I am a professional jazz-guitar player and my playing is deeply rooted in the revolutionary music of the 1940s and 50s with emphasis upon the music of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.When it comes to the influences of guitar players, I have a great affection for the first generation of modern (electric) jazz guitar players, because they managed so wonderfully to translate those innovative sax, trumpet and piano styles to the guitar by their own initiative. Of course there was the guitar branch of the jazz tree, which incorporates Eddie Lang, Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian who established the guitar as a solo instrument to show them what was possible. Charlie Christian appears to have been the main initiation for everyone who came after him. Christian featured the electric guitar, mostly Gibson models like the famous ES-150 and ES-250, which were installed with the new Gibson Pickup invented by Walter Fuller. Since then the connection with Charlie has led to the unit being called the Charlie Christian pickup, primarily because his innovative use of the new instrument was so influential. His playing, also mostly influenced by horn-players, provided the starting point for Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow, Chuck Wayne and most obviously Ronnie Singer to take it to the next level of jazz development e.g. the new music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Playing hornlike phrases constitutes a problem on such a percussive and non-sustaining instrument as the guitar. Guitar players usually play with a plectrum or pick, in the right hand, to attack the strings and, without careful execution and conscious coordination with the left hand, solo-lines played on the guitar can sound too staccato or clipped. The more sophisticated hornlike approach needs to create a flowing legato and rhythmically complex phrasing, which is precisely what makes the music of Charlie Parker so exciting and fascinating.
In my opinion there have been only a few guitar-players who were able to produce a playing technique that enabled them to play in that style, the most important is undoubtedly Jimmy Raney (before I found out about Ronnie Singer). His “school” of guitar playing influenced a lot of players such as Rene Thomas, Billy Bean, Jimmy Gourley, Don Overberg and also my instructor the sadly underrated Dutch guitar master Wim Overgaauw.(By the way Jimmy Raney, Rene Thomas and Jimmy Gourley played ES-150 guitars for a long time in their careers. Like Charlie Christian many of the early bebop players loved the sound of the CC pickup and either had them installed on their guitars, or directly played ES-150 or 250 models.)
In 1993 I visited Louisville, KY, for a period of 6 weeks, because a friend studied there at the University. I asked her to find out about the local jazz scene before my visit . She had heard that Jimmy Raney was living in the area. It took me a lot of courage to call my Idol after I found his number, but after stuttering to introduce myself we spoke for three (!) hours on the phone (a public phone, the local call just cost me a couple of quarters). Jimmy spoke continuously, encouraged by the fact that I lived in the Netherlands where he had spent some nice times there a couple of years before.
He knew some of my former teachers very well especially the great piano-player Frans Elsen and guitarist Wim Overgaauw. The subjects went from his time with the Stan Getz Quintet to playing with Charlie Parker with digression to the correct recipe for Kentucky fried chicken and, more relevantly, his experiences in Europe. I felt honored because he was opening up to me even though I was a complete stranger. At the end of our telephone call he agreed to meet me and a visit to his house, in a suburb of Louisville, was arranged for the next day.
It is easy to imagine how excited I was to meet the great player in person after the encouraging and personal conversation we had had the day before. Jimmy was actually not in very good shape at this time in his life. I think he had been drinking heavily and was recovering from that. When he saw me approaching the house he seemed surprised to have a visitor. I think he had forgotten about our appointment, but nonetheless invited me in, after remembering our conversation. He made some coffee and the next couple of hours were the type of memorable moments that accompany you for the rest of your life.
Jimmy told numerous more stories about his professional life, about the guitars he played and all the people he played with. He understood that I knew his music and he even took his guitar (I think it was one he had borrowed from Attila Zoller) and played the theme from “Motion” the tune he had recorded with Stan Getz on the chords of “You stepped out of a dream”’ even though he was in bad shape. And then at a certain moment he said that I should listen to a tape he had of a guitar player from Chicago that he used to be close with and who he claimed “had played his ass off” but had unfortunately committed suicide together with his wife in the early fifties at the young age of 24.
The name of this great guitar player was Ronnie Singer. Jimmy Raney could not find the tape, and although I was disappointed not to hear a guitar player that my idol looked up to, the fact that Jimmy Raney considered him to be one of the best guitar players ever imprinted the name “Ronnie Singer” in my mind from that point onwards.
