By Jeff Cebulski
I can’t precisely recall the first time I heard the music of the late jazz-rock-fusion guitarist Larry Coryell, yet I do remember where I was when I first listened to Lady Coryell. It was 1969, and I was living in a two-bedroom, three-person apartment near Marquette University. I had already been adulterated by the ’60s rock boom, worshipping players like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, and when one of Milwaukee’s “progressive rock” disc jockeys played the title cut from Coryell’s first album, I was smitten.
That album’s psychedelic mix did not totally prepare me for what I would be confronted with: two compositions that connected me with the world of jazz in profound ways—“Treats Style” and “Stiff Neck.” I had never heard of Elvin Jones or Jimmy Garrison prior to hearing them on this album, and they became a link to another profound discovery, that of John Coltrane. Eventually, hearing Charles Lloyd’s Soundtrack completed my pre-Coltrane preparation, and the rest is history.
Quickly, my ears were attuned to the influence of jazz in the music of our times. Eddie Harris’ and Les McCann’s Swiss Movement album became a staple of open-programmed FM radio; early Jethro Tull and the progressive British folk band Pentangle incorporated jazz arrangements into their offerings; Herbie Mann employed Coryell and underappreciated Sonny Sherrock for Memphis Underground; and we learned Roger McGuinn’s solo on The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” was a reaction to hearing Coltrane.
Coryell’s third and fourth albums, Spaces and Barefoot Boy, challenged my young ears with the eclectic, dense, electronic, and abstract motifs associated with early fusion, things I did not understand or appreciate right away but learned to respect and enjoy later. Thus, I missed out when his band, Eleventh House, came to be. I lost contact with his music for a while, only to be reawakened when Larry began to return to his roots via the High Note album Monk, Trane, Miles & Me in 1999. (I had missed Shining Hour a decade before, as well as several well-crafted fusion efforts.)
So, while I continue to search used bins for some of those “missed” albums, I still return, often, to Lady Coryell, Coryell (with the classics “Elementary Guitar Solo No. 5” and “The Jam with Albert”), and, yes, Spaces (how did I not like “Wrong Is Right”??) to reboot my own roots as a listener and appreciator of Music That Made a Difference. Yeah, his singing voice still sounds pretty terrible in retrospect, but still.
I never got the chance to meet Larry. Sometimes the distance between artist and fan is a healthy thing, or at least it allows the fan to hold the artist in a respectable and appreciative light, admiring the talent and creativity while not allowing human idiosyncrasies to interfere in the aesthetic experience. Sometimes the artist, once met, evinces redeeming character and refreshing personality. Sometimes not.
From a musician’s standpoint, though, Coryell’s persona was always consistent. In a notable tribute to Larry written by DownBeat’s Bill Milkowski, bassist John Lee said, “Larry’s got this almost childlike enthusiasm about music. It’s exhilarating when you’re about to go on stage with him because he’s always so excited to do it . . . He’s got a great energy and is such a loving, giving human being. I love this guy to death, man.”
One person who got to know that Coryell persona up close and personal is John Moran, an area guitarist who has a regular gig on Thursdays (trio) and Sundays (solo) at DA’s Deli and Dining on Harlem in Orland Park, besides doing some teaching and freelance gigs while continuing a late-blooming full-time education at Elmhurst College.
John has outlasted significant life events to emerge a follower of his dream vocation, that of being a college-educated, professional musician. A significant experience for him was becoming a student and confidant of Coryell, close enough to be invited to speak at his funeral after the musician’s death in February, 2017.
I am not the only one who considers Larry Coryell to be a crucial musical bridge from rock to jazz. My point of view is as a listener; John’s is as a musician. As part of his ongoing education, John wrote two papers based on his personal experience and relationship with the great guitarist. Some of his answers to my questions come from material lifted (by Moran) from those papers.
Jeff Cebulski: Tell me about the first time you heard Larry's music.
John Moran: I was a rock star in high school and at the age of 16 I started teaching guitar at Judy’s Music in the Evergreen [Park] Plaza. One of the other guitar teachers turned me on to Django and Larry. It was then I gave up my dream of being a rock star as I wanted to play music with more depth than I, IV, and V chords and of course the pentatonic scale. [Later] I went to a concert, didn’t meet Larry but met Alphonse Mouzon, the drummer signing autographs two at a time with both hands.
