Embracing life: Hard-earned lessons from Walter Trout, headliner of Morristown’s Jazz & Blues Fest

Walter Trout. Photo by Austin Hargave.
Walter Trout. Photo by Austin Hargave.
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Blues guitar virtuoso Walter Trout, who headlines at Saturday’s Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival, has a couple of secrets to share:

Being a guitar god does not require God-like skill.

And, more importantly, hard-living is not necessary to play the blues. 

The Ocean City native, who made his mark with Canned Heat and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, learned that lesson the hard way. His youthful excesses caught up with him after nearly three decades of sobriety, shutting down his liver in 2012. 

Walter Trout. Photo by Austin Hargrave.
Walter Trout. Photo by Austin Hargrave.

Imminent death reinforced advice that Mayall had given Trout back in the ’80s, when his wild ways burned some bridges.

“There is this romanticized image of the hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-doping, womanizing, tormented-soul bluesman who lives fast and dies young,” recounted Trout, 66.

“And John said, ‘You know what, it’s bull—-. It’s complete bull—-. You can be a good person, and you can try to have love and family in your life. You can try to have a meaningful life, and still be able to play this music.'”

In 1987, Trout swore off heroin, cocaine, booze and pot (now “if I want to cop a buzz, I come have a double espresso”), after an intervention by Carlos Santana. 

Santana gave Trout his personal copy of an inspirational book, Robert Schuller’s Discover the Possibilities, along with an admonition.

“He said, ‘You have a gift, and you’re flipping the bird at the one that gave you the gift, and you need to nurture it and take it seriously,'” Trout said.  

A GRUELING REPRIEVE.

An 11th-hour liver transplant saved Trout’s life–barely–after he was diagnosed with  hepatitis C and its complications. 

For five years, he had been battling crippling fatigue, mustering just enough energy–“John Wayne-ing it,” in the words of his bass player–to perform.

Finally, while touring in Germany, he stumbled from bed early one morning and saw a terrifying face in the mirror. “I looked like I had swallowed a basketball,” he said. The doctor did not sugar-coat things: Without a swift transplant, Trout would die.

Walter Trout's trusty Strat. Photo by Austin Hargrave
Walter Trout’s trusty Strat. Photo by Austin Hargrave

Trout gutted his way through two more gigs, playing from a chair, and then waited. Twice, he came within a whisker of death. 

A donor liver arrived as the curtain was coming down. Trout’s struggles were just beginning.

“Nobody, including the doctors, expected me to survive. I’m a miracle. I had brain damage. I could no longer speak. I couldn’t recognize my wife. I was done.”

Bed-ridden for eight months, he lost 120 pounds and all muscle tone. Painstakingly, he re-learned walking and talking. He had to re-learn guitar, too, starting with barre chords that once came as easily as breathing.

“I didn’t have the strength to push the frets, to push the string down to the fret,” he said. 

It would take him a year to regain dexterity on guitar, and 18 months to begin feeling good again.

DUKE, DYLAN, AND THE BEATLES

Trout might have avoided the entire frightening ordeal if, at age 10, he had listened to Duke Ellington.

The boy spent an awestruck afternoon with Ellington and his band in their dressing room prior to a concert in Camden County. Trout’s mom merely hoped to cadge an autograph for her son. But Trout recognized Ellington’s sax player, Paul Gonsalves, and complimented him for his solo in Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.

“He said, ‘This little white kid knows all about our music!’  That got me in,” Trout said.

Trumpet player Cat Anderson then shared his own instrument with little Walter–an aspiring trumpeter–for an impromptu lesson on hitting the high notes.

But the high note for Trout was sitting on a white couch beside Ellington himself.

John Mayal, Eric Corne and Walter Trout. Photo by Marie Troutl
John Mayall, Eric Corne and Walter Trout. Photo by Marie Trout

The legendary composer and bandleader told him to stay focused on the music if he became successful in the business.

“Don’t get into the whole stardom-hype-glory thing, because that is very hollow, and it’s also very fickle,” Trout remembers Ellington counseling him.

“One year they’ll love you, the next year they’ll hate you. What it’s about is producing the work, and being the very best artist you have it in you to be.”

