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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

John Elliott (Part 1)

Updated: Apr 28

Part 1 - Lesson Years: 1979-1986

"You need to study with John Elliott; I got all my shit from him. He's a little tough but it's worth it."

Thus it was that I finally became convinced that John Elliott had what I needed.

It was September of 1978 and I had taken 5 lessons from Danny Embrey, who had just informed me that this was the last lesson. He was moving to LA the next week and said he didn't know if he was ever coming back. Next thing I knew I was watching Danny on the Johnny Carson show playing with Sérgio Mendes. He continued,

"He's got a year's waiting list but I'll call him before I leave and put in a word for you. Here's his number. Wait a week and then give him a call."

To back up just a little: In 1976 I heard George Benson's guitar playing for the first time when his version of "This Masquerade" crossed over and became a Pop hit. I was young (20 years old) but had been playing guitar semi-professionally and then professionally since I was 14. School functions, coffeehouses, night clubs, parties - you know the deal. By the time I was studying with Danny I was playing clubs full time - at least 5 or 6 nights a week.

I had taught myself in the mid-to-late '60's by listening to records. Hendrix, Cream, the Stones, the Kinks, Mountain, Grand Funk, Santana. Guitar trios, mainly. Conceptually, the music I liked was improvisational and that's why I wound up loving jazz.

I was also influenced by acoustic oriented singer/songwriters - Bob Dylan, Donovan, James Taylor, John Sebastian, Neil Young etc.

George Benson was completely different than anything I had ever heard before. I bought every George Benson album I could find. Very shortly that led me to Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Charlie Christian and Pat Martino. During this time I also discovered John Abercrombie, John McLaughlin, Jim Hall, Herb Ellis, Al Dimeola, Barney Kessel and many more.

After a year or so of trying to teach myself that George Benson style I had to admit to myself that my “talent” wasn't enough - that MAYBE in 10 years I could fake it but I would never know what I didn't know.

At that point I began to look for a teacher. I bar-hopped incessantly around Kansas City looking for a guitar player who played the way I wanted to play, who played that stuff I was hearing and couldn't figure out. It seemed like every guitar player I talked to who played that way said, "John Elliott".

I wasn't convinced however. John didn't even play guitar; he was a jazz piano player and big band arranger (the guitar subculture is very inbred). In the meantime I found Danny Embrey - but after only 5 lessons he was leaving town. (See: Pretending to be Danny.)

In spite of my resistance to taking "guitar lessons" from a piano player, I couldn't argue with results. I knew that John had taught Pat Metheny (his most famous guitar student), not to mention a bunch of other guitarists (Rod Fleeman, Rob Whitsett, Monte Musa) - Danny Embrey included. All these guys were playing stuff I wanted to be able to play and they all said, "John Elliott."

I'd also heard horror stories; stories about how brutal he was, how he wouldn't tolerate mistakes, stories about him slamming the door and telling you not to come back.

So I knew that if I started with him I needed to be totally committed to doing whatever it took to get through his program. Washing out was not an option I was willing to consider.

I waited a week and then called him.

"Yeah" he said, "Danny told me about you. You're on the list; it'll be about a year."

I wasn't about to wait a year. John had a trio gig on off nights in a club at the top of what was then the Alameda Plaza Hotel (now it's the InterContinental). Every Monday night that I wasn't gigging I showed up and bugged him. He called and offered me a slot in about 3 months.

During those weeks of Mondays I would talk with him on break. His trio was playing standards and occasionally an instrumental version of a Pop song of the day. One time I asked him,

"Hey man, could you guys play 'Giant Steps?'"

"Yeah, we could" he said, his voice dripping with disdain, "But, you know, we have to keep it danceable."

Yes, he was using "danceable" as a pejorative.

I realized that his "danceable" was my goal! He was playing the standards to which I aspired!

Later, at some point during my lessons he commented,

"Unfortunately, dance music will always be with us."

I studied with him for 7 years. It wasn't all fun and games either. Danny, though massively understated, was right. He was tough, especially the first few months.

If you weren't prepared he sent you home - immediately.

Too many mistakes - he sent you home - immediately.

No back talk, no negotiation, no excuses. He was capable of slamming the door and telling you not to come back. After all, there was a year's worth of people just waiting to get your slot.

The one (and only) time it happened was maybe my 4th or 5th lesson. I came in unprepared and started to bullshit my way through the lesson. After about 30 seconds, with his jaw clenched and eyes glaring John said,

"I can see that you have no idea what it is that you're supposed to be doing so why don't you put your guitar back in the case and go home! And come back next week and maybe I'll give you the next page!

Keeping in mind the horror stories, I knew this was a pivotal moment. I wasn't about to say anything like, "But, I paid for the whole half-hour!"

"Yes sir," I said as I put my guitar in the case and left in humiliation after a lesson that lasted about a minute...and I paid for 30.

