5 Famous Jazz Mandolin Players

Mandolin takes 20th century root in American bluegrass and jazz style, both of which utilize tight improvisation and quick movement. With this article we take a look at five famous mandolin players who make/made significant contributions to the jazz mandolin style.

 1. Jethro Burns

Kenneth Charles Burns earned the name Jethro after touring as comedic duo Homer and Jethro back in the 1930s, with Henry D. Haynes. He brought humour to his mandolin acts, telling jokes between songs. His great energy and humour combined with impeccable mandolin picking and original style made him a mandolin legend.

He was a country musician, but played jazz style on the mandolin, using clean, single-note melodies rather than bluegrass style. He was responsible for introducing jazz melodies and methods of playing to country mandolinists. Growing up in the big band era, he took a lot of influence from Cole Porter and Duke Ellington.

Over the decades and into the 1970s he had inspired an entire younger generation of acoustic musicians. In this same decade he wrote several columns for Mandolin World News on both music and humour.

He toured with Haynes, Ken Eidson and Steve Goodman. He was a great entertainer, a master teacher of mandolin jazz, and was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.

  1. Paul Glasse

Paul Glasse grew up in New York. As a young person he was drawn to the acoustic sound of the mandolin. Growing up he listening to bluegrass, old timey and New England traditional music, and moved to Austin, Texas in 1977 to sturdy under Tiny Moore who taught him Texas Swing. This genre is quick in tempo and blends early country with jazz harmony, a la 1930s swing. To this day, Paul is known for this style.

In the 1980s he won several mandolin contests for his master picking including the Buck White International Mandolin Championship. His signature skills include improvisation and head, where he takes on the lead of a song, or its main theme.

  1. John Reischman 

John Reischman has a large repertoire of songs and styles, whether he is writing original pieces and touring with his band the Jaybirds, re-inventing old-time tunes, or playing bluegrass. He is renowned for his mastery of the mandolin, which he began playing in the 1970s, and helped build the new acoustic sound.

He was highly influenced by early bluegrass mandolinists such as Jethro Burns and David Grisman. Over the years he has collaborated with many artists, creating new hybrids of cross-cultural sounds on the mandolin due to his interest in musical rhythms and stringed instruments.

In addition to his collaborative albums he also has three solo albums, on which he performs both original songs and traditional tunes. He stands at the forefront of American Bluegrass style, but his mandolin style is very jazzy in the sophisticated interplay between himself and other instruments, and his ability to improvise.

  1. Tony Williamson 

Tony Williamson is a mandolin virtuoso, bringing his extensive knowledge of musical intruments and their histories to his playing. For 40 years he has delighted audiences across the globe with his superb mandolin playing, and when he is not playing he is selling vintage and pre-owned instruments. This originated with his grandfather, who made musical instruments and inspired his grandchildren Tony and brother Gary, on banjo, to begin playing in 1957.

By 1969 Tony and his brother were child sensations and won World Championship. He received his degree with highest honours at University of North Carolina where he was born and raised, and after graduating, went on tour with the Bluegrass Alliance. From there he played in a number of bands utilizing classical, folk and jazz styles on his mandolin.

His work with the mandolin is largely responsible for its modern-day popularity, as he is immensely talented as a player but also highly knowledgeable. He shows his collection of vintage guitars and mandolins to crowds, demonstrating their tone and craftsmanship. It is rare to find instruments like these being used, as opposed to sitting in museums. He continues to record, using F-5 mandolins from the 1920s (around the time Gibson had invented this model). 

  1. Don Stiernberg 

Don Stienberg has been playing mandolin for fifty years, and in this time period he has also performed, written, recorded, produced and taught. He was born in Chicago and is based there. As a child he was gifted a mandolin, and was sent to study with Jethro Burns, who became role model, mentor and friend. Don lived and breathed mandolin and played in a bluegrass band called The Morgan Brothers, and later in The Jethro Burns Quartet.

He is currently regarded as a trailblazer for the jazz mandolin style. His working band is called The Don Stiernberg Trio, with whom he recently recorded his ninth music project. The trio has performed across North America and in Germany and Brazil. He participates in The Mandolin Symposium in California and several mandolin and acoustic camps across the United States, Italy, Germany and Brazil.

Capturing A Great Day In Harlem – A Portrait of New York Jazz

If you lived and played jazz in New York, Harlem was a part of you and you were a part of it. It didn’t matter what style or era of jazz you were a part of—there were legends behind you and future giants ahead. Harlem was the home of jazz, the crucible for jazz, and the story of jazz fleshed out through its music, language, fashion, art, literature, and just about every aspect of culture throughout the early to mid-century.

They called it the Harlem renaissance. At the fore of the nation’s free black community were the jazz musicians, who experienced both international fame and domestic racial inequity. They worked their passions until they bled, and knew that their celebrity standing didn’t make them exempt to police brutality and hate crimes.

By the year 1958, Harlem had long established and upheld its reputation as the Cultural Capital of Black America. Esquire magazine was planning a huge issue on jazz music, and in the true spirit of jazz, one small-time freelancer improvised a contribution that would make history and capture the Harlem Renaissance forever.

