by J. Andrew Dickenson
A legend in his own time, Gene Bertoncini has become synonymous with great arrangements, beautiful tone, and a warm and lively personality. One of the most demanded artists, Bertoncini has performed with, collaborated with, and inspired some of the greatest singers and instrumentalists of jazz. On May 3, the New York City Classical Guitar Society will pay homage to the “Segovia of Jazz” with a special tribute concert featuring Frederic Hand, Benjamin Verdery, Dennis Koster, and, of course, Bertoncini himself.
You’ve had an incredible and prosperous career – how do you feel about having a tribute concert in your honor?
Honestly, I don’t feel I deserve it. The guitar is a very humbling instrument and requires continues work and practice. However, I’m very thankful and honored that this concert is being produced. I have great respect for the classical guitar, and it is a great honor to be a part of that world.
What are some of the most memorable musical moments you’ve had throughout your life?
Being the guitarist on The Tonight Show for so many years was a wonderful experience. I was the guest soloist with the New York Pops Orchestra once, and they played my arrangement of “Shadow of Your Smile.” That was a wonderful moment for the guitar. I also played in a duo with the bassist Michael Moore, and there were a lot of great moments with that particular duo. It’s a great thrill to work with him. I’ve also worked with a number of singers such as Nancy Wilson and Lena Horne, and I was thrilled to meet these people and get to know them.
One of the biggest thrills came when I was young – my teacher told me to listen to Julian Bream’s CD The Art of the Julian Bream. When I heard his arrangement of Ravel’s Pavan on that album, it changed my life. I knew from then on I wanted to play this instrument.
Many people are inspired by your playing and musicianship. When you were starting out as a young aspiring musician, who were the musicians you looked to for inspiration?
My early teacher Johnny Smith was a big influence. Also Chuck Wayne, and many of the Brazilian players are very inspiring. I used to listen to Lenny Breau’s jazz recordings. I also listened to Charlie Byrd, who was a pioneer of jazz on the classical guitar, and later become a good friend. I’m also very inspired by young players, especially some of my students such as Paul Meyers. And I’m always inspired by the great performers I’ve worked with.
How do you feel you have changed as a musician throughout your career?
I used to be in the recording world. All through the 70s I recorded with people such as Tony Bennett and Burt Bacharach, and I was called to do many different things. At one point, however, I decided to do my own thing and I started doing arrangements of classical guitar. I really believe in the orchestra that the guitar is. I still love playing with people, but solo guitar is the most fulfilling because of the challenges involved.
You’ll be joined by three of your good friends for the concert, Fred Hand, Ben Verdery, and Dennis Koster. How did you meet these gentlemen?
Fred and I met when we studied with the same teacher, and I feel like I’ve known him my entire life. Fred consistently puts his heart and soul into every note he plays. I always admired Ben’s great spirit, and I met him when we would see each other after concerts. He is a giant player who takes a lot of chances, and I love his creative approaches to solo playing. And Dennis is a long time friend. He has a great reputation as a teacher, and I’ve always been in awe of his playing. We became close friends after we did a concert together in Jacksonville, Florida. Luckily I opened for him! He’s such an exciting player and I was so happy that I didn’t have to follow him. He also has such a great spirit. All of these guys are all just great people.
How have these musicians impacted your life, both personally and musically?
I’d like to be able to play the way they play! I love what they do with their instruments, and they have tremendous facility. They stand as inspiration and models to shoot for.
Thinking back on your music career, is there anything you would change or have done differently?
I could have worked harder! Actually, I wouldn’t change much. I value all the experiences I had. I was lucky to get the studio work because it opened a lot of doors and it was great experience. I also enjoyed working as an accompanist with many singers. All of this led me to the point where I began to devote myself to finding my own voice.
Your career is not nearly over – what do you have planned for the future?
To get better at all of this. Instead of focusing on a specific success, I think you should focus on what you need to work on. That usually sends a message out into the world, and from there opportunities open. Ultimately, I want to keep performing for people who appreciate the music.
The NYCCGS presented “A Tribute to Gene Bertoncini” on May 3, 2008. Gene was joined by Frederic Hand, Dennis Koster, Jorge Morel, and Paul Meyers in solos and duets. Due to a family emergency, Benjamin Verdery was unable to participate.
In conjuction with the event, the NYCCGS produced a book, A Tribute to Gene Bertoncini, that honors the guitar great with tributes from Eliot Fisk, Tony Bennett, Bucky Pizzarelli, Frederic Hand, Dennis Koster, Jorge Morel, David Leisner, Andrew York, Benjamin Verdery and many more. Also included is the above interview, the program from the tribute concert, and Gene’s sketch of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.” Click here to preview the book and order a copy.