JazzTimes

From Jazz Roots

There’s a story Nile Rodgers likes to share. It was at the onset of the 1970s: the precocious guitarist—still a teen yet already with years of classical and jazz training under his belt—was starting to get calls for gigs. Some he fancied, but one left him less than inspired and his guitar teacher at the time noticed “a sour look on my face and said, ‘Hey Nile, what’s wrong, man?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m doing a bullshit R&B/boogaloo gig tonight.’ He said, ‘Wait—what do you mean bullshit gig?’ I said, ‘I have to play songs in the Top 40,’ and I specifically referenced a song called ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by the Archies.”

His teacher’s response caught him off-guard: “‘What makes you believe that you’re the ultimate consumer?’ I looked at him and was befuddled because he’s a straight-ahead jazz guy. Then he said, ‘I just want to tell you something—every single song that makes it into the Top 40 is a great composition. You know why? Because it speaks to the souls of a million strangers.’”

Rodgers still laughs at the irony that such a lightbulb moment came from a guitarist who had subbed for Wes Montgomery in the ’60s and played a hollow-body Gibson. “It was my jazz teacher, Ted Dunbar, who taught me not to be a jazz nerd. He was amazing—the way he thought about music, about playing music as a profession. A great player too—he wound up replacing John McLaughlin in Tony Williams Lifetime, before Allan Holdsworth. I got to know Ted because he was one of the two players Dr. Billy Taylor had hired to teach jazz guitar at Jazzmobile when I went there; Roland Prince was the other one. Ted was my mentor.”

Jazz is certainly not the first genre that pops to mind when the name Nile Rodgers is mentioned. On first meeting the 66-year-old, it’s a challenge to balance his humble beginnings and the dizzying pop heights he’s achieved. In the last years of the ’70s as co-founder of Chic, he helped generate a series of disco-era igniters that still endure: “Everybody Dance,” “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “Good Times,” “Le Freak.” In the ’80s and ’90s, Rodgers was hot composer and producer of hits, relied on by such pop headliners as Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Duran Duran, and Madonna. As recently as 2013, he stood in the spotlight again as co-writer of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and “Lose

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