JC: I’m curious as to what Coryell music your teacher revealed to you at the start.
JM: The Eleventh House and Spaces with John McLaughlin. Mahavishnu [Orchestra] was big at that time in my life in high school.
JC: How and when did you meet Larry? What were the circumstances?
JM: It was Friday, January 10, 2003, and I am sitting at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago listening to Larry Coryell, Larry Gray, and Paul Wertico doing a set. [That sparkling week is archived on The Power Trio, High Note.] While sitting there I am also reminiscing my first meeting with legendary guitarist Joe Pass at the same venue. Joe Pass and Larry Coryell were my biggest guitar heroes in the ’70s. Joe actually answered a letter I wrote to him. He answered me with a post card from Germany where he was playing. That impressed this “wet behind the ears” teenager greatly and altered my thoughts about these guys being approachable. When I was old enough to get into the Jazz Showcase without a fake ID, I approached Joe for a guitar lesson; his answer was “Sure, one hundred dollars.” That shocked me that he would agree to that. So here I am sitting in the same venue and wondering if that same approach with Joe Pass will work with Larry Coryell. I mean, I already had an in with his bass player Larry Gray who I have had lessons with over the years, and I’m not a kid anymore; I’m full grown and playing professionally. So I approached Larry about a guitar lesson after the first set and sure enough I heard the words “Sure, one hundred dollars.” I was delighted.
Larry had to play another set, so I stuck around to get his hotel information and to set a time for our Saturday guitar lesson. I approached him as he was packing up and he turned and gave me a look like you “got to be kidding.” I felt my heart hit the floor and braced myself for the rejection I was about to receive. He stopped, thought about it for a minute and looked at me and said, “OK, bring manuscript paper and you better be ready to work.” I was delighted and couldn’t wait for our Saturday morning meeting.
It was a cold Saturday morning in January, and I couldn’t wait to get back downtown to meet with Larry. As I approached the hotel I heard a voice calling my name from across the street. It was Larry taking a morning walk. We met up and the first thing he said to me was, “Where are your gloves? You got to protect those hands.” The chastisement was greatly received from a big brother passing down wisdom.
We get to the hotel, I slapped my hundred-dollar bill on the table, took out my guitar, and began to play. Larry stopped what he was doing to listen to me and said, “Hey! You can play!” My response was, “Well, you don’t pay a hundred dollars for a guitar lesson if you can’t play.” We both had a good laugh and started to play some tunes. One of my favorite stories that displayed the humbleness of this gentle giant was while we were both playing the head on a tune by Joe Henderson called “Inner Urge.” Larry suddenly stopped playing and said, “What are you doing?” The reason he stopped playing was due to the fact that he was missing notes and I was hitting it on target. I sheepishly explained my approach to the difficult passage and showed him the fingering I was using. He then looked intensely at his guitar fingerboard and began to play the fingering I showed him. He then blurted out, “Well, that’s easier! Can I have it?” My response was, “You own it now.” After that session just about every time I would run into Larry and talk about getting together again to play he would jokingly say, ”Oh yeah, must be time for MY guitar lesson.”
After a couple hours of playing Larry asked if I wanted to get something to eat . . . I got to hang with Larry the rest of the day and established a great relationship. We ended up taking a long ride in my car talking about music and showing Larry different parts of the city. We had to get back so Larry could do the set at the Jazz Showcase. I got to spend some time with him after the set that night and picked him up in the morning to take him to the airport. Looks like I became his new best friend in Chicago.
JC: How did your relationship to him grow and progress?
JM: About a month later Larry called me to tell me he was in town to play for a private event of all-Indian music.
[John wrote: According to writer Tom Greenland, “In 1969, Coryell began to collaborate with Indian classical artists . . . Coryell reports that he continues to be influenced by ‘Eastern phrasing’ and tries to combine Carnatic (South Indian classical) music with jazz improvisation. ‘There’s a lot of Indian and Arabic musicians who are learning to play on changes and the Americans or Europeans that they play with are now learning to play more of their type of modality and both are complex and very rich,’ he observes; ‘If everybody puts the right kind of effort into it, it comes out good.’”]
