Q&A: Bobby Lee Rodgers Talks Teaching Mini Stevie Ray Vaughans, Playing for Deadheads, and All That Jazz

Bobby Lee Rodgers is a well known jammer in the world of twirling hippies, mostly as the guitar whiz in the Codetalkers, a band which also featured the legendary Col. Bruce Hampton. Beginning Thursday, September 23, he will be revisiting his jazz roots with a regular gig at the Green Room in Fort Lauderdale.

One Thursday every month for the next six months, Rodgers (along with drum and bass accompaniment) will pay tribute to a jazz great, beginning with Miles Davis. Rodgers is no stranger to the classic riffs that will dance from his guitar. He was not only trained in jazz, but was among the youngest people to ever teach at the Berklee School of Music when he taught jazz improvisation there before leaving the post to hit the road as a full time touring musician. Last year the Codetalkers disbanded and he's been out doing his own thing since then. Recently, County Grind had the chance to talk with him about the ongoing journey.

County Grind: The solo stuff you've been doing recently is more on the songwriting side of the spectrum than the jazz side.

Bobby Lee Rodgers: Yeah it sure is, man. I've pretty much got two things going. I've got the songwriting side, and then I switch over to the jazz side. I grew up playing [jazz]. You know, I've always loved rock music and singer songwriters. I love all kinds of music. But I grew up playing a lot of jazz. So it was good for me to come back to all this stuff.

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So with this endeavor there is a feeling that you are coming back to jazz? Does it feel like you have ventured in a different direction for a while?

Yeah, I'm definitely coming back to it. No question. To me it's just a style. Music, to me, is music. When people aren't focused on the right reasons for doing things, it can get stale no matter what genre you're in. I'm just feeling like [jazz] is coming back to my heart. I'm feeling like I need to develop more melodies in my brain, on the spot. When you're playing live so many things happen. When you have to improvise over chords or over an old tune, a standard, it kind of forces things out of you that you might not otherwise pull out. I guess for me, I'm always looking for a new melody or new lyric. I'm always trying to discover something new, and it might take something else to pull it out sometimes. You know what I mean?

Is going back and working out these arrangements bringing a fresh approach to your own writing?

Oh yeah! See that's how I got into this stuff in the first place. I always loved playing jazz. But mostly I've loved the tunes. You know, "My Favorite Things" [for example]. I mean, the lyrics are all the things you are. To me those tunes were just unbelievable. Lyrically, harmonically, [and] melodically. When I go back and learn those, I'm always thinking as a singer anyways.

One time when I was a kid, I was soloing over this tune and my band director said, "Man, do you really hear that?" (laughs). And I was like "No, I don't". He said "You're just running scales and stuff. What do you hear? Now, let me hear what's in your head." And that's what really turned me on to the music so much. It's constantly forcing you to come up with things. Otherwise, it sounds like you're running scales. It's all about a melody and developing a melody.

When I first decided to [pursue a career in music], I thought "I could play these jazz standards forever, but I need to write my own tunes." And I can still do the same things with it live 'cause those [jazz standards] are just tunes too. They're just songs. I've always just looked at them as songs, and you're improvising off the melody. And what greater tunes to pull from, you know? They're great melodies. It builds your vocabulary. When you internalize them, it does something. Kind of like when we learn words and sentences. If we go and read a great novel, it's going to inspire us to talk on a different level. It's all the same thing. To me, it all works together.

You're doing a lot of stuff down here in the near future. Is there a South Florida connection for you besides these gigs?

Man, I've done the JB and Friends thing for a while--that's John Bell. And I've been playing a lot in the Keys. For some reason the Keys started taking off. So, people are just wanting to book me more around there.

I had this band called the Codetalkers for a long time, and we toured around. It was more jam band kind of stuff. But, I went on to do my own thing. Started writing stuff that I really love to write. Then other things started coming in. It just kind of worked out in the universe. I didn't really plan on it. It just started moving that way.

The Codetalkers were more in the jam world, and these gigs are happening more in the jazz world. There seems to be overlap between those two worlds. The love of improvisation links them, but there is also a separateness between them. After being a Berkelee jazz guitar professor, what lead you towards the jam world? How did you get into playing for Deadheads?

It was fun, man! Like I was saying earlier, a lot of things get stale. To me, the jazz world...I just really wasn't that turned on by it. I started to get into it, and it's sort of lost what it was there for. You were just rehearsing and learning tunes just to go play at a cocktail hour or something. Man, that's not what I got into it for! I like watching Coltrane get up there and hit it! You know what I mean? Or Miles.

To me, it's a show. It's about melody, and developing melody. In the jam world, the doors were more there for what I wanted in that time. When I decided to come back into this music, I was like 'Man, I can't go back into it thinking the way I used to think about what it was. This is an art form, and I can't worry about if there are three-hundred people or two people. You're performing the music from your soul. It's going to be a show. It's not about how many people come.

What I've discovered in my years is that as long as you really are there for the right reason, I think everything else happens the way it's supposed to. That's the most important advice I could ever give to myself, or anyone. Be there for the music, and everything else will come around it. There's no such thing to me as being the best or the worst, as long as you're there for the right reasons.

