Boston Classical Guitar Society Newsletter, November 1993
Do You Play Jazz or Classical Guitar?
Guitar has gone through challenging times in history. In the seventeenth century, it was merely seen as a recreational musical instrument which was no match for its noble cousin, the lute. In the eighteenth century, it was buried by the pianoforte and did not have enough volume to compete with violins, flutes, and harpsichords. Aristocrats kept it barely alive throughout Europe. Only Spain embraced the guitar, where it always remained an essential element of this culture. The rise of the guitar started in the nineteenth century and its popularity kept rising ever since. Torres introduced the shape of the modern classical guitar and Tarrega its basic fundamental technique.
At the turn of the century, Blues and Jazz were emerging from New Orleans and flourishing in North America. A revolution occurred in the thirties when Eddie Durham introduced “amplified” guitar. This changed its fate; it could now melt in any orchestral ensemble and be featured as the soloist regardless of the style. You could mike a classical guitar or, as we did later on, perform high-volume, distorted electric sounds with the apparition of Rock and Roll. Guitar has become by far one of the most diverse musical instruments; its Spanish roots have expanded to completely unrelated styles of music! But today, at the turn of the twenty-first century, composers and performers have already built a very strong bridge between most popular styles and traditions of guitar playing. Classical guitar gained a powerful heritage through the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary eras. Even though Jazz was born at the turn of the century, it evolved swiftly and its guitar technique became extremely refined. Spain carried a wealth of musical influences throughout history because of its multicultural status: the Basque country in the North, Castile in the center, Catalonia in the East, and the Southern Provinces, with their Islamic heritage brought by centuries of Moorish occupation, which gave birth to Flamenco.
During the Inquisition and throughout its development, Jesuits taught European music to the Indigenous natives of Central and South America. Conquistadors disgracefully attempted to impose their culture; music was a major tool in the process of colonization and Christian conversion of the indigenous population. European plantation owners imported slaves from western Africa. The fast-growing intermixing of races resulted in a rich musical interaction. Europe and Latin America had a strong guitar exchange in the nineteenth century. Spain appointed scholars to teach European Guitar heritage in South America. Domingo Prat brought to Argentina the music of Sor, Aguado, and Tarrega, Spanish guitar composers and virtuosos who had fully integrated European traditions: German, Italian and French styles. Great South American composers such as Sojo, Lauro, Barrios, etc. emerged and gave new directions to the guitar. Segovia encouraged Ponce and Villa-Lobos, among others, to compose for the instrument.
Aboriginal Indian, European and African settings would prove to be a favorable and fruitful terrain and bring new elements for the growth of Jazz, which was already spreading in North America. South America became a major factor in the fusion of both styles; it assimilated the major musical trends from European classical styles and furthered the classical guitar technique which had been brought by the Spaniards during the colonization era, mixed in its own cultural heritage, and came up with delightful results such as Tango, Choro, etc. And they kept on mixing again and again! They added the harmonies and improvisation aspects of Jazz and created Bossa Nova. Today, such artists as Jorge Morel, Luiz Bonfa, Bola Sete, Yamandu Costa, Laurindo Almeida, Baden Powell, John Williams, Barbosa-Lima, and many others use the technique of classical guitar and Jazz to transcend both styles.
Another area where both styles made a delectable mix is in contemporary music. Composers such as Gershwin, Brower, Piazzola, Funk Pearson, Villa Lobos, Garoto, Towner, and others have added to the repertoire by mixing genres and influences.
At this point, the line between Jazz and Classical is very unclear! The new generation of Flamenco players from Spain (Rafael Riqueni, Vicente Amigo, etc.) are good examples of mixes. They manage to keep their strong Spanish tradition and at the same time explore Jazz venues using classical guitar technique. Technology has brought new directions to guitar playing, furthering its textures and stretching its capacities. There is no doubt we are enjoying the guitar golden age and its expansion in growing and mixing diverse musical styles is pointing toward a long lasting promising future.