At the Indian concert all the musicians, including Larry, wore the long traditional Jacquard Kurta robes. The concert was amazing. I think Larry and I were the only white guys there. Besides the musical experience I enjoyed the Indian people and how they took in the music as if it was a spiritual experience. I am sure it was to most. During the breaks Larry would explain some of the harmony to me, and how he was interacting with the other musicians. There were no set chord changes but the music was tonal due to the drone of the tanpura and the ragas that were being played. Larry was always encouraging me to stretch the limits of my jazz playing and to include knowing how to play Indian music . . .
A couple months later Larry informed me that he was touring with the Bombay Jazz group, a quartet featuring Ronu Majumdar on flute, Vijay Ghate on tabla, and George Brooks on tenor sax and would be close to Chicago . . . I was able to promote an event for this group at the music store I was teaching at called World Folk Music Company on the South Side. They had a beautiful concert hall and the owner was thrilled that I could book Larry Coryell and the group at the store. I think the owner lost money on the deal, but the credibility of the store was enhanced and it certainly increased the signup for students. I was invited to sit in with the Bombay group. Without knowing what was going to happen George Brooks looked at me and said, “just improvise on an A13b9 chord and you will do fine.” After the event I was invited to after hours at the hotel where Ronu Majumdar took me aside and gave me some tips and was very encouraging about my playing.
A few months later Larry stated that he would be in Cleveland, Ohio performing at a club called Nighttown with a local pickup band and asked me if I wanted to come and sit in. Like a big brother, Larry was always encouraging me and provoking me to be a better player.
JC: Yeah, he was taking you seriously, but that approach toward you was pretty intense; I’d say he was testing you out a bit. True?
JM: Yeah, intense at the Showcase, and since it was a cold day I think he was just concerned. The intensity left when he found out I could really play. We laughed and joked around the rest of the day.
JC: Some people would have been turned off by Larry's aggressive mentoring, but you were not. Why?
JM: I was honored that Larry took a particular interest in me when he would come to town and we would hang in the hotel room playing music. I got to do three guitar clinics with him, played a gig with him in Cleveland. He let me sit in with him at the Jazz Showcase and also let me sit in with the Indian band he was touring with. He was one of the reasons I decided late in life to go back to school to earn my degree in music theory and composition. This 62-year-old guy is now in his senior year at Elmhurst College as a transfer student from Moraine Valley Community College. I highly recommend both schools that have great programs.
Larry influenced me not to do a jazz studies program but to delve in the classics and study composition. I believe he understood where I was at musically as far as jazz improvisation and wanted to see me take it to another level . . . Larry was nothing but encouraging as well as being a taskmaster.
One of my biggest thrills was when Larry came to my solo gig on a Sunday afternoon at DA’s Deli and Dining in Country Club Hills, and sat in with me. About August of 2016 while Larry was recovering from a serious infection he decided to go and stay with his brother Jim who lives in Oak Brook, Illinois. Larry hadn’t played guitar for about three months and called me to ask if he could come and play with my Thursday jazz guitar trio at DA’s in Orland Park. I drove to Oak Brook to pick him up, and we had a nice conversation on our way to the gig. My bass player Donn DeSanto and drummer Doug Bratt freaked out when they saw me walk in the door with Larry.
Larry watched us play the first set. I was very comfortable playing a set for Larry and decided to not worry about it and just play. Larry was very complimentary about my playing style. He said he heard a lot of Wes Montgomery in my playing. Larry played the rest of the gig with us. I could tell he was struggling with his chops, but the more we played the better he sounded. I have the video recording of that event and haven’t decided if I am ever going to release it or just keep it as my personal treasure.
It was really cool. The restaurant owner freaked out, but I don’t think the restaurant patrons had any idea who had graced them with his presence.
JC: I wonder if his encouragement to you to go deeper into music studies was based on his perception of your already-developed abilities. I mean—he learned from you and had you sit in fairly early in your relationship. What do you think?
JM: Most definitely. Larry always commented to me about being advanced in my harmonic knowledge, but it wasn’t until later in our relationship that I learned the depth of his musical passion with opera. I mean, I’m at his house in Orlando, he fixes me a latte and has me sit in the best chair in the room while he plays the overture for the opera based on the book War and Peace . . . totally blew my mind. Larry had a simple setup in his practice room: a guitar, amp, computer, and baby grand piano, and I got to sit in and jam with one of his students that came to the house.
