On the 26th October 2015 I had the pleasure of flying out to Milan in Italy to interview the Italian guitarist Franco Cerri. Franco is widely considered to be one of the best Italian jazz guitarist and quite possibly one of the best European jazz guitarists. Having recorded nearly fifty albums, thirty-eight as leader he is certainly prolific. Born in 1926, he was 89 when we met; Franco began his long career in 1945 with Italian musician and songwriter Gorni Kramer. In 1949 he accompanied Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Wonderfully Franco had kept a great many scrap books and was able to show me some photos of him playing with Django and also a hand-written note to Franco from Django, a rarity indeed as Django was illiterate and apparently it had taken him a good twenty minutes to write it! From then on he performed and recorded with many top jazz musicians including Billie Holiday, Lee Konitz, Dizzy Gillespie, Barney Kessel, Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker.
He has performed on more than 750 television broadcasts and has presented a number of programs on Italian television channel RAI including Fine serata da Franco Cerri (Late night with Franco Cerri), Jazz in Italia, Jazz in Europa, and Jazz Primo Amore (Jazz, First Love)
In the 1980s he and pianist/composer Enrico Intra founded the Civici Corsi di Jazz di Milano (Milan Civic Jazz Courses) a jazz music school in Milan.
On 1st January 2006 he was named “Commendatore della Repubblica” (official title awarded for service to Italy) by President of the Italian Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.
Franco is a charming, witty, generous man and we chatted for a good hour and half about his life in music.
I am indebted to my good friend and brilliant guitarist Val Bonetti who helped me greatly as an interpreter for this interview.
D.DB So Franco, how did you become interested in playing the guitar and at what age?
F.C I was sixteen years old. A man living upstairs in my building played the guitar, playing popular music and I liked the sound of the guitar so my father bought me one. The price of my first guitar was 78 lira, it didn’t sound very well and the tuning was terrible.
My father said, “here is the guitar but as far as getting a teacher goes, there are no more lira!”
D.DB So how did you learn?
F.C When I was at school I met a man called Gianpiero Boneschi who became my friend, and a great piano player. I had my guitar and he said, “Hi, how are you, what have you got there?” At that time I knew nothing, not even the names of the strings so Gianpiero said come round to my house, I’ll teach you the notes. He was behind the piano and he’d say things like “play the biggest string on the guitar, that’s an E,” that’s how I learned.
We started playing together, he’d play chords on the piano and say this is Dm7 and I say things like “what do you mean by D, what does minor mean, what is a seven?” I couldn’t read chords, I knew some notes but that was it. Anyway I had a dream about a music score and I knew I could play it even though I couldn’t read it, that was what inspired me to learn to read music.
After the Second World War people used to meet and dance in the courtyards between the buildings. One day Gorni Kramer came to Milan. Gorni was a great musician and a famous songwriter, bandleader and accordion player. Nobody believed he was coming but he did and we met.
Gorni asked “does anyone know some American music” I knew some tunes having studied with Gianpiero Boneschi, so we played together, mostly jazz and music for people to dance to. I worked with Gormi for a long time after this. Gorni’s approach to music involved a lot of chord substitutions of familiar songs and much of the repertoire was similar to the American repertoire.
I played in Naples for American soldiers who were going back to New York. They stayed in Naples for fifteen days, then they’d take the ship back. We played jazz for them before they left.
D.DB You are a very accomplished soloist and improviser, how did you develop this skill?
F.C Thanks mostly to Gianpiero and I listened too and copied jazz records. I found a connection between the music I had in my head and what was on the score, it’s mostly by ear.
D.DB Which guitar players did you admire and influenced you?
F.C Django Reinhardt.
D.DB You played with Django, what was that like?
F.C I played with both Django and Stephane Grappelli. Stephane was one of the best piano players I’ve ever heard. Django was very kind, Stephane used to blame Django if anything went wrong.
Django was brilliant, he would play chord solos and incorporate the two damaged fingers. He knew nothing; he didn’t even know how to write his name.
When I was asked if I would like to play with Django, I said well perhaps you should ask him what he thinks about that!
