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Vic Juris 1953-2019

Cancer claims a humble master of the jazz guitar at 66

Vic Juris
Vic Juris

Vic Juris, a jazz guitarist whose facility, cleanness, and unerring taste on the instrument helped him establish a firm reputation as a musician’s musician, died December 31 at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey. He was 66.

His death was confirmed by his publicist, Lydia Liebman, who said that Juris had passed of complications from liver cancer.

A humble man more devoted to pursuit of his craft than of the spotlight, Juris was nonetheless a player of remarkable prowess and versatility. He was also an educator who taught at the New School, Lehigh University, and Rutgers University, in addition to master classes and workshops around the world. His jazz-musician peers regarded him with just the sort of esteem he was disinclined to seek for himself.

That said, Juris did carve out an important niche as both a sideman and a leader. In the former case, he had a creative partnership with saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman that extended more than two decades. In the latter, he maintained a Sunday-night trio residency at the 55 Bar, a small club in Greenwich Village, for the last seven years of his life.

“There was no one more real than Vic both as a person and musician,” Liebman wrote on Facebook after Juris’s passing was announced. “He was the hardest worker I have known … Dedication beyond the norm.”

Victor Jurusz Jr. was born September 26, 1953 in Jersey City, New Jersey, and spent his entire life in the northern New Jersey area. He discovered the guitar early—at 10, after hearing his father’s Chuck Berry records—and, following a few lessons with guitarist Ed Berg, largely taught himself to play.

“There weren’t that many opportunities to go to music school to study jazz in those days,” he recalled to The New York City Jazz Record in 2016. “I came from a kind of a lower-middle-class, blue-collar town in New Jersey and … nobody really had the money to send their kids to college in those days, so I started hanging out in the city.”

This was the rock era of the early 1970s, which was also the most fruitful period of jazz fusion; at the same time, the folk scene in Greenwich Village was still active. Juris soaked up all of it, played all of it, and took every opportunity he could find to work with musicians whom he felt could teach him something. It was a habit on which he built his career as a sideman.

Guitarist Pat Martino heard Juris and recommended him to bebop organist Don Patterson. That gig opened doors for Juris to work with Jimmy Smith, Wild Bill Davis, and Shirley Scott. He also collaborated with saxophonist Eric Kloss in a fusion band that included keyboardist Barry Miles. These connections begat further connections to saxophonists Phil Woods and Richie Cole, for both of whom Juris became a recurring sideman; he also met Liebman (then working in the fusion ensemble Lookout Farm), who proved a kindred spirit.

In the 1980s, Juris continued his associations with Cole and Kloss, as well as trumpeter Mark Morganelli and bassist Gary Peacock; he also began working frequently in dual guitar formats, including gigs with Biréli Lagrène, Diz Disley, John Etheridge, and a yearlong stint with Larry Coryell (one of Juris’ early favorites in the fusion genre). However, it was in 1991 that he solidified his strongest collaborative relationship: He joined Liebman’s band and remained part of it for the next 23 years.

Through it all, he continued to work as an educator and as a leader, gigging frequently and recording 28 albums under his own name. In the mid-1990s, he began playing regularly with bassist Jay Anderson; their partnership lasted nearly as long as his tenure with Liebman. (Anderson and drummer Adam Nussbaum constituted Juris’ trio at the 55 Bar.) Another important musical pairing for Juris was also a personal one; his wife, vocalist Kate Baker, often sat in at the 55 Bar and recorded with Juris, notably on his 2015 album Vic Plays Victor Young.

The demand for Juris’ freelance services found him playing in almost every style conceivable, and seemingly without cease. “My plate is always full,” he told DownBeat in 2017.

Early in 2019, however, Juris began noticing an exhaustion that plagued him during and after gigs with no apparent cause. He was eventually diagnosed with metastatic liver cancer. A fan-supported GoFundMe account was able to help make ends meet. His gigging schedule, in the meantime, never flagged. “I always have gigs,” he said in 2017. “I always make sure that I’m playing and that there’s a challenge in it for me.”

In addition to Baker, Juris is survived by a sister, Denise Martish.

A wake will be held January 3 at Preston Funeral Home in South Orange, New Jersey, with the funeral on the following day at Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to a newly established Vic Juris Jazz Guitar Scholarship at the New School in New York.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.