By David DacksGuitarist Ernest Ranglin is Jamaica's Oscar Peterson ― the country's consummate jazz musician and a national hero. Now imagine if Oscar Peterson had been a key contributor to rock'n'roll and an important A&R figure in the early years of the country's music business and you'd get a sense to what Ranglin did for ska music. Years of timeless contributions to the Studio One sound and Lee Perry's Black Ark cemented his importance to reggae music, while he concurrently was one of the best regarded jazz guitarists in the world. For the past 20 years, this sprightly 79-year-old has been playing what he calls "middle of the road" music, which is actually an original and tasty fusion of jazz and reggae that have left a mark on new generations. Middle of the road or not, Ranglin had more than enough fire in his belly to mash up a crowd of more than 2,000 people at a concert for the Montreal Jazz Festival, which is where Exclaim! caught up with him. He's got a few cranky grampa regrets, but given his awesome resumé we didn't complain too much.
Do you prefer playing in a jazz event or reggae? I stopped playing jazz since about 1991, you know. I've played jazz all through the years from about 1949. I was considered close to number one. But I never had any good representation; a good manager. So the only people who know me were musicians. I didn't have that exposure. Now and then something happens and people get to find out a little bit about me. But I don't think I have the amount of exposure that I should have got. So when I reach about 1990/'91 I said I think I've had enough. What am I going to try prove? I'm not getting no money by trying to be a good jazz musician so I decided to play middle of the road. I have jazz influence in what I do, but it's reggae music and I think I've created a style of my own from that time. It works well. I don't thing I'd go back into that heavy jazz anymore. It doesn't pay well; you have to be a dedicated guy. I'd have to win a lotto; then I could afford to sit down and do what I would love to do!
But you're playing a jazz festival here, you could do whatever you wanted to do musically. I go all over the place, to Montreux and they call it jazz festival but it's just a music festival. I just go play my little middle of the road stuff. I like what I'm doing, to tell you the truth. Most of the people at these festivals like to see how best they can cut expenses, so to take a group from Jamaica and go out would cost too much. So they find groups that I can go and join. We have to go and rehearse but I think I like it cause it's nice to meet different musicians. It's a different experience all the time.
Do you spend most of your time in Jamaica or travelling? Well I travel a lot. When I come to Jamaica I just cool out. Then I'm off again.
How many days a year are you on the road? This year, I can't complain.
Do you think you are seen as a mentor of Jamaican music? Well I hope they feel that way. From the very beginning, started off with ska music, all those artists from Studio One, Duke Reid, Sonia Pottinger, lots of labels, I was one of the first person who did a lot of works for them. I don't know if they remember but I've done a lot for them and they became great artists all over the place, some of them come to Canada here, some go to United States. But I don't put it into my mind to remember who. I just did what I had to do to see it go well.
Do you think certain Jamaican guitarists owe you a debt? Well yes I've taught a lot of Jamaican guitar players. I used to teach in a school for the government. I would be travelling so I might teach for a certain amount of time like a year or two and then I'm off. Go into the prisons and teach. Everywhere I go I always teach. Anybody who comes to me with any questions they have, as long as I know the answer I'll show them things in relation to what they ask me. I try. My whole life. I'm not worried about [credit or recognition], I'm more concerned with doing what I have to do. And when I do that, I am quite satisfied with myself. [I taught] Jah Jerry, he was the main man for the Skatalites. And Chinna Smith. I used to teach saxophone players also like Roland Alphonso.
How has your style evolved over the years? As I said I am playing a style of my own and I'm not playing the types of jazz I used to play. I'm playing this middle of the road music. Not too much of this and not too much of that.
Do you use any foot pedals? No I don't use them. I just play natural I don't use no wah-wahs. I have a guitar synthesizer, I've only used it once. I have everything at home but I don't use them. I prefer to play my guitar in a simple and plain way.
Still though, some of your most famous recording were made with Lee Perry in the 70s who put lots of effects on your guitar like phase-shifting. What did you think of what he did to your sound? Well he was a great engineer. I have nothing bad to say about him. He was like a genius as an engineer, like King Tubby. They were in a certain era.
For me, that's some of my favourite work of yours. The rhythms are so sparse that your guitar can really stretch out. With ska there's less room for solos. Ska, you have room for solos but generally those days what they were thinking of was a guitar that I would play in unison with the bass, dampening the strings (acting as a rhythm, not lead instrument). So they concentrate more on the saxophone and trumpet players. That's why I didn't solo that much in those days. The only reason I solo more these days is cause I'm the lead instrument!
Well that's the difference, in Lee Perry songs you'd play for three minutes straight on top of a dub mix, with ska on 45s, if the guitar gets any kind of solo it's going to be 8, 16 bars. And reggae sometimes is just one chord you can just go wild with it. Yeah, but most of those [recordings] I didn't know what was going on!
Did you spend a lot of time in England in the '60s? Well not a lot of time. The first time I went to England was in 1964. I was the first A&R man for Island Records; for a lot of people. Chris [Blackwell], all his tunes in the beginning, I was the person who did all these things with him. But I was the music director for Federal Records so they wouldn't allow me to play guitar for anyone else. So I was a bass player and arranger for everyone else. So when I went to England, that's when [Blackwell] got his first hit "My Boy Lollipop."
What about the '70s? there's a lot of your guitar on Studio One stuff from the early part of the decade. In the '70s, I was not much in Jamaica but in those times was a lot of Studio One stuff. Studio One, I worked from about 1958 going into the '60s. But in the '70s, when I would come to Jamaica there was a lot of work waiting for me. I would still go into the studio and [Coxsone Dodd] would say "I've got 90 tunes for you." So I'd sit down and listen to all of them and say, "Well maybe this one more guitar or this one some bass." And then we take them and, you know, repair them.
Too bad they never gave you writing credits on those. No, never! "Sound Dimension" [referring to the anonymous hit making instrumental studio group of which he was a member but not credited] are the ones who played on it. Jackie Mittoo was the first one, then Roland Alphanso played in it. Then Roland went to Beverley's [Records] and left Jackie in that position [music director]. I was always coming in whenever I'm around and did a lot of stuff with Jackie too.
Are you surprised that you continue to be rediscovered by so many new audiences? If they like what I do I'm quite happy.
Give you a plane ticket and a hotel and you'll play? I'm generally well taken care of.