He didn't slam the door, and I was never unprepared again.

After a few months, it seemed he lightened up and the atmosphere became much more casual. I've often wondered if this was a conscious method on his part to weed out the people who weren't really serious. It wouldn't surprise me if it was.

I wasn't starting from ground zero. Besides the lessons I'd taken from Danny, I had studied classical guitar for 3 years at the University of Missouri Conservatory of Music in Kansas City with Douglas Niedt, who was a protégé of Christopher Parkening. Doug had also studied in a master class in Spain run by Segovia himself. As a matter of fact, my lessons with Doug and my lessons with John overlapped for at least a semester.

So by sheer dumb luck I had a ton of technique work already under my belt due to my studies with Doug. That was fortunate because John couldn't deal with technique issues for an obvious reason; he didn't play guitar.

All that was on top of the self-teaching I had done all along as well as the gigging I had been doing since I was 14.

So I go in for my first lesson and John says,

"Well, I've been hearing about you. Why don't you play something; show me what you can do."

So I played him this thing I had written. It was a very jazzy chord melody kind of thing, full of altered ninth inversions and whatnot. I had worked it out by ear. I could've told you what about 50% of the chords were.

"That was pretty good" John said, "I've never heard that before. What was that?"

"Oh, just something I wrote." - I said nonchalantly with my head swelling to gargantuan proportions.

"Ok, we'll start here."

I can't remember exactly where "here" was. Probably altered 9th chords because that's what he heard me play. It took about 30 seconds for John to puncture my swelled head and deflate it to nothing.

"Well" he said, "I can see you have no idea what you're doing so we're going back to the beginning."

"Whatever you say man, you're the teacher."

We didn't actually start at the beginning. We started with Root Position 7th chords, all of which I already knew!

John could say, "Play Scale Tone 7ths in A flat" and I could whip right through it. But that wasn't good enough. I had to spell every note, in every chord, in order, from low to high. I had to ascend and descend the chords along the scale. I had to do it in 3 different positions. And I had to do all that in all twelve keys while reciting the spelling.

Did I say that the lessons were 30 minutes long? If you couldn't do your lesson in 20 minutes or less he sent you home to practice the same lesson for another week.

Why all the spelling? It's simple. John didn't play guitar. Although he had an intellectual understanding of the guitar neck that surpasses what most guitarists have, he couldn't tell you what string and what fret on which to put your finger. So the only way he could communicate was to spell. If you couldn't spell, he forced you to learn, or else he couldn't teach you.

Because of my classical studies, I had the first position down stone cold. Anything below the 5th fret I had no problem. The further up the neck I went, the fuzzier things were. I had the 6th and 5th strings down pretty good, and I worked out a pattern of octaves from the 6th and 5th strings that enabled me to find the notes on all the other strings. That's how I learned note names on every string. It was because John forced me to spell everything I was playing.

Octave patterns from 6th and 5th string roots to find notes on every string is what I teach in my 5-Lesson Foundational Series (download it for free).

After 6 or 8 months of excruciating torture - having to spell every note in every chord that I could already play - I knew instantly where every note on every string was. Instantly. No counting frets. No playing through octaves. I knew every note on every string. Thanks to John.

Towards the end of the months of me having to spell everything I played, John spelled a chord he wanted me to play. The instant I played it I realized it was one of those George Benson chords I had been trying to figure out since 1976! And there it was! And I understood it! And I could play it in every key! It was a lightbulb moment that solidified my commitment to and trust in John's way.

John once told me,

"When I first started teaching guitarists, I used my students as guinea pigs to figure out what was possible and not possible on the instrument."

A couple of times in the seven years I studied with him he spelled a chord that was impossible to play. It would take some convincing but he would finally say,

"Ok, goddammit! I'll re-voice the chord!"

One time he was spelling a chord and I said,

"Man, I don't think there's a B-flat around there anywhere."

"Oh yes there is, on that string or that string, [pointing at the guitar neck] right in there somewhere!"

He was right.

Another time he spelled a chord: F C E A.

That is a very typical root position Fmaj7. I played it with the root on the 4th string.

"Now lower the root an octave."

I reached across the neck and played the low F on the 6th string. That's a 5-fret stretch at the bottom of the neck, with your pinky barring the first 3 strings, and muting the 5th and 4th strings at the same time. For you non-guitar players out there, yeah, it's not an easy chord to grab.

John said,

"You know, only about 30% of my guitar students can play that chord."

"I had to play that in a Beethoven piece at the Conservatory" I said. "I worked a whole semester on that stupid chord!"

It's even harder on a classical guitar because the frets are wider and the neck is thicker than on an electric. That's why I grabbed it so easily and thus made it into the 30% in John's mind! Thanks to Douglas Niedt!

