© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“In his prime, Howard Roberts played more than 900 studio dates annually and recorded the hippest guitar records of the era. His legion of fans still revere his incalculable influence and musical legacy.
Vesta Roberts, who grew up in a family of lumberjacks, gave birth to Howard just three weeks before the Wall Street Crash in October of 1929. Howard’s dad, a cowboy, wasn’t happy about the boy’s affinity for music.
But his mother prayed for her baby to be a musician. And Howard Roberts often told the story about, “When I was about eight years old, I fell asleep in the back seat of my parents’ car one very hot summer afternoon. When I woke up I just blurted out, ‘I have to play the guitar!’” So when his dad saw the youngster’s attempt to build one from a board and bailing wire, he acquiesced. For Christmas, he bought young Howard an $18 Kalamazoo student-model acoustic manufactured by Gibson.
By age 15, Roberts’ guitar teacher, Horace Hatchett, told the boy’s dad, “Howard has his own style of playing and there’s nothing else I can show him. He plays better than I do.” Howard was already playing club dates in their hometown Phoenix area – usually blues and jazz gigs on which he would gain playing experience and develop his improvising skills. He was receiving an extensive education in the blues from a number of black musicians, one of whom was the brilliant trumpeter Art Farmer. Journalist Steve Voce, in his 1992 article in The Independent Newsletter, quoted Roberts on those nightclub gigs, “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.”
Roberts had created an heroic practice regimen with his roommate, guitarist Howard Heitmeyer. The two would practice three or four hours in the morning, catch an afternoon movie, then return to practice until it was time to hit the clubs, gig or not. Heitmeyer would remain Roberts’ lifelong friend, and someone with a comprehensive talent Roberts found staggering.
At age 17, Roberts was drawn to a class created by composer/theorist Joseph Schillinger, whose students included George Gershwin, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Oscar Levant. Noted musician Fabian Andre was commissioned to teach.
Schillinger’s system of applying mathematical principles to art piqued Roberts’ curiosity, so he arranged a deal with Andre; he’d sweep the floors after class to defray his tuition. That attitude was indicative of the teenager’s precocious intellect and passion for music and science. ...
“Howard really blurred the lines among guitar players, and reached so many of them,” Ted Greene said in 2003. “Jazz guys, country players, and rockers all loved him because he played with such feeling and authenticity. Those first two Capitol albums were no doubt an introduction to jazz guitar for hundreds – maybe thousands – of young players. He didn’t water anything down, but it was all still accessible. And he had a recognizable sound. You immediately knew it was Howard.”
-Jim Carlton, Vintage Guitar Magazine
I always thought of guitarist Howard Roberts [1929-1992] as the Left Coast equivalent of Tal Farlow: long, knuckle-busting runs executed in a lightning fast manner, inflected, here-and-there with a heavy dose of the blues, and played with phrases that were framed in a relentless swing.
When I was a part of the music studio scene in Hollywood in the late 1950s and 1960s, Howard seemed to be everywhere. Maybe that’s because he was - everywhere.
His Jazz recordings from this period are hard to find and not all of them have made it to digital, but thanks to Jordi Pujol at Fresh Sound Records, two of his dates, one under his own name which he made for Norman Granz at Verve and another on the same label but as a sideman in Swedish drummer Bert Dahlander quartet have been made available on CD as The Swinging Guitar of Howard Roberts [Fresh Sound Records, FSR CD 963].
The Fresh Sound recording can be had as an audio CD and in an Mp3 format, and you can locate order information on the Fresh Sound website by going here. You can also sample the album via that link.
More information about Howard and these recordings can be found in the following always informative sleeve notes by Jordi Pujol.
“When Howard Roberts (1929-1992) decided to teach himself guitar, he visited every black jazz club in his native Phoenix, Arizona. "All we did was play the blues. And that's what I came out of—the blues." Roberts, however, felt the need to learn more about the complexities of the profession, and so he started studying harmony and composition. Looking for more musical activity, he moved to Los Angeles in 1950, where he gigged around the city in jam sessions at after-hours clubs. There, he developed his dazzling technique and fine harmonic sense. Having played with the best instrumentalists and composers, he started getting calls for session work.
He established his reputation with the Bobby Troup trio, which appeared on TV from coast to coast, and consolidated the fame of Troup's group with some brilliant playing of his Gibson guitar, so much so that the Down Beat jazz critics accorded Roberts the New Guitar Star Award of 1955. In the years following, he continued recording with top jazz singers and instrumentalists, and eventually made his first albums as a leader for Verve.
In 1959 Roberts started getting more and more work on TV and film, but not content with settling down in the Hollywood studios in a kind of prosperous obscurity, he kept very active in the jazz scene, playing concerts and recording his own albums.
Howard Roberts was a skilled guitarist with a fondness for direct and unencumbered jazz playing, his tone always bright and penetrating, never twangy. A fine technician, he was able to execute difficult passages cleanly and forcefully. He forged a sound of his own. fiery and hard-swinging, creative and unpretentious. These sessions are an example of his jazz work, as a sideman and as a leader.
Born October 2, 1929, guitarist Howard Roberts was pretty much self-taught. His roots were in the blues, which he got while gigging at black jazz clubs in his native Phoenix, Arizona. "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."
