Fretprints: Billy Bean

Missing Link of Modern Jazz Guitar
Fretprints: Billy Bean
Billy Bean photo courtesy of Edith “Cheri” Criniti and Dr. Seth Greenberg.

The rediscovery of a missing link is cause for celebration in any field – historic, scientific, or musical. In modern jazz guitar, none more aptly fit the title than Billy Bean.

No mythic character, Bean is one of the most-astounding and unheralded guitarists in the form, having emerged when jazz was evolving from swing-era precedents to the complex art music known as bebop. Today, he presents a capsule view of a genre in flux. Many ask how modern players like Joe Pass, Pat Martino, and George Benson emerged from the foundations laid by Charlie Christian, Les Paul, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, and Jimmy Raney. The answer may be found in the short-lived career of Billy Bean.

William Frederick Bean was born in Philadelphia, PA, on December 26, 1933. He picked up his father’s guitar when he was about 8 years old and was encouraged by his doting mother to indulge his passions. The passions initially came from 78 RPM records played on the family Victrola and old chestnuts like “Heart of My Heart.” He began learning informally from his father, Nelson Bean, an amateur singer/guitarist, and at age 12 graduated to official tutelage from Howard Herbert, a local teacher who taught him fundamentals and tunes like “Tico, Tico.” He soon developed an interest in jazz and guitar players Django Reinhardt, Carl Kress, Chuck Wayne and Les Paul. In high school, he played clarinet in the marching band and was drawn to saxophonists Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt, who remained lifelong influences. He transcribed lines from Parker, Stitt, Lester Young, Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Clifford Brown to develop his ear and phrasing. Bebop shaped and informed his obsession and became his central focus. He dropped out in the 12th grade to pursue music and cultivated a reclusive, nocturnal lifestyle of practicing and performing from dusk to dawn. At 18, he studied classical guitar with Peter Cologna, but abandoned it within a year because of his preference for improvisation. He then studied with Dennis Sandole, a famed pedagogue who taught John Coltrane, Pat Martino, Benny Golson and others. His curriculum included theory, technique (he acquired his picking style from Sandole’s guidance) and Kreutzer violin exercises adapted for guitar.

Bean’s professional life began in ’52 with a commercial band led by accordionist Joe Major. He also worked in Philadelphia sporadically; participating in a demo session for Al Martino and club date with pianist Sonny Henderson, where Coltrane was a sideman. His first significant jazz experience was with saxophonist Charlie Ventura, a veteran of Gene Krupa’s band, who hired him for live concerts in ’55-’57 and three studio albums in ’56. One of these, Charlie Ventura Plays Hi-Fi, caught the ear of guitarist John Pisano, who was stuck by his advanced approach. He had already surpassed the decade’s leading players, Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney, in terms of articulation, rhythmic variety, phrasing, proficiency at fast tempos, and lengthy technical passages. The next phase of Billy’s professional life took place in Los Angeles and involved interaction with Pisano.

This excerpt presents a wealth of approaches. Billy plays blues sounds over Eb diminished and Dm7 chords in measures 1-2 and combines them with a Bird-inspired bop line over G7 and Cmaj7 in 3-4. The hexatonic melody over Fmaj7 in 6 is a common hard-bop gesture also favored by Wes and Martino. Like those players, he “minorizes” the line in 7 to play F minor over Bb7. He varies his articulation to include a sweep-picked arpeggio in 8 and plays two measured quarter-note figures as recurring rhythmic motives for contrast in 9 and 12. These simpler, more-static ideas are separated by two active phrases in 10-11 and 13-15 for a jazz-oriented call-and-response result.

Bean moved to L.A. in January of ’58, at the behest of Pisano and cellist/A&R man Fred Katz to record two guitar-centric albums for Decca Records. The first, Makin’ It, was a “mood jazz” production heavily arranged and orchestrated around the duo. Its one spontaneous track, a one-take performance of “The Song is You” (also a favorite blowing vehicle for Joe Pass), featured Bean, Pisano, and bassist Hal Gaylor, and set standards for what would develop in the coming decade. Their sophomore album, Take Your Pick, relied more on improvisation, eschewed lush arrangements, and boasted three Bean compositions. As a duo, they recorded several casual (but illuminating) rehearsal tracks at Pisano’s home, eventually released as Makin’ It Again and West Coast Sessions. Notable performances include a blistering “Cherokee” on the former, and a powerful rendition of Sonny Rollins’ “Airegin,” played with Dennis Budimir on the latter. Bean soon became a sought-after commodity on the L.A. scene, recording a dozen albums as sideman in settings ranging from bop and mainstream jazz to American folk, beatnik poetry, and avant-garde between ’58 and ’59 with Paul Horn, Carmen McRae, Red Callender, Milt Bernhart, Buddy DeFranco, Fred Katz, Bob Dorough, Paul Togawa’s Sextet, Zoot Sims, Buddy Collette, and others.

