First things first, I was born in Cleveland, Ohio on October 11, 1955. Our family lived in Boulder, Colorado until 1963 and then we moved to Del Mar, California.
The ocean became my way of life and surfing became my religion. We had a creative home environment that included my mom playing the piano and pulling off the most wicked version of “St. Louis Blues” you’ve ever heard. She’d cart us kids to music lessons, let us have long hair, and allow us to stay out in the surf way beyond sunset. Tolerant and loving. My sister Terry became a world class dancer and choreographer. My brother Tripp is a wonderful saxophonist and our father Hall was a spirited drummer in the style of Philly Joe Jones.
I started playing guitar when I was twelve. Music was the soundscore to my salt-water reality. The Beatles Revolver album accented our summer in La Jolla Shores, Hendrix shook the resin fumed Basement Surfboard factory, (located in our Del Mar house’s basement, fire hazard potential included), and Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” filled the air on our porch as the first puffs of a September Santa Ana wind began its journey from the desert to the ocean. From two feet underneath the pacific the magic and music of the Sixties was coming in loud and clear.
Garage band boot camp led to a unique change of plans around fifteen years into my life. I started to get really interested in jazz. Up until that point my folks we’re constantly listening to Miles Davis, Bennie Carter, and Stan Getz. My father would pull out the bongos and Zen out for hours with the Miles recording Mile’s Ahead. I thought he was nuts! Jazz sounded so square and tame to me and the closest group I could make a connection with was Blood, Sweat and Tears playing their scorching version of “God Bless the Child”. At least they possessed some semblance of rock and roll!
The wave that had been always breaking to the right started breaking a new way and at fifteen years the sound that had tranced my old man was seeping into my blood. Coltrane’s solo on “Dear Old Stockholm” took me down. What is this music about? What are these musicians doing to get that sound? Nothing compares to questions like this to kick the learning mode into high gear. I started taking guitar lessons with San Diego jazz guitarist’s Bill Coleman and Steve O’Connor. The universe of jazz music had a new devotee hitting it hard to unravel it’s secrets. I practiced guitar, I played in the high school stage band, and I kept the surf moments alive.
Now it’s 1970 in the small town of Del Mar and there are four other hard core young jazz kids showing a strong interest in learning this music. My younger brother Tripp is playing the tenor saxophone, Rob Schneiderman is glued to the piano, John Leftwich is duking it out with the big wood bass, and Todd Bryson is playing the drums. We are all committed to the music and each fellow is studying with a great teacher. Tripp with Joe Marillo, Rob with Butch Lacy, Lefty with Bert Turetzky and Mark Dresser, and Todd with some symphony legit cat. With permission to crash a few courses at UCSD, our jazz education opened up to Charlie Parker (as taught by Ross Russell) and lectures by David Baker on the magic of Wynton Kelly. We were young high school beatniks soaking it up on the college campus. We formed a band and called ourselves The Minor Jazz Quintet. When we played gigs we had to legally stay on the stage during breaks to keep the ABC from busting the club for “minor’s roaming in an over 21 environment”.
Being this into music was great but at the same time I started to really dislike going to school. I wanted to be practicing the guitar and the slow motion stuff that goes on in the classroom took up too much of my life. My folks allowed me to attend a year of study at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. Interlochen is a boarding school and each student spends a large part of their day studying and nurturing art. This saved me!
I was now surrounded by gifted musicians from all over the world illuminating a bigger picture of what devoting one’s life to music might look like. When asked, “what’s the secret?” Coltrane responded, “practice and practice.” I lived in the basement practice rooms of Interlochen, sheltered from the freezing winter of Traverse City, immersed in a world of scales, arpeggios and the constant forward and rewinding of an old reel to reel tape recorder decoding Chick Corea’s piano moves. I witnessed new forms of humans doing odd dorm living rituals, the bass player who ate toothpaste, the Japanese genius violinist who got away with bad behavior because his music was so good, and the old world music theory teacher whose ear training tapes resembled the soundtrack of a Fellini movie. We had jazz groups, performances, and before I knew it, spring had appeared.
The year of study was over and with a new vision I returned to my home in California. Back in Del Mar, life was good. The blend consisted of practicing music, doing gigs, and making a miniature living teaching guitar lessons.