Ever since this meeting with Jimmy, who unfortunately passed away just a couple of years later in 1995, I have been trying to get hold of this mythical tape, only to find out that no one seems to have even heard of Ronnie. Tragically he seemed forgotten.
When the Internet came up in the late 90s, it seemed to be the obvious way to find some information about Ronnie. I had little more knowledge than that Ronnie had to be on some kind of recording, but I did not know whether it was a regular recording, which could be out there on vinyl or maybe CD or a casual bootleg recording. Every once in a while I put Ronnie’s name in a search engine but nothing ever came up. My luck started to change around 2004 when the first of a number of wonderful coincidences occurred. I received a phone call from Irv Rochlin, a Chicago born pianist who had been based in The Hague, my hometown, for a long while.
Irv had been teaching at The Hague conservatory, which had resulted in a rich professional life and although I knew that he had been around and knew a lot of people, it had never occurred to me to ask him about Ronnie. He had heard from record producer Henk Toorenvliet, with whom he and I were associated, that I was looking for a recording of a guitarist named Ronnie Singer. I had asked Henk about it because he is also an avid record collector.
Maybe he knew something, unfortunately he did not, but he told Irv about my search. So Irv called me and started the conversation with: “Axel, I heard you are looking for Ronnie Singer…I played with Ronnie….” Wow (!), Irv told me that he had worked with Ronnie and a singer in Chicago, that he knew him well and told me some personal details about him: that he played wonderfully and was way ahead of everybody else at the time in Chicago. He also told about his sad suicide along with his wife in the early 50s and the stir it aroused in the contemporary jazz-scene. Irv could not remember the exact year of Ronnie’s death but thought it to be 1954 during the time that Ronnie was in New York, as he was scheduled to work with Artie Shaw’s band. Irv was not aware of any recording and was not sure whether he had actually made any.
It was a strange realization as I had lived with Irv all these years in the same city and knew him very well, never thinking he might have known Ronnie. In 2004 I made a recording with Lee Konitz and only later I found out that he also knew Ronnie as well and really appreciated him. I spent some nice times with Lee, besides the recording session, and I could have easily asked him about Ronnie.
Even earlier around 1994, I had worked with Lou Levy in a production with the Metropole Orchestra under the direction of Rob Pronk. Lou Levy also knew Ronnie and mentions him being an all time great in Ira Gitler’s book “From Swing to Bop” which again I only found out later. Lou and I enjoyed working together and we could have discussed Ronnie if I had been aware of this connection. So I was very close to people who knew him, but being unaware, my search for the illustrious tape, and the man, continued!
It must have been destiny that brought me in contact with the great English jazz guitar player and historian Adrian Ingram in 2008, with whom I did some concerts in 2009. I appreciate Adrian very much as a person and player. It must have been our mutual appreciation and his understanding that my playing was rooted in Jimmy Raney, Rene Thomas et al that brought a conversation after one of our gigs to the subject of unknown but great guitar players. So after talking about Billy Bean, Don Overberg, Bill Dillard and others he mentioned that he had this tape of a guitar-player named Ronnie Singer, which he had gotten from guitar player Jimmie Stewart during one of his visits in LA.
Adrian will still be able to remember that I almost fell off the bar chair I was sitting on and yelled at him in pure amazement. He was also surprised that I knew about Ronnie. He said that only the Irish jazz guitar great Louis Stewart knew Ronnie’s name and I was only the second person he had ever met outside The States who had heard of Ronnie Singer. Adrian promised to send a copy of the tape, which he remembered to be a live recording consisting of around 30 minutes of music. A tape, which had been copied over and over and had been circulating over the years in the jazz guitarists circle of aficionados in The States, and was treasured by many who also considered it to be something really special.
In February of 2010, Adrian sent me a copy he had put on a CD a couple of months later. The arrival of the tape (CD) was eagerly awaited, I could hardly control my emotions when I received it and put it for the first time in my CD player. After all these years (17) of waiting, how would I find this music and could it satisfy my exaggerated expectation.
