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Billy Rogers
Hometown - Omaha, Nebraska
Billy Rogers (Solo)
Jazz Messengers
Jack McDuff
[excerpt from the liner notes of Billy Rogers album, The Guitar Artistry of Billy Rogers, written by Dave Stryker, 1992.]

Billy Rogers was considered by many people to be one of the greatest guitarists ever. With his combination of soulfulness and incredible speed, he not only had the ability to reach people, but the excitement in his playing could literally bring an audience out of their seats. (Except for the guitarists in the house, who usually just sat with their mouths open!) Though nothing could beat hearing Billy live, this CD will introduce his playing to those who missed that experience.

Billy gained some notoriety (especially as a member of the Jazz Crusaders from 1976-78), but his amazing jazz playing was never fully captured on any recordings - until now. After searching through hundreds of tapes found in Billy's apartment after he died, these four-track demos were discovered. By isolating his guitar tracks, we were able to play along with Billy, bringing to light those special performances.

Billy was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on January 2, 1950. His parents listened to jazz, and as a child, he had a little record player that he would play over and over. Around age twelve, a broken arm ended piano lessons, so his folks gave him a guitar and some guitar lessons. Two years later he joined a neighborhood rock group, and it wasn't long before he could pick songs off the radio by ear. "I was doing a lot of practicing, but I was still learning the rock thing and all that. One day I just told the band" 'Look, I'm gonna quit and learn to play jazz.' They thought I was crazy, you know? I didn't have any idea what jazz was, but I knew there was somethin' more than what I was doin'. I'd heard Miles Davis and all, although I didn't fully understand it.. I had heard things in my head - more than what I was doing then and more than what I was listening to on the pop stations."

When he was 16, Billy locked himself in his room with his guitar and record player. With the dedication that followed him throughout his life, he began practicing up to eight hours a day. "I had always just listened to rock records, whoever was playing on them. - also B.B. King, Albert King, people like that - before I got into the jazz end of it. Then a friend turned me on to some records: George Benson, Jack McDuff, Kenny Burrell, and Grant Green. That knocked me out. So then, I finally got some direction happening - you know, trying to get their conception down. They were probably the first main influences and they all sort of came at once." His records were stacked without their jackets, so he could get to them easily. Some had been played so much they were almost white, where the grooves had worn off. One of those was George Benson's first record, It's Uptown, of which Billy once said, "Everything you need to know about guitar is on that record."

"I went through a period, when I first started, when I thought: 'Well, I'll try to learn this lick and that lick', I'd learn a run or somethin' and try to play it somewhere. But the only thing you're gonna get, man, is a half-assed imitation of of somebody if you do that. I don't care if you get it down and play it the same way - it's not going to have the same spontaneity and the same meaning as when somebody else played it. But I did learn where people are coming from and how they put things together. I could take a lick somebody played through a certain chord change, and figure out the passing scale. After you learned the scale that ran through the changes, you could interchange the notes and do different stuff with the scale. Then you aren't tied down necessarily to the repetition of chord changes in a given tune."

Soon he began playing with Donnie and Ronnie Beck and John Maller in clubs around North Omaha. He was still too young to play in bars, so his mother or Aunt Susie would chaperone him to gigs. "Grant Green came to Omaha. He was here about two weeks with an organ trio. John Patton and Clifford Jarvis on drums. A hell of a group, though, you know? People dug it at first, but it was a little too New Yorkish, with the drummer doing cross-polyrhythms and everything - people wondered what it was. I was down there every night, man! I sat in, but at the time I didn't know anything about playing. I could do some things on my guitar, but it was another two years before I actually started playin' - you know, makin' the connection between the instrument and yourself - that's what I mean by playin'. Later on, the more I thought back on it. [Grant's gig] had an effect on me, and I started seeing the musical values of what they were playing."

Billy continued to play and practice voraciously, but it was obvious he would have to leave Omaha to continue to develop as a musician. "Practice is the key to the whole thing - the more you practice, the better you're gonna be. But there's more to it than just practicing, because you can have your technique down, but your playing is only going to have as much meaning to it as whatever you are as a person. You gotta have somethin' to play about, you know - have certain experiences in your life. That may sound corny, but it's true. Technique as an end in itself is bad. Now, technique as a means is great, but you have to be using it in a meaningful way. You've got to be developed as a person, I think."

