Applauded worldwide for his lyrics, fluid technique and versatility, preeminent jazz guitarist Gene Bertoncini is performing as an artist-in-residence Nov. 8-10 in several Pensacola locations.
On Wednesday, Nov. 8, Bertoncini will hold a guitar master-class for Pensacola State College and University of West Florida guitar students at PSC. At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, as part of PSC’s Lyceum Series, he will present a solo guitar concert, performing both classical and jazz numbers. Jazz Pensacola will present Bertoncini at a “jazz listening event” from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10, at the Opera Center. At that event, he will perform with bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Fred Domulot.
A New York City native, Bertoncini received a distinguished award in 2017 from his alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, honoring his achievements in the performing arts.
Throughout the years, Bertoncini has performed and recorded with an extraordinary range of jazz greats, including Benny Goodman, Buddy Rich, Wayne Shorter, Hubert Laws and Paul Desmond. He also has accompanied singers Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, Vic Damone and Eydie Gorme.
I chatted with Bertoncini, 80, about his life, career and the Pensacola engagements, which are part of the annual Foo Foo Fest.
You have two Pensacola connections — with Jazz Pensacola (Bertoncini has performed at past JazzFests, organized by Jazz Pensacola) and your former Notre Dame roommate, Pensacolian Bob Byrnes. How did you two come together at Notre Dame?
It was completely random. There were three of us assigned to room. It was fortunate that all three of us were musically inclined — I on guitar and Bob on piano. So we’ve kept in touch all these years.
I understand that your degree is in architecture. Riff a bit on that subject.
Yes, architecture and concertizing have more in common than you’d think. For example, an architect takes in consideration a person’s needs for his/her lifestyle and comfort. The thoughtful musician thinks about the wishes and needs of his audience and tries to structure his musical presentation to fit that need. I try to consider the needs/wants/ background of my audience and structure a concert to satisfy and enlighten my audience.
How long were you a practicing architect?
I worked for Frank Lloyd Wright and his organization for eight days. That was long enough for me to decide that I’d rather pursue performing music! But my background helped me. For example, I had opportunity to visit famous recording and sound expert Rudy Van Gelder, who recorded many famous jazz musicians. I could understand how the layout of the studio helped him make those gorgeous recordings.
Tell us about your musical training and influences.
I grew up in downtown Manhattan. My family had a restaurant. I played guitar and my brother played accordion. As high school students, my brother and I played for a kids’ radio program in a downtown studio. As such, I got to roam around and see what was happening in the other studios. There I met famous guitarist Johnny Smith. This was a time that his big hit recording, “Moonlight in Vermont” featuring him and Stan Getz, was at the top of the charts. We made contact and I studied with him for several years. Then later, I met Chuck Wayne. Recall that he was longtime guitarist for the George Shearing Quintet. Chuck was an expert in both single-string performance and intricate chord work. He also influenced me to listen to British Guitarist Julian Bream recordings. I studied with Chuck off and on for about 10 years.
What a coincidence! Chuck was our first and only, out-of-town performer for our first Pensacola JazzFest in 1983! And further coincidence, in 1984, Chuck returned and we had Toots Thielemans (guitar, chromatic harmonica and whistler) who had replaced Chuck in the Shearing Quintet. The other artist that year was Brazilian-American guitarist Laurindo Almeida.
Tell us a couple of highlights of your illustrious career.
Several years ago, I was invited to perform with conductor Skitch Henderson’s New York Tops band. This was a great thrill. Also I worked with TV star Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show band ’65-’66. It was wonderful to sit beside the great Clark Terry and all the wonderful musicians in that band. Also a recent honor was bestowed on me by my alma mater, Notre Dame University.
An Evening with Guitarist Gene Bertoncini
Jazz Pensacola presents An Evening with Guitarist Gene Bertoncini 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10, at the Pensacola Opera Center, 75. S. Tarragona St.
All tickets cost $25, with proceeds going to the F. Norman Vickers Artist in Residence Fund, which is designated to further the long-term mission of Jazz Pensacola.
Bertoncini is one of the preeminent jazz guitarists active today. His fluid technique and lyricism have won him international praise and accolades as the “Segovia of jazz.” An eloquent and versatile improviser, Bertoncini has been heard with an extraordinary range of jazz greats including performances and recordings with Benny Goodman, Buddy Rich, Wayne Shorter, Hubert Laws, Paul Desmond among others, as well as such distinguished singers as Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, Vic Damone, and Eydie Gorme. On Jan. 20, 2017, Bertoncini received a distinguished award from the University of Notre Dame honoring his achievements in the performing arts. The Rev. Arthur S. Harvey, C.S.C., Award recognizes Bertoncini’s distinguished work as a jazz musician.
Tickets sales start Monday, Sept. 18. Charge cards accepted.
For tickets or more information, call 850-433-8382.