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Curtain Call: A triple threat as jazz guitarist, teacher, artistic director

Ed Dunsavage performs with his trio in 2017 at Belle Fiore Winery. Photo by Steve Buzalsky
Ed Dunsavage gets in some licks as his trio performs pre-COVID at the Newport Oregon Jazz Festival, now known as the Oregon Coast Jazz Party. Submitted photo

When the Beatles first performed in the United States, comments from critics of a certain age were far from complimentary:

“Not even their mothers would claim that they sing well,” said the Los Angeles Times.

“Not merely awful … god awful,” chimed William F. Buckley.

“Odds are that they will fade away,” declared Newsweek.

It was different for 7-year-old Ed Dunsavage of Edison, New Jersey, watching the “Fab Four” perform on the Ed Sullivan Show the night of Feb. 9, 1964.

“I decided then and there I wanted to be a musician,” said Dunsavage, now 66 and living in Ashland.

He made good on the promise he made to himself. Today he is a performer, teacher, producer and artistic director — a jazz guitarist of some notoriety who has been entertaining Rogue Valley audiences for three decades.

The Ed Dunsavage Trio has played gigs around the Pacific Northwest and performed at numerous venues and festivals, including the Upper Sacramento River Jazz Festival, the Umpqua Jazz & Wine Festival, The Medford Jazz Jubilee, the Newport Oregon Jazz Festival (now known at the Oregon Coast Jazz Party), the Britt Festival, the Craterian Theater, the Jazz Project in Bellingham, the Blue Note Jazz Club, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Not long after he arrived in the Rogue Valley in 1989, Dunsavage helped form a quintet called Good Bait. It played locally and at a few festivals.

“Over the years, it evolved into a trio,” Dunsavage said, “featuring Joe Cohoon on bass, and on drums the late, great Gary ‘Chicken’ Hirsh, who passed on last August. Chicken was the best and I greatly miss him.”

He met Hirsh at a wedding where Dunsavage was playing with his first Ashland jazz group called Straight, No Chaser.

“Chicken was the best man and in charge of paying the band. He was retired from playing music at the time,” Dunsavage said. “He had been the drummer with the ‘60s rock group, Country Joe and the Fish. It wasn’t too long after that when he started playing with us.”

Cohoon was playing locally in rock and blues bands while he was studying jazz bass.

“He asked to take some lessons,” Dunsavage said, “and before you know it, we started working together.”

The three flourished, playing together for 25 years before Hirsh died. Although the pandemic interrupted music everywhere, the trio still survives. No one has filled Hirsh’s spot yet as drummer on a permanent basis. “But when she’s available, Theresa McCoy is always our first choice,” he said.

The first time Dunsavage played in front of an audience was in the fourth grade. His first paid gig was at a high school dance.

He attended Rutgers University, but dropped out when he became too busy playing music.

He moved to the Rogue Valley in 1989 from Los Gatos, Calif.

“We were looking for a smaller community to be a part of,” he said. “Silicon Valley wasn’t for us. And then there was the Loma Prieta Earthquake in October that year. That was a good time to move to Oregon.”

Dunsavage has had a rewarding career. Along the way, he played with some notable musicians, including clarinetist Ken Peplowski, flugelhorn player Dimitri Matheny, saxophonist Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers, and actress/vocalist Bernadette Peters.

He performs a lot of jazz, but likes playing many styles of music, especially Brazilian bossa nova and samba. “I enjoy working on classical guitar pieces at home as well,” he said.

His first guitar was a classical instrument given to his dad by a client.

“It had strings like telephone cables and made my fingers bleed,” he said. “After a few months, my parents saw I was serious. They signed me up for lessons and bought me my first electric guitar, a Danelectro, and a Gibson amplifier.”

He currently owns several guitars and plays his Eastman John Pisano model for most of his gigs. He also plays a seven-string.

For jazz performances, he prefers high-quality, solid-state amplifiers.

“I’m very happy with my current setup, an Acoustic Image Clarus amp and a Razor’s Edge speaker cabinet.”

Early musical influences were Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Duane Allman.

“In high school, I started listening to jazz fusion and that led to becoming interested in learning more about the jazz classics,” he said. “I started listening to Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charles Parker.”

On the jazz guitar front, he discovered Pat Martino first, then Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Jim Hall, Tal Farlow, and Ralph Townes, among others.

Dunsavage is not just a performer in high demand. He also is involved in educational outreach.

He has been an adjunct guitar instructor for about 10 years at Southern Oregon University.

“I’ve had some great students over the years and I enjoy sharing whatever knowledge and experience I can to help them develop into great players and good people,” he said.

For 29 years he has been the artistic director of the Siskiyou Music Project, an Ashland-based non-profit arts and education organization. SMP began as the Siskiyou Institute in 2001. Dunsavage got involved a year later.

Its artists-in-schools program exposes students to world class musicians. And after a pandemic break, it is back to presenting concerts, with two shows remaining this season in June and July, and a new season beginning in September. Visit siskiyoumusicproject.com to learn more.

His life as a musician has not been a get-rich-quick experience. In fact, Dunsavage says, many working musicians are making less today than they did 30 or 40 years ago.

“But those of us who pursue music as a career aren’t in it for the money,” he said. “It’s a true labor of love. It’s a calling.”

He especially values the privilege of playing with other musicians.

“There is a community in the music world that you don’t find in other walks of life,” he said. “Also, I love being part of this community in Southern Oregon, meeting so many music lovers and supporters of the arts. It’s a great place to live.”

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.