Michael Gauthier is a Montreal-based musician who teaches jazz guitar at the University of Montreal and at McGill University. A fixture of the Montreal jazz scene, his memory houses a vast and irreplaceable knowledge of the history of jazz in Montreal since the sixties. Recently he took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about improvisation, reading music, and jazz and blues as folk genres.
. . .you improvise from an expanded consciousness, you discover that, in fact, there are no wrong notes! Appropriateness and correctness are products of the mind. Trying to live within those imaginary guidelines inhibits the flow. ~Kenny Werner in Effortless Master
One of the things I like about Jazz, kid, is I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Do you?
Ahhh, those Jazz guys are just makin’ that stuff up! ~Homer Simpson
How is teaching guitar at McGill different from teaching at the University of Montreal?
McGill is a little narrower than the University of Montreal when it comes to playing strictly jazz. It’s like, if you don’t love traditional jazz, all of jazz up until today, what are you doing at McGill? The University of Montreal has a bit more latitude.
The students who apply to McGill come from all over; Americans, all of English Canada—including all of English Quebec—and every country in the world will apply to McGill. They have a much bigger applicant base so they can afford to be selective, whereas the University of Montreal gets applicants from French-speaking Quebec, and then maybe France, Haiti, Vietnam, Algeria, and that’s about it. Their applicant base is much more limited because there are a lot fewer French speakers in the world than English speakers.
Where are you most comfortable—with traditional jazz or with music that admits multiple genres?
I’d have to say I’m more comfortable with more tradtional, history-oriented jazz. That’s not to say that I’m more comfortable at McGill; at any university there’s more than one guitar teacher, so at the University of Montreal those who want to learn the more conventional thing will opt to study with me, but those who want to go slightly out of the jazz box would opt to study with somebody else.
There are teachers here in Montreal who’ve done work with Cirque du Soleil and are very good readers. They’d never hire me to do something like that because when they’d put a chart in front of me I’d look at it and say, “Let me take that home for a while.” In my system of jazz teaching you learn by ear, above and beyond anything else. A lot of the great jazz players, then, and now, could not—and cannot—read music.
Really? Can’t most jazz players at least read a melody well enough to play around with it?
Most, yes. But many of the really great players couldn’t read. Think of it this way—if you can’t read music you can really hone your retention abilities.
You see this among illiterate people, too. Many of them have an amazing ability to quote things they’ve heard, verbatim.
Most people here in Quebec today have to go through the CEGEP system to get into university, so they all learn how to read fairly young, but it’s amazing how they’re book and sheet dependent and how difficult it is for them to learn a tune by heart. From the internet you can download sheet music and tablature, and that’s been available for a couple of generations now.
I’ve always tried to avoid that. My music reading ability is limited, but I don’t have a complex about it; I want to look at blues and jazz as folklore music, which I think, ultimately, they are.
Jazz has become an academic music. Before the forties it wasn’t in the schools at all, and in Quebec it wasn’t in the schools before the seventies. So before then you had to learn it in the clubs, on the streets, by hanging around with other musicians, and by listening to records and trying to figure it out by yourself.
So it was like play, even though you worked hard at it.
Yeah. And you know it’s been amazingly fun. It’s like learning a language by going and living in that land instead of downloading Rosetta Stone. On the other side of the mirror, I wish I could read better. I guess some people—the extremely gifted ones—have it all, but if I have to make a choice? I choose my ears and better retention over high reading skills.
For a classical musician it’s the opposite. He or she needs reading desperately. If you have a concert tomorrow you’re not going to try to memorize the score tonight—you have to have the sheets. And for them it’s not about improvising anyway.
Jan Wouter Oostenrijk, a jazz guitarist from the Netherlands, pointed out that most music in world history has been improvised—the Western classical tradition of performing from reading sheet music is actually the anomaly.
Improvising makes it personal. It might be a bit of a negative view, but no matter how great you are as a classical musician, you’re just proving how great the composer is. You’re not saying much about you.
You hear a lot about musicians who grow up playing jazz and yet who later in life have no problem picking up Bach and Beethoven. But it’s rare for a classically trained musician to be able to pick up jazz later in life. Why is that?
They just can’t cross over. Jazz musicians have honed their skills in a more organic way.
So, tell me about your childhood.
I come from Drummondville. Luckily, for some reason unknown to me, it was a basin for music—there was a lot of music going on in that region of the province. As a teenager, I remember a lot of rock bands and all sorts of stuff like that being there.
My father first got me interested in music; he was a harmonica player, and there was always music and dancing and singing going on at home. He didn’t necessarily encourage me to play, but he definitely opened the door to the whole idea.
One of my earliest memories was a trip to Bermuda together when I was about seven or eight. He brought back some 78 rpms of island music. We had a little record player back then, and I remember playing those records over and over again because I just loved that kind of music. I liked the rhythm.
