Thursday, February 19, 2009


Cal Collins (May 5, 1933-August 27, 2001) was an American jazz guitarist born in Medora, Indiana.

Collins first played the mandolin professionally as a bluegrass musician in the early 1950s. After doing a stint in the Army, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and while there he switched to jazz guitar. He played into the 1970s for various ensembles, and in 1976 joined up with Benny Goodman. Starting in the 1970s and continuing into the 1990s, Collins recorded copiously for Concord Jazz. In 1993 he toured with Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, and Cephas & Wiggins on the Masters of the Steel String Guitar tour. He died of liver failure in 2001.


Cal Collins (1933-2001) began playing the guitar by emulating some of the pianists he heard on the radio as a young man. Nat King Cole and Art Tatum were early influences on his style. He also listened to the guitar stylings of Irving Ashby and John Collins.

As a teenager he began playing professionally in and around Cincinnati and by the early 1950's he was finding steady work at the radio studios in the area. He became and remained a staple of the Ohio and Indiana jazz scenes throughout the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's, before he was "discovered" by Benny Goodman in 1976. He spent three years with the Goodman band and was invited to join Concord Records as the house guitarist in 1977. 

At Concord Records he made numerous recordings as a sideman and a series of recordings under his own name starting with Cincinnati To LA, in 1978, and the last being Ohio Style, in 1991. Some of the Concord recordings are still available, but unfortunately two very fine solo guitar albums, By Myself and Cross Country are not. On these two albums, Collins undertook the difficult format of the solo guitar. And, like George Van Eps and Bucky Pizzarelli, used the form to demonstrate his complete mastery of the instrument. Both recordings are infused with the Cal Collins style -- a mix of jazz, country picking and twang, rich full chord melody, and, the steady pulse and drive that are hallmarks of Collins' playing. His rendition of Autumn in New York is a gem, delivered by a complete musician and guitarist. 

In the 1990's Cal Collins appeared on the Tribute To Wes Montgomery recordings and continued to play in and around Cincinnati. 

©Copyright 2005 Classic Jazz Guitar


One of the most widely respected jazz guitarists, and easily the best-known to ever come out of the Cincinnati area, was Cal Collins. Born on May 5, 1933, in Medora, IN, Collins began his career by playing bluegrass mandolin, eventually relocated to Cincinnati (once he'd completed serving in the Army), and shortly thereafter switched to the six-string after hearing landmark recordings by such jazz guitar greats as Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. From the '50s through the '70s, Collins played regularly and was brought on board in 1976 to become Benny Goodman's guitarist. Around this time, Collins issued several acclaimed solo recordings on the Concord label, including such titles as Cincinnati to L.A., In San Francisco, Blues on my Mind, By Myself, Interplay, and Cross Country (and in 1979, was honored by Cincinnati with a Post-Corbett Award). In 1993, he appeared as part of the Masters of the Steel String Guitar tour, playing alongside such notables as Doc Watson, bluegrass Dobro player Jerry Douglas, and the blues duo of Cephas & Wiggins, and five years later, issued what would be his final recording, S'Us Four. On August 27, 2001, Collins passed away at the age of 68 in Dillboro, IN, due to liver failure.

Source: Greg Prato, All Music Guide


This interview was originally published in the July, 1995 issue of the newsletter of the Cincinnati Jazz Guitar Society. Cal passed away in 2001. He will be missed.

It is difficult for many people to hear the words jazz guitar and Cincinnati in the same sentence and not be reminded of Cal Collins. Cal has been one of the highest profile jazz guitarists in Cincinnati for years. Cal’s fame outside of Cincinnati did not begin until he was about 40.

His first big break came when Benny Goodman asked Cal to join the Goodman band for a tour. Several years later, Cal landed his first recording deal for Concord and his popularity has grown steadily since. He has played with many of the biggest names in the business including Bill Evans, Rosemary Clooney, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Ray Brown, Monty Alexander, Stan Getz, and Mel Torme.

When you hear Cal play, you might be reminded of a brilliant chef who loves to use barbecue sauce in his food. Cal’s playing is an intricate weave that consists of the best of the jazz tradition intermixed with his roots as a bluegrass musician. Cal is an avid gardener who also loves to fish and fly ultra light aircraft.