Billy started gaining that experience at seventeen, when he snuck out of town with organist Frank Edward's trio. He began playing around Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, and Kansas City (where he met his wife, Susan; his son Scott, was born foiur years later). Around 1971, he started a musical association with another great keyboardist. "A guy that helped me a lot - and I made a big leap - was Bobby Lyle, who I hooked up with in Minneapolis. For the eight-month period I was with him, I grew about 500 percent. I found oput how to get around my instrument, and how harmonically things were connected up. Everything was starting to go together now." So much so that Jack McDuff hired Billy after hearing some tapes of him playing with organist Ronnie Foster.

"I was about twenty-three when I worked with McDuff. It was good for me; I learned how to put a group together. It was a reciprocal thing - you started listenin' instead of just jammin'. It was about time for me toi open my ears up and listen to what other players in the group were doin', so that particular type of music - simple rhythm-and-blues-based jazz - was a good stage right then. Also, playing in different cities and meeting different people helps to broaden your scope. I quit McDuff to go with this bad organ player named Lonnie Smith. It was still in that 'organ' bag, but harmonically, it was a better gig." Lonnie later introduced Billy to George Benson, who said, "This cat can play."

In 1975 Billy joined George Shearing's quintet for a year-and-a-half stint. "It was a different conception - Shearing's another cat you listen to on records and it soiunds real traditional, but he can play almost anything. He's a harmonic genius. When you play with him you have to do a lot of editing, because he wants a certain thing. But that's with any gig - you gotta play what the gig calls for. You shouldn't just completely capitulate to what they want; you gotta try some things. As long as they respect me, I'll respect what they want."

At this point, Billy started calling Los Angeles home and began living with singer Linda Cunningham. He made his first appearance on record, with Bobby Lyle (The Genie, Capitol ST-11627) and Omaha friend Donnie Beck (B&G Rhythm, Polydor). Billy then made a big jump into funk fusion with saxophonist Ronnie Laws, which helped him get his equipment and rhythm-guitar chops together. "I was playing a big Gibson 175 and a Fender amp, I was just overdrivin' and wasn't gettin' the right kind of sound, so I switched to a Gibson 335 and a Fender Strat." He heard that The Crusaders were looking for a new guitarist. "They auditioned fifty guitar players and said everyone else tried to play like the guy they had before, Larry Carlton. I guess they saw potential in what I was doing, so they hired me."

As a member of The Crusaders, Billy's playing began to get the attention it deserved. Saxophonist Wilton Felder said the band opened up more and became jazzier when Billy joined. During the next year and a half they toured the world, and Billy was featured on their album Images (MCA-D-31360) and on their May 1977 Down Beat cover. He also had solo spots on Joe Sample's Rainbow Seeker (Warner Bros. MFSL 1016).

Playing with The Crusaders was agreat experience, but Billy was still striving to establish his own voice. "To be real honest about it, on the records released while I was with them, I wasn't really free to do the playing I can do. If the only place people have heard me play was on their records, they've got a misconception of my playing."

After The Crusaders, Billy continued to gig around Los Angeles. He worked with saxophonist Plas Johnson, with whom he recorded LA 55 (Plas Johnson with The Grease Patrol: Carrell Music 101). Although jazz was his first love, Billy wasn't afraid to incorporate all styles of music into his playing. He had been listening to fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth, whose style began to rub off on him. "You have to open up your mind. If something's got some feeling some meaning and some looseness to it, I like it. I have the highest respect for doing things with sincerity. I've got this thing against purists, man, because music keeps changing - times change, people change, music changes. There are basics you can't get away from - Ben Webster forty years ago was playing somethin' just as musical as anything goin' on today, just in a different context with another way of playing. Now me, man, I love Coltrane and around that era - the Sixties and early Seventies - Miles's rhythm sections, especially Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock, and the whole Blue Note scene. That's where my musical preference lies, I'm not gonna put on Coltrane's Impressions for somebody that's not hip to it. I would if I thought they were ready, but I'm not going to say this is all you can listen to."

