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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

John Elliott (Part 2)

Updated: Apr 29

Post-Lesson Years: 1986-1991

In Part 1 I told of the years (1979-1986) that I studied with John Elliott. John was a formative influence; by far THE most important person in my musical development. He also proved to be a complicated and sometimes difficult individual.


In 1982 I got my first real teaching job in a music store. I was looking for a way to get off the road, be present for my wife and kids, and still make a living with the guitar.

John Elliott told me,

"If you want to teach, just show up and be there at the hours you want to teach and it'll fill up."

That first teaching job taught me everything I didn't want in a teaching job. I realized that John's basic business model was the thing to follow. Keep in mind this was the early 1980’s; things are different now. I learned to:

  1. Work out a deal with the store for a flat-rate rent, not a percentage. This solves all kinds of accountability issues. I pay the store the same rent no matter how many or how few lessons I teach. One effect of this is it incentivizes me to teach as much as possible. The more I teach the less rent per student I'm paying. That creates more traffic for the store. Win/win.

  2. The deal with the store includes after-hours access to my studio and a bathroom, so I can teach as late as I want and come and go as I please.

  3. Run in my own phone line (this was before cell phones). Any phone calls to the store about lessons, money, disgruntled parents etc. were to be directed to me. I handle the scheduling, the money and the lesson content. It's MY teaching business, not the store's teaching business.

  4. The student pays monthly up front. I am a little more flexible about rescheduling missed lessons than John was, but it's my prerogative and there's no guarantee that a missed lesson will be made up.

In using John as a model for my teaching, I had to make a conscious choice; was I going to adopt John's teaching style? Was I prepared to be a hard-nosed, difficult asshole sometimes? The short argument for it is this;

It results in turning out a huge percentage of high-quality, professional-level players. Over the course of time, you build up a roster of extremely committed students because anyone who is too fragile, or not willing to take what you dish out, washes out.

I’ve often referred to John as, “The drill sergeant of jazz.”

The folks who survive this process are more likely to possess the fortitude to survive the sometimes brutal environment of the music industry. The success and high quality of players issuing forth from your program enhances your reputation, which produces demand (i.e. a waiting list) which drives the price up. John was almost double the going rate.

The negative is that you offend and hurt a lot of people - which also becomes part of your reputation. You're willing to bulldoze over two or three dozen students to find one.

It also seems to me that there is only one goal with this kind of approach; produce pro-level players. However, there are other, equally valid reasons to take music lessons that don't involve becoming professional-level. One example; the whole field of Music Therapy - I've had students take lessons who had brain injuries and the lessons were actually a prescribed part of their rehab.

I don't know that John's teaching style was a conscious choice on his part. I suspect it was not. He was very passionate about the music. He was emotionally-driven in a lot of ways. He loved the music and he loved the methodology. I think his hard-nosed attitude the first few months might have been conscious, but was in part, an unconscious defense mechanism because if the student toughed out the first few months, John was emotionally invested in that student.

I had conversations with him about certain former students that he felt didn't live up to the potential he saw in them and he had a lot of angst about that. His disappointment and sadness about those situations was palpable. It was obvious he was emotionally invested.

In short, John's teaching style was who he was, he was true to himself. That included his neuroses.

I realized that is not who I am. I acknowledge the value of what I call "assholery" when it comes to teaching (see Competitive Assholery). It's part of what made me who I am as a musician and a player. It was necessary - for me.

However, I realized that if I adopted that personae as a teacher, I would be acting; that's not who I am. I would be locking myself into 40 or more years of acting and not being myself. So I decided that John would be a negative example when it came to my own teaching style; I would have to evolve my own style based on who I am and not try to be like John.

Having said that, I find myself constantly parroting John while teaching:

"Just do it, you"ll see."

"Listening, not thinking."

"Too many mistakes, do it again."

If I perceive that the student's goal is to be pro-quality, I treat those students differently; I'm tougher with those folks and lean a little more in John's direction. But there are many other reasons to take guitar lessons, and I'm interested in those people too (for an example, see Goodnight Irene).

For several years, I didn't have enough students to support me, and was still playing full-time, in and out of town, juggling the students and the gigs, all while taking lessons from John. My goal was 50 students a week; at that point I could take the chance and quit gigging full time, which would stop the roadwork.

In January of 1986, I had 25 students. My friend and fellow-guitarist Max Berry called me and said,

"I'm leaving town next week to go on the road with Oleta Adams. I've got about 25 students, you want 'em?"

So in one fell swoop, my load doubled to 50. I felt like the boat would never be closer to the dock. It was time to jump. In February I gave my band two weeks notice, which voided the contract with my agent, and that was that.

Coincidently, February 1986 was also the month that I quit my lessons with John. Funny how things happen.