By the time he was sixteen, his superb artistry and technical proficiency started attracting aspiring guitar players, who watched him play with the likes of Art Farmer and Pete Jolly. Howard, however, felt the need to learn more about the complexities of the profession, so at 17 he became associated with Howard Heitmeyer, and started seriously studying the larger formal and technical problems of music and guitar—including the Joseph Schillinger method—as well as composition with Albert Harris and Fabian Andre. In the meanwhile, he continued to delight audiences with the best jazz he could perform in any and all gigs he could find near his hometown.
It wasn't enough though, so late in 1950 Roberts, looking for a more active musical community, moved to Los Angeles carrying only his guitar and amp. In the early days he lived a vagabond life, subsisting on chocolate chip cookies, sleeping in cars, and jamming in after-hours clubs. But after about a year of trying to find a job, he was engaged to work on "The Al Pierce Show," a radio broadcast that a prescient 10-year-old Howard had told his mom he'd be on someday. It was the first folding money he was to make in L.A.
By 1953 he had become the director of Guitar Curriculum at the Westlake College of Music the first accredited vocational music school in the U.S.A. That same year he also joined Bobby Troup's Trio which included Bob Enevoldsen on bass. It seems that the jazz backgrounds of Enevoldsen and Roberts rubbed off on Troup with excitingly salutary effects.
With the encouragement and assistance of Johnny Mercer, the trio became a permanent panelist on the CBS-TV musical quiz-variety show "Musical Chairs." One of the reasons for the success of this television musical panel was the steady stream of fine music turned out by Troup's group.
That is where Roberts developed his rich style of chordal playing, which in turn was instrumental in creating a "new" trend in jazz that replaced the use of piano. The first album to present this "new sound" would be the Chico Hamilton Trio, a recording which featured Chico, Howard and bassist George Duvivier.
Roberts helped Troup's group reach fame with some brilliant playing on his Gibson guitar, so much so that the Down Beat jazz critics accorded Roberts the New Guitar Star Award of 1955. In December 1955, he was playing with Troup and Enevoldsen regularly at Pasadena's Huntington club.
Between 1954 and 1955, Roberts made several recordings with Pete Rugolo's orchestra, and with a septet led by composer and French horn player John Graas. The latter was a forerunner in the intellectual circles of the modern sounds, particularly in Graas' Jazz Studio and Jazz Lab albums for Decca records where they played in 6/4 time in jazz for the first time. Roberts, along with bassists Red Mitchell or Curtis Counce, and drummer Larry Bunker, managed to make that meter swing.
He also appeared on several albums by Bobby Troup, and others by such greats as Bob Cooper, June Christy, Terry Pollard, Bobby Scott, Pete Jolly, Frank Morgan, Helen Carr, Bob Enevoldsen, Jack Millman, Dennis Farnon, Elmer Bernstein, John Towner Williams, and Russ Garcia.
In August 1956, Roberts joined the Buddy DeFranco quartet to play at Zardi's, sharing the stand with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Then in November, they went to NYC, and after a stint at Basin Street, moved on for a tour of the East Coast, with Jim Gannon, bass, and Bill Bradley, drums.
The guitarist was gaining some traction and was a regular face in record and TV dates. This caught the attention of Norman Granz, who signed him to an exclusive contract with Verve to record his first album as a leader. It came out with the title "Mr. Roberts Plays Guitar." Early in 1957, he was also the featured guitarist on Joe Morello's first album, and not long afterwards he appeared on recording sessions led by Bud Shank, the Candoli Brothers, Herbie Harper, Herbie Mann, Rusty Bryant, and in the album "Skal" by the Swedish drummer Bert Dahlander.
His studio recording activities continued intensively throughout 1958 and 1959, recording with Claude Williamson, Buddy Collette, Marty Paich, Shorty Rogers, and singers Ruth Olay and Julie London. In January, he also recorded his second album for Verve, called "Good Pickins," where he was joined by Bill Holman, Pete Jolly, Red Mitchell and Stan Levey.
That same year. Roberts moved into the TV and motion picture field. By then, his friend and mentor Jack Marshall was set to score the classic TV series "The Deputy," starring Henry Fonda, Searching for an artist who, on the spot, could improvise jazz-guitar against more traditional orchestrations, he thought of Roberts and offered him the job. He quickly became a first-call session player who would eventually, and later routinely, log more than 900 sessions per year.
Still, not content with settling down in the Hollywood studios — in a kind of prosperous obscurity — he kept very active in the jazz scene, playing concerts and recording. He signed a new record deal as a leader with Capitol Records, and released an excellent and eclectic series of albums for the label during the 60s.
Roberts, like many of the Hollywood studio musicians, grew up playing jazz. Many of them made solid professional reputations as jazzmen before succumbing to the lure of the lucrative livelihood that was certainly not to be found in playing only jazz for a living. Yet most continued to kid themselves that they hadn't lost their jazz touch. Some played jazz clubs whenever available. That was the case of Roberts, one of the most capable jazz guitarists.
Roberts was a skilled guitarist with a fondness for direct and unencumbered jazz playing. His tone is bright and penetrating but never twangy. A fine technician, he was able to execute difficult passages cleanly and forcefully. He forged a sound of his own, fiery and hard-swinging, creative and unpretentious.
In 1970 Howard became more deeply involved with groundbreaking educational programs, and wrote an innovative series of instruction books, as well as organized seminars. That was a rewarding labor that he continued to develop until his death on June 29, 1992, at the age of 62.”