I’m Alex M. Wolff from Long Island Portfolio magazine and I have the pleasure to be here with Tony DeCaprio, one of the most sought after jazz guitarists globally, not only for his playing but also for his teaching and master classes. I just heard a small impromptu session with him and Harvie S, one of the leading jazz bass players in the world. It’s been really wonderful to watch the two work, so good afternoon Tony.
Long Island Portfolio and I welcome Long Island’s Jazz Guitarist, Tony DeCaprio.
Tony: Hello there.
Alex: Hey Tony, you are recognized to be one of the best contemporary jazz guitarists around. Can you tell us about the road to make it to the top, and perhaps hit on how Covid may be impacting you and the word of musicians?
Tony: I have been playing guitar all my life, and teaching jazz guitar for a large part of that. Well, we can’t play anywhere, that’s for sure right now. I’ve always taught. I taught no matter what I was doing, even traveling around the world like Harvie S. I always manage to teach when I come back home. With Covid, I focus a bit more on my teaching.
Alex: How did you develop the chops to be teaching master classes in Jazz guitar?
Tony: Well you know I play jazz guitar, but the thing is, I’m a product of the 60s. It was an experimental period so here I was, studying from a jazz guitarist on Long Island named Joe Corso in Massapequa. I took lessons from him when I decided to get serious with the guitar. My parents didn’t want me to really become a musician and they were kind of rough on me, so it became more than a hobby, it was like an escape from them.
I got a little deeper into the music as a result of that, and Joe Corso hipped me to all the famous jazz guitarists of the day, and a good many of them lived in Manhattan at the time. One of them was Jimmy Raney. He was probably the best bebop player ever, and I got to meet him because I was in an R&B band at the time. I was about 15 or 16 and the bass player happened to live next door to Jimmy Raney, and he was like my Idol. He introduced me to Jimmy Raney and then I started studying with Jimmy which was phenomenal. It was really invaluable for the rest of my life. From Jimmy I learned of famous guitarists and his peers that he respected.
One of those guitarists was Jim Hall. I got to study with Jim as well, and I was one of their first students. They weren’t really teaching then, but yes, I was one of Jimmy Raney’s first students and one of Jim Hall’s first students going back to 1968.
Alex: It must help to study from the best. Jim Hall is listed as one the top 10 best jazz guitarists of all time according to Jazzfuel.com. Did you start out of the box thinking jazz guitar?
Tony: No, out of the box I was playing pretty much everything, well yeah, I was playing Blues and Jazz, you know, because it’s so closely related. I was really good at playing Blues as I used to listen to all the old Blues people, and that helped me later on when I got into the orchestra many years later when I was in Las Vegas.
I might be going out of order here sometimes, but it’s hard to avoid that. I already worked with Big Joe Turner (Blind Big Joe Turner) and B.B. King so that helped me. I became pretty good at it although I didn’t want to stay on the Blues because it’s harmonically, it’s not challenging enough. After a while, you know you bend string so much and it becomes pretty much. You know I don’t want to put down Blues players. If they dig it man, they could stay in that is fine with me as well.
I wanted something more, I hate to say the word cerebral, but cerebral, with also having feeling. It had to be jazz, you know, the harmonic structure of it is more challenging. But I was playing in a Blues band. That R&B band was called The Notations and we were pretty famous on Long Island. We used to win all these awards and the rhythm guitarist, whose father was the manager, was Arthur Rosen. I have never forgotten what I owe to him because at 15 he had me working with celebrities. He had us backing up bands. The other guys were older than me, they were like 18. I was the youngest and the drummer hated me because he didn’t want a young kid in the band. You know he was a drag man, but I learned a lot from him. And I learned humility as well as I had to take all that, so to speak, but I stuck with it. So Arthur Rosen taught me professionalism at such an very early age that we were backing Little Anthony and The Imperials back then, The Shirelles, and Lenny Welch and some other people I can’t remember because it’s so, so long ago.
Alex: Did you have to sightread?
Tony: Yeah, we had to read music, I was reading music from the get go, which is essential if you want to do that kind of work, television, studio and on so. I would recommend it to anybody and nowadays it’s pretty much second nature. Everybody knows that they have to learn how to read otherwise there’s hardly any work. I was very fortunate, I would go into the city and study with Jim Hall and another great guitarist Barry Galbraith. He was a great studio player and jazz player a real gentleman. Gallbraith and these guys were like my fathers, my real father I did not see that much, he was too busy with his business so I made my father out of all these guys so it’s deep.