John would write out every lesson by hand. He would sit at a table writing out my next lesson while I played the lesson from the previous week in all keys in every position. His back would be to me - he's not even looking at me. Get the picture? He's writing in my staff paper book. That means I have to play my lesson in every key and every position - from memory.

All of a sudden he would say, "You're playing an A natural in the alto voice, it should be A flat." The pencil would not stop while he's saying this, he wouldn't even look up.

The first time this happened I was flabbergasted. Holy crap! He's multi-tasking! That's AMAZING! This guy's a genius! He's writing the next lesson down and at the same time hears every note in every chord that I'm playing! Do you know how intimidating that is? There was absolutely no wiggle room.

If you played the lesson to his satisfaction, he would give you the next page. One day, he gave me the next page. I didn't think I was ready for it. I said,

"I don't really understand what I just did, how would you use that?" He answered,

"Why is the sky blue?"

In other words, shut up and do what I tell you. In other words, you wouldn't understand the answer if I gave it to you.

I learned a lot about learning because of my lessons with John. I began to dream chord spellings. I began to solve technique problems, fingering problems, in my dreams. I realized my brain was working on this stuff at a subconscious level. I came to the realization that I should trust John and let nature take its course. I was ready for the next page if he thought I was, even if I didn't think so. All that from, "Why is the sky blue?"

One day during a lesson I said,

"I have a stupid question."

"Oh there are no stupid questions" he said, "there are only stupid people who ask questions. Here's the next page."

His stock answer to most questions was,

"Just do it, you'll see."

John was very angry and bitter about what happened to Pop music in the 50's. He once told me,

"Popular music consistently progressed for 900 years and then in the 1950's it took a gigantic step backwards from which it has never recovered."

I wrote a whole blog based on that statement: Listen With Your Eyes? A Gigantic Step Backwards!

And while I agree with John's characterization of the issue and in spite of my love and gratitude to John for everything he gave me, I've used him as a negative example in my own life when it comes to adopting a realistic, healthy attitude concerning the vicissitudes of music and the music business. It's just not healthy to remain in bitterness about the "gigantic step backwards" - no matter how true or justified it is. It's a set-up for being very unhappy. I understand and sympathize with John but I think it's sad - tragic in a way - that he was apparently never able to come to terms emotionally with what happened.

Think about it; John was 18 in 1944. One of the most popular songs that year was Billie Holiday's' version of "Embraceable You". 12 years later it was Elvis' "Hound Dog."

According to John, his formative stage was the Bop era. That's pretty much the epitome of Western musical evolution in terms of harmonic and melodic complexity. I once told John that I felt very comfortable playing and improvising on standards but didn't feel as comfortable with Bop.

"Yeah" he said, "you kinda had to grow up with it."

It was easier for me; I didn't grow up having to master the culmination of 900 years of musical development in order to merely be a pop musician only to have it yanked out from under me immediately afterwards. John said,

"I had about 10 good years and then guys started taking gigs away from me that were doing nothing but making f-ing noise!"

I backdoored into the 900 years of musical evolution after growing up with the de-evolved result. I could play the pop music of my day before I learned how to play "Jazz." John once told me,

"I get it; people like what they grow up with."

Another thing I found interesting was,

"I hate the strident sound of rock music!"

I think "strident" equals "distorted" because he was talking about the "sound."

I had many conversations with John about the musical aspect of it. He acknowledged what I call "glimmers of light" in the darkness. He thought Steely Dan was pretty hip. Stevie Wonder had some good stuff. He called Allan Holdsworth "the Chick Corea of the guitar" (high praise indeed!). Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder would be artists categorized as "Pop." Allan Holdsworth, though he came out of popular rock bands in the 70's, evolved into a class of his own - not pop at all. John was speaking of Holdsworth's jazz-fusion music.

But in relation to the Pop music of his day, that is, "Jazz," and the Rock era that followed from the 50's through the 90's, John lamented,

"It's just not hip to be romantic anymore."

He wasn't talking about lyrics; he was talking about the sound of the music, and the harmonic content that created that sound. In comparison, Rock music is strident sounding, generally.

There were times when I inadvertently triggered John relative to this issue. At one point my agent wanted my band to be able to do a set of 50's pop music. He gave me a stack of records he wanted the band to learn. One of those tunes was, "I Only Have Eyes for You" by the Flamingos. It was a hit in 1959.

The first verse opens with a typical, simplistic 2-chord, 6/8 doo-wop style vamp for 7 bars. On the 8th bar it goes to the tritone sub, which I thought was kind of cool, and then a diatonic progression with a chromatic passing chord that goes back into the 2-chord vamp. I won't go into further exposition because it's beside the point.

Anyway, I told John about my band having to learn this stupid doo-wop stuff but that this one song was kinda cool for a 50's song.

I started playing it and John stopped me and said with irritation in his voice,

"That song doesn't go that way!"

"That's the way it goes on the record." I replied.