In 1976 I moved to Boston, (one of my many attempts to live on the East Coast) to hang out and play music with Rob Schneiderman. While there I studied classical guitar technique with Albin Czak. The big moments were the few lessons I had with Pat Metheny. I’d show up at his house and we’d play “All the Things You Are” and he’d tell me to loosen up the harmony and not play so much like Joe Pass, or in such a traditional way. It wasn’t until many years later that I fully understood what he was talking about. His personal playing style was already fully realized and he knew the importance of one’s own sound.Over the years I’ve opened to this truth and I still think of Metheny as being instrumental in my evolution of guitar playing. His house was filled from the floor to the roof with road cases and music gear and you could feel the importance of his music in his life.Out of the blue some years back I received a post card in the mail that had a picture of a very strange, multi-stringed guitar. On the flipside of the card was written, “Peter, heard you on the radio. Sounded great man! (signed) Pat M.” I couldn’t figure out who Pat M. was and didn’t figure it out until I looked at the small print under the guitar picture. It said, “The Pikasso Guitar. From the collection of Pat Metheny”. Pat and I still stay in touch and he is one of my all-time favorite musicians, composers, and human beings.
In 1978, back in California, I formed a group called The Dance Of The Universe Orchestra. The band featured Kevyn Lettau singing, John Leftwich on bass, Tripp Sprague playing the saxophone, Kelly Jocoy on drums, and myself on guitar. Kevyn also grew up in Del Mar and the word was out that this young gal (sixteen years old) from Berlin was singing jazz. After hearing her perform at some friend’s gig I immediately knew she was the right person for our new group. She had history with jazz music (her dad loved Marlene Deitrich and Dizzy Gillespie) and she wasn’t afraid to take big chances. Kevyn was into yoga, ballet, and lived life in a semi-wild, hippie-like arc. These were just the right elements for the lead singer in The Dance of the Universe Orchestra. She has since continued a wonderful career in jazz and for me, she’s still one of my favorite vocalists.
With the Dance of the Universe group we began a concert tradition that still continues today. We would set-up the band on the corner of 15th Street and Camino Del Mar and play a Sunday afternoon concert. My guitar case was opened up for tips and we would display our band name written on a chalkboard. The traffic would start clogging up as the motorists were trying to figure out where the music was coming from. This is still where you’ll find us every Christmas Eve around 1 in the afternoon—overtaking the Coast Highway with jazzed up Christmas music.
My first recording experience was with Dance of the Universe and our album was entitled You Make Me Want to Sing. We we’re getting over big in San Diego playing all the clubs and concert venues. Our lives were filled with Chick’s Light as a Feather album, Ram Dass’ book Be Here Now, and early morning Ashtanga Yoga classes at an old church in Cardiff. We were young musos playing jazz, doing headstands on the breaks, living in a commune of sorts (the band house, four blocks from the ocean), and enjoying the ride to the hilt!
Right around this time I landed my first recording deal with an actual jazz label. I was doing a record date with Charles McPherson and the label boss took an interest in my playing. After hearing a demo of my own music he signed me to a four-album contract with his company called Xanadu Records. Over the next three years we recorded three of the records in Los Angeles and the fourth one in New York City. I had the chance to play with many wonderful musicians and record mostly my own music. I then moved over to Concord Records and did two albums for them. My favorite of all of these recordings was the last one called Na Pali Coast. We recorded at Chick’s Mad Hatter Studio and had Steve Kujala, Bob Magnusson, brother Tripp, and Peter Erskine in the loop. It was a magic sound with a rehearsed band and a creative direction.
For most of my musical life I’ve had a special connection to Chick Corea’s music. I’d buy his recordings, study his tunes, transcribe his solos, and read his interviews to learn more about how he viewed life and music. Back when I was at Interlochen I wrote him a note requesting the music to his tune “What Game Shall We Play Today?” I also let him know (jokingly) that if he was ever looking for a guitarist, I was most likely available for the gig. He sent the music and wrote back, “we’ll see, won’t we”. Ever since then I’ve wanted to play music with him. On my third Xanadu recording called Bird Raga I played a twenty-minute solo guitar medley of Chick’s tunes. Chick agreed to write the liner notes for the album and it turned out he liked the way I played. First, he asked me to play at his then famous annual Valentines Day party. The parties were a combination of incredible desserts, socializing, and then an unforgettable talent show featuring the cast of the amazing artists present. We’re talking Al Jarreau, Herbie Hancock, Roger Williams (“Autumn Leaves”), Wayne Shorter, Steve Kujala, Hubert Laws, Victor Feldman, a young John Pattituci, poets and actors, Chick’s daughter Lelee, Chick with a mini orchestra, and the surfer from Del Mar, me! The event took place at Chick’s Griffith Park castle complete with two grand pianos in a cathedral like living room. Either Chick liked what I played that night or he at least dug my energy. Either way, he then hired me to play some gigs with his band. We rehearsed for a couple of days, and I debuted with the band for a series of concerts at Disneyland on the Memorial Day weekend. In a review the following day in the Los Angeles Times, jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote about me,”…One of the emergent great guitarists.” A pretty stellar moment for the kid who got to play with his hero! I loved the music and Chick was a great person too.