Back then, in conjunction with jazz, I was studying classical guitar with a fellow named Bill Matthews. I wanted to acquire the right hand finger-style technique and not only plectrum style, which by the way I had enhanced greatly years later by studying with Joe Sgro in Philadelphia. I got pretty good at it actually, and then studied flamenco guitar too from Mario Escudero, one of the most famous flamenco guitarists yet to be living in New York.
Alex: This was an unbelievable opportunity, to learn business, technique, music with the greats of the day. Where do you get that today? Is that Nashville or LA as opposed to New York or is New York still the place?
Tony: Is New York still the place or is it Nashville? I don’t know what the place is anymore because everybody is like either dead, or scattered. There’s really no place anymore and perhaps someplace, sorry perhaps Nashville is still good for country music. You know, I would say New York is still the jazz place but now we’re going through a very strange time (with Covid). So it’s hard to even talk about that, it’s almost an anachronism hoping hope we get out of it but the 60s was like a renaissance.
And also dig, I was listening, because of The Beatles, I was listening to Ravi Shankar and so I was copying his lines on the guitar and because I was doing that, they don’t lay right, you can’t use regular guitar fingering. It’s not really going to come off so I was developing an alternate set of fingering. I call it unorthodox fingering for lack of a better way of explaining it because orthodox is usual guitar fingering. You have to go develop a different type of technique, so I put the two together and that made me kind of ambidextrous. In a sense it helped me when I was copying Charlie Parker lines, thus executing horn-like technique to guitar, and also piano type phrasing.
Man, ok, so we were working doing society type gigs, playing standards and here’s a story, it’s kind of miraculous, in a sense, kind, of bizarre. Tom Jones had a TV show around 1969.
Alex: I remember it.
Tony: Ha ha, so I don’t really care that much about Tom Jones, I mean it’s real commercial man, I’m comparing him to the serious stuff, and me and a handful of other guys I’m playing with. I’m studying with Jimmy Raney and Joe Pass (another on the top 10 list of greatest jazz guitarists of all time), who I later studied with in LA, along with Hall and Galbraith in NYC. And I am playing in an R&B band. I soon left the band and formed a trio where I inevitably began incorporating jazz into rock.
Alex: Was that Fusion?
Tony: Yeah, but we called it Jazz Rock, didn’t call it Fusion yet, it became Fusion later. McLaughlin did his thing, Chick Corea had Return to Forever. John had the Mahavishnu thing and they give all the credit to Larry Coryell for inventing it. You know it’s baloney, they were in the limelight. A lot of us were doing this, it’s a logical thing you know. I don’t have to prove it, it’s just logical.
Here’s the Tom Jones thing, man. So, we live in a split level you know, Long Island, so I walked down the stairs to the den where everybody is watching TV and Tom Jones is on. I don’t care about Tom Jones, right, I’m walking by and there’s Tom Jones singing, I don’t know, What’s New Pussycat, whatever. I swear to you, this is going to sound nuts, I had a premonition at that moment that I would be working with him. Why have this premonition? I’ve no idea because I don’t really care for his music that much, you know. He was like the thing back then but I wasn’t into him. It wasn’t about a year later or not even a year later, I’m with Tom. I’m working with Tom Jones in Vegas and I’m on his live album at Caesars Palace. I wasn’t even 21 years old.
Alex: We had that, my mother had that album! Can you tell us about some other bands that followed?
Tony: Once again, another magical type premonition. I was coming down off the band stand at Caesar’s Palace, packing up my stuff after the curtain goes down. It goes dark when the show is over and I’m walking adjacent to the curtain, and the curtain opens up right in my face. It is Elvis Presley and he said “Ho,” with that voice you know, “You guys were great,” like that you know? I had a premonition I’d be working with him. I know it sounds crazy, so this is like 1970, 1971. In 1974 he’s featuring me in his show in the Hilton in Las Vegas. So I segued from Tom Jones to Wayne Cochran in the C.C. Riders. He was called the blue-eyed soul man and he had a TV show, also, I think on channel 13. I used to watch that and that was a great band, man. I toured with them for almost a year, 11 horns, guitar, bass, and drums so older comping and stuff was on me.
