Obituary: Howard Roberts
Thursday 02 July 1992
'THERE WERE two or three negro jazz clubs in town during the five-year period I worked in Phoenix before I moved to California,' the guitarist Howard Roberts said. 'I first began playing in those clubs, and all we did was play the blues. And that's what I came out of - the blues. I started in that scene when I was 15 and it was the most valuable experience in the world for me.'
But Roberts broadened his horizons. Guitar music has always been an emancipated field where one idiom spreads over to another. Even in such a free-thinking music, Roberts was a more eclectic guitarist than any other. Although his playing remained blues-drenched, he was one of the few musicians living in the unchallenging balm of the West Coast jazz scene to probe into avant- garde music. He also studied and taught classical guitar and was recognised as an international authority on medieval music.
At first Roberts taught himself to play the guitar, but began to study musical theory, including the complex Schillinger system, when he was 17. An early liking for big- band jazz led him to listen to the music of Bartok, Stravinsky and Hindemith as well as be-bop and he studied with teachers like Fabian Andre and Shorty Rogers. After two years with the instrument he began playing with local dance bands and, when his family moved to Los Angeles while he was a teenager, he had invaluable experience playing there with Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon, Howard McGhee and Sonny Stitt.
Roberts led his own groups and soon stood out in the formidable local scene, working with Shorty Rogers, Buddy de Franco, Bud Shank, Bill Holman and Bob Cooper, all of whom he later recorded with. He worked in the pianist Al Haig's quartet before joining the singer-pianist Bobby Troup for two years. He was drawn to the avant-garde drummer Chico Hamilton and first become widely known as a member of Hamilton's trio.
In 1955 Roberts won the Downbeat New Star award and the following year made his first recordings under his own name. Typically unconventional, his first album had him backed by a string quartet. He enrolled at the University of Southern California to study classical music and wrote and published The Howard Roberts Guitar Book, an erudite tutorial manual, and in 1990 published a three-volume Guitar Compendium co-written with Garry Hagberg.
Because of the demand for him in commercial studios, he was lost to jazz for much of the time, and appeared on hundreds of recordings, even turning his plectrum to the less literate forms of rock 'n' roll when it was required of him. He estimated that, between 1966 and 1976, he appeared on 2,000 LPs. Of these he estimated that 2 per cent were jazz records. Amongst the latter were albums by Gerry Mulligan, Oliver Nelson and Thelonious Monk.
But, despite the enormous variety of his work, it is as a jazz guitarist that Roberts should first be remembered. He played in the classic style of Charlie Christian and was particularly gifted at choosing and interpreting good ballads. He played the solo guitar which so distinguishes the soundtrack of the film The Sandpiper. His interest in avant-garde led him to record his remarkable album Equinox Express Elevator in the early Seventies. For this he used two then unknown young musicians, the keyboard players Dave Gruesin and Mike Wofford, both of whom have since emerged as eminent jazz figures. He also provided solo guitar accompaniment for the fine singer Julie London and played on some of the most famous West Coast jazz albums, notably Bob Cooper's Group Activity, in the early days of West Coast jazz. He and the pianist Pete Jolly had grown up together in Phoenix, and their association was to continue in Los Angeles. Jolly played on Roberts's 1959 album Good Pickin's in a small group with the tenor saxophonist Bill Holman.
During the Seventies Roberts tried to devote more time to jazz and lectured at seminars and in colleges and contributed a monthly tutorial column to Guitar Player magazine. In 1976 he co-founded the Guitar Institute of Technology (later the Musicians' Institute) in Hollywood.
Jazz enthusiasts continually bemoan the fact that so many of the best musicians are underrated. Howard Roberts was not underrated by anyone who knew his work. But it is extraordinary, considering how good he was and the consummate musical company he kept, that he wasn't known to far more people and acclaimed as he was, as amongst the best dozen of jazz guitarists.
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