Music News


As a result of his late-Sixties recordings and collaborations with onetime Charles Mingus sideman John Handy and vibraphonist Gary Burton, guitarist Jerry Hahn is seen as a springboard for an entire crop of jazz strummers--Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie, John Scofield and Bill Frisell among them. But until the release of last year's CD Time Changes, Hahn, now living in Denver, hadn't recorded a note for more than twenty years.

The delay didn't come about because of writer's block. "I had lots of material," Hahn says. "I didn't stop playing or writing over the years." Rather, he believes that his return to the studio was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

A native of Wichita, Kansas, Hahn began playing when he was seven or eight years old, using a lap steel guitar brought home by his stepfather. He took a few lessons but didn't stick to it; he is primarily self-taught. "Playing was a natural thing for me," he says. He later switched to electric guitar, and by age eleven was good enough to join Bobby Wiley and the Rhythmaires, an all-boy combo that appeared regularly on Wichita's first television station. A snapshot of the Rhythmaires finds Hahn sitting alongside a cadre of dapper teens clad in cowboy hats and bandannas. "We were stars," he remembers. "We could walk down the street and people would ask us for autographs."

During his Rhythmaires days, Hahn favored Western swing music made by performers such as Little Jimmy Dickens and Faron Young, whom he met at Grand Ole Opry shows that stopped in Wichita. Then, when he was in his mid-teens, pedal-steel expert Buddy Emmons introduced him to jazz. Shortly thereafter he discovered Miles Davis, whom he calls "the most important music personality of the century," and found himself permanently smitten by the music.

After moving to San Francisco in 1962, Hahn met reed player John Handy at the Jazz Workshop, one of the city's best-known venues. At the time, Handy led both a professional quintet and the Freedom Band, a ten-piece that mainly performed at civil rights rallies and other free gigs. "The guitar player in the quintet didn't want to play in the Freedom Band because it didn't pay anything, so eventually I was able to work my way into playing with Handy on a regular basis," Hahn elaborates. "Once, I quit the band and then he started getting paid, so I called him back up and said, `Hey John, I want my gig back!'"

Before long, Hahn was a member of Handy's quintet as well; he appeared on a pair of the instrumentalist's albums and toured with him for two years. Then, in early 1968, Hahn embarked on a jaunt with the Fifth Dimension as part of the vocal group's stage band. Hahn calls this uncharacteristic career digression "a fluke thing that turned out perfectly. It was my first gig in New York. I'd never been in the New York Philharmonic Hall before."

Hahn was also part of Gary Burton's ensemble and played on Burton recordings that featured such fine musicians as drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Steve Swallow. The experience was a positive one, except for the travel it required. "I was playing with what was considered the top band on the planet," he recalls. "But when I got back to San Francisco, I had nothing. I had no gigs."

Upon his return to San Francisco, Hahn formed and recorded with the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, a combo credited by many as a seminal link in the tumultuous invention of jazz fusion, and later cut a solo effort, Moses. But after the breakup of his marriage, he returned to Wichita in order to be closer to his sons and mother, and he subsequently accepted a teaching position at Wichita State University. Although he wrote a monthly instructional column for Guitar Player magazine, during his Kansas exile he dropped clean off the face of the planet as far as the national jazz community was concerned.

"I felt forgotten in Wichita," he concedes. "Looking back, being in a small town like that was like being in a bubble. You can't connect. You lose reality about what you're doing."

Finally, in 1986, Hahn moved to Portland, Oregon, where he dived into the community's bustling jazz scene. Three years ago he relocated to Denver, where he's become an associate of peers such as celebrity drummer Ginger Baker and trumpeter Ron Miles. "Denver has a higher level of musicians than just about anywhere I've been except New York or L.A.," he says before noting, in an unexpectedly frustrated tone, "Unfortunately, Denver has got more good musicians than it has gigs."

But the city provided a launching pad for Hahn's recorded revival. A pair of his students, Barry Ollman and Fred Duboc, helped bankroll the studio sessions that resulted in Time Changes, a rigorous and gorgeous showcase for Hahn's pristine, straightahead-yet-blues-bent playing style. Cut in New York with saxophonist David Liebman and other fine instrumentalists, the disc sports several original tunes, plus favorite numbers by Eric Dolphy ("245"), Charles Mingus (a lovely "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat") and Denny Zeitlin (the contemplative "Quiet Now"). The resulting long-player was hailed by reviewers, most of whom asked a variation on the question "Where has Jerry Hahn been all these years?"

Hahn isn't certain what he'll be doing next. He's part of Baker's jazz combo, and he par-ticipated in a December recording session for a followup to the drummer's critically acclaimed CD Going Back Home; playing alongside him were Baker, Bill Frisell, banjoist Bela Fleck and bassist Charlie Haden. He might also team up with Ron Miles on future projects, and the release of another collection of his own material on Enja is possible.

There have been plenty of changes in his life since Hahn played Western swing in Kansas, but in many ways, he's still the same small-town boy. And that's a large part of his charm. After noting that he "had pretty much a Wichita hick mentality" even after moving to San Francisco, he adds, almost as an afterthought, "I'm still plagued by that...

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd