The presence of a master

Circuitous, desultory, digressive, oblique, tangential, nonlinear, free-associative, random, incoherent even, and utterly unapologetic about it all. These are the prerogatives and privileges of the masters, the omnidirectional-latitude and all-access clearance that comes with total, unconscious command. Only pedants worry about compliance and strict consistency, tightening a grip on an authority they themselves don’t quite believe.

Masters trust that anything they could ever think to say shares in the deep logic of their truth. Each part contains the whole. They don’t prepare classes. They are the classes.

As comfortable in his own skin and in his own mode as he was holding a guitar, the great and bizarre teacher Ted Greene could not speak a straight line to save his life. Want a sequence of tasks that build toward definable goals on the instrument, results guaranteed or your money back? An orderly path of cumulative steps that will work if you work it, so work it? Better look elsewhere — like, maybe outside the arts entirely. Arts, in my opinion, tend to be pretty resistant to modes of conquest imported from science, self-help books and industrial psychology.


Greene couldn’t stop interrupting one point to make another. His sentences would begin promising one understanding and end a few octaves away and in a different key, continually to his own delight and surprise, as though Ted himself didn’t know that he knew that. Even his chord books — where one really has the chance to self-edit and structure — feel improvised and distractible.

And yet it only takes a few minutes fishing around in them to know that you are in some very, very deep waters, and the longer you can hold your breath and keep your head under, the more you will absorb.

And the funny part, of course, is that this mild, ADHD-rambling raconteur was known almost entirely as a teacher. He released one album under his own name. His only other studio credits are a few sessions accompanying vocalists. He gigged, corner-café style, and taught a number of people who went on to do good things. Ted Greene died in 2005 at the age of 58. Rumor has it he never charged more than $25 for a one-hour lesson. His Youtube presence, however, is mighty and growing, and his books are in print.

His life’s work is a rich vision of harmony applied to the fretboard, limitless in its possibilities and applications even though he is usually considered a pretty straight-up jazz cat. His system, if it can be called that, is full of active principles and the discovery of deeply consistent relationships, but strangely dogma-free and permissive. He wants you to get your head wet — all the way wet. His goal is empowerment, latitude, and liberation, and not the creation of a legion of Ted Greenes.

I often feel that “it’s all subjective” is exactly the wrong message to set out with on any path — a toothless truth 99 out of every 100 times it is spoken. That revelation is exclusively a pinnacle-view, a destination truth  reserved for masters who have exhausted all the other possibilities, like Ted Greene.


Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.