I eventually also grew to love the music of Jimi Hendrix. It almost didn’t even dawn on me at first that he was black; he was just Hendrix to me, another guitar player whom I happened to love. I never associated color with music until much later on.
When you made that association, what went through your head?
Well, at first I sort of figured out that I was at the short end of the stick there. I mean, growing up in Drummondville, going to a Catholic Church, having a WASP mother and a half-French Canadian father and all. I never really saw a black person in Drummondville until I was about eighteen years old. In other words, black American culture, black island culture, or black culture period was something totally divorced from my reality except for all this listening to and loving black music.
So you thought of it as being “your music.” You didn’t think of it as being from a culture separate from your own.
Well, in an intellectual sense, yes, I realized it. I wasn’t born in Alabama. I’m not a black guy. I didn’t go to the sanctified church and praise the Lord on Sunday morning.
I asked myself, at times, “Do I have a right to play this music?” because of this. I don’t know, and you know what? I don’t care. That’s the secret—it doesn’t matter.
Hit by a Bomb
Now, getting back to my childhood for just a second, I can remember something that really marked me a lot. For some reason, when I was about twelve years old, my father figured that the family (including him) needed some culture, so he took us to Montreal to hear Van Cliburn—a great classical piano player—play Chopin. I can remember the last two pieces he played; it was like being hit by a bomb. To this day I remember how electrified I felt by it.
I started to play guitar in the early sixties because the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came out then. As a young teenager it wasn’t cool to play a trombone or the French horn because the Rolling Stones didn’t play those instruments.
I started to love the blues before even realizing that it was the blues. The guitar is the main blues instrument, and because of that, it became the number one instrument in rock and roll.
When I was fourteen, I had a neighbour my age who’d gotten a guitar, and I became envious of him. There was a guitar kicking around my place when I was a real little kid, but it had only two strings. Even as a little kid I remember picking it up and doing any stupid thing I felt like doing with it, but I remember that the first tune I ever learned, I learned on that little two-stringed guitar.
There was a TV show a long time ago called The Third Man. The theme song from it is the tune I learned. The music was kind of like Greek zither music. I can remember the melody. I remember learning that on one string. No big deal, but I was really proud of myself to be able to play what I heard on TV.
Extrapolating from an Incomplete Guitar
I didn’t rationalize this, but I thought that if I could learn the Third Man theme at 10 years old on a guitar with just two strings, then I could just extrapolate and eventually learn how to play anything I heard on a record, and that’s what I did. To this day, I will only reach for music sheets in dire desperation in the event that I can’t figure something out.
It really is just basic logic that I’m a guitar player with six strings, four fingers, and one thumb, just like any other. But it’s a skill that develops over time. When I listen to music, for example, I pretty much know what the guy is doing without even picking up my guitar—that is, if it’s of the type of music that I play.
Most blues and jazz stuff I can listen to and either know that I’ve done it before or that it’s from a place where I’ve been. You have to be able to jump into the language, so to speak. It’s like learning the Egyptian language in Egypt as opposed to buying a book.
That’s the way it’s been ever since and it’s the way I try to teach my students. I feel as though I need to redress them and fix their bad habits. The kinds of bad habits I’m talking about are things like reaching for the book instead of learning things by heart. I’m old school.
In the Zone
Do you tend to enter a zone wherein you’re somehow, in some mysterious way, more capable of making beautiful music?
For sure. There are people out there who automatically go into that zone the minute their fingers touch their instrument. For me the zone is more elusive; I can be in the zone for a couple of weeks and then out of the zone for a couple of weeks, for no apparent reason.
I can tell my students about the existence of that zone but I can’t actually depend on that zone myself. I think that most of my students have a handle on the zone, because I can see that they will notice it at brief intervals. I think that that zone is probably the second biggest reason people get into music in the first place, rivaled only by the fact that they love music. Even when a person is playing something like “Gloria,” or “House of the Rising Sun,” it’s the same zone, you know?
What conditions are more likely to bring on the “zone” for you?
A good drummer and a good bass player! This is true in jazz and blues, especially, because it’s a collective musical experience. I disagree with a lot of musicians who always blame somebody else if it doesn’t go well; they blame poor performances on their drummers, or bass players, or what have you. It’s just their egos.
I, on the other hand, believe that any of the musicians, including myself, could be at fault for a performance going badly. For the sake of professionalism, however, I feel that I have developed the ability to produce an acceptable product even when I’m not in the zone. My worst days are kind of at the low range of acceptable, the better days are a gift, and the great days are miraculous. I hope that audience members are paying close enough attention that they know when it’s a good day or a bad day.
Let’s talk about accompanying the spoken word performances. You seem to do it amazingly well, and it all comes together so well with no rehearsal. When you and your trio did the accompaniment for the Hundred Thousand Poets for Change event last year, was it the first time you’d accompanied spoken art?
