Ohio-based veteran Blues & Jazz guitarist Gaetano Letizia talks about the gourmet dinner of music genres

"It’s an expression of God’s love for mankind, a reflection of his creativity through us. When a jazz or blues artist composes a tune or plays a solo, it’s from their heart."

Gaetano Letizia: Beatles Blues Blast

Gaetano Letizia, known as Tom by most, resides in Aurora, Ohio (Cleveland area). Finding inspiration in guitar heroes from Hendrix to Spencer Christian and an era of simpler times he describes as “before the commercial engines stole the music industry from us, musicians ruled the creative process, writing from their hearts”. Gaetano Letizia, leader of the Underworld Blues Rock Band, who was a teenager during the years of Beatlemania and the British invasion presents “Beatles Blues Blast” (2018). The effect of those heady days has stayed in the forefront of his mind for decades and now, with a little help from his friends, Mike D’Elia on drums and bass man Lenny Gray, Gaetano released his third disc, a rowdy romp through 17 classics from the Beatles’ catalog, cleverly arranged and reframed as a funky blues jam session. He started playing guitar at age 15 and began playing professionally in his own band the following year with his first performance at the legendary JB’s in Kent with the James Gang. Letizia then toured nationally with Buddha Records recording artists, Tiny Alice. Letizia studied blues in the style of B.B. King as well as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix along with a host of other great blues & jazz guitarists for over 40 years.

He had private lessons with George Benson and Pat Martino both known primarily as jazz players, but are also great blues players. After graduating in 1973 from Kent State University in Business, Letizia was granted a music composition scholarship to Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music, where he studied for the next two years. After completing a six-year study of the Schillinger System of Composition with Bert Henry in 1975, Letizia went on to study classical guitar with Dr. Loris Chobanian and jazz guitar with John Stebal for the next six years as well as blues studies with Bill Jeric of the James Gang & Wolf Marshall. He is currently studying with Richie Hart of Berklee College of Music and is a Certified Berklee College of Music PULSE system teacher. Letizia has performed with Matt “Guitar” Murphy at the NAMM Show in LA. He has also performed at the 20th Century Guitar Show in New York City as well as the NAMM show representing Triggs Guitars & D’Aquisto Strings. He has recorded with June Core, drummer of the Robert Jr. Lockwood band and Charlie Musslewhite’s band.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Jazz music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Music has enabled me to communicate with people all over the world and realize we are all one in the arts. Music takes away political and religious divisions. My music has dissolved all the ignorant hate rampant in the world and has brought us all together. Music has given me a positive view of the world in the midst of chaos.

What were the reasons that you started the Blues, Jazz and Rock researches and experiments?

I have always been drawn to music. From early childhood I was drawn to the magic of music and could not turn away. I believe it’s a universal language from God almighty to help us heal and unify. I started playing the blues first because it’s cathartic. It takes away pain and it’s brother, jazz music is just the flip side of the same coin but reaches further into our other emotions and curiosities.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

To me the blues isn’t a sad feeling, it’s emotion in general. All feelings are part of the blues. Blues to me is a way of expressing feelings in an intense musical way. The blues helps me get my feelings out and helps me heal. When I’m depressed and downhearted, the blues pulls out the poison. When I’m happy and full of love, the blues helps me share with all my brothers and sisters. The blues is emotion expressed.

How do you describe Gaetano Letizia sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

Our sound is actually a combination of genres that all start with the blues. Rock, funk, Soul, Reggae and jazz are all children of the blues. My philosophy is that you need all the genres rooted in the blues to express your soul. The blues is natural to all of us along with its natural extensions. It’s like having dinner and serving only one course. That might be very boring. When we have dinner, we don’t just have meat, we add vegetables, rice, pasta, sauces, salads, desserts: that’s what my music is – a gourmet dinner of genres, based in the blues.

How do you describe "Beatles Blues Blast" philosophy? What touched (emotionally) you from the Beatles music?

We wanted to expose the bluesy underlying character and roots of the Beatles. So many of the British musicians idolized black American blues musicians and it showed in their music and the whole British Invasion.

Do you consider the Beatles & Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

The Beatles are without doubt multi-genre. And they did it with uninhibited genius and inspiration. I really believe they would have written the same music if they hadn’t been discovered ever.

