Lenny Breau was a remarkably gifted guitarist who started in the music business with his family band, playing country music in and around Winnipeg. His rapidly evolving musicianship and innate curiosity naturally brought him to jazz. After Breau left his parents’ group at the age of 18, he decided to devote himself to the study of jazz and started to look for a teacher.
At the time, in the late 1950s, one of the best jazz instructors in Winnipeg was pianist, arranger and composer Bob Erlendson. When he first met Breau, he was amazed to find that although the young guitarist could play a variety of chords and scales, Breau couldn’t tell him what they were called. Erlendson told me that in an interview that he'd say, “OK, the tune goes like this, play a D Minor ninth.” Breau would respond by saying, “Could you play it for me first?” That’s how Breau learned the names of the chords. His knowledge of music theory was basically zero, but his ear was so developed that he instinctively knew what scale went with which chord.
Breau: curious, talented and studious
Erlendson remembers Breau as being a curious little boy when he first met him. Breau wanted to know everything there was to know about jazz. Erlendson recalls that Breau was a very good person and so talented that Erlendson didn’t mind spending hours and hours explaining everything he could about theory. Erlendson still remembers being startled to realize that everything Breau had done before was entirely by ear. Impressive!
Erlendson started from the beginning, showing Breau what a staff of music was, the purpose of the lines and the notes. Erlendson remembers Breau soaking it all up like a sponge, and he progressed rapidly through his lessons. He was also amazed at Breau’s ability to practice for hours on end.
Erlendson introduced Breau to the jazz greats and, in particular, the work of Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner. Breau became fascinated with how the pianists were able to play melody and comp (play the chords) with, say, the left hand and then do shots and other melodic lines with the right. Breau began to approach the guitar like a piano player would. It had never really been done before and he started to develop his own system that allowed him to do it. It was a defining moment. Breau was discovering the approach that would make him famous.
In the two years or so they worked together, the two musicians developed a close relationship, and Breau never failed to acknowledge Erlendson for taking him by the hand into the world of jazz.
Erlendson went on to become a mentor to many musicians, and his career has now spanned more than 50 years. His resume includes working with Rob McConnell, Moe Koffman and Shirley Eikhard, among many others. Erlendson has lived and worked in a variety of cities in Canada, and now makes his home in Calgary.
Q & A: Ron Paley, Winnipeg's unsung jazz hero
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You oughta know: the swingin' Moe Koffman
Watch the Genius of Lenny Breau
on Apr 26, 2012