I had an appointment with one of the managers at 10am, I arrived a little earlier and Django was there, the first thing I did was to check his hand to make sure it was really him, I looked at his hand and then I said, “ah, okay, this is really him”.
We were rehearsing, there was myself, Gianpiero and Django, Stephane hadn’t arrived. Any phrases that were played, Django was able to copy straight away by ear. I played one of his tunes and he leaned over and “said what key is this tune in” and I said, “It is in C” and Django said, ” ah so this is C,” he didn’t know.
We played in a club in Milan for a month. The manager would turn up with a girlfriend or sometimes his wife! It was really funny. After a month Django and Stephane went to Rome but I had to stay in Milan because I was contracted to play for television with Gorni Kramer.
After Django died I joined the Stephane Grappelli group. It was supposed to be the Grappelli/Cerri group but Stephane didn’t want that name. We toured for two years all around Europe from Sweden to Spain.
DD.B You’ve been fortunate to have played with many great jazz musicians, who gave you enjoyed working with.
F.C All of them, Barney Kessel, Jim Hall, George Benson and of course Django. For Chet Baker I played double bass. I learned to play the bass thinking of it like the guitar. I also played bass with Lee Konitz. I love the double bass, playing the bass I am the boss, double bass is the boss, it’s the foundation of the music, I like playing bass more than the guitar.
D.DB More than the guitar, this is news indeed, a scoop!
F.C Jim hall and George Benson came here and we had a jam session, my wife came in with a big dish of spaghetti. I saw George last year in Rome, I said “ciao George” and George said “pasta shuta, pasta shuta” he doesn’t speak about jazz music now, only pasta.
I went to get Jim Hall from the airport before a concert. I wanted to hug Jim but at that time Jim didn’t really want to hug me back and he seemed a bit cold. I said “Jim, what’s wrong” and Jim said, “is it true that you played with Django?” I said, “Yes, but I’ve played with Jim Hall too” he was okay after that.
D.DB You’ve been heavily involved in jazz education in Milan since you help found the Civic Jazz Courses. Do you still teach?
F.C That was in 1987. Yes, I still teach. As I didn’t formally study I try to share my experiences as a guitarist, some of the students at the school will become professional and I hope they will benefit from that.
I always get nervous before I perform; I think because I didn’t study sometimes I’m not sure what will happen. It only lasts a couple of minutes and then I relax.
D.DB Do you think there is a healthy jazz scene in Italy and how do you think we can encourage more people to be interested in jazz?
F.C The jazz scene is pretty good, a lot of people go to concerts, I think more now than there has been for a while. It is important though to consider that in schools in Italy, music isn’t taught and this is a bad thing and is very disappointing. We’ve always had great composers from Italy since medieval times but now it’s in the hands of the politicians.
D.DB In the UK everybody learns music although I’m not sure how effective it is. The music teachers have very little time to teach compared to other subjects and visiting music staff sometimes have to try and teach whole classes a musical instrument, still I suppose it is better than nothing.
F.C In Germany too all the children learn music, in Italy it’s a difficult period in general.
D.DB Is there any advice you would give to anyone learning jazz guitar?
F.C It is important to learn to read music so you can play other people’s music but don’t copy, be creative and write your own music. When you play other people’s music always add your own interpretation and ideas. Learn from everyone you are around whether you are performing or making records, steal ideas and play them in your own way.
D.DB Great advice, I’ve heard similar things said before. Stravinsky said something like “lesser musicians borrow, great ones steal”
F.C Yes but not copy, take an idea but make it your own. Also learn to listen. I was playing with Barney Kessel in Turin and he wouldn’t tell me what tune he was going to play or the key, he’d just start playing, laughing while he did it!
D.DB Barney had a great sense of humour. I’ve always been a fan. I recently did a concert trying to recreate some of the poll winners music. Wonderful music and I learned so much.
F.C Shelley Mann and Ray Brown, they were the best. I went to see Ray Brown play. I went with Ella Fitzgerald. Afterwards we went to an after show party. After a bit I said I need to go home, I was tired. Ella said, “you go to sleep? If you are always going to sleep when do you find time to make love?”
D.DB Franco, it has been a privilege to meet you and thank you so much for talking to me.