Great Guitarists #10: Mary Osborne

Great Guitarists

In this, the tenth installment of my Great Guitarists series, I’m a little ashamed to say we have only looked at male guitar players so far. So, to round off my first ‘dectet’ of influential guitar players (and keeping in a jazz theme, like the previous installments), let me introduce to you Mary Osborne…

Picture Credit: Gretsch, 1959

Osborne was born into a musical family in North Dakota, 1921. Both her parents were musicians and her father’s barbershop was a known gathering place for local players. Already playing live by the time she was a teenager, Osborne was influenced by the playing of early jazz pioneers Django Reinhardt and Eddie Lang. However, it was Charlie Christian who first captivated her, and mentored her for a while, fine tuning her great sense of swing.

Osborne’s career ranged from trios (her own, and the Winifred McDonnell Trio near the start of her professional career), as well as some work as a sideman (or sidewoman) for the likes of Buddy Rogers, Joe Venuti (whose act included vocalists Kay Starr and The Andrews Sisters), amog many others. In the first of two spells in New York, she was the guitarist in Minton’s house band, where bebop was invented during the jams the legends of jazz had there. Her career continued throughout her life, and she was still performing live up until her death in 1992, at the age of seventy.

Osborne (R), with Billie Holiday (L), 1958. Picture Credit: Nancy Miller Elliot

Equipment

Osborne purchased the same model of Gibson archtop that Charlie Christian played – the ES-150, an early version of the classic archtop ‘jazz boxes’ we know and love today. It came with a large spruce body and a single-coil pickup near the neck, itself containing a large magnet that helped deliver good definition and attack. She later played other guitars by Gibson, as well as models by Gretsch, such as the White Falcon. In the 1970’s, Osborne founded her own guitar company, Osborne Sound Laboratories, formed from the ashes of the Mosrite Guitar Company (whom her husband had worked for at the end of the 1960’s). Osborne Sound Laboratories made amplifiers personally tested by Mary herself, as well as a selection if interesting instruments (including funky looking solid bodies such as in the picture below). Sadly, they couldn’t penetrate the market due to the dominance of the big manufactures, such as Fender (despite their well-known quality issues in this decade) and the company folded in 1980.

Osborne Sound Laboratories guitars from the 1970’s. Picture Credit: VintageGuitar.com

Recommended listening

Osborne’s 1959 LP A Girl And Her Guitar (Warwick) stands testament to her talents in a golden era for jazz guitar. Her later record Now And Then (Stash, 1981) shows a player who survived longer than most of her contemporaries, and continued to play beautifully.

Also, check out The Mighty Two (1963, Roulette), an LP by the two legendary drummers Louis Bellson and Gene Krupa. Although this was conceived as an instructional album for budding drummers, several tracks feature six musicians accompanying both drummers through nine of the songs on the record. As well as featuring Osborne on guitar, you can hear Milt Hinton (bass), Joe Wilder and Joe Newman (trumpet), Phil Woods (alto sax), Dick Hymen (piano) and Tyree Glenn (trombone) – something of a who’s who in sidemen for the time. The ensemble playing is tight, and the entire LP is a unique artefact of jazz history.

R.I.P. Julian Bream (1933-2020), a giant in the world of classical guitar

Great Guitarists

Not many classical guitar players are household names, either worldwide or here in the UK. Andres Segovia might be one, as a pioneer for performance of the instrument in it’s modern form. However, I’d suggest more people have heard of two of his more famous successors on the international performance stage. One is the very well-known Australian guitarist John Williams; the other, Julian Alexander Bream, who we learn has passed away at his Wiltshire home in the early hours of this morning, at the age of 87.

Julian Bream at home, 2014 (Credit: Eamonn McCabe for classicalguitarmagazine.com)

Born in London in 1933, Bream initially learned jazz , influenced by his father’s playing and Django Reinhardt. He was also offered a place at the Royal College of Music, aged just 12 years old, based on his piano playing. He later switched to the lute, and became a great champion for the instrument throughout his life, even as his focus shifted more and more towards classical guitar.

