In 1964, Brent Norton, 16, began playing guitar. His hometown of Mill Valley, Calif., was a music mecca, the site of weekly gigs and concerts by such guitar giants as Jerry Garcia, John Cippolina of Quicksilver Messenger Service and — Norton's favorite — Terry Haggerty of The Sons of Champlin.
First enthralled with the folk music of Woody Guthrie, The Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, Norton sought wider musical forms by enrolling at the University of California at Davis in 1966 to learn blues and classical scales. It was then he realized music would be a lifelong pursuit, and, in 1974, he enrolled at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he studied jazz and other sophisticated musical concepts to form a well-rounded understanding of music.
He found himself back in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1977, playing for the Jimmy Vaughn Orchestra.
"It was a society music tuxedo gig," he says. Soon he was playing with Richard Olsen — a founding member of psychedelic rock band The Charlatans — and singer and songwriter Dan Hicks.
"I played high society parties for writer Danielle Steele, investor Gordon Getty, George Bush and the King of Spain," Norton says, chuckling.
When he moved to the Rogue Valley in 1989 to raise his family in a "warm, relaxed environment," Norton joined the Bandanna Band led by Linda Lou Fredericks on drums, Bobby Burton on fiddle and Butch Briary on bass.
"It was a great band," he says. "But I wanted to pursue jazz and funk. The music I'm drawn to is syncopated and advanced harmonically, with a lot of space to leave room for improvisation."
Norton soon became a fixture on the Rogue Valley music scene, playing with The Rhythm Kings, Continental Drift, Karen Lovely and Beatles tribute band The Nowhere Men, led by Dave Marston.
"Dave insisted on exact copies of the tunes," Norton says. "This was hard for me to do with my passion for interpretation and improvisation. It was good for my development. Caribbean influenced grooves, funk improvisations, these are the main things for me when I play music. Less is more, one needs room to breathe."
Norton divides guitarists into two categories: Line players or lick players. He has no time for the chop-heavy lick guitarist.
"They are more like guitar athletes, not necessarily musicians," he says. "Line players have something thoughtful and musical to say with their guitar."
The changing live music scene hasn't gone unnoticed by Norton.
"Yard concerts and house parties are so important in keeping live music alive," he says. "There is a huge group of young people that know the difference live music makes. Live improvisation is a fantastic tool for the improvement of communication, listening,and cooperative skills."
"My desire is to show people that music and mathematics are exactly the same thing in terms of the relationship to the rules governing both," Norton says. "It is a well-researched fact that people who study music become better in mathematics, and the opposite also is true. Harmonic intervals are influenced by culture as well as mathematics, which is why Chinese music sounds different than American music, It all boils down to crunching numbers."
Norton's advice to any fledgling musician is to keep growing, expand harmonic concepts, learn melodic minor scales and apply them to music. Also always strive to listen and never become complacent, which is the kiss of death for a musician, he says.
"Music is an invaluable thing to know and do," he says. "Playing music with others develops not only conversational skills, but nonverbal communication as well, building on that magic part of the brain, the creative side."