John is visibly agitated now and retorts,

"That song was written in 1929 [actually, 1934] and it goes like THIS!!"

He sat down at his desk and in about a minute wrote a chart out and gave it to me.

When I played through that chart later it was amazing how much cooler the tune was and how much it had been dumbed down in the fifties. Art Garfunkel had a hit with it in 1975. His version was based on the Flamingos' version.

Late in my studies with John, probably sometime in 1985, I came into my lesson and the first thing John said was,

"I will never play another nightclub again as long as I live! It's just too stupid!"

When I started with John in 1979, I was deep into Robert Fripp and "Frippertronics." If you don't know what that is, I talk about Frippertronics in the blog, The Value of the Avant Garde.

Frippertronics consisted of creating dense musical textures by tape looping, building up a pulsing wall of sound one note at a time.

I took a recording of Robert Fripp's "God Save The Queen" in to my lesson one day and asked John what he thought of it.

With each note Fripp added to the loop, John would hit that note on the piano. After 4 or 5 notes, he looked up and said,

"Fripp's ok!"

Once John was showing me a chord and said,

"This would be a good voicing for accordion."

I snorted derisively and he barked,

"Hey! If you wanna be a professional musician you WILL wind up onstage with an accordion player!"

One of John's main influences and musical idols was Bill Evans. Even John's posture at the piano was similar. Bill Evans was a heroin addict most of his adult life and died on September 15, 1980. That was a Monday. My lessons with John were on Fridays. John was not a happy camper that week! 4 days later and he was still bent out of shape about it. He blurted out,

"Heroin is the scourge of my generation!"

I remember thinking, "Every generation has a scourge" but I didn't say anything. I was too sensitive to John's mood.

When I first started studying with John, I briefly considered the possibility that he was a junkie; the mood swings from week to week seemed more extreme than normal. I abandoned the idea quickly though. The consistency of his work ethic was way beyond anything a junkie could maintain, in my experience. Six days a week he taught from 11:00-7:00 (that's 96 students a week!), then grabbed something to eat, changed clothes and played a gig from 9:00-1:00 - for decades. Besides that, he lived to be 87. Bill Evans died at 51.

I want to emphasize that the following is conjecture based on my interactions and relationship with John. I'm not a psychologist but I do have some experience in the mental health field. This is my opinion; someone else may have a different perspective.

I suspect that John was perhaps undiagnosed Bipolar - among other things. Each week I went into my lesson wondering which John I was dealing with that week. Some weeks he was very talkative, in a good mood and the lesson was thoroughly enjoyable and incredibly inspiring. Other weeks I was walking on eggshells and the best thing to do was to keep your head down, play through your lesson with no mistakes and not say anything, then leave. The pendulum swung hard.

I've talked to a bass player who performed with John quite a bit and he told me "...he was subject to dark moods..."

Another musician who gigged steadily with him told me "I learned a lot musically just from playing with him" but that he was " a perfectionist" and was "very insecure" and "could be downright mean."

I never gigged with John, but I can relate to these statements.

Be all that as it may, John's method for applying music theory to the guitar was the best I've ever seen, before or since. Pat Metheny left Kansas City at 18 after studying with John to attend the prestigious Jazz Program at Miami University and further his education. After one semester there he was teaching as an adjunct. So he moved to Boston to attend the Berkeley School of Music and within one semester was teaching there! That gives you an idea of the quality of John's methodology.

"I think that all of us who ever got to study with John Elliott share something special and recognize how lucky we were to get the opportunity to be around him." - Pat Metheny

I have compared notes with graduates of Miami University, Berkeley School of Music in Boston, Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood, Indiana University in Bloomington and North Texas State - all world-renowned music schools. In my opinion, John's method is superior to them all.

I asked him,

"Why do you teach privately? Why aren't you at a Conservatory somewhere, with benefits, tenure and whatnot?"

"Because" he said, "I only want to teach what I want to teach and I want to teach it the way I want to teach it."

With the idea in mind that John wrote everything out by hand, I asked,

"Why don't you publish this? It's the best system for applying music theory to the guitar I've ever seen."

"Books!" he exclaimed angrily. "You know what happens when you buy a book?"


"You look at the last page first, that's what happens!"

There may be another reason why John never published; I'll get into that in Part 3.

I still have the 4 or 5 books of my original lessons in John's handwriting.

He built up your understanding, step-by-step. Among other things, he taught you to think 1) Root note, 2) Chord type.

Most people hear the melody first. The melody can be anything; nothing can be determined with certainty from just the melody. But if you can "hear" the Root first, everything else is relative to that.

"The bass is the base!" - that statement was a mantra. He said it often.

I go into detail on this in How I Play Songs I Don't Know.

I learned how to THINK music. You know what your ear is really good at? Telling you when you've already made the mistake!

