There's no official theme for this year's Portland Jazz Festival. That's fine: They're often contrived anyway. Still, the presence of Seattle's Bill Frisell and Berkeleyite-turned-Brooklynite Charlie Hunter, along with several shows by Portland's fretboard master, Dan Balmer, puts the guitar front and center at this year's fest. We asked Balmer, who's given private lessons to some of the city's finest young guitarists—at Lincoln High School and Lewis & Clark College—for a quick overview of his instrument's jazz legacy, beginning with the founding fathers and wrapping up with artists playing this year's jazz festival.

Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt
“Those are the pillars that contemporary jazz guitar is built on,” Balmer says. In less than three years between the time he joined Benny Goodman’s sextet and his death at age 25 in 1942, Christian made the electric guitar into a powerful jazz instrument and influenced practically everyone who played it after him, whether they know it or not. Around the same time, the incomparable Belgian gypsy Reinhardt was developing the swinging “le jazz hot” with his partner, violinist Stephane Grappelli. Reinhardt is the deity most subsequent guitar heroes worship.

Wes Montgomery

Jim Hall
“Guys like Pat Metheny down to Kurt Rosenwinkel came out of his approach—exploratory, less bluesy, less traditional, more surprising, more abstract,” Balmer says. “He influenced a lot of people that then themselves became influential, including a lot of the hip guys in New York.”

Bill Frisell

"From New York avant-garde to country and bluegrass to very pastoral folk stuff—that's a pretty heavy body of accomplishment," Balmer says. "What makes Frisell important is that he's not only a great, prolific composer, but he also has his own immediately recognizable sound, and he's managed to reach a wide audience with both."

Charlie Hunter
Balmer acknowledges that the generation-younger Hunter hasn't yet reached Frisell's level of achievement, but with his eight- or seven-string guitar-plus-bass setup, "He's come up with this completely crazy idea, something unique, new and different, which is hard," Balmer says. "And it's something people like to hear, which is even harder." Despite covering everyone—from Marley to Monk to Nirvana—and flirting with jam-band, hip-hop and neo-soul scenes, Hunter "has developed it and adapted it all completely to his own recognizable voice," Balmer says.

Dan Balmer

His week at the jazz festival demonstrates Balmer's stylistic range. Last Saturday, he played his own mainstream music with his trio, then on Sunday joined New York's avant-garde Jazz Passengers. You can hear his harder-rocking, drum-and-bass-influenced Go By Train trio, and Balmer plays still another style every week in Mel Brown's band at Jimmy Mak's.

"I'm influenced by everyone on a daily basis," he says with a chuckle. "My greatest strength and my greatest weakness is that I'm susceptible to anything. I'm big on Frisell, [John] Scofield, Metheny, [John] McLaughlin—there's something to learn from all of them."


SEE IT: Dan Balmer's Go By Train plays Rogue Distillery and Public House, 1339 NW Flanders St., on Thursday, Feb. 23. 9 pm. Free. 21+. Bill Frisell plays the Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., on Friday, Feb. 24. 9:30 pm. $25-$45. All ages. Frisell plays the Newmark Theater, 1111 SW Broadway, on Saturday, Feb. 25, with the 858 Quartet. 7 pm. $28-$58. All ages. Charlie Hunter plays the Crystal Ballroom on Saturday, Feb. 25. 9:30 pm. $25. All ages. For more Portland Jazz Festival events, see