How It Feels: the Music of Jack Petersen

Occasionally Prescott punches above its weight, bringing a celebrity or top musician to live among us.

Take the case of Jack Petersen. Jack likes jazz and plays the guitar. Which is to say, in the early 1960s he developed the jazz-guitar program at the Berklee College ofMusic (the Yale of music schools) and subsequently went on to even greater things in the world of jazz.

But now he lives and plays music here. Because lucky us.

“I’m just another guitar player living here and loves it here and another guitar player who is retired,” Jack said with a laugh. “That’s about it.”


The thing with Jack is that he’s a really, really good musician. The only way I can describe it is that it’s like something inside him must know how to slow down time, A-Train style, to allow him to pick and play the notes with absolute deliberation, landing each one with a kind of muscular perfection. At 86, the guy plays like the rest of us breathe.

Perris AFB, Texas, 1944

“I try to play how a horn player would approach it,” he said. “In playing jazz, it’s like you’re playing a language.”

Jack’s got talent, sure, because no way does a guy play like that without buckets of it. Still, throughout his career he has never strayed from practicing five or six hours a day. Even now, as age slows him down, he picks up the guitar and runs through scales and arpeggios for an hour or two a day.

“You can’t go wrong playing fundamentals to keep your technique up to par,” he said, which seems like reasonable advice for mere mortals. Jack started out his musical life as a Texas western-swing player, which, as it turns out, is a pretty good way to get into jazz.

“Western swing is kind of country jazz, I guess you could call it,” he said. “One of the biggest country groups back in those years was a gentleman named Bob Wills, and he used to make his rhythm section listen to people like Benny Goodman. And he patterned his western swing bands after those guys.”

North Texas State, Jazz Guitar, Ensemble 1981

While Jack, who likes to eat as much as the next guy, has played and composed music other than jazz for money— notably sitting in on recording sessions for many of the whosiest whos of the 1960s and ‘70s pop scene, most of the high points of his story involve jazz, both the playing of it and the teaching of it.

It is important to note that it has been impossible to have much of a conversation with anyone about Jack Petersen without the subject of Stan Kenton coming up. Kenton was a big bandleader and jazz educator who influenced a mighty lot of jazz players via regular tours and his two-week summer jazz camp.Without Stan Kenton there would have been no Berklee later on for Jack.

In 1960, having spent a couple of successful years writing radio-station jingles, Jack got a call from one of his former teachers asking him to fill in for a guy who couldn’t teach the second week ofKenton’s camp. “After that,” Jack said. “They hired me, not the other guy.”

The Stan Kenton band camps were made up about equally of ex-Stan Kenton band members and teachers from Berklee. Through these connections, Jack found himself teaching jazz guitar at Berklee.

With Mike Vax on AZTV's "Morning Scramble"

“They were really interested in starting guitar groups. Guitar players had a reputation for not being able to read music very well,” he said. “I developed these labs to help guitar players increase their sight-reading abilities. All single lines, not chords. I got it up to where I had 15 individual guitars. It sounded like a big band.”

Another character who emerged from those golden Kenton days is a trumpet player with the improbably onomatopoetic name of Mike Vax. Mike and Jack met when Mike attended the second of Stan Kenton’s summer camps in 1960. Mike went on to play in Stan Kenton’s band and later manage it. Jack went on to Berklee for a spell. And then, because the jazz world is a small one, it was inevitable they would see each other at jazz conventions and once in a while get to play together.

What was less inevitable, however, was that they would both somehow retire to Prescott. But here they both are.

“My band was playing in concert at the Square, and Jack saw it in the newspaper and came out,”Mike said. “I was blown away! I couldn’t believe it when he walked up to the stage.” Thus began a beautiful new phase of life for Jack.

He had just finished writing a book called Chords Galore, essentially a compilation of the study materials he gave his students. It came out after Jack was in Prescott. Once he arrived, he eschewed retirement for a late-life pivot.

“A better word is 're-focused.' I retired from teaching, and now it’s back to playing and performing.”

Since the two jazzmen have lived close by one another, they have been mainstays in the Prescott jazz scene. Jack headlined the first Prescott Jazz Summit, and Mike has continued to run the Summit ever since. At times they have played together as a duo, Jack on guitar and Mike on flugelhorn. “Jack is literally one of the most amazing musicians I have ever worked with,”Mike said. “The best way to put it: Jack and I, for all these years, have had a mutual admiration society.”

Local saxophonist Paul Ruffner remembers the early days of Jack’s Prescott tenure, when he was on nearly every event page for 100 miles. “He was doing four and five shows a week, he was playing Prescott,

Prescott Valley and Flagstaff like it was LA,” Paul said. “You would look into any of these local papers in the early 2000s, and Jack would be at three or four shows per week. He is an elite — I would go so far as to say world-class — jazz guitarist, and he was able to get as much work here in Prescott as people like me get when we go to LA and New York. He taught me you can actually be a musician in a rural area and make something of what you’re doing.”

These days Jack is still playing out weekly, or nearly so, with the Goodwin Street Gang at El Gato Azul, which Paul and Mike both say is impressive in this, the era of Covid and its attendant drought of gigs.

“It is a pleasure to me and it feels good,” Jack said. “You see, that’s the thing. People talk about this or that kind of music. When it comes down to it, how do you feel from it? You play all those notes, but if they don’t feel good it doesn’t make a lot sense. It is a matter of how it feels.”

Erica Ryberg is a freelance writer and financial planner in Prescott.

Reach her at

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