How did you first get started into music? Please give us a roundup of your music career.
by Steven Hancoff
(This is a long story!!)
In 1961, when I was thirteen years old, I went to my first concert – by the folk group, The Weavers. I was smitten. Next day, I got ahold of a $15 Harmony, genuine plywood, nylon string guitar, and I got an lp: The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. I sat with that record every day, over and over, and I figured out how to play all the songs on it. Then I got a second record, The Weavers on Tour, and did the same thing. Then I started hearing about other folk singers. I’d get their records, learned songs, etc. Within about six months, I’d go to two clubs in Baltimore (where I grew up): Le Flambeau and The Blue Dog where they had weekly “hootenannies.” I signed up every week at both clubs, and performed regularly.
Jump forward to after college, I got a job teaching guitar at a studio in Vancouver, B.C. There I played whatever gigs I could land. I played folk clubs in Gastown (the music district); lead guitar for a folk duo “Dale and Kathy” (Kathy had a gorgeous voice!); accompanied an accordion player walking table-to-table taking requests at a fancy restaurant playing standards (like “Misty,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” etc. – that’s where I started to learn jazz chords); lead in a country & western band at a bar downtown called “The Barn;” several dance bands both in clubs and for weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. More venues than I can remember.
Because I play finger style – which sounds syncopated when accompanying a song – people often said my style sounded like “ragtime.” I got curious about ragtime. So, one day in Omaha, Nebraska I happened to see a book of piano music – The complete Classic Piano Rags of Scott Joplin. I bought it, and started to transcribe complete classic rags. I was very, very accurate in transcribing and arranging these for guitar.
In 1975 (about a year after I started my romance with Ragtime), I heard about the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Mo (where Joplin lived, and composed). I went, entered the contest, and won. The judges were a Who’s Who of the Ragtime world. And they encouraged me to keep doing this. One thing led to another such that I ended up recording two LPs of complete classic piano rags on guitar. Last I saw, one of the LPs was for sale on E-Bay for actual money!
At some point my wife and I travelled – I called it “dirtbagging” – around a lot. We ended up for about a year in Hawaii. There was a guitar playing contest there too, which I won. I was named “Hawaii Guitar Champion,” whatever that means! This lead to my doing my first concert tour – six concerts on the Big Island of Hawaii. By the way, Kilauea [the volcano] exploded the day before my concert at Volcanoes National Park. Nthe album, I started getting invitations to play a lot of traditional jazz festivals where I had solo sets, but was also typically invited to sit in with the bands. This was my introduction to traditional and New Orleans jazz. So, I’d sit in, and had to play music on stage that I did not know. This was great ear training, and this was how I learned to hear chord changes just before they happened. I got a reputation with the guys in the bands. And they would play their most sophisticated charts just to see if they could mess me up. I was later told that some of the guys would occasionally bet a beer on whether I’d get a particular change or not! It was a lot of fun – and very challenging.
At one of the festivals, on the Goldenrod Showboat in St. Louis, an old man came up to me after I played a set. He said, “Kid, you got it.” I was 41 years old, and no one had called me “Kid” for a very long time! The man was Al Rose. Al invited me to New Orleans.
Now, Al was a grand old man of jazz. He had had the very first jazz radio show in the world; he had produced the very first jazz concerts in the 1930’s. (Before that, jazz bands played for dances.) He also wrote books about jazz and about New Orleans, one of which was called “Storyville (the name of the legal red-light district in New Orleans in the early 20th century), and the book that was turned into the movie “Pretty Baby,” Brooke Shields’ break out hit.
I spent a year living in New Orleans, playing with jazz bands, and hanging out with musicians there. I also spent many, many hours with Al in his den as he regaled me with tales of the early days of jazz. He was a great story-teller. In fact, his “autobiography,” “I Remember Jazz” is just a great and entertaining read. I also sat with him at the Tulane Jazz Archives, much of which was his donation. (He smiled when he mentioned what a great tax write off that had been! – like the cat that ate the canary!) He’d instruct me by saying things like: “Now, listen to the clarinet obbligato here,” or “Listen to how the trombone supports the trumpet solo.” Things like that. I learned lot from Al.