Whenever I would miss something by a half-step, I would "autocorrect" - automatically slide up or down to the correct note without thinking about it - it was intuitive and automatic. When that would happen John would scold,

"Listening, not thinking!"

I heard that many, many times over the course of 7 years. I learned to never move my hand unless I knew where it was going.

John was the house pianist in the main showroom at the Playboy Club in Kansas City, which was open from 1964-1972. John's tenure at the Playboy Club is well-documented. He was there for most of those years. In his capacity as house pianist he performed with many of the big names that were on the Playboy circuit.

Gary Sivils was a well-known trumpet player around Kansas City who worked with John and had this to say,

"The singers who came in through the Playboy circuit worshipped the ground he walked on. They paid him to write charts for them to take with them."

I was never a great sight-reader but I had to play/read melodies in my lessons with John. Many times I didn't strictly adhere to the rhythms that were written. I would play them the way I would sing them, or play them the way I would phrase the lyric if I was singing them.

Once John said to me,

"You're a singer, aren't you?"


"I can tell by the way you play melodies."

I decided to take that as a compliment rather than a criticism of my sight-reading skill, or lack thereof. He then said,

"Man, if you can sing, you'll always have a gig."

Not only was John a sought-after accompanist, he was also a big band arranger. I heard (but have been unable to document) that he had done some arrangements for the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. That knowledge and ability; to be able to write for different instruments even though he couldn't play them, was what enabled him to figure out the guitar.

In the late seventies - early eighties, guitar synthesis was in its infancy; affordable guitar synths were pieces of crap. To get a decent guitar synth cost $50,000 or more. Just for perspective, $50,000 in 1984 equals $151,404.74 in 2024.

One day I come into my lesson and he says to me,

"You know what I'd do if I was a guitar player?"

"No, what?"

"I'd sell my house and buy a synth!"

He was serious.

I thought that was ridiculous at the time, but now I understand. It's because of his love for arranging. Back in his day, an arranger had to imagine how the band would sound - how the parts fit together, what the texture and blend among the various instruments would sound like. With a synth you could actually hear what they would sound like, or at least have a more concrete idea. In fact, in 1962 he co-founded the Kix Big Band, which served for more than 20 years as a practice vehicle for his arrangements.

There's a story from that era; John's arrangement of "Stella by Starlight" went so far out into left field the Kix guys called it, "Stella, is that you?"

John wrote some of the most beautiful arrangements for the guitar I've ever heard; I use many of them, or pieces of them, to this day. He enabled me to arrange for the guitar myself. He treated the guitar like a mini-big band. He used the same devices in his guitar arrangements that he did in the big band arranging.

He wrote out an arrangement of "Young and Foolish" for one of my lessons. I came back the next week and played it for him.

"You know," he said, "this is a really good arrangement. Tell you what, spend a couple more weeks working on it, smooth it out, record it on a cassette, and I'll see to it that Jim Hall hears it."

Holy crap! Jim Hall is one of my all-time favorite guitarists! And he would be listening to ME! Never mind that I'm just the tool John is using to pitch his arrangement; that's me Jim Hall would be listening to!

I did what John told me to do, gave him the cassette and never heard another word about it. I have no idea if Jim Hall ever heard it. I've not heard any recording of Jim Hall playing "Young and Foolish."

Quite a few years ago, one of the bands I was in was booked on a gig backing a singer none of us knew who did a Michael Bublé tribute show. There would be no rehearsal. The bandleader, who was also the promoter called me and said,

"This guy doesn't normally use a band, he sings to tracks. I don't know how adaptable he's going to be with any deviations from the tracks he's used to hearing. So just to be safe, I'll pay you extra to write charts for the band from the tracks he normally uses."

I don't know who arranges for Michael Bublé, but the dude is really, really good. So I had to distill big band and orchestral arrangements down to guitar, bass, drums and sax. Countless times as I was working on those charts I thanked God I had studied with John Elliott - because the arranging devices I was hearing were the same kinds of things John had used in the guitar arrangements he had given me. It turned out the Michael Bublé guy was very adaptable and we even performed some things that we played off-the-cuff at the sound check.

Keep in mind that all I studied with John was "The Theory of Harmony" (John's term for what he taught) as it applied to the guitar. He taught players on just about any instrument. One of John's former piano students sent me copies of all his arranging lessons. It was a massive stack of manuscripts.

Again, speculative armchair psychology: over the course of the years I studied with him, little cracks in the veneer of the consummate jazz musician teacher-guru would appear that led me to believe he had a disabling insecurity complex, a negative self-image problem - perhaps what is commonly called "Imposter Syndrome."

Imposter Syndrome is that uncomfortable feeling you experience when you think you're unqualified and incompetent. The feelings of anxiety and inadequacy can lead you to avoid challenges or opportunities. 

I've played with several guys in my career that had this to a crippling degree. Their perception of how good they were was very disjunct from the reality. They were monstrous musicians who thought they sucked. Consequently, they self-sabotaged often. They never thought they were good enough.

