With Roland Gresham’s passing Oct. 18, Tennessee lost a talented and influential jazz guitarist.
Roland Gresham (Photo submitted)
Roland, 78, not only entertained us with his formidable jazz guitar skills in The Roland Gresham Trio, he also introduced the genre to many.
Murfreesboro, indeed all Middle Tennessee, is a bastion of fine guitarists. Many of these advanced players met and learned from Roland either formally or informally. Murfreesboro bass player Avent Lane played with him for several years.
Lane and other musicians, like jazz singers Annie Selleck and Dallas Starke, worked regularly with Roland as band leader.
“Learning to read Roland’s handwritten chord charts was a baptism by fire,” Lane said. “But, without Roland pushing me, I probably would not be playing jazz today, especially on acoustic bass.”
Lane played electric bass on his first few gigs with Roland, but eventually, with
encouragement or maybe insistence, he changed to upright.
“Roland told me I had to play upright bass for traditional jazz,” Lane said. “Getting my chops up and my intonation clean was tough, but I am glad I made the change, and I have Roland to thank for that.”
Such was the influence of this talented guitarist and fine person.
Those were the days
About a week before Roland passed away, I visited him.
Roland and I spent a lot of time together in the past, though I had not hung out and played guitar with him for several years. I did not want to miss my chance to tell him how much I loved him and his guitar playing.
As I drove to his house, I remembered how from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, I visited Roland at his home several times to play with and learn from him.
Roland knew hundreds of standards, and he would suggest one. Roland would shout out the chord changes, all the while improvising fluidly over the changes. Each time he called out represented a ubiquitous set of chord changes that are the hallmark of traditional jazz.
On these special visits, I think I picked Roland’s brain more than I did my guitar.
Yes, that was 30-some years ago.
Now here on this day, just a week or so before Roland’s death, I anxiously approached the rustic, sprawling house that Roland, his wife, Essie, and his four sons built.
I was not surprised to see well-known Nashville musicians there to pay their respects to a regional legend and an influential player since the 1960s.
As I entered Roland’s room, he was reclining on a narrow bed.
Roland was a broad-shouldered, strapping man, but today he was thin and frail. The cancer had taken its bodily toll.
As I closed the door behind me and looked around the room full of relatives and church friends, Roland lit up, smiled broadly and said, “Larry Pinkerton, that can’t be you! Sit down!”
I smiled back at him and sat down next to my old friend.
Before I could open my mouth, Roland began to tell me how I had just missed hearing his son Roland Gresham Jr. play. Roland Jr., a jazz guitar star in his own right, had inherited his father’s musical ability.
Roland proudly gave his son one of his favorite and highest compliments: “He ran the keys off that guitar!”
Yes, the body was weak, maybe even beaten, but not the spirit.
His childlike excitement of hearing good jazz guitar was the same Roland I’d known for decades.
It made me happy knowing Roland could still enjoy the days, the hours, the moments of a life winding down.
His passion for guitar and jazz apparently kept an otherwise melancholy situation at bay.
Like I had done many times before, I asked him to hold up his hand. I then placed my puny hand next to his massive one. A niece from across the room exclaimed “Uncle Roland, your hands are huge!”
Indeed, his near-legendary hands were huge, belying his nimble navigation of the guitar, a guitar that literally and figuratively never looked quite big enough for Roland.
How curious that those callused working hands that might be building a house, planting a garden, or digging a septic tank by day, could dance melodically and acrobatically around a guitar by night.
Nice work if you can get it
Roland followed a familiar progressive path to jazz.
He honed his blues chops, he learned some soulful rhythm and blues chords, and he went through a Chet Atkins finger-picking phase, which he conquered with precision.
Then he heard the inimitable jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, who wasn’t just playing the guitar, he was, as Roland put it, “Saying something.”
Roland caught the jazz fever.
I asked Roland about his approach to jazz improvisation. He said his objective was to “turn whatever song I’m playing into a blues.”
Of course, he did not mean he would change the song’s chord progression into an actual blues progression. Rather, he strived to give it the soul, the space, the melodicism, the “call and answer,” the musical conversation that you get with good blues playing.
Turning a jazz standard into a blues is indeed a task. Jazz standards often have many key changes and embellished chords. To my ear, Roland accomplished his musical goal.
After Roland became proficient with jazz, he began playing gigs in Nashville, and he also began to teach guitar.
He had learned a lot about jazz and was excited to share his knowledge with others.
In the early 1960s, Roland gave lessons to a talented young man who went on to become an innovator in rock music, none other than Jimi Hendrix.
Roland eventually moved to Murfreesboro from Nashville, where he continued to play gigs and share his vast expertise with local musicians.
And for that, we are grateful.