Hank Garland was born in South Carolina in 1930; a “natural” guitarist, by 18 he recorded his classic country instrumental, “Sugarfoot Rag.” Originally created as a warm-up for his left hand, the recording went on to sell more than a million copies. Hank played a Byrdland guitar, a model custom-built for him and Billy Byrd, taking its name from a combination of both men’s surnames.
Jazz Winds from a New Direction was released in 1961 on Columbia Records. Recorded in one day., the album chronicles Hank’s successful leap into becoming a bona fide world-class jazz guitarist. The lineup included 17-year-old whiz kid Gary Burton, bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Joe Morello (from the Dave Brubeck Quartet).
Every tune on it is a guitar tour de force. “All the Things You Are” features an improvised jazz-shaped Bach counterpoint between Hank and Burton and “Three-Four, the Blues” kicks off with a wonderful unison line, propelling into a reverb-laden Garland solo. “Move” features Hank ripping effortlessly over jazz blues changes, exhibiting spectacular dexterity and a deep jazz vocabulary. On ”Always,” he plays acoustic guitar and “Riot Chous” is another fast blues tune, in the style of “Move.”
My personal favorite is “Relaxin’,” where Hank demonstrates a deep wealth of ideas well beyond his years. You’re invited in with a great chord solo, filled with altered and dominant chord magic. It’s the kind of break one can sing along to. I studied this track obsessively, occasionally going back to it, to review his genius.
Understandably, Jazz Winds from a New Direction inspired young George Benson to play jazz guitar. But, it’s mind blowing that it was made by the same guitarist who rocked with Elvis Presley and supported Patsy Cline, bringing hillbilly jazz to new heights. Tragically, Hank was in a car accident (the same vehicle pictured on the cover of Jazz Winds from a New Direction) at age 30, suffering brain damage that prevented him from playing guitar at his former world-class level. In 2002, I emailed him telling him “thank you” — that he raised the bar for all of us guitarists — and his sister wrote back to me, with a charming reply that was lost when my computer crashed. She said that she’d read my email to Hank and it had brought tears to his eyes. I can’t really describe my feelings about this.
Maybe trying to get to the musical heights of Hank Garland is an act of futility, but it’s something I’m still trying to do, every day. And, no matter what, we can always be inspired by his great musical legacy.