TB: Let’s start off with "Cal Collins, the early years" – the story that you tell all the interviewers.

CC: (Laughs) OK. I’ve never had any formal training in music at all. Not one iota. Most of my family, the male side, were professional pilots. I got my license at 16. And my career at that time was aimed toward being a professional pilot of some kind. But all that time I was playing, of course, and the jazz and the guitar won out – big time.

TB: Did you ever parachute?

CC: Oh yeah. We used to do it for fun. I was in Fort Benning for a while and they have jumping towers down there. On weekends we used to get drunk and go up on the tower and jump off. (Laughs)

TB: That’s quite a combination – alcohol and parachutes. So. You never even had a guitar teacher?

CC: No, I was playing guitar and mandolin when I was 4 years old. I grew up in a bluegrass family and played quite a bit of that. The uncles and the older cousins and my dad played and strummed around. So music was always around.

TB: You just learned by osmosis?

CC: Yeah, that’s it.

TB: I’m trying to picture the transition from bluegrass to jazz without any formal training.

CC: It’s very easy. Bluegrass is the jazz of country music. There’s a lot of very intricate things going on in bluegrass music. For instance, these uncles and older cousins that I was talking about who were real good bluegrass players, they absolutely knew before anybody else did who Django Reinhart and Stephan Grappellie were. It’s very similar music. Bluegrass is off the top of your head and it’s a very intricate and very fast and technical type of playing.

TB: Did you just wake up one day and say "I think I’m going to play jazz"?

CC: I don’t think so. It just kind of evolved. I used to spend a lot of time with my grandparents. I had my own radio up in my room and at that time, you could turn on the radio to just about any station in the world and you could get Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington. Everything you turned on was good music. And with the influence of bluegrass and listening to the Hot Club of France, it just kind of grew and grew and grew. The very first time I heard Art Tatum and Fats Waller play piano, I thought, "If I could play like anybody, that's who I’d like to play like."

TB: At what age was your first professional gig?

CC: 5

TB: How much did you get for it?

CC: $5.00 – A hell of a lot of money then. I was five years old and I had a little small guitar and I played at Westport, Indiana at a little bitty outdoor theater. They had an old Mickey Mouse cartoon on before. I got on the stage and I played and sang "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane." I was 5 years old and they made damn sure I got a dollar for every year that I was. I had the $5.00 for about 15 years.

TB: What was you first guitar?

CC: Sears and Roebuck Roy Rogers model. It was all plywood. It had real good action on the neck. It was painted gray with pictures in black relief of Roy and Trigger. (Laughs)

TB: Do you still have it?

CC: No. I wish I did. It would be worth a . . . well 20 cents. (Laughs) My grandma Collins bought it for me and I think she paid $4.98 for it.

TB: What was the weirdest gig you have ever had?

CC: I played at a county swing type place and the bandstand had a wooden frame around it with chicken wire with a door. You could lock the door if you wanted to. There were a lot of beer bottles and bar stools thrown around the place about 11, 12 o’clock at night. But probably the weirdest gig I ever had was when I went to Stockholm, Sweden for a one nighter. That was the strangest thing that ever happened to me.

TB: You’ve attained a bit of fame now. Do you enjoy it?

CC: Oh yeah.

TB: Do people recognize you in airports and clubs?

CC: Oh yes. Overseas, especially. In Australia, Japan, Europe, they know exactly who we are. In the States it’s the same at the Jazz Festivals. But overseas, the difference is incredible. Everybody over there knows who you are and everybody over here doesn’t. They know American jazz musicians much more than Americans know American jazz musicians here. It’s a fact of life.

TB: Who do you like to listen to?

CC: I like that real good straight ahead jazz, bebop jazz. I never tire of George Van Eps. But mostly my favorite jazz musicians are piano players. I was influenced more by piano players than I was by guitar players. I was trying to approach the guitar like a piano player – play some bass lines, comp in the middle, melody on top.

TB: This is something that a lot of people around Cincinnati talk about: Why isn’t Kenny Poole more famous than he is?

CC: He doesn’t choose to be, that asshole! He is really one of my favorite guitar players in the whole world. He prefers to stay here and do a little thing here and a little thing there. He plays as well as anybody.

TB: Is there something in the water in Cincinnati? There is just an unusual number of good jazz guitarists in Cincinnati.

CC: Well maybe it’s catfish pee from the Ohio river. I’ve talked to people from the west coast to the east coast to way down south who proclaim that Cincinnati is one of the best kept secrets in the country as far as jazz enthusiasts and the support of jazz. Cincinnati has some real bona fide jazz clubs and some real bona fide jazzers.



Country Boy Was Sophisticated Jazz Artist

Cal Collins confirmed his international reputation in a five-year stay with the Benny Goodman band, but he was already a highly respected jazz guitarist by the time he joined the clarinettist in 1976. Although he described himself as "just an old country boy who plays the guitar a little", he was a highly sophisticated performer with an advanced ear for intricate harmony and an unfailing sense of swing. 

The country reference is a relevant one, however. Collins grew up on a farm in Indiana, where he absorbed country music at an early stage, and retained that influence in his playing throughout his life. He began to perform locally on mandolin with a bluegrass group as a child (he made his public debut at five), but became absorbed by the jazz music he heard on the radio. He switched to guitar as soon as his hands were big enough to deal with the instrument, in order to develop the rich harmonic possibilities he heard in jazz. 

Fascinated by the records of Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Oscar Moore, the guitarist in the Nat King Cole Trio, he developed a sophisticated technical prowess on the instrument. He served in the military as a helicopter pilot, and considered a career in aviation, but plumped instead for music. He settled in Cincinnati in the 1950s, and became a fixture on the jazz scene there, both in his own right and as an accompanist to many of the leading jazz figures who passed through the city as touring soloists. 

In 1976, he was invited to audition with Benny Goodman, and the clarinettist immediately hired him for his band. Collins occupied that notoriously demanding chair to their mutual satisfaction for five years, touring internationally and establishing a much wider profile. His experience with Goodman led indirectly to a long association with Concord Records, the leading mainstream jazz label of the past three decades, where he was virtually house guitarist for a time, as well as making several records in his own right. 

His credits at Concord included several albums accompanying singer Rosemary Clooney (the guitarist had appeared regularly on a television show in Cincinnati hosted by her younger brother, Nick Clooney). He also recorded with saxophonist Scott Hamilton, and in a two guitar quartet with Herb Ellis, among many others. His own records included his debut for the label, Cincinnati to LA (1978), the solo sets By Myself (1980) and Cross Country (1981), and Ohio Style (1990). He also recorded on the Pausa, Mo Pro and Famous Door labels. 

He was invited to take part in a Masters of the Steel String Guitar tour in 1993, sharing the bill with the legendary country guitar picker Doc Watson and the great bluegrass dobro player Jerry Douglas. The following year, he took part in a recording project paying tribute to the most famous of Indiana's jazz musicians, guitarist Wes Montgomery. The group assembled for the project, G5, featured Collins alongside four more famous guitarists, Tal Farlow, Herb Ellis, Jimmy Raney, and Royce Campbell. 

He divided his time between touring and running his farm in recent years, and continued to exert a powerful influence on the Cincinnati jazz scene. Although he was entirely self-taught and continued to rely on his ear rather than written music throughout his career, he was much in demand as a teacher himself, giving workshops and participating in college jazz programmes. 

Cal Collins died of liver failure at his home. He is survived by his wife, seven children, 18 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.




1974 : Milestones (Pausa)
1977 : Hi Boss Guitar
1978 : Cincinnati to L.A. (Concord Jazz)
1978 : In San Francisco (Concord Jazz)
1979 : Blues on My Mind (Concord Jazz)
1979 : By Myself (Concord Jazz)
1980 : Interplay (Concord Jazz)
1981 : Cross Country (Concord Jazz)
1983 : Crack'd Rib (Mo Pro)
1990 : Ohio Style (Concord Jazz)
1998 : S'us Four (J Curve)

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