That’s when I recorded my second CD, New Orleans Guitar Solos. When it was done, I remember handing it to Al. He looks at it, and in a deep guttural voice just said, “Yeah.” He was definitely my mentor.
Anyway, I realized that the next step in terms of the development of American music was swing. A little history: Jazz was a New Orleans phenomenon. When Storyville was outlawed (by an edict of the US Navy during WWI because it was forbidden to have a brothel within a certain distance from a Navy base), gigs for jazz musicians dried up. This drove many to leave the laid-back city, and head to where the action was – which meant Kansas City, St. Louis, and then Chicago, and of course New York. So, swing developed as a citified response to the New Orleans sound. Rhythms became more complicated. And of course harmonies were far more complex. Charts had to be written out, and were much more specific because sections had to play tight and often in unison. And add to that the new city sound of saxophone (taking the place of clarinet), and just the intensity of the north versus the “Big-Easiness” of N’Awlins – and that gave rise to swing. And so I listened to lots and lots of swing. And it did not take long to become apparent to me why Duke Ellington was the grand master.
So, I g
ot into transcribing Ellington, and I recorded my first Ellington – Duke Ellington for Solo Guitar. But by the time I finished that, I still had about half a dozen more pieces I wanted to record. So, I kept working on it, until I had a second CD – The Single Petal of a Rose.
As far as performing is concerned, I didn’t really go after doing that so much. But another thing I love to do is white-water rafting. There was this river in Chile that was legendary – called the Bio-Bio. The Chilean government was about to dam it (meaning it wouldn’t be worth running anymore because the rapids would be washed out). So, people in the boating community sought another river in Chile to run, and they found the Futuleufu. So, in 1993, I went down there, and we ran both of them. By the way, we were only the second group to do the “Fu,” as we affectionately came to call it. And the week I left home to go there, there was an article in the paper about how some people in the first group drowned doing it!
It turned out to be a great trip. Besides the whitewater, I did a lot of hiking, boating through spectacular iceberg-filled water, and much more. It was my first time in South America. So, when I came home, I was filled with stories of the wonder of the scenery, the sweetness of the people, and what a great place it was to visit.
One of my closest friends here was Buddy Wachter, who to me is still the greatest four-string banjo player of them all. We like to say, “He’s so good that nobody ever heard of him!” To give you an idea: I first met Buddy at a jam session. We were seated next to one another – the “string section.” We got along, and made a date to get lunch down the road. In the meantime, I had decided I wanted to transcribe some music by the great banjo virtuoso from the 1920’s Harry Reser. So, I walked into Bud’s apartment, and asked if he knew “Lollipops,” one of Reser’s signatures. Damn if Bud didn’t sit down, and write it down then and there, note-for-sixteenth-note! I was mightily impressed!
I mention all this because not a couple of months after I got back from Chile, the phone rings. And the US Information Agency wants us to do a tour in South America on behalf of the US. On the tour we did two cities in Brazil, three in Argentina, and then three in Ecuador. In fact, we were the first Americans to ever play a concert in Ushuaia, the southern most place in the world (and the home of the most delicious seafood in the world too).
When we got back, we were told, “You guys were a hit.” And this began our fifteen year association with USIA, and then the Arts America program of the US State Department.
We created a concert program that told the story of the history of and development of American music from Stephan Foster through Gershwin and Ellington. Folk songs of the Civil War, cowboys, railroads, Sousa, Joplin, Morton, Oliver, Armstrong and on and on. Telling the stories of the times, and the extremely interesting lives of the men and women who created our musical heritage.
In the end, we played in 45 countries, some of them more than once. And I can’t count how many cities, how many radio/newspaper/magazine TV interviews. I have stories galore… but they are best told verbally rather than written down.
I also toured in quite a few American cities, including in 1985 in California. That trip turned out to be beyond significant. First, I had a couple of days between performances and called Michael Lorimer. Michael had been Segovia’s student. That’s when he told me that I ought to check out the Cello Suites. The other thing that happened was I had been looking for someone to build a guitar for me. In San Francisco, I visited Alex DeGrassi. I played exactly one chord on his guitar. Asked him who made it. He told me Ervin Somogyi made it. I now count Ervin as a close friend, and he’s the guy who built my guitars.