Music » Music Stories & Interviews


"They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art." — Charlie Parker, as quoted by jazz critic Nat Hentoff in liner notes from Jackie King's The Gypsy (Indigo Moon)

Spend any time at all with virtuoso jazz guitarist Jackie King, and you'll come to two conclusions: first, that he has an uncanny awareness of the connectedness of all things. Perhaps that's why a typical year in King's career will find him touring the world as a member of Willie Nelson's Family band; putting the finishing touches on Getting Into Jazz, Volume II, a book on guitar instruction (Mel Bay Publications); performing on National Public Radio's Piano Jazz as a guest of Marian McPartland; working on a trilogy of albums based on celestial themes (Moon Magic on the Indigo Moon label); and sitting with his family at Mr. Gatti's on the South Side, speaking with me about plans to record an album on the Solitary Confinement label with his son, San Francisco bay area rapper DOBAD, a poet and artist known for his edgy lyrics and free-style chops. "Yeah, jazz and rap have so much in common. Both are uncensored music of the streets. In rap, the voice is used like an instrument. You can hear bebop phrasing. And rap free styling is pure improvisation, just like jazz."

Then he laughs, which brings us to the second conclusion: he has an uncanny awareness of the humor in all things — perhaps something to do with that connectedness. King is a great storyteller, especially when the joke is on him. He tells of the time when he and Nelson were being honored at the American Indian Exposition in Anadarko, Oklahoma. One participant, an older gentleman, asked King to autograph a dollar bill. He looked at the signature, then at King. "You're not Willie Nelson?"

King laughed. "Do I look like Willie Nelson?"

The man shrugged. "I don't know what Willie Nelson looks like." He then looked at the dollar bill and said, "Oh, well, I guess I can still spend it."

King roars with laughter.

Growing up in San Antonio, King was introduced to guitar by his father, who played in a Western swing band. He studied with local legend Spud Goodall and began playing professionally at age 12. His teen years found him listening to jazz, transcribing Charlie Parker's sax solos for guitar, and beginning his life-long friendship with Nelson. In the late '60s, he moved to San Francisco with his buddy, Doug Sahm, and played with jazz greats such as Chet Baker and Bill Evans. After teaching at the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles, he returned to San Antonio and opened the Southwest Guitar Institute, where alumni like blues guitarist Neal Black and pedal-steel player Gib Wharton benefited from his musical philosophy: "Be true to yourself. The motive is the manifestation." He now divides his time between homes in San Antonio and San Francisco.

For Jackie King's biography and touring schedule, visit and Read more about rapper DOBAD at
Teri Harllee's "The Jazz Wench" column is at

King defines jazz as "freedom ... like flying." And his playing has achieved that state, as evidenced on his album with Nelson, The Gypsy. His technique is limitless: He can swing at breakneck speed with flawless execution, as in "Cherokee." But he is not afraid of space, of letting a single note ring. In a ballad like "The Nearness of You," he plays languid legato lines with the phrasing of a horn player or vocalist. His improvised lines are both exquisitely crafted and totally spontaneous; his harmonic explorations are unparalleled. If you are lucky enough to catch a live performance, request his reharmonized version of "Blueberry Hill." Or check out "San Antonio Rose" on The Gypsy, which starts at a fast clip with meaty jazz turnarounds that give the soloists something substantial to wrap their chops around. Bassists Andrew Higgins and Jon Blondell, drummer Bob Scott, and pianist Don Haas swing hard on this collection of standards and favorites. Nelson's vocals are a musical treat, showing his solid grasp of jazz phrasing.

I asked King about the business side of music. "It's important to have a good team," he said, referring to his spouse, producer/artist/designer Teri Harllee. The multi-talented Harllee describes herself as "an idea person," helping develop creative and marketing concepts for King's music. As "The Jazz Wench," she writes an online column exploring the contributions of women artists in jazz for She also produced King's last two albums.

And what would he tell aspiring musicians? "Play as much as possible. Will what you want to happen; capacity never lacks opportunity."

Which reminds him of the time in his childhood when he met guitar legend and innovator Les Paul. "He told me to keep practicing." King laughs.

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