JC: Without wanting to stick my nose where it isn’t welcome, did Larry talk about the pitfalls of musician professional life? Biographies of him indicate he had a bit of a rough time, including an involvement with substances, for example. Did he offer advice or caution in this context?
JM: One night having dinner with Larry when he came to town I asked him about the video Meeting of the Spirits with John and Paco. I noticed on the video that Larry was kind of jittery and sweating. I asked him point blank if he was doing drugs on that set and he stated that his connection didn’t show up, which explains the jittery. He also stated that he never watched that video and he stated that he was on the greatest tour of his life and abusing drugs and alcohol. He was embarrassed about it but thankful to be clean.
In 2016, Larry had an operation on his nose to help stop the allergies that were bothering him. I was in Florida at the time and asked if I could come visit him but he had developed a serious infection that kept him down for about three or more months. During our phone conversation I informed Larry that I was back in school to get my degree in music. Larry stated mockingly, “Oh, you want to be a musician!” One of Larry’s mottos was “to be more of a musician and less of a guitar player.”
The last time I saw and spoke with Larry was in January of 2017 at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. We were sitting at the bar and Larry brought up the subject of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring arrangement he wrote for six guitars. I was a little apprehensive when he brought up that subject because he gave me the score and assigned me as Guitar 1, which I had a very hard time playing. Larry put me at ease when he reminded me of my task of playing [that role] and brought up the fact that he couldn’t play it. In other words, maybe the part needs to be tweaked to make it more playable. I was relieved.
On February 18, 2017, Larry was performing at the Iridium in New York, and after the gig Larry went to his hotel room, called his wife and lay down to take a nap before catching the red eye back to Orlando. Larry never woke up and died February 19, 2017. I was honored by the Coryell family to be one of the speakers at his funeral at the Buddhist Cultural Center in Chicago.
I truly believe when the music history books are revised this great musician will be in the books.
JC: Given what you just told me, what crucial contribution did your relationship with Larry provide? Would things have turned out differently had you never been allowed to spend time with him?
JM: It's hard to say if things would have turned out differently. I believe I would be doing what I am doing. What Larry did for me was give me confidence—i.e., if I can hang with him playing I can hang with just about anyone.
Heath Chappell, Doug Lee, Donn DeSanto, John Moran play Coryell's "Spaces Revisited"
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John Moran is a fine example of a musician who has been through a lot but has emerged with a strong sense of purpose and appreciation for the people who have contributed to his development, while enduring and learning life lessons along the way. He, perhaps transposing his mentee experience with Larry, wrote:
Another principle I live by is that I can predict your future by the company you keep. What I am getting now in music school is the development of new relationships with some really great musicians (professors and students) that I may not have had the opportunity to cross paths with had I not humbled myself to enroll in a college degree program with mainly 20-year-old students. I will say this I came into the college with a lot of life experience and I am very grateful that a handful of professors allowed me to test out of some of the more fundamental jazz classes allowing me the credits without taking the classes. That has really helped me.
Lastly, I would like to state that I believe strongly that my career in music is just at the beginning stages. I was fortunate to have good training early in life; however, I wasn't dealt the full-time musician hand until the last few years. In my early 20s, much to my surprise, I started a family that turned out five great kids and now 13 grandkids. By not having a college education I had to do other things besides music to keep food on the table. It was a huge struggle financially, and I was happy to do gigs to supplement my income and keep up my chops. I wound up owning a mortgage company for 15 years and after the financial crash of 2008, I went to work as an expert witness for homeowner foreclosure cases to help lawyers keep people in their homes. Keep in mind, I was doing all this while still playing and developing my relationship with Larry C.
In 2015 I said “enough is enough.” I quit my job and moved in with my mom suffering from Alzheimer’s to take care of her while going back to music school. My personal advice for a young person wanting to be a musician is to go to school and get yourself established before starting a family.
One wants to think that, somewhere, Larry Coryell is smiling upon his student.
John Moran can be heard every Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and every Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at DA’s Deli and Dining, 159th and Harlem, in Orland Park. Connect with him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/john.moran.111
"Jazz with Mr. C" is written by Jeff Cebulski, a jazz enthusiast and regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org