Are there any memories from "Beatles Blues Blast" studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

The day of the recording was a marathon. We recorded all 17 tunes starting at noon with usually one take and then did 12 videos that evening at our fan party. We wanted the raw unprocessed jam session feel. I thought we’d be exhausted but we blasted right thru. That just shows the magic of the Beatles and the blues.

Why did you think that the music and songs of the Beatles continues to generate such a devoted following?

Because their music was written from the heart and not from some giant corporate engine trying to promote pasteurized commercial music designed to take money from teenagers. These were young kids from Liverpool who didn’t have much but music and their friends. They were brilliant and blessed. I just wish they could have gotten along longer because the music was fantastic by any measure. The music compares well to Cole Porter or Tchaikovsky.

How do you describe your previous album “Resurrection” sound, songbook, and music philosophy? Are there any memories from studio which you’d like to share with us?

Resurrection was composed the same way Clapton & Hendrix used the blues to create much of the iconic classic rock tunes we revere today. The emotional functions of the blues that pull our feelings out of us demand expansion. The blues is the inception and the other genres are the extrapolation. My philosophy is to write music from my heart and give you my story in true honesty. Not for the purpose of making me a guitar hero or selling CDs. It’s art for art’s sake with purity. And every song has a religious moral laid between the lines. Another reason it won’t sell  to pop culture.

I told the engineer to stop calling out how many takes we were on and asked him to say this is “Take One” every time, so I wouldn’t feel bad about how many mistakes I made.

"I just hope the kids can realize the value of creative music like blues and jazz that aren’t just commercial pop music designed to sell records."

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and highlight moment of your career?

Now is the time. Now is the most exciting time. I’ve had interesting periods all through my life and was never bored, but now is the most exciting, because I’ve shed other peoples’ expectations of me and I do nothing but music now. It’s thrilling to be your own person. I have had so many highlights. Discovering music at the age of four when my aunt Rose played the accordion for me: I was mesmerized. When I first heard a guitar. When I first heard Jimi Hendrix. When I first met and heard George Benson. Going to play a show in NYC and having Pat Martino drive me there. During the show, I closed my eyes for most of the time and when I finally opened them, Pat was standing in front of me watching me play. I almost fell down right there.

Why did you think that the Jazz and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

True, honest art can never fade. It’s an expression of God’s love for mankind, a reflection of his creativity through us. When a jazz or blues artist composes a tune or plays a solo, it’s from their heart. It’s not some marketing ploy to make money. Honesty is always beautiful and precious. When the real music lover hears honest music, they can’t turn away. Beauty is rapturous. Now we have to expose a wider audience to the expansive beauty in our more challenging genres.

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had? Which memory from James Gang makes you smile?

When I was a teenager, Jimmy Fox from the James Gang called me up on the stage to play for my first musical performance. I shook like a leaf but I’ll never forget playing with those guys. It was like a sling shot and I’ve never stopped performing since. I also got to play a little set with Matt "Guitar" Murphy in Los Angeles before he passed away. We had a great time and really got rolling together. My best gig was in an old guitar player’s garage, outside in the summertime. My old friend said “be quiet and play a little simple tune with me”. No bass, no drums, just two quiet guitars. No fancy riffs, no fast runs, just an old guitar player showing a young guitar player what really mattered.

"Blues to me is a way of expressing feelings in an intense musical way. The blues helps me get my feelings out and helps me heal."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

In my 47 years playing, I’ve met so many wonderful people. Some were great players, some were great listeners. I once got to play for two Trappist monks at a monastery in Kentucky, who told me how much they loved my music and that I needed to continue writing because that’s what God wanted me to do. That did a lot for me. I also once got to play for a very wealthy internationally renowned business man, who told me even though he thought I played well; I should quit music because I could make a lot more money in business. Great guy, but I discarded his advice.

Are there any memories from jams and recording time which you’d like to share with us?

