by Billy Denk
Music was always played at home. I loved singing with my mother and listening to all the records my parents played on their stereo. As I grew older, I noticed my father would tune in to Floyd Brown’s show on WGN on Sunday nights driving back from wherever we were visiting. That was my first exposure to jazz. …that, and Johnny Costa’s incredible playing on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” show (more about jazz later).
My initial inspiration to play guitar was very specific. My mother took me to a high school concert performance by the Morgan Brothers featuring future jazz luminary and local favorite son, Don Stiernberg, whose father would one day be my favorite science teacher at Wauconda Junior High School. Hearing Don, his brother John, and John Parrott perform bluegrass music was a revelation for this nine-year-old. I wanted to play banjo, so guitar really wasn’t my first choice. However, Mom bought me a second-hand, Harmony student guitar for $20. The action was atrocious. I was determined. I learned the hits of the day heard on Chicago’s WLS-AM, intentionally on one string, then two, then three, and finally I learned folk chords and power chords. For four years, I played this guitar left-handed, while being strung for a righty.
At thirteen I got an electric guitar, a Strat copy, an amp, and an MXR Distortion+ pedal. I could now approximate my guitar heroes’ tones. The two players during that period who stirred me to explore my instrument were Michael Schenker, the German guitarist in the British hard rock group, UFO, and Randy Rhoads, the wiz-kid from California who made it big with Ozzy Osbourne. I pored over every magazine and book that I could find about them and their inspirations.
I never learned other solos note-for-note deciding to create my own thing. I began writing my own songs. After enjoying moderate local success on the bar scene playing original rock tunes mixed with popular crowd-pleasers, I went away to college and just dabbled for a few years. My next inspiration was soon to follow.
Following college, during a saunter through San Francisco to chase Kerouac’s ghost, I was sitting in a café just outside the Haight, when I first (consciously) heard the first Getz/Gilberto album. I knew then that I had to play this music. This rediscovery of jazz music led me to the most prolific band leader on the Blue Note label during the 1960s, guitarist Grant Green.
After years of learning this art form, I eventually started a jazz education and performance organization, led my own jazz groups, and have recorded my own compositions.
For me, inspiration continues in the form of being able to connect to other musicians and listeners. To this day, the quest to communicate with music is never-ending and a challenge that I will never cease to love. By far the strongest urge that keeps me inspired is the ability to create something new.