I continued to perform steadily, but it was all local. My primary source of income became the teaching.

Of course I taught John's content. I would alter a few things to make it more guitar-friendly, and anything that came before 7th Chords (technique, Cowboy Chords, the Blues, Triads etc) was all my own. You also need to realize that out of say, 70 students, maybe a half-dozen of them would be advanced enough or interested in John's content. I designed my content to dovetail with John's if the student made it that far.

I taught like John did, one lesson at a time, writing out each page by hand. I had realized this is the best way to teach; looking ahead before you're ready for the next lesson is counterproductive. Remember what John said?

"You know what happens when you buy a book? You look at the last page first, that's what happens!"

I continued a relationship with John in several ways. For one thing, I used him as a source for Real Books. For those who don't know, the Real Book is an illegal jazz fakebook (there is now a legal version published by Hal Leonard) that has been in worldwide use since the late '70's. When I first started with John we were using a series called "Spaces." Around 1980 John switched over to the Real Book. His source was some guy in Chicago.

Every so often I would call John and tell him I needed some Real Books. I usually ordered 4 at a time. So I was at his studio on a pretty regular basis picking up Real Books. We would visit for a few minutes if he didn't have a student.

Another way we stayed in touch; he would refer students to me. I would get calls that went something like,

"I've been taking lessons from John Elliott and he said I have some technique problems and he doesn't deal with that so he gave me your number."

I would deal with the technique issues and then refer them back to John. I asked one of those guys what John said about me. He told me,

"Jay EuDaly. He turned into a pretty good student!"

John's compliments were always backhanded - but I'll take it!

Backhanded compliments notwithstanding, he referred students to me, so I know there was at least some respect there. Win!

As an aside, I would also get referrals from Douglas Niedt, with whom I had studied classical guitar at the UMKC Conservatory in the late seventies. Those calls would go something like,

"I've been studying with Doug Niedt and I asked when are we going to get to improvising. He said he doesn't do that and he gave me your number."

So John was sending me students to deal with what he didn't (technique) and Doug was sending me students to deal with what he didn't (improv). And I got what each of them didn't deal with from the other one!

I also taught what I called, "Elliott Rejects." These were people who wanted what John was teaching but couldn't deal with John himself, because of his teaching style and volatility. He had slammed the door on them. I was more easy-going; my assholery quotient was lower. I was happy to teach those folks.

In the late eighties John began winding down. He quit taking new students. He cut back to 3 weeks a month. Then he started shaving days off. 5 days a week instead of six, then 4 days and so on.

Sometime around 1991 I got a call from John.

"Hey man, I'm completely retired now and I've got a bunch of Real Books I got no use for. I was trying to think of someone who teaches all the time and you were the only guy I could think of [another backhanded compliment]. You wanna buy a bunch of Real Books cheap?"

"Sure!" I said, "Whaddya want for 'em?"

"$300 and I'll bring 'em to you."

"Ok" I said. I never even asked how many.

Well, the next evening John shows up at my studio with a station wagon load of Real Books! It took me years to sell them all! I've still got one that I saved as a memento.

We talked for a half-hour or so. I asked,

"Since you’re retired, can you give me your guy for Real Books?"

"Nah, man. He wouldn't want to do business with someone he doesn't know."

"But he knows you, and you could vouch for me."

John steadfastly refused. So I had to find my own source.

I also asked,

"So what are you going to do in your retirement? Maybe go to New York? Play some gigs? Maybe work on some new super advanced music-theory thing?"

"Well" he said, "There's some really cool things happening in jazz right now but I just don't have the fire in my belly anymore. I think I'll just kick back and relax; maybe do some traveling with my wife."

Hmmm…remember in the previous blog when I asked John “Why aren’t you in New York or Europe” and he said, “Don’t like to travel”?

I just couldn't understand, "...don't have the fire in my belly anymore." How could you just drop something you've spent your whole life pursuing and engaging in with such obsessive passion? I just couldn't conceive of that.

Now I can.

Don't misunderstand; I still have the fire in my belly for what I do and I'm almost the same age now (2024) as what John was in 1991. But I can now conceive of being able to just let it go, when or if the time comes. In some ways it would be a relief. I have spent the last 10 years or so learning to not be so driven by it. I decided several years ago to quit pushing and just relax and enjoy whatever mastery I have achieved thus far, such as it is, without the constant striving to improve.

There are still things I can't do on the guitar that I wish I could, but it's time to lighten up.

That evening in 1991 when he brought me the station wagon load of Real Books was the last contact I had with John until 2001.

I heard things second-hand during those 10 years; he'd had heart bypass surgery as well as a cancer surgery. Stories of him occasionally showing up at gigs to listen. That he had taken on a single private student, Eldar Djangirov, a prodigy Jazz pianist from Russia.

