What I Learned From a Jazz Guitar Master

What I Learned From a Jazz Guitar Master

by Jim Carlton

Mimi Fox, she talks about the importance of listening and how both Bruce Forman and Joe Pass taught her that listening to other jazz guitar artists improves and inspires a serious jazz musician’s development. You can learn guitar from Mimi Fox in her jazz guitar lessons on TrueFire, including Flying Solo and Graduated Solos.

MF: It was a long haul getting into jazz. I started on drums at age nine but still picked out Gershwin tunes on the family piano. Then when I was ten, my folks got me a guitar. But by the time I was twenty or so, I was bored playing pop music and began studying classical guitar because I wanted to learn to read. At the time, I was playing drums with a fine jazz guitarist named Scott Rosen who saw my talent for guitar and he showed me lots of jazz chords and scales and encouraged me to truly get serious about playing jazz. Then when I moved to California in 1979, I met Bruce Forman, and that was it. As soon as I heard Bruce play I knew that was what I wanted, that mixture of blues and bebop. And I wanted to sing and express myself with the guitar. Bruce turned me on to a lot of stuff and I studied with him on and off for a few years and that was the turning point.

JC: What specific things did he show you?

MF: The first time I went for a lesson he said, “Let’s play something,” and we did some little blues, and he said, “Wow, you don’t need guitar lessons, you’re already a good guitarist.” I said, “What do you mean? There’s so much I want to learn.” He said, “You’re a really good guitarist but I can talk to you about jazz.” So he put on some recordings, like Miles, and he’d say, “Now what kind of note was that? Did you hear that? What was that?” And we’d be laughing, but he really hit the nail on the head by turning me on to listening. I found that if I wanted to become a jazz musician that I had to listen. That can be the essential difference between being a good or great guitar player and being a jazz musician. So instead of my two hours a day on classical guitar I started playing five or six hours a day. I’d work two or three jobs and still get my practice time in.

JC: The classic burning desire.

MF: Exactly! When I heard Bruce something clicked in me and I knew this is what I wanted. He didn’t bull**** me either. He said I could do a number of other things that would make me a lot more money but if this is what I loved, that I had what it takes. He said he wouldn’t waste his time with me if he didn’t think I had it. And although Bruce was really supportive, there were times when he’d kick my ass. Joe Pass would do that too. Once in a lesson, Joe said, “Why did you end on that chord? That chord was around before I was born.” But basically I learned there are all kinds of lessons you can learn if you stay open and listen.

JC: Are you tired of telling how you approached Joe Pass?

MF: No, not at all. It’s still very vivid in my mind, especially his initial attempt to reject me. He was playing in town (San Francisco) with Joe Williams. And I was with a friend who said, “It’s now or never,” and she basically pushed me to the head of the line to meet him. I was stumbling over my words but I told him I was studying with Bruce Forman and wondered if I could take a lesson. He said, “Awww, if you’re studying with Bruce what do you need me for?” But I said I’d been working hard on solo guitar stuff and Bruce doesn’t do that kind of thing, so Joe finally said to come see him at his hotel the next day.

He was very gruff but I showed up at ten and he was in his robe and slippers and already smoking a cigar. Then he said, “Sit Down, play something.” And although I was really nervous and sweating, I played six or seven numbers and he finally puts his cigar down and says, “Thank ****ing God, you wouldn’t believe the schmucks that come see me who can’t play their way through a twelve-bar blues. You can play. Why haven’t I heard of you?” Then he said, “You’re practicing too much. I can tell. If you want to work on your solo guitar, you have to listen to string quartets.” So he told me to listen more and don’t practice so much. “Just listen to the different parts in a string quartet because that’s what’s happening in solo guitar.” He wanted me to hear all the voices and notice how they all move. And that opened up so much for me.

So that was my Joe Pass experience. Any time you have people you admire that recognize your talent and respect you and give you those positive strokes it keeps you from getting tunnel vision. And he said, “Don’t ever lose that fire in your belly. Not everybody has that.” And I promised him that I never would. lt was so special. I remember that day as if it were yesterday.