Having Jimmy Raney foremost in mind and being a very critical listener, I am not easily impressed by guitar players as they seldom reach the highest regions of jazz when compared to the great horn and piano players.Well! After the first notes of the tape my expectations were realized.
It could not have been better. I was listening to an inspired solo on “Tea for Two” in a perfect medium jazz tempo. Every aspect of the music made me just smile with joy.The tape consists of fragments of a live gig and although we hear a quintet consisting of trumpet, guitar, piano, bass and drums, the person who recorded the tape concentrated solely on recording the guitar solos. Beside Ronnie we only hear fragments and beginnings of the other players solos who also incidentally appear to play very well. It is hard to figure out who they are (the trumpet player could be Red Rodney) but the level of the accompanying musicians is of the highest order.After hearing the tape a couple of times (it came without any description) I discovered that some fragments belonged to the same tune and could be cut together. The tunes and their keys were pretty obvious and being experienced with digital editing I was able to connect the tracks into 7 tunes as well as changing the speed to the correct one.
The tunes are : –
1. Tea for Two (Ab)
2. All The Things You Are ( Ab)
3. Shine (Eb)
4. Indiana (F)
5. A Fast Blues in C
6. The Way You Look Tonight (F)
7. Crazy Rhythm (F).
These are the only known recordings of Ronnie Singer to be discovered so far. I treasure them among my most loved and appreciated recordings of Jazz in any genre and I can defend them as being some of the greatest jazz guitar recordings ever made.
I was able to play the whole tape to the great musician and teacher pianist Barry Harris at Frans Elsen’s house. He was delighted to hear it and deeply impressed, Barry is hard to impress (and so was Frans who loved the tape as well), commenting that “He plays like Bird”! Indeed, Ronnie’s playing comes straight out of the Charlie Parker approach and has the same lyrical quality, harmonic mastery and quality of invention. (I heard later that he had also worked with Sonny Stitt by the way).
His phrasing, timing and feel, through the development of ideas result in incredibly beautiful music and is a fantastic role model for anyone attempting to play Bebop jazz particularly on the guitar. Although the sound quality of the original recording is poor, one gets a good idea of his sound, which is so clear and tonally full and warm that I thought it must have been an ES-150 or 250. His technical execution is fantastic and is the perfect example for the above-mentioned legato style, so important for the translation of sax and trumpet lines onto guitar. Ronnie really swings, he plays what he hears, his music makes you feel good, and it makes it difficult to imagine why he committed suicide. Irv told me that he used drugs, so we could blame drug related mental disturbance for this tragic decision to take his life but this doesn’t explain why his wife should have committed suicide with him. According to Irv Ronnie was working a lot and was also highly appreciated because of his humble and friendly character (which shines through his music.) It will remain a mystery why he chose to leave this world, and what a loss.
I am sure that the history of jazz guitar would have developed differently, would he have had time to come to full bloom with recordings that would influence up and coming players. He set a very high standard for the early 50s and there was no one else at that time that I am aware of, besides Jimmy Raney, who would have been able to compete. In my opinion there is something in his phrasing that makes him unique even to this day which is apparent even though we have only these 7 recordings. Only 30 minutes of music make him stand out as an all-time great. Imagine that this brief example of his genius may not even have captured Ronnie Singer at his best!!
After I had the tape, I called Irv Rocklin to visit and play the recording for him. He could not believe I had this and we spent a wonderful afternoon together listening to the music and talking about Ronnie and the scene at that time in Chicago. I asked Irv whether he knew about Ronnie’s family and whether there were any relatives that I could contact. I thought it would be great to see whether I could find a photo of him, but Irv did not recall any relatives. It seemed hopeless therefore that I would receive any more information about him, since I assumed his parents must be dead (although I heard later that his mother lived to be 99). Also there was no reference at all to Ronnie on the website of the Chicago Jazz association. I thought he was tragically forgotten and that we, those in the know, would have to live with an imaginary picture this mystical genius. Irv however tried to describe him to me as best as he could. In 2009 I placed a little recording on YouTube, which I dedicated to Ronnie. It was meant to be a message in a bottle hoping that some imaginary acquaintance or friend may appear, and that eventually led to the next wondrous development in finding more information about Ronnie.