Some of the most common characteristics of imposter syndrome:

  • Self-doubt

  • Undervaluing contributions

  • Attributing success to external factors

  • Sabotaging self-success

  • Setting unrealistic expectations

  • Continuous fear of not living up to expectations

I feel like John exhibited some of these - especially "undervaluing contributions." These characteristics cause compensating behaviors like perfectionism and excessive work habits.

Here's an illustration: John ran into a serious physical problem with one of his hands in 1969 (the period wherein he was the house pianist at the Playboy Club) because, while teaching and gigging 12 hours a day, he put himself on a "self-improvement program" that entailed practicing for two hours every morning. Yeah, so 12 hours a day wasn't enough; he had to be better! Read about it in A Series of Fortuitous Events.

I think a lot of successful, respected people struggle with this to some degree - I have an expression that I use to deal with what I deem excessive, over-the-top compliments about my guitar playing that make me feel like my reputation exceeds the reality:

"The best thing I can do to maintain my reputation is...never pick up the guitar again!"

I present it as a joke, but there is an element of truth to it. I've developed a couple of strategies to deal with Imposter Syndrome tendencies in myself:

  • I resist comparing myself to other players - "Contests are for horses." (Eric Clapton)

  • My priority is not, "How good am I?" but is, "How much fun am I having?" (See: I Trust Myself and Keep Playing.)

Gary Sivils has said,

"I had done a couple of one night gigs with John, he and Vince Bilardo had a trio that was the house band at the Playboy Club forever...They hired me for a Friday afternoon matinee with them at the Playboy Club. So I asked John if he would play with my band at Channel 3. John is a genius...he could play, he had monster facility. He could play anything, and he could read fly specks. I learned a lot just by working in a jazz group with him, how he voiced his chords and all that. He always had this attitude that he wasn't very good! It drove me crazy! He'd say, 'I'm just going to have to quit this gig, I can't keep up with what you guys are doing.' I'd tell him that wasn't right, he was leading us. But he quit..." (Emphasis is mine.)

There are many things John said to me over the years that, when all added up, were seeming indicators of Imposter Syndrome, little things like,

Me: "Why have you stayed here? Why aren't you gigging in New York or Europe?"

(Dismissively) "Don't like to travel." (Period. End of conversation.)

My gut said his answer felt like deflection.

This is in light of the fact that there was pressure and opportunity for John to achieve much greater success and recognition. Bob Brookmeyer, a world-renowned jazz musician, composer and arranger, was a good friend of John's. It was through Bob that John had access to Jim Hall; Bob had played with and released at least one duo record with Jim Hall. Bob thought John could play with anybody, anywhere, and tried to get him to leave Kansas City, but John refused. Why is that I wonder?

The most significant incident to my mind was this:

Sometime in the mid-eighties John Scofield was in town and did a clinic at the music store in which John's teaching studio was located. I cancelled everything I had going to attend the clinic and the concert later that evening.

During the clinic I saw John slip in and sit in the back row. He'd probably had a student cancel. My lesson was the next day. I asked,

"So what did you think of Scofield?"

His answer?

"You know what the difference between guys like him and guys like you and me is?"

All this went through my mind in a split second:

"Wait a minute. You just put me and you in the same category, that's wrong. I am NOT in the same category as you - at all!"

I didn't say any of that - you don't argue with John Elliott. At least not in a lesson. I just said,

"No, what?"


Again, a flood of thoughts in a split second:

"Wait a minute. Are you saying I have no talent? Because if you are, you're also saying that YOU have no talent because you put me and you in the same category! That can't be right."

I spent some time afterwards pondering on this exchange. I think by "talent" he meant "originality" or, "creativity." John Scofield created a musical style. Who does John Scofield sound like? Nobody. I haven't created a style, neither did John Elliott - other than the fact that he created the most unique method of applying music theory to the guitar I've ever seen. There is nothing else like it.

So in that sense - "talent" equaling "creating a musical style" - John was right. However, I think it was indicative of what he thought about himself; deficient in talent.

I'm convinced that John didn't realize the effect and influence he had on the quality of the players coming out of Kansas City during his teaching years (See, "Undervaluing contributions" under, "Imposter Syndrome"). I once made a comment to him about his influence through his students who had gone on to world-wide success. His response?

"Nah, man, it's nothing - just tools. All I did was give them tools."

Well, yeah - but that's only part of what he gave them - and me, and countless others who haven't gone on to worldwide fame, and yet make a living as musicians. Brilliant and unique methodology and pedagogy aren't just tools.

