Jazz Interview with jazz guitarist Roger Chong. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Roger Chong: – I was born in Hong Kong and my father used to record Beatles music onto cassette tapes to listen to in the car. The first song I remember singing was the well known ending of Hey Jude. My favourite Beatle was Paul McCartney and I begged my parents to let me take guitar lessons. However it wasn’t until my family moved to Toronto, Canada when I was 10 years old that I
began taking lessons. It was by chance that we drove by a store where there was a long lineup outside. It turned out to be a big boxing day sale at a music store. That was where I got my first
guitar – a Washburn acoustic, and signed up for guitar lessons. Although I was a little disappointed when I learned I wouldn’t be holding the guitar the same way Paul McCartney did because he was left handed, I was nonetheless excited about finally being able to play the guitar.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the guitar?
RCH: – The Beatles was the reason why I picked up the guitar, but I would say my biggest and most constant influence throughout my life had been Eric Clapton. I was a big blues fan for a long time because of him, as well as guitarists like BB King, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan. This gave me a strong foundation in my phrasing and feel when I eventually dug deeper and started gaining an appreciation for jazz during my studies at university where I majored in music. Guitarists such as George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, and Wes Montgomery were all big influences as well.
JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the guitar?
RCH: – Being a new immigrant to Canada and having to learn a new language, I must admit I did not really understand what was going on half of the time during those early guitar lessons. Even later on in university when my English was way more proficient, the material that was taught was so advanced that most of the time it just flew past my head. To this day I am still slowly rediscovering and digesting material that was taught to me during those times. My biggest teachers were probably the CDs that I listened to, CDs that contained music of the guitarists who I mentioned were big influences of mine. Having said all that, some of the better known
guitarists I took lessons with include Mike Cado and Roy Patterson, both are very respectable musicians and jazz educators in Canada.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
RCH: – For a long time I took pride in the tone and sound I achieved just by the way I played and the heavy strings that I used, straight from the guitar to the amplifiers. I prefered archtop guitars for their warmth, response, and resonance. More recently though, due to the need to be more versatile in my sound for the different type of gigs that I did, I started using my effect pedals that have been left sitting on the shelf gathering dust since my high school days. Although I spent a lot of money initially going for the ideal guitar, pickups, and amplifiers, I think eventually it just came down to the way a guitarist play. Nowadays I take comfort in knowing that no matter what guitar or amps I am using I would still sound the way I want to, simply because I trust my ear to make the right decision when I execute a note on my guitar, depending on the musical situation I would be in at that particular moment.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
RCH: – I try to find a time and space to practice but it had become extremely difficult recently because my wife and I had welcomed a baby boy to our family. I bought myself one of those Yamaha silent guitars. I have it set up like one of my jazz guitars by putting on heavier flat wound strings and custom installing a floating neck pickup. It is portable enough that I can bring it to school, where I work during the day as a band teacher, to practice whenever I have down time. Because of this, I find myself becoming more and more efficient in the way I practice, as opposed to just random noodling, which some people might do. I like to spend a couple of minutes every time before I play to warm up my left hand, as well as my picking hand, to make sure both hands are in sync with each other. After warming up and depending on whether there are any pressing need to work on material for the gigs I have at the time, I might work on learning a solo or a solo guitar arrangement of a jazz standard. In regards to rhythm, I find that I have always developed my sense of rhythm organically, meaning it came mostly from listening to a lot of music and playing with different people.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
RCH: – I find myself using a lot of colour in the chords I play. I tend to prefer chords with 6s or 9s, sometimes 13s, in them because of the way my left hand has gotten accustomed to them. I have been incorporating a lot of diminished substitution over dominant 7 chords lately in my playing as well, probably way more than I should. Haha.
JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?
RCH: – It is important to have a strong product, so work on your craft and then work on it some more. Set a high standard for yourself. It is the musicians who have substance in their music who will enjoy longevity in their career. Just as important, one must be prepared to find a way to finance himself nowadays, whether it means a day job, grant applications, or crowd-funding. Finally, nobody will know about your music, no matter how good it is, unless someone is there to help you promote it. Therefore having a good publicist who believes in what you do is crucial.
JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?
RCH: – It can be. However it is not a problem that the musicians can fix themselves. There needs to be an audience who understand and appreciate jazz music. Therefore music education in the public education system for the next generation is necessary so that they can have the right skills and knowledge to appreciate the music. I also think that musicians will mostly make the majority of their living through other means, such as teaching and performing, rather than selling music, especially in a climate where streaming music online for a minimal fee has become a norm. A musician friend once said to me that CDs are more a less an expensive calling card nowadays, and unfortunately he is correct to a certain extent.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
RCH: – Jazz doesn’t have to always be covers of old standards. There are many new compositions by contemporary jazz musicians. There are also a whole generation of new, young, and exciting jazz acts that most young people don’t know about, simply because the industry does not promote or advertise those acts like they do with Justin Bieber or Beyonce. The music of groups like Snarky Puppy, Bad Bad Not Good, or musicians such as Jacob Collier all have elements that would appeal to a younger generation of music fans.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
RCH: – I believe in treating others well and with respect. Music teaches that, especially in the setting of playing in a small ensemble in which listening to and supporting one another is vital in order to not only sound good, but to enjoy yourself. I think if I live life with music as my guide, one can say that’s kind of like my spirit, right?
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
RCH: – I am usually very calm, so I don’t know if I can really name a fear or anxiety. However, I do feel different on days when I have to perform. I prepare myself hours before. Even though anything can happen and go wrong during a gig, I try to eliminate that sense of anxiety by being prepared and knowing that whatever happens would be beyond my control.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
RCH: – I recently just finished playing in a pit orchestra for All Shook Up, the musical, performed by a local theatre group. I enjoyed it tremendously since it contained only music of Elvis Presley. I also joined a new big band and took up a weekly gig playing church music for Sunday mass. So I’m keeping myself busy. I am also trying to compose during those precious practice sessions I have during my down times at work. I have lots of ideas and elements that I want to incorporate in my new compositions for a new album, and when these compositions are ready I will probably have to find a way to fund the project. I was very lucky and successful with my last album, Funkalicious, which was funded by crowdfunding. However, I’m not too keen on doing that again because you can only ask your families and friends for money so many times before they stop inviting
you over for Christmas. Haha. I will probably have to look into applying for government grants.
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
RCH: – Definitely, there are improvisation in many types of world music. Some of such music uses similar scales that jazz musicians use. There are many jazz musicians who seek out world music for inspiration and influences, whether it is the feel, meter, or groove. I find it very satisfying to play and listen to jazz that have these elements of world music.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
RCH: – It took a long time before I finally got past Mike Stern’s use of chorus in his tone, and appreciate his playing. I attended a clinic he did recently and learned a lot from him and so I am listening to a lot to his music. Other artists I am discovering or listening to include Eric Gale, Ed Bickert, and Robb Cappelletto, who is a peer of mine. I would recommend him to any guitarist out there who are serious about their art. I would describe Robb as a guitarist’s guitarist.
JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?
RCH: – My main archtops are an Ibanez Artcore AK95 with Vintage Vibe Charlie Christian pickups installed, and an Eastman John Pisano signature guitar. I also use a Yamaha Pacifica Telecaster style guitar and a Squier Telecaster when I play jazz related music. For blues and
other types of music, I have a Fender Stratocaster that I put together using various parts I bought on eBay, as well as a Washburn semi hollow ES335 style guitar that I use whenever I need some bite in my tone. My main amplifiers are a Fender Blues Jr, a Traynor YCV40, as well as a very portable Lunchbox amplifier made by ZT Amplifiers.
JBN.S: – And if you want, you can congratulate jazz and blues listeners on Christmas and Happy New Year.
RCH: – Wishing all readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!!!
Interview by Simon Sargsyan