I was in an extremely high pressure session with people I hired in from NYC and was struggling to keep up with these top level players. After several days of torture with these jazz snobs, I finally got a take I loved and felt like I was gaining ground with these virtuosi. Then the recording engineer came in and said he was almost ready to record and wished he had gotten that last take down.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Today it’s very high tech and kids have learned to play at high levels very quickly. The tools and the teaching methods get musicians up to speed very quickly. In the past, the old blues and jazz musicians had to do everything the hard way and really pay dues to get good. It just seems like those guys valued their talent more because they worked so hard to get it. Simple things like how to play a slow blues with sensitivity, dynamics, passion and love were critical to the old players. I have BB King solos I listen to over and over again, that I just can’t duplicate. Nobody can really play like him. He’s the greatest blues guitarist of all time. We all learned a lot from him. I saw him last month and he was 88. He still played with that great beauty. He’s slower and he plays less notes now but he still makes me cry. I just hope the kids can realize the value of creative music like blues and jazz that aren’t just commercial pop music designed to sell records.

"Music has enabled me to communicate with people all over the world and realize we are all one in the arts. Music takes away political and religious divisions."

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Classical and continue to Jazz and Flamenco music?

All music is connected. All of it. Each genre, each style within each genre is connected because it’s the same process happening. Artist sees life, artist paints it. The blues uses primarily pentatonic scales (five note) which are a subset of the major and minor scales used in classical, jazz and flamenco music. As you expand beyond the pentatonics, you naturally add the other notes that are standard in classical and flamenco music. Then when you add even more notes in between the standard major and minor scales (chromatics), you get jazz. They all flow back and forth between each other. That’s why you’re seeing more and more music being composed cross-genre. Like pop tunes with a little reggae and a little blues and other versatile influences. I heard some hip hop with Middle Eastern scales. Get wild. Why not?

How has the music changed over the years? Do you believe in the existence of real Jazz & Blues nowadays?

About 20 years ago someone told me blue jeans were going out of style. How did that work out? The original genres/styles will never die. Beautiful, progressive blues and bebop is written every day. I just got back from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage fest and heard all kinds of new blues and jazz tunes that were fabulous. In my improv classes, we study the masters in blues and jazz and we try to understand what they did and how they did it. Then the students write and improvise solos in the styles they are studying.  Some get really good at blues or funk or bebop and then morph those styles into their own modern, progressive forms. Some get really good at the classic forms, most evolve new combinations.

Make an account of the case of blues in Cleveland area. What touched (emotionally) you from the local circuits?

We had a guy, Glenn Schwartz, who played with the original James Gang and went on to Pacific Gas & Electric who inspired me to play guitar. He was as good as Clapton or Hendrix but drugs got him. I used to follow him and Phil Keaggy and Joe Walsh around along with Robert Jr. Lockwood who were all great blues players. Those guys would get me fired up to practice all night long for years.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in the music circuits and scene?

I learned to open my soul and be myself. I never try to impress anymore, just to share with all. “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

"Rock, funk, Soul, Reggae and jazz are all children of the blues. My philosophy is that you need all the genres rooted in the blues to express your soul. The blues is natural to all of us along with its natural extensions."

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I wish the masses would wake up and realize they are being sold a lot of sub standard music in the pop world and that many independent artists are being ignored and even lost because the big commercial entities can’t make them into a pop mega stars. Hip hop is selling billions and billions. So is McDonalds. When I buy wine, I look for the small vineyards where some family made the wine and the dad and mom looked at the grapes every day. Give me the real thing not some over produced, pasteurized glob of nothing.

What is the impact of Blues and Jazz music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

I was raised by Black construction workers on the family paving crew that I was on in high school and college. Those guys raised me because my father was too busy chasing paving jobs to keep our family fed. Those black men introduced me to the blues. They sang it all day in the hot sun and I started singing it with them because that’s how we got thru the day. Then I spent most of my musical time with the black musicians who taught me how to play and feel the music correctly. What is race when your musical fathers and co workers are all black? I felt more black than white most of the time so racism is ridiculous to me and a curse on us all. Me and the guys had no race, and our work and the music we shared unified us. Music is a unifier. Music dissolves hate and fear. (When I reference music I mean a mix of genres which starts with the blues and combines it all)

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

While there are so many in my mind, here’s one that would be great fun. I would like to have been there when Robert Johnson started teaching Robert Jr. Lockwood how to play blues guitar. Or do any Muddy Waters gig with him.

Gaetano Letizia - official website

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