As well as his numerous transcriptions of lute pieces (such as those by Bach or Dowland) for guitar, Bream also performed many of the transcriptions left behind by Segovia, as well as the seminal guitar pieces composed by Francisco Tarrega. Known for his eye for detail, Bream’s virtuosity included an element of flexibility; a key example of this was that he did not maintain a consistent rigid right hand when playing (i.e., held at right angles to the stings), but made use of a more relaxed position, in order to achieve a greater variety in tone. This is something I do as well, because I, like Bream, am multi-genre guitarist. However, having been regularly admonished by my guitar tutor in my youth for holding an ‘improper’ right hand position, it was a relief to learn the one of the instrument’s masters did the same!

As Bream’s reputation increased, he was gifted pieces by composers as varied as “Britten, Walton, Tippett and Hans Werner Henze” (classical-music.com) and performed around the world. He also recorded TV specials, such as a series of four master classes on BBC television in the nineteen seventies, as well as segments for Channel 4 in the nineteen eighties. This no doubt helped him to become a household name for many, but he certainly never rested on his laurels. Even as an ‘elder stateman’ of the guitar, he apparently strove to improve himself. According to an interview given to The Guardian newspaper, Bream believed he was a better guitarist at the age of 70 than ever before!

Essential listening: A great place to start would be his two albums with John Williams, Together (1971) and Together Again (1974). Also, seek out his version of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (with it’s famously emotive second movement).

Bream with lute (Credit: Avie Records)

Guitar students would do well to look at his crossovers into other styles, as well as his early lute work too, to get a more rounded picture of a hugely talented player, whose passing leaves a large hole in the classical guitar community.

Rest in peace, Julian.

Great Guitarists #6: Django Reinhardt

Great Guitarists

This installment features the only artist in this week-long mini series to hail from outside of the USA. But boy, did he leave his mark on jazz, with an influence that stretches far beyond the guitar…

Django Reinhardt

Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt was born in a Romany Gypsy camp in Belgium, 1910, moving to Paris with his family as a youth. He was reportedly something of a child prodigy within his community, capable of playing back melodies flawlessly after only one hearing. He first discovered jazz via a Louis Armstrong recording as a teenager. On hearing the record in question, the young Reinhardt reportedly cried out “my brother!” and thus, it seems he had found his musical path from that day onward.

One amazing thing about Reinhardt is how he relearned his entire fingering technique, following a fire in his caravan when he was eighteen. The blaze left him with a permanently damaged left hand; his ring and little fingers were partially fused together. As a result, Reinhardt’s entire career – all those lightening-fast single note runs – we’re performed using only two fingers (although he would sometimes incorporate his fused ring finger for chords). In overcoming an injury which, for many, would have made guitar playing a write-off, Reinhardt demonstrates the combined power of will, alongside the power of music.

Reinhardt’s most famous music was made the Quintette du Hot Club de France, a five piece band of three guitars (two rhythm, plus Reinhardt on lead), bass and one violin. Three spots the Quintette’s lineup were fairly fluid over the years, but one mainstay was violinist Stéphane Grappelli. It is his duets with Grappelli which have mesmerized listeners for almost a century. Their style of ‘Gypsy Jazz’ remains synonymous with Paris to this day, although the Quintette were only a working musical entity until between 1934-1938, when World War II put an end to their activities.

After the war, Reinhardt toured the USA and was a featured guest with larger ensembles such as The Duke Ellington Orchestra. He died of a brain hemorrhage in 1953,at the age of forty-three, leaving behind a vast musical legacy that still influences musicians to this day.

Essential Listening

I’m terms of recordings, anything by the Quintette du Hot Club de France is a great starting point; plenty of reissued albums and compilations exist of this group. However, there aren’t many video recordings of Reinhardt’s playing, so what little footage we do have is worth seeking out. For this post, I shall suggest this short documentary film which features a minute or two highlighting Reinhardt’s unorthodox, yet necessary, technique.

You can hear Django’s style of  gypsy jazz playing in the most unexpected of places. However, it remains largely synonymous with France, and Paris in particular. The style retains a loyal following to this day. It amazed me to learn that no less a guitar player than Hank Marvin, the legendary British rock’n’roll pioneer, devotes himself to playing gypsy jazz, now that The Shadows have finally hung up their Stratocasters! It’s somehow fitting that both guitarists have had an immeasurable influence on the instrument, and now one devotes his time to studying the other – but more on him in another article, later in this series!

As always, do get in touch with your thoughts and suggestions for future posts…