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Country Boy Was Sophisticated Jazz ArtistCopyright © 2001
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.