Surf music will be forever linked to jazz, and jazz to the first wave of surf culture, via Bean’s recordings with saxophonist Bud Shank for Bruce Brown’s debut film Slippery When Wet in April ’58. This album was conceived when Brown was duly impressed by Shank’s quartet at Malibu’s Driftwood Inn. Recorded at Pacific Jazz studios, where Wes Montgomery recorded in the mid ’50s (and where Joe Pass would in the mid ’60s), the music was a smooth melding of bop, blues, and ballads that served as the perfect underscore for the surfing action and narration in the classic movie. The group highlighted Bean’s presence as featured soloist and primary accompanist with Shank, Gary Peacock (bass), and Chuck Flores (drums). More than three years before Dick Dale made reverb-drenched twang a SoCal cliché, Billy’s bop was the music to surf by. Trivia time for your next guitar hang: Who was the first surf guitarist – B.B. or D.D.?

After his prolific West Coast period, Bean relocated to New York in October ’59 to perform with Tony Bennett, who’d hired him for concerts in L.A. He recorded To My Wonderful One with Bennett in November ’59 and worked with him until the spring of ’60, when he tired of being a singer’s accompanist. He played briefly with saxophonist Herb Geller, then formed The Trio with Gaylor and pianist Walter Norris. The Trio recordings of ’61 represent a high point in Bean’s career. “Scramble” (an angular “Rhythm Changes” contrafact) and “Safari” showcase his inventiveness and technique while “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “For Heaven’s Sake” present understated ballad performances that mixed lyrical playing with double-timed lines. “Lush Life” is a rarity – his only recorded substantial chord-melody arrangement, and his “Motivation” reveals a modern side. “Land’s End,” “Che-Low” and “Grooveyard” contain generous samples of his blues/bop proclivities and hint at the hard-swing double-time in Pass’ work.

In ’62, Bean joined Herbie Mann’s Latin jazz group and recorded two prescient bossa-nova albums that posed his bebop style over Brazilian grooves in an early “fusion” precursor. Moreover, his playing on “Cool Heat” suggests he was conversant with post-bop modal playing. He was nominated for Best Jazz Guitarist in the ’62 and ’63 Playboy Jazz Poll and later worked with Stan Getz, who occasionally placed him in the unwanted role of bandleader.

Alcoholism began to take its toll on Bean in this period, compounded by his unorthodox nocturnal regime, unreliability, and a challenging relationship with his only girlfriend Verna White. Essence, his ’64 album with MJQ’s John Lewis, would be his last official recording. In less than 10 years, he had played on 20 studio albums of diverse styles. He never recorded an album as leader, preferring the role of sideman, and remained an underground legend.

Billy’s ease of navigating chord changes is explicit in this segment. He combines stepwise motion in measure 1 with chromaticism and genre-specific arpeggio substitution (Db diminished over C7) in 2. The skipping chromatic line in 3 is a modern pattern seen these days in Pat Metheny’s playing. Note the heavy accents to emphasize the targeting effect, here and in measures 11-12. Billy plays a delayed-resolution enclosure line as a phrase ending in 5 and allows more space in 5-8, for rhythmic variety. A modern twist is found in measure 10, where he superimposes an unusual F minor functioning as an altered Bb7 line over A7. Another modernism occurs in 12, where Billy applies a B major triad as a dissonant sound over G7. The payoff is its slick resolution into C in 13.

In ’65, Bean returned to Philadelphia to live with his parents. He later secured work on “The Mike Douglas Show” and in Peggy Lee’s band, but lost both positions due to his unpredictable behavior. He continued to perform locally and played briefly with Red Norvo in the early ’70s. Several bootleg recordings of live gigs have surfaced over the years and reveal his fealty to the bebop style he favored since childhood. He officially retired in ’86 and enjoyed two years of sobriety, but lived a hermit’s life punctuated with alcoholism, described as a prolonged suicide after the death of his parents and brother. While recovering from a cold, he died in his sleep on February 6, 2012.