That's kinda why I left [Berklee] too. It's not about being perfect. It's about being you. I want to hear somebody that's them. Whether they're a jazz artist, or they're a songwriter, or a drummer. I'm going to express myself in this. And if people like it, great. If they don't, they don't like it. There's nothing I can do about that. And that's kind of what I'm doing it for. Does that make sense? I mean it's kind of a hippied out approach. (laughs) But, it's just the truth. You know?

Somebody told me a long time ago, "Just be you." It was one of my jazz professors. He said, "Whatever 'you' is, that's what people want to see." That's not what they're told they want to see, but that's what they want. I'm just kind of going with what I'm feeling. (laughs) I hope I don't sound like some "California dude."

There's something inexplicable about an artist that is up there just letting go and doing their thing. And that's ultimately what's attractive, but that's the one thing that can't really be taught or pinned down. So people try to create that something, but when they try, they're already sort of away from it.

That's right. That's exactly right. Dude, you and I have gotta hang out. (laughs) 'Cause that's 'it'. The more cats that can think like the way we're thinking...good things will come to the world. It's real simple. Believe me, I've taught at the big business school of all time. And you can't teach the road unless you're on the road! There is nothing that can prepare you for the business. No class. Nothing. I don't even know anybody who has went or taught at that school that is in the business that I'm in right now. And there are a thousand guitar players enrolled every semester. Thousands! It's like a factory. There are some amazing teachers there. I'm not knocking it. I'm just saying that it's more of a business thing, that stuff.

What's going to separate [someone]? It's like everybody there is trying to be the next...blank. I remember I had this class, and all the students came in, and I remember when the Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar just came out. I had like seven people walk in dressed up like Stevie Ray Vaughan -- this is at Berklee -- and had the same guitar, man!

That's hilarious.

The first thing I said was 'See all those things? Y'all need to put those in the corner right now. Because I can't even look at that. We're gonna focus on music, we're not going to focus on other things.' It's about who they are. It's like learning a language. These kids would learn all these words and sentences, but they wouldn't learn who they are. I want to hear you. What do you have to say from all this stuff. That's the hardest thing, man. But, it's really the easiest thing.

I mean, you have to study. Whether you're studying in school or just listening to records. Listening to records is more valuable than anything in the world. Then, be yourself. It seemed like kids could learn everything in the world, but if they didn't listen to records and really learn all the inflections and nuances, instead of reading it off a chart...You know what I mean? How [else] could you internalize that? I think that listening and being yourself are the most important ways to nourish [your talent]. Sometimes in school, they get away from that. They focus more on technical skills. It helps, but it doesn't create it. It won't really do anything for you unless you internalize. When we internalize, that's when we become ourselves. That's what we've got to teach people to do. I'm trying. I hope I am doing it (laughs).

I'm sure you are, man. I'm sure that you're music is the musical expression of this feeling.

That's the only reason I'm there is to try to create something. And to try to be in the purest heart when I get up there. Try to let everything go away. When I'm there, I'm blessed to be standing there with the wood and strings in my hand. And people are standing in front of me. I've got a responsibility. People came to see, I've better have my head in a place that can give to the world. To give something. They want to know who I am, and what's really inside. Am I relating to them? And how can they go 'It's okay. It's okay to be here. Because I'm a human...'? It's all about getting together. That's really what it is.

That's what a great conversation or a great performance or a great art exhibit or anything is about. It's about going 'You know what? I'm screwed too. And everybody...we're on this planet together and nobody's getting off anytime soon. You know, just share some stuff. It's cool. And I think it really helps people to get along. I think that's why it stops wars. It's why music is so powerful if it's coming from the right place. It can stop wars, dude! (laughs) You know what I'm sayin'? I mean, you can put all the business behind anything in the world you want, but if you can get a great tune and a great delivery of that tune up there and...man, it can change a lot of things. You know? (laughs)

Yeah, it's the love! Music can be an expression of the love or compassion, or whatever word you want to use to label it. It becomes an act of love to get up there and play music.

True, man. True. It doesn't matter if you're playing a guitar with one string on it. If somebody gets up there and they are behind it like that... Man, no matter if it's dark or light. Sometimes the dark stuff is what people need to hear because they're in a dark place too. They need to go "It's okay. That guy goes through this too. No big deal."

As long as it's coming from the right place it doesn't matter what the content is. There's nothing worse than someone getting up there and everything is happy all the time 'cause that's just not normal. That's a lie. Some things happen and they might be dark, but there's someone that needs to hear that, man; so they can go "It's okay. It's cool." We're all here for ten seconds. Let's try to enjoy it. Let's try to relate. We're gone so fast. Enjoy it. Be good to people. Peace, love, give... Try to surround yourself with positives. Don't exclude, don't alienate. You know. All that stuff, man. It's just truth.

Beautiful, man. Well put! It's just been an honor to have this conversation with you.

Me too, bud. Me too. Just knowing that you know. It's amazing. It's awesome to know.

Bobby Lee Rodgers Jazz Sessions. 7 p.m. Thursday, September 23, at The Green Room, 100 SW 3rd Ave, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $15. Click here.

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