By Christopher Hull, Ferris State University student
Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of blog posts for GRandJazzFest written by Ferris State University public relations students. Thank you, Ferris, for helping to build awareness of jazz, the great American music art form!
Michigan was once a virtual breeding ground for jazz musicians, but the state’s contributions to the genre include more than just the artists themselves.
Orville Gibson founded the Gibson Guitar Corporation in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1902. The company produced a wide variety of guitar models and many jazz musicians have relied on the company to supply the tools of their trade through the years.
The Gibson ES-150 came to market in 1936, and is recognized as one of the first commercially available electric guitars. The smooth, warm sound of the ES-150 was favored by Charlie Christian, whose work with the Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra made it – and himself – world-famous.
In 1949, Gibson released its ES-175 model, and it soon became one of the most well-known jazz guitars in history. Though the ES-175’s pricetag of $175 was considered quite affordable at the time, its rich tone was prized by jazz greats like Herb Ellis and 20-time Grammy Award-winner Pat Methany.
Gibson launched the Les Paul in 1952. Though considered to be a market failure in its first decade, the Les Paul is now one of the most celebrated and legendary instruments ever made. Designed in collaboration with jazz great Lester (Les Paul) Polsfuss, the model is now best known as the choice of acclaimed rock guitarists Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Peter Frampton, Pete Townshend and numerous others.
Following a series of corporate takeovers in the middle part of the 20th century, in 1974 Gibson Guitars began transitioning production to Nashville, Tennessee, later adding factories in Memphis, Tennessee and Bozeman, Montana. The Kalamazoo plant would finally close its doors for good in 1984, but soon reopened under the banner of Heritage Guitars, a venture of former Gibson employees who chose not to relocate with the company. Though it has been nearly 30 years since a true Gibson guitar was built in Michigan — and even longer yet since jazz’s Golden Age — the connection between the genre and this state will live on forever – one just has to listen for it.