There is very little of John Elliott on the net. His career predates it, and as far as I know he never left Kansas City. He therefore has not enjoyed wider-than-local recognition as a player. However, his influence is felt worldwide because of some of his students who have gone on to major recognition. You are hearing John if you've listened to:

Pat Metheny: has won 20 Grammy Awards in 12 different categories including Best Rock Instrumental, Best Contemporary Jazz Recording, Best Jazz Instrumental Solo, Best Instrumental Composition. The Pat Metheny Group won an unprecedented seven consecutive Grammys for seven consecutive albums. At 18, he was the youngest teacher ever at the University of Miami. At 19, he became the youngest teacher ever at the Berklee College of Music, where he also received an honorary doctorate more than twenty years later (1996). Pat had this to say about John Elliott:

"The time that I spent studying harmony with John Elliott inspired me to think of things in a totally different way than I had before. And the things that I learned in my lessons with him have helped me enormously in the ongoing search to try to define a harmonic language of my own...he literally threw open a door for me that I refer to constantly to this day. And I am quite sure all of his other students would say the same."

Bobby Watson: Besides being a well-known musician in his own right, he was the musical director of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers for 4 years. He has performed &/or recorded with Max Roach, Louis Hayes, George Coleman and Sam Rivers. He's worked with vocalists Joe Williams, Lou Rawls, Betty Carter, Dianne Reeves and Carmen Lundy. He had this to say about John Elliott:

"I couldn't wait for my lessons with John. They removed the mystery and gave me a template for learning that has served as the foundation for continued learning throughout my life. They also served as a model for teaching others over the years. Although I only studied with John for a little over a year, his clarity in explaining the science of music and the assignments he gave me set me up for life. I am eternally thankful to you, John. More than you will ever know. God bless the day I met you."

Larry Williams: has played with Seawind, George Benson, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Sheila E, Prince and Al Jarreau, just to name a few. He had this to say about John:

"John Elliott codified a system, and was a great teacher who could impart that system to his students. It was half piano and half theory. I really do not know if I would have been a serious piano player without him...He taught me how to listen to music, that it is all built off the bass, the bass is the base! It dictates everything. This was revolutionary."

Danny Embrey: has played with Sérgio Mendes and Clare Fischer. He's toured and/or recorded with such notables as Gary Foster, Steve Houghton, Alan Broadbent, Gene Harris, Bob Brookmeyer, Bob Sheppard, Barry White, Shelly Manne, Monty Budwig, Annie Ross, Sam Most, and Leroy Vinnegar. He spent years touring and recording with Karrin Allyson (who also studied with John). Embrey appears on eight of Allyson’s recordings, has toured worldwide as her musical director and was co-producer on two of her albums: “I Didn’t Know About You,” and “Azure-Te.” He had this to say about John:

"I had the good fortune of studying with John Elliott for three years (1975-78). The things I learned then I still use everyday...I'm often asked where I went to school. I say that I didn't go to an institution, but I studied with John Elliott for three years. That counts as a college degree! I just wish he would give out diplomas so I could get a teaching gig!"

Steve Cardenas: has performed and recorded with many well-known and highly esteemed musicians. Notably, he was a longstanding member of the Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band, Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra, the Steve Swallow Quintet, as well as Joey Baron's, Killer Joey. Steve is currently a member of the Ben Allison Band, John Patitucci Electric Guitar Quartet, Jon Cowherd Mercy Project and Adam Nussbaum Lead Belly Project. He has also performed with such diverse artists as Claude "Fiddler" Williams, Paul McCandless, Madeleine Peyroux, Norah Jones, Eliane Elias and Marc Johnson. Steve has toured extensively throughout Europe, North and South America and Asia, performing at international music festivals, theaters and clubs. He also leads his own group and has released seven recordings as a leader. He had this to say about John Elliott:

"I studied with John Elliott over a two year period, and I consider it the most valuable and enlightening time of my early musical development... His approach to harmony is still the most unique and clear I've encountered to this day."

There is more - much more. But are you starting to get the picture?l

In 2001, JAM (Jazz Ambassador Magazine) ran a tribute to John. In characteristic fashion, John refused to be interviewed, but the accolades from former students of note was massive. The quotes above are a few of many from this article.

For a synopsis of John's professional life, see Jazz Ambassadors Magazine - Feb/Mar 2018: John Elliott: The Theory Guru Who Influenced a Generation of Kansas City Jazz Musicians.

The whole time I studied with John I was gigging full-time. At least six nights a week. At one point in 1983-84 I was actually playing 2 gigs a day and one on Sunday; that's 13 gigs a week! 8 hours of onstage playing before I worked on my lesson of the week. I tried to do at least an hour a day on my lesson.

You paid for your lessons by the month up front. If you missed a lesson there was no reschedule and no refund. He kept the money. Many times I had to go on the road for a couple of weeks. I paid for every lesson while on tour.

One time I said,

"Hey, I'm going to be on the road for the next two weeks. Why don't you give me two weeks worth of stuff to work on while I'm gone?"

"No, I'm not gonna do that."

"Why not?"

