going to the University of Northern Colorado, and he came to teach a guitar class. They had the beginnings of a pretty good jazz program; they had three big bands, and I played in the big bands and the concert bands and the orchestra. But there wasn’t really any guitar program there. At that time Berklee was the only place you could bring a guitar in without getting laughed out of the room. So they hired Johnny Smith to teach a class that I believe was open to anyone who wanted to learn how to play the guitar; it was as if the course just happened to have this master teaching it. I signed up for that class, and after a few weeks it was too much for everyone else-they didn’t want to be learning scales and inversions and all this stuff. Everybody dropped out except me. It pretty much ended up being a private lesson with Johnny Smith.

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