By this time, word of Billy's incredible playing was spreading fast, but his problems with drugs tragically kept him an underground legend. In 1984, he moved to San Francisco and appeared healthy and happy, playing there with saxophonist Jules Broussard and others. It was during this time that he was working, with his Modulus graphite-neck Strat, on the four-track demos heard on this album. He was also writing and working on many funk and fusion-type tunes. As evidenced by the hundreds of tapes found in his apartment, he continued searching for new ideas up until his untimely death from a drug overdose on February 11, 1987. He was thirty-seven years old.

Billy's friends knew him as a warm, funny, smart, but overly humble person. A typical Billy Rogers statement - after a full set of blistering solos - would be, "Man, you ever have one of those nights when you can't put two notes together?" Linda Giambolvo recently told me a story. They were living in Venice Beach and Billy came home barefoot, without the new tennis shoes and socks he had recently bought. Fearing the worst, Linda was angry - until she later saw a homeless man on the boardwalk, wearing a new pair of tennis shoes. Billy also had a lot of heart.

"I first heard about Billy Rogers when I was a teenager living around Kansas City in the early '70s. Billy was not that much older than me but was already a legend amongst guitar players and musicians around the Midwest (he was from Omaha, just up I-29). At that time, the kind of burning organ trio guitar players like Pat Martino and George Benson had just made their marks and Billy followed in that same tradition; but like all great players, he had his own unique way of looking at things. After a few years, Billy started to get some attention from musicians he deserved and had stints with some great bands, but I always felt like he never had the chance to shine on his own like all of us who were fans of his knew he could. This compilation, put together by Omaha's other great guitar export, Dave Stryker, is a loving and wonderful portrait of a musician who sadly left us far too soon. For serious fans of jazz guitar, this record is a must." - Pat Metheny

"Billy Rogers was a remarkable guitar player. I met him in the '70s when he was with The Crusaders, and I knew from hearing him then and hanging out with him that he was a great player. Listening to these tapes now, I realize how far he had gotten. It's a tragedy his life ended so early, but at least we have this record to remember him by. - John Scofield

"Thank God somebody had the sense to keep Billy Rogers with us. This is a marvelous album... - George Shearing

"Billy's guitar and music were enriched by the tradition of our great jazz. I have no doubts that his own bountiful and outstanding contribution to this heritage will now become stronger. His loss was tragic and untimely." - Joe Sample

"Playing with Billy Rogers was as much a thrill as being on the same bandstand with Wes Montgomery. Billy was a very passionate man who spoke through his guitar. As this album shows, Billy is to be included among the guitar giants. His music and artistry will live on to inspire others." - Wilton Felder

"Billy Rogers always struck me as an artist who was the embodiment of his art. Not just playing the guitar, but becoming the guitar. Fingers, mind and instrument fusing together to create a continuous stream of articulate ideas in any format. Like many of his predecessors - Charlie Christan, Clifford Brown, Scott LaFaro, to name a few - his time on this earth was much too brief. Unlike them, he left barely a recorded trace of his artistry, mostly on the projects of others. That makes this collection even more important, allowing Billy to take his place amongst the great soloists. I miss you, Billy, because you were as great a friend as you were a musician." - Bobby Lyle

"I remember when Billy was in the band, a friend came up to me after a set and said, 'You ain't gonna keep him long.' He was right. Whatever I had in the book, he played the hell out of it - better than anyone. His playing had such a natural ease, he could do it all and make it look simple. It seemed like he had conquered that field and was ready to move on to his own thing. It's too bad more folks didn't hear him, because he was at the top of the league of guitarists who worked with me." - Jack McDuff

"Billy came to play with me after leaving McDuff and he was a son-of-a-gun. The guitar is a hard instrument and he had mastered the left and right hand technique. He had a beautiful concept, a good touch and feel, big ears - very quick and very natural. No matter what tempo, he could cut it. Unfortunately, the timing isn't always right because he would've been one of the forerunners on his instrument. He was an extraordinary guitarists." - Lonnie Smith

"Always inspired, never ordinary. A joy to hear and always a pleasure to have him with me on the bandstand. When Billy was in the band, everyone's playing was pumped up a notch. He was the guitar player of his generation." - Plas Johnson

"He seemed constantly to be searching for new and challenging avenues of expression." - Leonard Feather