Well…would you believe it…at the end of November last year (2011)
I received an email from Ronnie’s sister Joyce Glantz.
She had seen my film and thanked me for posting it and keeping the memory of her brother alive. I could not believe it. Joyce is six years younger than Ronnie and that must have been the reason that Irv did not remember that Ronnie had a baby sister. It was such a surprise and honor to be able to get in touch with Ronnie’s family, bringing me closer to his personal story. I had a very moving conversation with Joyce on the phone and she and her son James sent me pictures of Ronnie even pictures of his guitar, which they still have and which turns out to be a customized ES-150 model with some special and unique features added by Gibson. I feel honored and thrilled to be part of this (Joyce and I have become dear friends) and we are working on a more detailed bio of Ronnie, which will eventually show the different stages of his life and work.
So far we only found little more info than can be found at the end of this article. Maybe we will gather more info through the publishing of this paper. There may be more recordings out there with the different groups he played in. I would be happy and grateful to receive any information that will help us further.
On my website (www.axelhagen.com) I have posted the seven tunes with the authorization of Ronnie’s sister Joyce. They can be (should be) heard on the page dedicated to Ronnie on the link on my website, which also includes the material presented in this article.
I recently found on the internet a blog dedicated to Ronnie by the French guitarist Felix Lemerle who was given a couple of recordings of the tape from Jimmy Gourley in Paris who had been in contact with Joyce as well.
So there are others out there who obviously feel the same as myself and Adrian Ingram that Ronnie should definitely be up there in the jazz guitar Hall of Fame!
Jon Raney, Jimmy’s other son (guitarist Doug Raney being the one you’ll already know) had some information on his blog recently where he quotes some stories he remembered his father had told him about Ronnie. He told me that Jimmy thought the trumpet player on the recording could be Don Fagerquist. Ira Gitler tells us in his book that Ronnie was working with Red Rodney in the “Open Door”, so I thought the recording could have been made there.
I am sure we can get Ronnie out of oblivion and get him the spot in Jazz history he deserves, up there in the Pantheon of the Greatest Players of All Time.
To be continued…
Personal data according to our current knowledge:
Ronnie was born on June 9th, 1928 in Chicago. He was the oldest of two children of Lee and Edward Singer. He started to play guitar at the age of 10 and became a professional musician around the age of 17. We know that in his career he worked with local Chicago musicians like Irv (Rochlin) Craig, Shelley Robbin, Jerry Friedman, Joe Burton, Lila Leeds, Ira Sullivan and Lou Levy a.o. He left for New York in the late forties or early fifties. Later he worked/played with Harry James, Artie Shaw, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Red Rodney a.o. Stan Getz named Ronnie as the Musician’s Musician, From the Encyclopedia Yearbook of Jazz, by Leonard Feather, Horizon Press, NY 1956 (with a foreword by Benny Goodman) 1946 All-American Jazz Poll for Esquire Magazine; voters were last year’s winners, “Musicians’ Musicians” poll, category: Guitar. A family member remembers that Ronnie played also with Spike Jones.
He and his wife Jeannie were found on December 21st 1953 in the Washington Place hotel in Manhattan, New York. Apparently they had committed suicide. Irv Rochlin told me by the way that they were found by bass player Triggs Morgan, a close friend who got worried after not having seen Ronnie and his wife for a couple of days, and not able to reach them in their hotel room.
Please allow me here to put some final thoughts`:
After I had heard the tape for the first time, I could not escape some thoughts about the perception of jazz music in general. We live in a time where appearance and commercial awareness unfortunately dominate so many aspects of our lives and culture including music. Through Ronnie speak some true values of pure music and beauty, which we hear in real great art.
The awareness of his music should make us more humble, critical and careful in our judgment of new stars and developments that disappear completely in comparison to Ronnie in my eyes. So there is always the unsung hero and really good player round the corner who sets the standard, whether we know him/her or not. The truth is out there waiting to be discovered.
There is some debt to be settled by the music industry and audiences being influenced by inadequate journalism. For the same reason has Jimmy Raney always been underestimated and still is.
http://www.axelhagen.com (look for the Ronnie Singer page)
http://www.jonraney.com/ (in his blog you’ll find some info about Ronnie through Jimmy Raney)