In the bio notes on his web page, guitarist Jim Skinger says, â€œIt seems there was never a time when I wasn’t strumming a guitar, playing the piano or practicing the accordion, but it was the guitar that held the most fascination for me.â€
Sixty years later, the guitar continues to captivate him and the music that he has both composed and performed on the instrument is heard around the world. Born in the Middlesex area on April 20, 1940, Skinger was adopted by a Worcester family and brought to town as a child of two years-old. He went to Ward Street Elementary School and Commerce High School before enrolling in Clark University. Skinger grew up around Millbury Street and, as mentioned, music was there from the beginning.
â€œWhen I was very young I used to spend a lot of my weekends up at my aunt Helen’s house,â€ he recalls. â€œShe had a piano in her living room and I would sit there for hours and learned to play – right by ear, little tunes. Then I began accordion studies. I took lessons with Guido Forticcelli for a while. There was a fellow before him.â€
Skinger gravitated to the guitar at the age of 9. He says practicing was never a problem. In fact, his parents would actually ask him to stop once in a while to do other things. â€œI taught myself how to play. I think I sent off for one of those home study courses. I could read and play. It was just a very natural thing. I began studies at Arthur Pruneau’s studios. They were in Worcester at the time.â€
Speaking of his fascination he says, â€œIt was an instrument that you could create all kinds of sounds on the strings. It didn’t have the visual thing like the piano or accordion where you could see all the keys. There was a mystery about it – how you put all those notes together on the strings.”
Being a teenager in the ’50s and a guitar player, rock n’ roll of course grabbed his ear. At the same time, Skinger says he listened to everything. â€œI was into old time music because I used to listen to a radio show out in Wheeling West Virginia, WWVA. There was an extraordinary deejay out there, Lee Moore, whom I got to know years later. He’s passed on now. He brought out all kinds of bluegrass and old time music. I loved all that music as well as early rock ‘n’ roll. We had a band and singing group growing up. We had a good time.â€
His band was called the Melotones. â€œIt sounds corny these days,â€ he says, â€œbut we were a well known group in our high school years. We used to play for all the high schools and college fraternities and dances. There was a place in Westboro called the Red Barn on Rte. 9. We did a variety of things, Presley and a lot jazz. That was an era when there was still a lot of the American Standards in play. People would ask us to play ‘Misty’ or ‘Moonlight in Vermont‘ and jazz tunes.”
Skinger says he learned to play jazz by listening. One of his early favorite guitarists was Johnny Smith. â€œHe was a huge influence on me. I was in 7th or 8th grade and I would run home from school and listen to his albums for hours. He was just extraordinary. I remember saying to myself, ‘Gee, if I go out and buy the sheet music maybe I can play just like that, only to realize there was something more going on. I began to realize there was another whole element to playing jazz. In those days it was really bebop.â€
Skinger also mentions local guitarist Johnny Rines. â€œI knew his son who played drums with us. Johnny was a really nice guy and there was a piano player Bill Clemmer. I did some jobs with him. This is the way it worked in those days. There weren’t instruction books. He would say, ‘Look, this is what I’m going to do.’ And he would do all these wonderful things. He was very advanced for the time. These guys were way ahead of the curve. He would modulate and do different things with the chords and you’d say, ‘My god where is he going?’ There was no sheet music.
â€œBill Clemmer was a tremendous player. His wife was Pat Goodwin, the jazz singer. They would play at this little coffeehouse that was downtown behind Front Street. It was started up by some very artsy people. It didn’t stay around long. They weren’t business people. Patty and Bill would go there and perform. I remember that very well. She was a great artist. I would say Johnny Rines and Bill Clemmer were tremendous influences.”
Back in the 1950s and into the ’60s, Worcester offered Skinger a showroom full of commercial work and mentoring was still a big part of the scene.
â€œThere were people like Perry Conte,â€ he says. â€œI was still a kid. He would call me up and say would I come and play with this and that group. I have to tell you, that hardly exists anymore. That’s where you got your training. He would send you out with these guys with big reputations and you’d be scared as hell going to the job, wondering were you going to be able to handle it. They were all older and more experienced. That’s how you learned.
â€œIt’s not like that today. A lot of the students I’m working with have to do a tremendous amount of preparation. They may not have the experience that we received but they have to really pass auditions. We started making money, right way, while we were kids still in high school. We were working constantly. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world.â€
Some time after high school, Skinger headed to Berklee College of Music to further his jazz studies.
â€œI’ll never forget that interview,â€ he says, â€œI told the registrar the kinds of things that I was picking up out on the street. I just thought everybody thought this way and understood things like this. They really didn’t come to find out until later.â€
Evidently, the promising young guitarist was much further along in his playing than the average incoming freshman at the time. Right then and there the school was willing to take him on as a student. They also offered him a position as an instructor.
Though the offer was tempting, Skinger went to Clark University instead. It was a chance, he says, to study in a formal way. â€œBy this time I was becoming more involved with classical guitar. The influence was pretty strong. At the time we were newly married. I was an older student. It was difficult to think of traveling around too far. I made the decision to stay in Worcester,â€ he says.