The Great Eras of Jazz

Throughout the 1950s, Harlem housed so many eras of jazz musicians that pioneers born before the turn of the 20th century were playing just down the street from established, extremely talented musicians born as late as 1930. From that 30-year spread in musicians’ births, the swing era lived and died, the bebop movement surfaced, hot jazz and cool jazz had been played and retired in dance halls and night clubs.

Art Kane was a small-time magazine art director when he came up with the idea of bringing out as many jazz musicians as possible for a single photo shoot. The act had never been done before. Kane knew that he wanted it to be in Harlem, where these people lived and created. He understood that in order to capture the spirit of jazz as a driving cultural force, he would need to capture life in Harlem.

Kane scouted a location for the shoot and chose a random building on 126th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues. In his mind, anyone could have lived in that building, and little did he know that his photograph would make that building famous. He put out the call the only way he possibly could have, shoving it through as many channels as he could and then waiting to see who would come.

The Nighthawks in Broad Daylight

Kane’s plan had one major hiccup for jazz musicians: call time was set at 10 o’clock in the morning. Though the time was ideal for photography, with ideal lighting and atmosphere, it was a challenge for photograph subjects who regularly worked until (and often well past) 4 o’clock in the morning.

The brutal call time threatened to limit or even prevent a large crowd from turning up. One musician is reported to have said that they didn’t realize that there were two 10 o’clocks in the same day. Yet the call to action was strong, and everyone realized that what Kane was suggesting had never been done before.

Jazz musicians are in the business of doing things that have never been done before. Spurred on by one another, and interested in the sheer novelty of the act, 57 prominent jazz musicians showed up for Kane’s photograph.

Bebop veterans Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk showed up and chatted with swing legends Count Basie and Gene Krupa. Young skyrocketing tenor saxophone players Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson showed up to stand alongside Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who pioneered the instrument in jazz.

Kane’s attempts to direct and structure the 57 musicians for the photograph fell mostly by the wayside. In the end, he did what any good jazz musician would have done. He incorporated the lives, the conversations, the energies, and the chaos of everything happening in front of him.

The result is a single, cohesive effort that has since become the most famous and historically celebrated portrait of jazz artists of all time.

Art Tatum – Striding Through Life

art_tatum

Some artists are born for their craft. Perhaps the greatest among musicians—whose very name has become synonymous with virtuosity and genius—is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This towering, Classical era composer demonstrated a capacity for musical genius at an extremely young age, and in a radical, almost supernatural way.

young mozart

The legend regarding Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere runs something like this: at 14 years of age, young Mozart is taken to St. Peter’s cathedral at the Vatican for Easter Sunday. Mozart hears Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere for the first time—a sacred and closely guarded hymn reserved solely for performance during Easter. After hearing it only once, Mozart transcribes the entire piece by ear and from memory, making only minor corrections after hearing it once more a few days later.

Next to none have ever come close to the level of musical mastery that Mozart demonstrated at age 14. Still, there are many musicians who have risen above their contemporaries, who rest forever in their legacies and in their contributions to the history of music.

art tatum

Art Tatum is one of these. His is most likely not the name that comes first in the mind, at least not before other, more memorable players like Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk. Sitting humbly, squarely at the fore of prominent jazz piano players, Art Tatum is almost universally recognized by both critics and fellow musicians as the greatest jazz pianist to have ever lived.

Art Tatum – Born to Play

Not much is known about Art Tatum’s life, but one thing that we know for certain about Art Tatum is that he was blind for most of his life. This does not make him the first or last piano player to achieve fame and virtuosity despite being blind—Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles come easily to mind.

The cornerstone of Tatum’s abilities lies in another sensory augmentation. It is said that one day, while Tatum’s mother was cooking, hymns began drifting through the house on the Tatum’s old piano. Thinking that someone from the church had come over, she went into the parlor to greet them. She was stunned upon discovering that it was her son, a young Arthur Tatum, performing the hymns by ear, from memory.

About one in 10,000 people is born with the ability to discern and replicate pitches or lines of music without any external reference point. Even among those born with the ability—called absolute pitch, or perfect pitch—there are different levels of cultivation and ability.

Art Tatum is one of the gifted, a musical anomaly who could listen to a piece once and have it memorized forever, like Mozart before him. When Tatum went to school to study music, he would read braille sheet music with one hand, and play the piece from memory immediately thereafter. These abilities created the potential for musical achievement that the jazz world had not yet, and would not ever see again.

Striding Through Life

There are more legends surrounding Tatum’s character than almost any other jazz musician in history. Other players demonstrated a certain reverence for the Toledo based performer whenever he took the stage.

Tatum’s preferred style of play is known as stride piano, which borrowed structure from the form of ragtime, and then abandoning that structure in favor of improvisation and a wider range of motion. It is said even to this day that Tatum sounds like he is playing two pianos at once. He is known for having the fastest left hand of any pianist before or since.

art_tatum

Even the founding father of stride piano, James P. Johnson, said that he had never truly heard stride piano until the day he heard Art Tatum perform. Though Tatum’s style was stride first and foremost, he tried to encapsulate all areas of jazz into his performance, often resulting in wildly complicated, fast, and intelligent performances.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Tatum’s playing is in his performance. While playing faster than anyone else in the world, Tatum retained a calm and cool posture. He never made faces, and never made a show of performing. In this, he demonstrates the innate, born to play style of performance that makes jazz so interesting. It is a feeling that jazz, no matter where it comes from or where it goes, is directly of the soul.