In the ’50s, Bean boasted a modern style reminiscent of Joe Pass’ work a decade later, one that differed markedly from his contemporaries. Immediately evident are his well-articulated plectrum lines; his precision, consistency and fluidity prompted pianist John Coates to dub him the “J.S. Bach of bop guitar.” Like Bach, Bean epitomized smooth, inventive navigation through complicated chord changes. His improvisations were informed by melodies, dissonances, and harmonic concepts of bebop horn players yet exhibited a Bach-like logic in execution. Moreover, compared to other guitarists, he was prescient in his ability to effortlessly play long lines through changes, a trait shared by Pass, Martino, and Benson. Where Farlow or Raney played two to three bars of steady eighth notes, it was common to find Bean playing six. Another aspect was the incisive accenting of his attack. A self-confessed “hard picker,” Bean favored alternate picking decorated with sweep-picked strokes (usually for arpeggios) and minimal legato phrasing. His playing contained a variety of dynamics facilitated by his pick control. The harder edge added punch and drive, and increased the swing quotient. However, his gradations of volume and attack imparted a saxophonist’s breathing quality to lengthy single-note lines, often enhanced by stylistically correct sax mordents and trill ornaments.

Bean’s chord work consisted of straight four-to-the-bar timekeeping in the vein of Freddie Green with duos and larger ensembles, an occasional chord-melody rendering of a theme (“Out Front”), tasteful comping when he was the primary harmonic instrument (as on Slippery When Wet), chord-melody fills, and various percussive effects, like the muted-string strums on “End of a Love Affair.” His arrangement of “Lush Life” reveals his fluency with advanced jazz sonorities and ability to develop chord-melody themes and create interesting reharmonizations.

“The Song is You” from Makin’ It contains the DNA that defines Bean’s style. His first phrase begins with a mix of major/minor blues viewed through the bebop lens. Note the abundant chromaticism in the form of passing tones, leading tones, neighbor notes, enclosure figures targeting chord tones, and other active functional sounds of modern jazz. The Major Bebop Scale is emphasized in measure 4 in the G-G#-A chromaticism (and its arrival at the flat-five blue note, F#) and a B diminished arpeggio is heard as a substitute for G7 in 4, both bop staples. Also noteworthy are the classic chord-outlining melody in 5, a nod to saxophonist Stitt’s influence and the slick motion into the Eb diminished sound via a bop/blues approach in 6. Stepping back, the entire phrase stands a superb example of his ability to play long, uninterrupted lines – it spans more than six bars.

Makin’ It and Take Your Pick are available as a compilation. Makin’ It 2 includes rehearsal cuts and unissued material. Also recommended are Slippery When Wet and The Trio.

Bean appears in a vintage clip titled “Lynn’s Blues,” from “Peter Gunn,” filmed September 23, 1958, as part of the singer’s band. Several live clips from circa ’80 (without video) are posted as “Billy Bean Bootleg.” Of these, “Straight No Chaser,” flaunts modern blues sounds while “Mr. P.C.” bears a strong resemblance to Pat Martino.

Seth Greenberg’s two-volume The Life and Music of a Jazz Guitar Legend (Red Note Press) is definitive, with its exhaustive biography, interviews with Bean and associates, discography, transcriptions, analyses including comparisons of Bean’s solos with Farlow’s and Raney’s, and a collection of personal studies. The latter comprise Volume 2 and are worth the price of admission.

Bean favored hollowbody archtops with built-in pickups. He played a sunburst Epiphone Zephyr Deluxe (circa ’49) from ’56 through ’59. In New York, he replaced the Epiphone with a blond Gretsch Electro-II Synchromatic (’53). Both had two single-coil pickups though he specified the Gretsch had a softer, mellower tone. While recording with Herbie Mann, he used a Gibson L-7 with a Charlie Christian bar pickup. In ’66, he acquired a Gibson ES-175 with single PAF that Bean moved flush with the fretboard to better suit his picking posture. He strung guitars with .013-gauge flatwounds by made by Mapes, Black Diamond, and Fender, and used medium-gauge picks, favoring the Nick Lucas size and a white Fender 351.

Bean used a Premier 88N suitcase-style amp with a 12″ speaker and pushbutton controls from ’56/’57, then, from ’58 through the ’60s, a small Ampeg (likely a Mercury or Rocket) with a Tone control and a 12″. He later favored a silverface Fender Twin-Reverb with two 12s.

Wolf Marshall is the founder and original editor-in-chief of GuitarOne magazine. A respected author and columnist, he has been influential in contemporary music education since the early 1980s. His books include 101 Must-Know Rock Licks, B.B. King: the Definitive Collection, and Best of Jazz Guitar, and a list credits can be found at

This article originally appeared in VG’s December 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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