Memorable moment number two found us joined by Al Jarreau playing for thousands of folks at the outdoor mall in Washington D.C.. When I came out on that stage and looked out at the sea of people, trading licks on “Spain” with Chick Corea and Al Jarreau, I knew this was some golden territory and I took it all in. There were many other great times with Chick including the time I played on his film score to the movie The Cat Chasers, starring Kelly McGillis. The band was Vinnie Callouta on drums, Chick, Pattittuci, Kujala, and me. We recorded some classic Chick Spanish-flamenco tunes.
Around this time I began organizing Chick’s music into book form for publishing. He liked the fact that I knew his music inside and out so he’d turn me loose to make sense of a pile of scores that needed updating in the process of making their way to the record. I’d take his sheet music, listen to the record and modify what was new. I would then put it on the computer, instill as much clarity and intuition as I could, and then bounce the new scores back and forth a few times until everyone was satisfied. The books I did for him were Light Years, The Eye Of The Beholder, Inside Out, Chick Corea Collections, Beneath The Mask, Paint the World, (all available from Hal Leonard Publishing) and my own transcription book of Chick’s piano solos called Jazz Solos of Chick Corea published by Sher Music. In 1992 Chick wrote, “Peter Sprague’s excellence as a musician is well demonstrated in his live and recorded performances. He has had the patience and musicality to take my original scores and, together with the recorded renditions of these compositions, make final drafts that have become the last few Elektric Band music books. They are the most accurate music books that I’ve published. I don’t know anyone I would trust more to correctly transcribe my improvisations.” That’s a big deal. Thanks Chick!
One more Chick Corea related story and then I’ll move on. GRP Records was doing their first GRP All-Star Big Band recording and they wanted Chick to play on it and arrange his tune “Spain” for the big band. Chick had a conflict in his schedule and asked if I’d arrange the tune for the band. I leaned into it, spent two weeks figuring out who should play what and when and then made my way to the only rehearsal to see what the piece sounded like. I don’t know how to conduct but there I was, flailing and directing traffic in front of the likes of Lee Ritenour, Dave Weckl, Tom Scott, Ernie Watts, Kenny Kirkland, and the list goes on. I actually didn’t have much to do directing such heroes. Right out of the gate the band was on fire. They recorded the tune the next day and it’s on the GRP All-Star Big Band CD and video. Go here to see the video clip online.
Throughout my musical life I’ve always taught private guitar lessons. In 1985 I began branching out and I accepted teaching positions at both the Musicians Institute in Hollywood and the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. I taught for three years and really enjoyed hanging out with the students from all over the world. Generally they were really inspired and excited about music. I love being around that energy.
Somehow, through the connections at the schools, I was able to land a two consecutive year setup where I would go down to Argentina for a couple of weeks and play concerts in Buenos Aires and then teach at a music camp in Las Lenas. Nothing was stranger than being a vegetarian in a country that prides itself on it’s beef, trying to explain the beauty of Charlie Parker’s lines through an interpreter, and being stranded in the airport to head home because of Pan AM’s (fly first class but only on stand by) flight rules. All of these hiccups disappeared in the light of the wonderful Argentinean souls. I’d do it again in a heartbeat!
Through the experiences of teaching I accumulated pages and pages of exercises and explanations of jazz music coming from my viewpoint. This pile of music along with the reams of transcribed solos that I’d worked on since the early days motivated me to organize all of this material into book form. I put the teaching stuff together and made a theory book called The Sprague Technique. I brought together the sheet music on my songs and made some song books; (SpragueSongs, Blurring the Edges Songbook, BrazilJazz Songbook, Nikki’s Rose Songbook, and Soliloquy Songbook) and a number of transcribed solo books of my heroes; (Jazz Solos of Charlie Parker, Jazz Solos of Sonny Rollins, Jazz Solos of McCoy Tyner, and Assorted Jazz Solos).I had some great moments playing with Hubert Laws. He has one of the best flute sounds in jazz ever. Hubert and I used to play a duet in the show called “It Could Happen to You” and his sound would take me back to some great moments from earlier years when I was glued to his CTI recordings. Other highlights were a tour to Brazil playing at the Free Jazz Festival and also a show in San Francisco with Hubert, Billy Childs, and the San Francisco Orchestra.
Kevyn Lettau, her husband and percussionist Mike Shapiro, and I formed a group called BrazilJazz. We toured a fair amount and made a nice recording called BrazilJazz. Through the two of them I met and played some concerts with Sergio Mendes. I love Brazilian music and to play with one of the main musicians who brought Brazilian music to the U.S. was a magical time.