"Because when you have two weeks of stuff to do you don't do anything the first week and then cram it all into the 2nd week and don't really learn any of it, it's all half-assed."

I nodded my head. "That's probably right." I thought.

Once I got seriously behind in my payments. I started paying for each lesson as I came in, instead of for the month upfront, which was his policy. I told John that if I got $100 behind I was going to quit until I could pay him and would just have to go back on his waiting list to start up again.

He put up with it for awhile. I think he had some understanding and sympathy for a young working musician struggling to raise a family and pay the bills. But as I was paying for a single lesson one day he gently said,

"Hey, I don't do this just for the fun of it, you know."

Message received. I don't remember how I did it but I managed to get current with him shortly after that.

I said earlier that, after being sent home for being unprepared, I was never unprepared again. That's not altogether true. What I never did again was try and bullshit my way through an unprepared lesson. I think that was the thing that pissed him off.

If I was unprepared I always brought something to do. I would ask for his help with a tune I was struggling to figure out or I would bring in an artist's recording on which I wanted his opinion. But the main thing I would bring in was my own music for him to critique.

I was doing a lot of writing. After my time with John I worked with a company in LA on background music, bumper music for radio shows, commercials, film soundtracks and whatnot. I also had a guy pitching my tunes in Nashville. You can read about that in A Six-Figure Song.

Anyway, I would bring in tunes, John would play them and critique like so,

"You should do this here and do that there. I would change this progression like this. These two sections don't really go together stylistically" - and so on.

His anger and bitterness about the music industry manifested itself often. When critiquing my songs he would ask questions like,

"How are you gonna protect yourself? How are you gonna keep from getting ripped off?"

I thought that concern was irrelevant because no matter what you do, you WILL get ripped off. Every successful songwriter/artist has been ripped off on their road to success. That's just part of the game. The thing is, they kept going. Persistence. I own the copyrights and publishing to all my music. You do what you can do and that's all you can do. And I have been ripped off - many times. Read, A Six-Figure Song for an example of all the maneuvering and strategies I've engaged in to try and keep from being ripped off. Also, Intellectual Property Rights Don't Work! What Now?

I thought John's angst and disproportionate concern about the issue was futile and self-sabotaging. I learned a little more about the possible root of it later, well after my lessons had ended. I'll talk about that in Part 3.

One day I brought in a chart. It was a tune I had written called, "Search Me." It was in 3/4 time and was harmonically very bi-tonal. John spent more time than usual reading through it and improvising through the changes. It was an ecstatically wonderful experience to hear him really play on one of my tunes!

After about 5 minutes he stopped and said,

"I love waltzes!"

He didn't change anything. I left that lesson on cloud nine, feeling like I had arrived! Holy crap! John Elliott didn't change a single thing about my song!

One day John put the next lesson in front of me and said,

"Well, this is about all I can give you theory-wise."

My mouth fell open and I sat stunned for a few seconds. I never thought there would be an end to it. I thought that as long as we were both alive and he was still teaching, I would be taking lessons from him.

"You don't have anything else"? I asked.

"I've got some things beyond this point for piano students but I haven't even begun to arrange it for guitar."

The thought of quitting or leaving him voluntarily never even occurred to me.

"So what do we do now?" I asked.

He said,

"Well, I've got some arrangements I think you could get a lot out of but I need you to get your sight-reading up before I can give them to you."

"Ok!" I said.

Well, it didn't take more than three or four weeks for me to realize that what he meant by "...get your sight-reading up" was going to involve more time during the day than I had.

I was gigging every night and had started seriously teaching during the day in 1982, plus I had a wife and 3 kids under 6 years old that we had started homeschooling - 2 more came along later.

He wanted me to be able to sight-read bop lines. I can play bop lines if I spend some time working on them, but sight-read them? I had to face the fact that he had found the limit timewise of what I was going to be able to do.

I desperately hung on for a few weeks but eventually, in February of 1986, after 7 years of studying with him, I cut the cord and quit my lessons.

Our parting was very congenial; there were no hard feelings at all, other than the fact I was depressed and wondering what I was going to do. How could I continue to grow musically without him? I felt adrift.

I was going to have to find my own way.

It turns out that February 1986 was not the end of our relationship; the story continues in Part 2.


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2 comentários

Terry OBrien
Terry OBrien
16 de abr.

What a fabulous article. Know you loved John's teaching, his insistence... Was he a perfect pitch guy? While writing a lesson, he picks out your "A" or Bb". What I know, is, as an agent, I trusted you and any band you were with (you have done lots of gigs for Big Bear with no contract), sharing the stage with you, watching you perform live at least 100 times... you are an unbelievable talent, an honest friend, loving husband and father. So pleased your website has done well. Love you friend.

Jay EuDaly
Jay EuDaly
16 de abr.
Respondendo a

As far as I know John did not have perfect pitch.

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