Trout’s parents exposed him early to jazz and the blues, through their record collection and concerts by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, James Brown, Lou Rawls and many others.

When rock and roll emerged, it seemed like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis “were playing blues, but they were doing it a little faster, and with a little more aggression. I saw those two genres as being the same,” Trout said.

But it was Bob Dylan who made the youth put down his trumpet.

Walter Trout will headline the 2017 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by by Bob Steshetz
Walter Trout will headline the 2017 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by by Bob Steshetz

“The songs were so beautiful and they were so simple,” Trout said. He borrowed his brother’s acoustic guitar and learned Blowing in the Wind and Michael Row the Boat Ashore.  “I figured I could go to parties and I could play these folk songs, and I’d be popular.”

Trout switched to electric guitar after watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964.

“That was life-changing. If you weren’t there, it’s very hard to even express the impact that had on people of my generation,” said Trout, who was 13 when the Fab Four led the British Invasion.

One might have expected a kid from Ocean City to crank up his amp and bash out surf songs. But his musical evolution took another turn, thanks to an album his brother brought home.

It was by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and it featured guitarist Mike Bloomfield on a song called Born in Chicago.

“My brother said I’m going to put this record on and you need to sit down, because you’re going to be floored. He put it on, and at the end of it, I said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do. There it is. I’m going to make that sound.”

SINGIN’ THE BLUES

Which brings us to Trout’s other revelation.

Being a great bluesman, he said, is “not about technique at all.”

Say what?

“It’s just about self-expression, it’s about expressing a human emotion. It has nothing whatsoever to do with technique,” said Trout, who has zero patience for show-offs.

His new album (number 26), We’re All in This Together, includes such stellar players as Mayall, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Joe Bonamassa and Robben Ford, a prior headliner at the Morristown festival.

The album is not an O.K. Corral showdown of guitar-slingers, Trout insisted. Rather, it’s an exercise in mutual respect and shared love of a genre that has infected them all.

“It’s about communication. That’s what I listen for. Are they saying something?  You have to say something,” Trout said.

“If you want to be a poet, you can’t just stand on the corner and spout big words. That’s not poetry. It has to have meaning, it has to say something.”

Video: ‘We’re All in This Together’ trailer:

A mentor, the late Melvyn “Deacon” Jones, once reminded Trout: “There’s no such thing as too many notes, there’s no such thing as not enough notes.”

That may explain why the blues grip so many musicians; rock stars like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones keep yearning for their bluesy roots.

“Man, it’s music which is stripped down to the bare essentials,” Trout said.

“It’s about as pure a musical form as it gets. The pureness of it, the ability to express emotion over a very simple framework, is endless. It’s this simple foundation on which you can build anything that you want. It’s in the blood, and when it gets in there, it doesn’t leave.”

Trout intends to communicate that on the Morristown Green on Aug. 19, 2017, with a little help from his friend Mark Rivera, who played sax with him at Carnegie Hall and whose regular gigs include Ringo Starr’s and Billy Joel’s bands.

“I think they’re going to get an emotional, smoking, really kind of fun show” in Morristown, Trout said.

What they’re not going to get is an outrageous, “doped-up clown.”

This Walter Trout loves his wife and family (his son Jon plays on the new album), loves having a home, loves having “something in my life to hold onto that’s real and that’s honest and that’s true, and that matters.”

In short, he loves life.

“I feel great. I feel like I’m on a good path. I also deeply know that we’re all on borrowed time. And I want to make the best out of what time I have.”

MORE ABOUT THE 2017 MORRISTOWN JAZZ & BLUES FESTIVAL

The Seventh Annual Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival

Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017, from noon to 10 pm on the Morristown Green:

Walter Trout headlines at 8 pm,

with special guest Mark Rivera, saxophonist for Ringo Starr and Billy Joel. 

The full lineup:

Noon: Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks

2 pm: Jazz guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli

4 pm:  Louis Prima Jr. and his big band

6 pm:  guitarist Ana Popovic

Admission: free. Bring lawn chair or blanket.

MotownJazzBlues_Poster_2017

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