While at Clark, Skinger initiated a guitar program, which he directed for four years. At the same time, he continued classical guitar studies with such notable teachers as Walter Kaye-Bauer in Hartford, Sophocles Papas in Washington, DC and with Alexander Bellows in Manhattan.
Skinger was in the department with Relly Raffman. â€œHe was another huge influence. We had to stay pretty much down the middle of the road as far as sticking strictly to a classical curriculum. Although, on the side we would often go and play jazz gigs together.â€
Skinger also was one of those who got involved in the creation of the Worcester School for the Performing Arts, later known as Performing Arts School of Worcester (PASOW). He also taught privately. Carl Kamp was one of his students.
â€œHe was my first classical guitar teacher. I couldn’t use a pick anymore. I had to grow my nails. It was a life changing experience,â€ Kamp says laughing. â€œI studied at his house. He had a lot of students. He lived on Germain Street. I’m still playing classical guitar. This was around 1968. I switched to classical when I got out of college. I knew him from the store. He was a customer too.
He’s a good man.â€
Skinger left Worcester in the early ’70s. By this time he became heavily involved with things going on in Europe. His studies took him to Santiago de Compostella, Spain and to London where he studied with English composer John Duarte and the lutenist Diana Poulton.
â€œIt just felt right for us to spend time there,â€ Skinger says of his family’s move to England. â€œIt was a fascinating area that I wanted to pursue. I got the opportunity to study manuscripts at the British museum. So I spent a year there working with musicians in England.â€
In the mid-’80s, Skinger turned to composing and arranging in both classical and jazz idioms. Several of his compositions have been published in the U.S. and the U.K. In 1990 he formed a jazz trio, which led to many successful performances throughout the New York area.
When asked about how jazz and classical music coexists in his world, Skinger says, â€œHere’s my spin on it. Today everything is on the table. Those kinds of restrictive stylistic pedagogical techniques are almost becoming a thing of the past. In certain conservatories I see a more conservative approach and in some of the more Eastern European programs, but having said that, if you see what has happened with the guitar in the last 20 years, you will find that there has been tremendous … the Latin American composers have done a phenomenal job of taking folk music from their country and indigenous music and incorporating jazz and European music and coming up with phenomenal music that has been extremely popular.
â€œCertainly the English have done this with composers like John Duarte and others who have used English folk songs as a basis for composing contemporary works for the guitar. He was one of the most prolific composers for guitar. (He was also a jazz guy. That’s why we got along so well.) It seems to me that the one area that was lacking was our own country, where there was a division between classical and jazz. People did breach it like Charlie Byrd. He was an artist who did both.
“Jazz has a language and a tradition that is approached differently from the classical position, but I always felt that if you could combine both in a way that wasn’t a pastiche of styles – which is where the corruption thing got in there – but actually if you can create a unifying wholeness to the composition, you have something. That’s pretty much where I am with my composing right now.”
1997 was a banner year for Skinger. He made his debut with the Chappaqua Chamber orchestra, performing Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. He also appeared in a solo concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London for the Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Society of London.
In May 1999, Skinger was invited to perform in the Central Library of Moscow. The solo concert was sponsored by the Music Lover’s Club of Moscow. He also performed for the guitar classes at the A. Schnitke Music Institute and for the Primary School music classes for young musicians in Moscow.
In July 2000, Skinger performed in a series of performances throughout Italy celebrating Italian/Anglo Culture. The new millennium continues to offer Skinger new challenges and opportunities.
â€œIt’s amazing how life can take different turns when you least expect it,â€ he says. â€œI met a fellow in Mexico who is a publisher. He is German, Norbert Dahms. He asked me to send him some compositions and I just got busy and never did. We met again the following year in Montreal. He said, ‘You were supposed to send me some music. So then I realized he was serious about taking on some of my music. So I sent him some scores and things. He’s published seven or eight compositions of mine.
â€œThen I was invited over to do some concerts in Germany. From there it led to some invitation to Austria where I’ve been going for the last three years to jury a competition and festival. Last year they premiered one of my compositions, which was written for, of all things, jazz quartet and classical guitar. That came out of the blue. I had spoken to the director who said, ‘I want you to write some music.’ He’s a great Venezuelan guitarist and I had assumed that he wanted something along the lines of solo or chamber music for classical guitar. He said no I want a jazz piece. So they brought in a jazz group from Vienna to perform. It was written for piano, percussion, bass, saxophone and classical guitar.â€
Skinger has a new CD coming out in the coming months, his third. â€œThere are two bonus tracks. One is a chamber piece for oboe, bass, flute and guitar. The other is the jazz piece that was premiered in Austria. This is the first that is all my one music. I thought well it’s time to fly,â€ he says.
â€œFor some of my teaching I do the steel, but for myself, I prefer the nylon string, but I play all the guitars. I got them all. I’m still working locally. I do all kinds of things. When I have a jazz gig with my bass player, I play electric guitar on that.â€
When asked if Worcester was a good place to grow and develop, Skinger says without hesitation, â€œVery definitely. There were players that took you under their wing.â€