Tuesday, November 2, 2021

That Time I Saw an Old Man Play Guitar


Jimmy Raney, as I remember him. (Photo by Greg Turner)

I lived in Louisville from 1978 until 1987 and have spent a lot of time there since, except these last two years. Even after I moved, until about 1994 I was in Kentucky almost as much as I was in Chicago.

I remember once, during some kind of festival, being up by the Brown Hotel in an outdoor plaza, watching and listening to an elderly man play electric guitar. He wasn’t busking, it was part of the festival, but very low key, casual. Louisville is a big city that sometimes manages a small-town feel. It was afternoon, sunny and warm. A nice day.

There wasn’t a stage, or a band, just the man, on a bench, with his guitar and amp. I joined the small crowd gathered around him. He was just playing. No chatting up the audience. No vocals. I don’t recall recognizing any melodies. It was jazz, freeform, mesmerizing. I happened upon him but stayed until he finished. His music left a mark.

I remember that instance clearly, but I know I saw him other times in other places too. I may have seen him with saxophonist Jamey Aebersold, the renowned jazz educator who is a familiar presence around Louisville. Louisville had a nice, little jazz scene then. A guy I knew from work played acoustic bass in a combo at the Seelbach Hotel's bar. I enjoyed the music but didn't think a lot about it.  

At some point I learned that old guitarist’s name and looked him up.

It was Jimmy Raney.

His name probably doesn’t ring a bell unless you’re a big fan of 1950s American jazz. Raney was a ubiquitous sideman. He began his career in Chicago in 1944. Thereafter he played with Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, and many others. He is most remembered for his time in the 1950s with Red Norvo and Stan Getz. He won the DownBeat Magazine critics poll for guitar in 1954 and 1955. The New York Times called him "one of the most gifted and influential postwar jazz guitarists in the world".

They wrote that in his obituary. Jimmy Raney died in 1995. He was 67.

The obituary writer, Peter Watrous, also wrote this: “Mr. Raney's improvising, at its best, made clear that he had developed a lucid and distinct conception of both the swing and be-bop vocabularies. His lines often resolved on odd, pungent notes, and mid-solo his phrases rolled easily from his guitar as he constructed lengthy passages. His harmonic conception could be bleak and a touch bitter; he rarely relied on obvious or easy note choices. And he always varied his long lines with melodies and riffs.”

To the extent I understood any of that, it is how I remember the old man I saw playing in front of the Brown Hotel one sunny afternoon.

I learned that Raney was born and raised in Louisville. His father, a sportswriter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, died in 1944. Jimmy was 17. Traumatized by his father's death, he fled to Chicago where he had family and where there were more opportunities to play music for money than there were in Louisville. Once established, he relocated to New York, where he enjoyed his greatest success. 

Raney left New York, and music, to return to Louisville in the late sixties, reportedly due to issues with alcohol. He resumed his career in the 70s and worked steadily thereafter, often with his son, Doug, who also played guitar and had a similar style, but he never again achieved the fame he knew in the 1950s. 

Doug Raney is gone now too. He died in 2016 of heart failure. He was 59. 

Jimmy had another son, Jon, an amateur pianist who works in IT. He maintains a website called “The Raney Legacy” at jonraney.com. He has an active blog. His extensive biography of his dad is here. I also recommend his post on the 94th anniversary of his father’s birth in August of this year. 

One last thing. By the time I saw Raney, just a few years before his death, he was almost completely deaf from Ménière's disease. I can’t imagine how such a thing is possible, to play so beautifully even though you can’t hear what you’re playing. I didn’t know that when I heard him, only later. 

Is there a takeaway from this? Not much of one, just reminiscing. But you never know about another person’s life and isn’t the internet marvelous for the curious?


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