Yes, it was the first time. I felt a little bit inadequate due to my unfamiliarity with the emotional expectations of the poems. It’s one thing to simply read a poem on a piece of paper; however, if you were to read a really good William Butler Yeats poem, the emotion would be right there in the writing. The thing is, I didn’t even have a chance to read the poems beforehand.
Another indication for me is the rhythm of the words. It’s funny, because the last couple of people I’ve asked about what they wanted from me have either asked for something bluesy or something sad. They never ask for something chipper. In other words, it seems like most people’s poems deal with morose issues.
A Bluesy Kind of Jazz
In that sense, I kind of have the upper hand, as I’ve played a lot of bluesy music in my life. Mind you, I still consider myself a jazz musician as opposed to a hard-core blues musician. On that same token, I am more on the bluesy end of jazz music, as opposed to the intellectual end of it. These poems were not just bluesy in the blues music sense—they were also bluesy in the melancholy sense.
Jazz Can’t Be Taught, Only Learned
Wayne Shorter, the great saxophone player, said this, “Jazz can be learned, but it cannot be taught.” So I tell my students that I can’t teach them but I can help them learn.
Jazz students don’t have to plan what they want their music to be in twenty years, because they’re apt to change their minds in the interim, but in the short term they should be strengthening their weaknesses, honing their strengths, and deciding what they want to sound like.
Students should be able to wake up in the morning and know exactly what they want to do, not what the teacher wants them to do. Waking up and feeling this way in the mornings is what has developed me more than anything else; I know where I want to go.
I’ve told my students that they’re allowed to change their minds. Coltrane was a genius, and he changed his mind. He had a very short, twelve-year, maybe, recording career. His music style changed four times in those twelve years, and drastically.
I tell my students that the faster I succeed in getting them to the point where they don’t need me anymore, the better I’ve done. I realize I’m kind of shooting myself in the foot in saying that, as I seem to be telling them, “I want to get rid of you,” but the more quickly they become autonomous, the faster they evolve as artists.
In order to be autonomous, though, you must have a vision of who you are, or who you want to be.
My music is a reflection of exactly what I’m feeling about life, and that’s what I want my guitar playing to be. I want it to represent what I love.
Sound and Emotion
With my students I emphasize two things: sound and emotion. Sound, that is the physical sound of the instrument, is the sound that the student wants to be known for. This doesn’t have to have anything to do with music yet—it’s just a signature sound from them that’s different from the sound any old guitar can make. Whether or not a person is a trained musician, the first thing they listen for when hearing somebody else play music is not the musical ideas, but rather the sound of the instrument. They’ll notice whether or not the sound grabs them.
The next thing that I mention to my students is the emotion. Even with Les Paul, who historically was a great musician, you must ask, “Where’s the emotion?” Unfortunately, a lot of jazz is very aesthetic and intellectual. It’s a bunch of notes that may be brilliant or intriguing, but I want to hear love, sadness, nostalgia—a sense of loss. I want to hear love lost and broken hearts. I want to hear about happiness. I can’t teach students how to do all of that for them; I can only know how to do it for me.
I see blues as being a perfect vehicle for that. Blues is about expressing emotion, and it is very rare for you to hear blues that is devoid of it; emotion is part of the deal.
This may sound like a stupid statement, but I try to make my guitar not sound like a guitar, and I teach others the same thing. I want it to sound like a singer, like the human voice. The most expressive instrument of all is the human voice; it’s instrument the most directly connected to your soul.
The Ultimate Pat on the Back
To me, the biggest compliment I can get is not a pat on the back from another musician but rather one from somebody who knows little to nothing about music. When I just sort of “touch” somebody I’m ecstatic and feel as though I’ve really succeeded.
A Jazz Epiphany
Back in the eighties there was an el primo jazz club in Montreal called The Rising Sun. Sonny Stitt, the famous bebop alto sax player, was playing there with a local band that included my friend, Art Roberts, on the piano. Art invited me to come see the show for free, so of course I went, and during the break Art invited me upstairs to hang out with the other musicians. He introduced me to Sonny, but after that I just sat there like a peanut, saying nothing, just listening to all these guys in their forties and fifties talking together.
Suddenly Sonny turned to me and said, “Mike [he’d remembered my name!], they can take your woman, they can take your house, they can take your money, but they can never take your music. Never forget that.”
It was like God had spoken to me. It affirmed what I already suspected to be true.
Soon afterwards some bozo walked in with his girlfriend, acting the fool and going on, like “Hey, my man, Sonny Stitt!” After enduring this for a while Sonny looked at him and said, “You are dismissed.”
The guy ignored him and kept on chattering away. Sonny looked at him again and said, with greater force, “I said, you are dismissed!” The guy finally got the message, stopped clowning around, and left. It made me feel good that Sonny had not only tolerated me and let me stay, he’d shared an important piece of wisdom with me. It was unforgettable.