My first gig with Sergio was a survival dance for me and that’s because of a scheduling nightmare that I have never come close to since and hope to never repeat. Kevyn, Mike, and I had driven non-stop from San Diego to Portland, Oregon to do a concert. The minute the concert was over we drove non-stop all the way back to L.A. to do a late afternoon gig. Next we boarded a red-eye flight to St. Paul or something like that to meet up with Sergio’s group. All of this scrambling took placed within two days or so. My lower back went out on the first leg of the journey and I was unable to stand up straight for the whole deal. On all of the gigs, I was hospital material, pain central, and embarrassed. On just about the final leg of this whole circus was the Sergio gig and I hadn’t even met or played with him before. Mike and Kevyn had told him “Peter knows the tunes and he’ll pull it off”. There I am, getting ready to play with Sergio for the first time and I can’t even stand up straight. He was gracious and didn’t seem bothered by my weird posture, just as long as the notes were right. I had done my homework and the gig went great. Nothing like playing “Mais Que Nada” with the cat that made the tune famous! As soon as that gig was over, Mike, Kevyn, and I then flew back to San Diego just in time to make a gig at the Horton Grand with BrazilJazz. Way too much in too little time! I won’t be doing that again anytime soon.
In 1992 I joined pianist David Benoit’s group and recorded two records with him called Letter To Evan and Shaken, Not Stirred, both on GRP records. We did three years of extensive touring all over the U.S., to the Philippines, and to Japan. Saxophonist Eric Marienthal was also in Benoit’s band and I joined him, along with Russell Ferante, Jimmy Haslip, Alex Acuna, and Ivan Lins on Eric’s GRP record One Touch. I played Brazilian style Joao Gilberto guitar and Ivan sang in Porteguese. That was gorgeous!
Around this time my wife and I had a little girl and the design of traveling and being away from home for long chunks of time was starting to not work for us. All of the miniature moments of a growing kid are huge landmarks and if you’re doing a sound check in Boston, no amount of phone time and wishing for a replay is going to bring back the magic of the first steps of a child.
I left the Benoit band and focused in on my world in Del Mar. I was getting interested in recording, producing, and composing and this led me to assemble my own recording studio called SpragueLand. Jimi Hendrix had his Electric Lady Land Studio in Greenich Village and so I figured we needed a West Coast cousin in California. Having the recording studio allows me to be involved and learning in music but not always having my hands on the guitar.This is important because back in 1995 I developed arthritis and now I have to be extra careful with my hands. I’ve found a good balance and found a medicine that works really well. Now I’m able to play with very little pain.
Today, SpragueLand is going full on with a constant flow of projects ranging in style from jazz to folk, classical, new age, and back again. My wife Stefanie helps with the booking and organizing and I’m the main guy arranging the music, writing out the charts, hiring the session musicians, engineering the recording as well as playing guitar parts, overdubbing, mixing, and supplying moral support. The last role turns out to be an important one as we humans seem to get more critical once the recording light is on.
For many years we’ve operated a band called Blurring the Edges that is a family band of sorts. My brother Tripp plays sax and flute, our late father Hall Sprague played the percussion, and the rest of the guys are close enough in both musical and friendship ways to be considered kin. Fred Benedetti plays guitar, Kevin Hennessy played the bass, and Ron Wagner played the drums and tablas. In 1994 we self-released a CD called Blurring the Edges that was awarded the best contemporary jazz recording of the year from the San Diego Music Awards. We released a second CD called Sombra in 2002 and today we continue to play live shows with just the core trio of Peter, Tripp and Fred.With the release of the Blurring the Edges recording, Fred, Tripp, Hall, and I founded our own record company called SBE Records. The company name is an acronym that stands for Strivin’ to Break Even. Our philosophy goes like this; most of the time, people want to make a financial killing on their artistic endeavors; most of the time, especially if it’s “artistic”, this won’t ever happen. So instead, we recognize that just “doing” the project is in and of itself a great ride and then the idea is to “make enough dough to be able to do it again”. Aim low enough to break even and enjoy the adventure. Zen and the art of the record business.
The next recording of my own stuff was a CD called Soliloquy on SBE Records. It’s a collection of my songs exploring some bebop; “Seattle Stomp” to bossa nova; “Stefanie’s Soliloquy” to Chick-like warrior melodies; “Cajun” to an epic ten minute classical string quartet with tablas and Steve Kujala flute bends; “Amadeus”. We recorded this one with a great band, a gang of friend’s that’s been playing together since the early days. Duncan Moore is on the drums, John Opferkuch plays the keys, Kevin Hennessy on the bass, and my brother Tripp is on the saxophone and flute.
That’s my story up to this point and the best way to follow my moves from this moment on is to check the page on my web site called The Sky. It’s here that I document my different projects and ideas.
Thanks for reading and I hope to see out there sometime.
Encinitas, CA 2003