These guys are all from the South. They gave me a hard time because I was the Yankee, but I adapted to it. In other words, whenever I felt any kind of adversity, and for whatever reason, I went to school on it. I learned from it, and I tried to conquer it and it made me a better musician. From Wayne Cochran I segued to Chase. Chase was an out and out jazz rock band. Bill Chase was a famous trumpet player came out of Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson and that was a really cool band, lot of experience toured all over the country with both of those bands with Wayne and also Bill. Bill unfortunately, I quit the band is another remarkable bizarre story. I wasn’t happy with the rhythm section, I got tired of working with them for some reason…
Alex: Do you even remember the reason?
Tony: Yeah, instead of doing their homework they would lie out by the pool groovin’ and you know they were not up to par, I thought. I don’t know why he had them, I think he was a little insecure because he wasn’t really a jazz player or something like that. Jerry Van Blair was the jazz trumpeter there, who was a really good B bop player, and we roomed together. We used to room together in those days, and, we both quit at the same time.
Thank God we quit because maybe two months later, three months max, Bill died in a small plane crash with the rhythm section.
It was pretty bizarre when I went back to Vegas, you know, because I started getting a name for myself, and then that’s when, not too long after that, I got the gig at the Hilton orchestra. I stayed there a good eight years and on the band was James Moody, tenor player, phenomenal player, became like a father image to me, also. Carl Fontana, the great trombone player one of the best in the world if not the best in the world, Sam Noto to a great trumpet player coming out of Stan Kenton, Alex Acuna was on the band for a little while. He later went with Weather Report. It was a phenomenal band, phenomenal, some other players perhaps you had never heard of. We did all the TV shows there because they did them at the Hilton. So I got experience with television work.
Alex: and relying on the ability to read and play nice with others.
Tony: You have to read, you know, because the pressure is on. I became a good reader on the gig and when I had some spots in my reading that I had to work on I would go into LA on my day off and study. I studied with Joe Valenti who was orchestra leader at the LA Philharmonic as he was teaching sight reading to old studio guys, whatever little glitches, and you know the things they had to like, brush up on. He really helped me a lot.
Alex: It sounds like you were constantly looking to improve and learn from everyone you were exposed to. It’s great that you share those lessons with your students. Were there any special techniques developed along the way?
Tony: I have a picking technique that comes from the violin.
I studied with this picking genius at right hand plectrum technique because he was initially a violinist. He went way back to working with the old Paul Whiteman Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. He was a violinist before the guitar was popular, his name was Joe Sgro.
OK, Joe Sgro was a jazz player and classical player, and he happened to be a studio player, too. He did all those Philly Philadelphia records you know with Frankie Avalon and Fabian, all those people. He was the guy to go to for sight reading and for the technique, and I learned about him later on after I played with all kinds of celebrities. I wanted to change my right hand technique, very hard to do and he didn’t want me to do it because he was used to teaching to kids. I was very bullheaded determined because I saw the benefit of using the elbow and the shoulder like this for the single notes.
It’s like mimicking, because he was a violinist, using the bow movement without the bow, and he’s figured how to use the same plectrum idea because it’s a matter of physics. You want to balance the two; you can have 30 guitar players and line them against the wall. They’ll each have a different picking technique. It’s a real problem, it’s a dilemma for guitarists because they want to be able to play certain things and the right hands not covering it, so they may have to overcome it by slurring with the left hand. That’s OK if they have their own style and they become famous in their own right. But, if you’re playing in an orchestra, well
back then anyway, it’s all up to a conductor. For example, I worked with Ann Margaret’s guitarist for six years. Don Costa was a guitarist so you can’t fool him. In the old days though, a guitarist might say this is not really written for guitar. Baloney, he could tell. Don knew if he didn’t want something slurred – he could hear it, if he wants it picked. If I had not studied with Joe Sgro I wouldn’t be able to cover that and I owe that man a lot.
You can’t rely on the wrist, the wrist is like little chicken bones. You know, after a while it’s OK for comping. Man you know like I learned how to comp by listening to and watching drummers, and playing with drummers. Good accompanying, as a whole is really important and I teach that too.
Alex: I know you get some playing in with Harvie S. and other peers and are teaching online. Anything else going on while we wait for covid to retire?
Tony: I am consider putting together an on-line jazz music school, with my friends and peers teaching the instruments they have mastered. We invite people interested in the administration, production, financing and marketing end to reach out.
Alex: Thanks for spending time with me today. Jazz guitarists looking to up their game and master their craft should reach out to Tony at firstname.lastname@example.org