It’s been a while since I wrote one of these Life Builders posts. I changed the structure of my daily schedule and haven’t been able to spend as much time writing as I used to. But I recently emailed my good friend Ricky Malichi who told me Curt has retired and is traveling around the country, and enjoying life. That prompted me to write this new Life Builders post because Curt is certainly one of those people who made a major impact in my life.
Curt Warren: El Paso’s Jazz Great
Since before I ever got to El Paso, Curt Warren was always the most venerated jazz musician in town. Curt is to El Paso what Dennis Dotson is to Houston (just to put it into perspective for my Houston friends). He is the most knowledgeable, most capable and most musical jazz player on the scene.
Here is a copy of his biographical information taken from The El Paso Conservatory of Music (I’m copying it here because I know Curt has moved from El Paso and I don’t know how long this bio will remain on their website):
“Curt Warren is an active jazz guitarist, known primarily in the southwest, who is quickly making a name for himself on the national scene. The El Paso Conservatory of Music welcomed Curt to its guitar faculty in the spring of 2011.
1963: Curt began his professional career playing the Frankie Laine show in Las Vegas.
1968-1970: Curt played shows in Hawaii including Teresa Brewer, Tony Martin and a televised appearance with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra.
1970-1972: Curt was the leader of the El Paso Sheraton house band where he worked with Della Reese, Billy Eckstein, Fran Jefferies, Jerry Van Dyke, Joanne Summers, etc.
1974-1978: Performed with the United States Navy Band, “The Commodores” (the official Navy jazz ensemble) in Washington, DC. While performing with this band, he was a featured soloist at the Newport Jazz Festival, the Midwest Band Convention in Chicago, and at the National Association of Jazz Educators Convention in Dallas, TX.
1978: Curt began his employment as a Professor of Guitar at the University of Texas at El Paso, teaching jazz guitar and jazz improvisation, and performing at various functions and concerts at the university. He continues to work with his own trio in jazz clubs in El Paso where he has played with such greats as Herb Ellis, Bill Watrous, Carl Fontana, Rob McConnell, Bud Shank, Eddie Harris, Joe Newman, Tommy Tedesco, Al Viola and others.
1984: Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Fellowship Grant.
1986: Again received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Fellowship Grant.
Curt Warren has three albums to his credit. The first one, I’ve Got the World on a String , was recorded with legendary jazz bassist Monty Budwig. The second, Jazz Ruined My Life, was recorded in Chicago and features the great Chicago jazz pianist Larry Novak, Rusty Jones on drums, and Nick Tountas on bass. The third album “Jazz Ruined My Life II” was recorded both in Chicago and El Paso, Texas. It was released in October of 1998 by Innovative Strings Records, and is available online via amazon.com. Curt performs annually at the Texas Jazz Festival in Corpus Christi, Texas. He performs and gives clinics around the Chicago area, and in the Albuquerque, El Paso, and Houston areas. Curt is looking forward to expanding his excellent career even further.”
My first experience with Curt was in my freshman year at UTEP. Curt was my sight singing teacher. The earliest memory I have of him was when he demonstrated solfeggio in class, singing along with his guitar, almost George Benson style, but doing it solfeggio. I was impressed.
I think that influenced me to take the solfeggio seriously. Thanks to Curt Warren, Buddy Sisco and Cesar Morales (all of which are solfeggiating monsters), I am convinced that learning solfeggio is a very important part of growing as a musician.
One of Curt‘s talents as a guitar player is that he can make any note you play fit the changes. This was a good thing for me when I was first learning to improvise, but a rude awakening when I left El Paso and learned that not everyone plays this way. I had many opportunities to jam and perform with Curt while I was a student at UTEP. I can say with complete honesty that I always sounded best when Curt was covering up my mistakes. 🙂
I remember that Curt told me that this is what he does. He gave me lots of examples of wrong notes that he made fit the changes. Back then I thought it was amazing that he could do that on the fly. But today, I don’t just see it as amazing, I also see it as being extremely generous. Houston is full of wonderful musicians, but I have been places where, if you aren’t cutting the changes, you were treated like an outcast.
But Curt was always very kind to me in that respect. Looking back now and understanding just how little I was capable of back then, I really have to admire him for being so patient with me. I don’t think I REALLY started playing changes until about ten years after I left El Paso.
Here’s a Youtube playlist I created of some of Curt‘s videos:
Appreciating Jazz Lines
It was Curt who inspired me to appreciate jazz lines. I took his improvisation class and a few lessons. But I learned mostly from talking to him at jams and gigs. Curt likes to practice horn player licks. I remember that he was the first one to introduce me to minor ii V i licks that start on the flat five of the two chord. He showed me a tom Harrell lick that I still use hints of even today.
It was Curt who influenced me to begin collecting the jazz lines that eventually became my “book.” Long before I ever published one of my other books, I had a manuscript notebook full of jazz lines that I practiced in every key. I carried this book around with me everywhere I went and people would often ask me if I would sell them a copy. Ha! Their prompts are what put the idea to some day publish my materials in my head.
These Life Builders posts are my opportunity to acknowledge how people have contributed to my success in life. In my earliest years of jazz improvisation, Curt planted seeds in my life that have today come to full fruition. He introduced me to the philosophies that shaped my understanding of the jazz language.
I believe that when we use the term, “Jazz Language,” it specifically refers to how we structure our melodies, our lines. I believe that the individual notes are the jazz equivalent of spoken syllables. I believe that motifs (three to six note groupings) are the jazz equivalent of words. I believe that jazz phrases (what we call lines or licks) are the equivalent of spoken sentences. Finally, choruses in jazz are like paragraphs in speech.
This is one of the cornerstones of my jazz playing and how I teach jazz improv. It was Curt who pointed me in that direction. It was Curt Warren who taught me to appreciate jazz lines instead of just trying to play scales and arpeggios all the time.
Thank You Curt
The last time I saw Curt was when he played a gig here in Houston on his way back from the Texas Jazz Festival. I had played with him one last time just a few months prior to that gig (the picture to the left is from that “gig”). Knowing that he has left El Paso makes me wonder if I will ever get a chance to work with him again. And that makes me sad.
Curt, I don’t know if I ever told you how much I appreciate you and what you did for me. Thank you so much for being true to who you are. I don’t do well talking about these sorts of things in person. But I want to thank you for being such a big part of who I am today as a musician. Much of who I am as a jazz player finds its roots in your influence in my life. So thank you!