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Learning with Jethro

Jethro Burns, the fabled swing mandolin player, used to give lessons. I guess you were fortunate indeed to be taught by Jethro.

Here are the reminiscences of one of his former students, Jim Nikora. Jim shared his memories with us on the CoMando list, and he has been kind enough to allow me to reprint them below. Thanks, Jim!

You can contact Jim Nikora by joining CoMando and e-mailing the list.

Jim is also president of the very active South Wisconsin Bluegrass Music Association. Their website has a lot of useful bluegrass links. Also check out the Ten Commandments of Jamming (!) in the Sept-Oct 1998 section of their Fireball Mail page.

Another interview with Jethro, in Come For To Sing magazine 1984, is now available on line in the CoMando archives, courtesy Tony Drehfal and Mike Stangeland. Click for Part 1 and Part 2 of this interview. Additionally Mandolin World News Vol 2 #2 (still available) carried an interview with Jethro, who used to contribute a regular column to this publication. And visit the Homer and Jethro site, which includes some interesting biographical info.

Jim Nikora says:

I met Jethro in St. Paul on July 4, 1975. He was playing the fireworks celebration at the State Fair grounds. Some friends of mine (Bill Hinckley and Peter Ostroushko) had played with him before and said I should try to get him to jam. They said he liked to drink beer. I went backstage and asked him if he wanted to come over and play and drink. He was staying with a woman and her family and he invited us over to her house. I was too intimidated to play but everyone else jammed and listened to him do crazy things until 4 in the morning. Somewhere, I have a bad tape which I have misplaced.

The next Fall I sublet my apartment and moved in with my parents in Milwaukee to take lessons from him in Chicago. I got a part time job, took lessons from him every Wednesday, and played 8-12 hours a day until late Spring. I picked up on less than 1% of what he had to offer.

He told me that he was expensive ($10/half hour). The shortest half-hour lesson was about 1-1/2 hours - the longest about 3-1/2. The first lesson he brought out a six pack and said, "OK, here's the rule - every other week, it's your turn to bring the beer". We played, talked, joked and generally had a great time. I learned more than I ever thought I was capable of and still, I was really disillusioned - everything I wanted to say, he had already said. His technique was incomprehensible! His playing was an extension of the melody in his head - he played what he heard - unhampered by technical limitations - he had phrases that he relied on as "jumping off points" but he was pure in his improvisations.

Maybe the greatest gifts he had were his imagination and his sense of humor. He could make you laugh with his phrasing alone. He could show me tunes and technique, but so much of his charm was was so unique and personal that I felt either like I couldn't learn it or make it my own.

He grew up in Knoxville and played with Homer (Henry Haynes) from the time he was 16. (He told me that after Homer died, he had to learn how to play all over again. The rhythm that had been with him for 40 years was suddenly gone. His style underwent a noticeable change, going from mostly single note melodies to chorded ones.) They were separated during the War and reunited in Cincinnati afterward. With housing at a premium, Jethro settled in to a shared room at the YMCA with a young guitar player and the two of them would sit and copy licks from Django off a phonograph they had on the table between their beds. And, oh yeah, the guitar player was Chet Atkins. They would later marry the Johnson Sisters - twins who had a singing act on WLW radio. WLW was a hot place to be then with H & J, Atkins, Rosemary Clooney, Les Paul, Jerry Byrd, George Barnes and others. Ken and Henry (Jethro and Homer) were known at the time as the String Dusters and had a regular segment on the radio. One day they were late for their live take and an exasperated producer shouted out, "Where the H@#$ are Homer and Jethro?" It stuck.

Stylistically, he was a Swing player. He could do anything but he was a Swing player doing other things. He could play bop or bluegrass or show tunes or gospel but the Swing always came through. He drew more from urban Swing like Goodman, rather than the Wills' brand, which is striking because his style draws so heavily on fiddle voicings and fingering, but he loved horn chops and especially those swingy vamps that accentuate so much of Goodman's work. His favorite musician was, not surprisingly, Stephane Grappelli. His favorite contemporary mandolin player was Sam Bush - he just loved the fire in his playing and the amazing right hand technique.

Jethro used to tell me that he wasn't a musician - just a comic with a prop. It hurt me to hear that and it wasn't true. He played all the time. He had that red A5 by his bed in his final days - still playing to the end and, according to Don Stiernberg, still getting better.


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