Meanwhile, I worked on my method book, "Vertical Truth: Chordal Mechanisms for the Guitar" which was published in 1999, and resulted in a new chapter in my relationship with John.


The Creation of Vertical Truth: 1991-2001

After I quit my my lessons with John in 1986, I began to have a disturbing thought. I had 4 or 5 staff paper books full of my lessons with John, written by hand in pencil. What if my house caught fire and those books burned up? They were priceless to me.

I took them to a printer to have them copied. He told me it wouldn't work because they were written in pencil. It needed to be ink or felt marker.

So I laboriously hand-copied the contents with a fine-tipped black marker. I would work on it 30 minutes at a time when a student cancelled or didn't show. It took me three years to complete it.

I had 3 copies printed up; I kept one at my house, one at my parent's house, and one at my teaching studio.

Pages from my hand-copied book of John's lessons.
Pages from my hand-copied book of John's lessons.

The originals in John's handwriting I kept at home. I still have them.

I taught like John did, writing every lesson out by hand. I referred to the copy I kept in my studio when needed.

In the early nineties I got my first personal computer, Windows 3.1. I started trying to figure out how to get the content from my hand-copied books into the computer. The music notation was problematic. Windows 95 was a game-changer.

I purchased some music notation software and started in on it. Remember, Windows 95 and the whole idea of music notation software was brand new and very primitive by today's standards. The notation software didn't let me manipulate text like I wanted so I exported the music symbols into Microsoft Paint, created my own templates, and wrote in Microsoft Word, importing bitmap files of music notation into MS Word. The idea was to hand out a printed page to each student instead of writing every page out by hand for each student.

As I finished each page, I would take it to a local Quickie Print shop and run off 20 or 30 copies. I kept a stash of pages at my studio, had the student bring a 3-ring binder, and 3-hole-punched each page as I gave it to them to put in their binder.

I taught this way for several years. Then I realized I was spending four or five hundred dollars a year for printing; no small amount in those days. I was teaching between 80 and 100 students a week and each student was (ideally) getting a page a week.

So I began to think about creating a book to sell to my students. That way, I could make a few extra bucks instead of spending money for printing and giving the pages away.

If you've read the previous blog in this series, you'll see right away what the problem with that is. I couldn't avoid John's position on method books,

"You know what happens when you buy a book? You look at the last page first, that's what happens!"

I agreed with John that looking ahead is counter-productive. That's why I handed out the lessons one page at a time. It was impossible to look ahead.

But...I compromised. I broke up the method into what I call "Units." Each Unit was a booklet of 10 or 12 pages on a certain level/subject like,

  • Unit 1: The Basics.

  • Unit 2: The Blues

  • Unit 3: Triads

  • Unit 4: 7th Chords

...and so on. 10 Units altogether. That way the student couldn't look any further ahead than the Unit he was on.

I titled the book, Vertical Truth: Chordal Mechanisms for the Guitar.

My wife coined the Title, "Vertical Truth" and I stole the subtitle "Chordal Mechanisms for the Guitar" from George Van Eps' 3-volume series, "Harmonic Mechanisms for the Guitar," which I highly recommend.

The books were printed directly from the MS Word pages that I had in my stash. I now sell physical books to my personal students ONLY, which was the original intention anyway. They are available as PDF downloads but I actually discourage the general public from buying those; the books are not designed to be self-teaching, but require a qualified instructor to apply them.

Pages from MS Word/Windows 95 with imported bitmap images.
Book pages from MS Word/Windows 95 with imported bitmap images.

So I went along like this for several years. It took about 4 years to finish entering all the content into MS Word and then putting the books together. I copyrighted and published the book under my own publishing company (EuDaly’s Music) in 1999 and sold copies only to my own students. All the above was going on after 1991, which was my last contact with John when he retired.

Welp, it didn't take long. A friend and a fan of mine who was also the manager of one of the largest music stores in town, found out I had these books that I was selling to my students. He talked me into stocking a few books in the store on consignment. Before I knew it, completely unsolicited by me, several teachers at that store were using my books in their teaching activities. They were selling my books to their students, and I was getting consignment checks from the store!

Pandora's Box was open, and the cat was out of the bag.

I decided that, instead of trying to contain this activity, which I deemed an exercise in futility, I should try and capitalize on it. I printed up a bunch of books that I called the "Teacher's Edition," which had all 10 Units bound together in one book, and gave one to every teacher in town who I thought could benefit from it &/or use the material in their teaching activities. I built up a network of teachers who were using my books. Eventually my network of subscribing teachers included guys all over the US. That's a different story.

Now another probability reared its ugly head; John was going to find out about the book, sooner or later. A little more than half of it was directly attributable to him.

I needed to be the one to show it to him. How would he react?

That's Part 3 (coming next week).


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