Howard Alden has studied with some classic teachers of the jazz and blues world after teaching himself the guitar, and he has played and recorded with many others artists. Alden tours in the United States and Europe. He comes to Key West yearly, plays solo, and with others at many of the island’s popular clubs. Let’s hear about how he got to be where he is in his own words.
Q: When did you realize you were going to be a musician?
A: I really felt that that was what I’d be doing the rest of my life after playing a few months in a pizza parlor when I was 13 years old — it felt so good and natural to be playing/performing in front of people, and learning and developing songs and improvisation. So even then I knew that I’d be doing it the rest of my life, and I’ve gotten away with it so far!
Q: I read that as kid you got your first four-string guitar and taught yourself to play it. How’d that work out for you?
A: When I was 10 years old, I actually came across a four-string guitar that had belonged to an uncle. I’d been dabbling in music since I was 5 years old, singing in school choirs, picking out tunes and chords on a piano when it was around, playing harmonica. And I had come across some 45 and 78 RPM records of jazz like Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, as well as some Les Paul records, big band things like Tommy Dorsey, etc. and was captivated by them. But when I was 10 I got fascinated by the guitar, seeing it played on TV shows like Hee-Haw. So I got out that four-string (tenor) guitar and started exploring it.
Q: Who have you studied with professionally?
A: After I showed some interest and ability on the tenor guitar, my parents took me to a local music store, in Huntington Beach, California, and I started taking lessons from an older gentleman named Charles Shortino. He had me tune the 4-string in 5ths (the tenor guitar was originally made in the 1930s for all the banjo players who had to start playing guitar when it became the instrument of choice for the bands at the time). He had me start learning to read music right away, and playing tunes, developing a repertoire. After a few weeks I leaked it out that there was also a four-string banjo at home, and he had me bring that in, and before I knew it I was a banjo player, playing in banjo societies and pizza parlors in the area.
Through the banjo world, I met a guy named Jim Elsaas, who was a part-time jazz guitarist. He introduced me to records of all the classic jazz guitarists, including Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel (one of my all-time favorites), Django Reinhardt, Kenny Burrell, Tal Farlow, Jim Hall, and the seven-string maestro George Van Eps. Many of these guys I would meet years later and get a chance to play/record with. Anyway, I got a six-string guitar then and started learning on my own at first.
A couple of years later, a friend of mine contacted Barney Kessel on my behalf for lessons. He couldn’t take me, but he recommended Jimmy Wyble, who was a great player, and taught me things that I appreciate even more 40 years later. I also studied with Howard Roberts, a great jazz/blues player who also was a legendary studio musician in the ’60s and ’70s. And attending a school that he founded, Guitar Institute of Technology, in 1977. I studied with not only Howard but some amazing players that were on the staff there, Ron Eschete, Joe Diorio, Don Mock, Mundell Lowe, as well as guests like Joe Pass, Larry Carlton, Pat Metheny…
Q: Where do you live now and why?
A: I’ve lived in New York City, since 1982.
Q: The Jazz Times said about you, “He may be one the best of his generation.” You have had many good reviews like that. What do you think of reviews in general?
A: I love them as long as they’re good! Seriously, everybody hears and feels things differently, so you can’t take it too personally when they’re negative.
Q: Who do you look up to as a jazz/blues guitarists today?
A: There are so many, and everybody has something special to say. Naturally I still love and learn from all the players I mentioned earlier and more – and am always discovering or rediscovering someone special (fairly recently I rediscovered Bill Jennings, great jazz/blues player from the ’50s/early ’60s.) Key West’s Larry Baeder is a beautiful player, he has great ensemble sensibility, and is deeply rooted in the Kansas City tradition; great soloist, great team player, I hope to do much more with him!
Q: Where else in Key West did you play on this last trip?
A: I played at Café Sole with singer Libby York; I had played with Libby off and on over the last few years and played on and arranged one of her CDs a few years ago. I played with pianist Barry Cuda at BO’s Fish Wagon, along with trumpet master Ken Fradley — Barry’s a powerhouse jazz and blues piano player and singer, and so knowledgeable about traditional Cuban music — always something to learn from him. I played with Pat and Deb at La Te Da; they’re an amazing, musical and entertaining vocal-piano/guitar duo, and so much fun to play with. I played several shows with Rock Solomon, who is singing and swinging the classic standards, at The Little Room, and the Bottlecap Lounge. Salute on the Beach with Skipper Krivitz, great drummer who I played with last year as well, we played a night at Virgilio’s as well, with Larry Smith, a complete musical force on piano, and Christine Cordone on vocals. Also an evening at El Meson de Pepe with Rolando Rojas on guitar, and two Sundays at the Garden Hotel, one with Skipper and vocalist Jeanne Gies, and one with Pat and Deb.
Q: Did you have any free time in Key West? What did you do?
A: Slept a little, did some recording with Pat and Deb. Mostly enjoyed playing with all these great players!
Q: You do a tour of Europe, what’s that like? Is there a difference between how Americans and Europeans appreciate your music?
A: I’m about to head back to Europe for five weeks. It’s always fun, I’ll be revisiting many places I’ve been before, so they’re like several home-away-from-homes. There’s a great cellar jazz club in Vienna, Jazzland, where I’ll be for a week, a few days in Bavaria (Regensburg) with a fellow seven-string guitar player Helmut Nieberle — we’ve been a two-guitar team for several years now and have done two CDs together. Five days in Bolzano, Italy conducting a workshop for guitarists and vocalists with Helmut and myself and vocalist Jeanne Gies, then three weeks in various places in England.
I think that people everywhere appreciate good music, when they’re given the opportunity to hear it. Maybe in some areas in Europe, they’re not quite as saturated with cable TV, and there still is a tradition of making cultural and musical things part of their daily life. But I’ve had wonderful, receptive audiences in both places.
Q: How can readers find out more about you and where you’ll be touring?
A: I keep my itinerary up to date on my website, www.howardalden.com.