For a year or so before I went to New York, I spent every Friday and Saturday evening at the Nameless Coffeehouse, a free-of-charge, multi-act folk music showcase in the Unitarian church on the corner of Church Street in Harvard Square. They even had free coffee, cider, and cookies, and I auditioned to play there but didn’t make the grade, so I worked my way into the inner circle by washing dishes in the kitchen when I wasn’t interested in the musician who happened to be playing.
There were plenty of musicians who did interest me: Amy Cohen (who introduced me to Dave Van Ronk) did Pentangle songs with her boyfriend Bob Harmon, who could play all the John Renbourn parts; Paul Cole, the one man band; Eliot Kenin doing comedy and music; Cathy Winter, a compelling singer of everything from Irish ballads to ragtime blues; and Guy Van Duser, whose first album came out as I was settling in New York, with a live Nameless performance of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
I played that record for Dave, who grumbled, “Do we really need another Chet Atkins?” His lady, Joanne, happening to wander through the room, murmured, “Do I detect a note of envy?”
As it turned out, I was in college with Guy’s brother-in-law, John Hu, and he lent me a cassette Guy had made for him as a Christmas present, of Guy and Billy Novick jamming on Christmas carols. I played that for Dave as well, and this time he was impressed. “That’s first-rate second-rate jazz,” he said, approvingly, and when I looked nonplussed, added: “That’s where I put the Venuti-Lang duets, as well.” I would learn that this was one of Dave’s favorite categories, and meant as a compliment — the point being it wasn’t Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, but was very good for what it was.
Since my year with Dave had primed me to play more swing standards, Guy seemed like the obvious next stop, and when I got to Cambridge I set up a lesson with him. The first thing he said was, “Name any standard, name any key.” I called “Sweet Georgia Brown” in Eb, and he ripped off a bunch of improvised choruses. That was the goal: to be able to improvise fully-formed fingerstyle arrangements freely, in any key, on any tune, like a jazz pianist — and he’d made it.
Then he had me play for him, and I played Dave’s arrangement of “The Pearls,” and he asked if I’d heard Eric Schoenberg’s arrangement, which I hadn’t. Then he asked me to play Dave’s arrangement of “St. Louis Tickle,” which had been the first ragtime piece he’d learned, and he played a nice second part with me. Then he gave me a sheet of music notation with his arrangement of “Swanee,” as homework for next week.
I fought with that arrangement for a few days, then called Guy and told him I had hoped to come to him for pointers, not to learn his arrangements note for note, and he said, “Well, my students tend to end up sounding like me.” So we agreed it was not a good fit, and I went my way…
…but I did cop one lick from his record: he played the first measure of “Ain’t She Sweet” with an ascending chromatic figure starting on the one paralleling the descending figure in the melody, and I figured out how to do something similar in the key of C. As Dave would say, it ain’t so such much, but you take what you can get.
This medley became one of my hot-shot pieces for a while, and I recently heard a recording of myself playing it at the Nameless a half-dozen years later. It sounded pretty clunky, frankly, but boy could my fingers move a lot faster when I was 23.