Jon Damian was raised, or as he likes to say, “lowered” in Brooklyn, New York. His earliest attraction to music was his mother Rosie’s incredible whistling. “It was like listening to a beautiful aria, the way she whistled over her lasagna-making.” His sister Judy, also a lasagna and music lover, had an extraordinary record collection that captivated Jon at a young age. “I remember spending the mornings before going to school or to camp just sitting and listening to Count Basie, Billy Holiday, Bobby Hackett and many other greats. It was a great listening foundation for me.”
“My first guitar hero was the great Tony Mottola.” Tony Mottola was often featured as a soloist on the original Johnny Carson Show, and was part of the NBC orchestra. Mottola backed up all of the celebrity musicians who appeared on the Johnny Carson show. Jon admired and strove to emulate Mottola – “That’s what I want to do. Be able to play in all situations on stage and in the studio.” The first skill that Jon honed was reading music. “No one told me it was difficult to read on the guitar. I just did it!” He eventually developed his music reading to a professional level, and considers it the most important step that he ever took for his career.
Jon’s next move into the music world was singing with the a cappella groups on the street corners of Brooklyn. “I remember we would stand on Eastern Parkway and sing our hearts out. Simple triadic harmonies but I loved it!” It was around this time that Jon was landing his first gigs as a guitarist. “There were two gigs that stand out for me. The first was with a band called ‘The Strangers’. Our first gig was at a Veterans hospital near Coney Island. I remember after the gig ended, as we were packing up, an old vet shuffled over, pointed to the band’s name on the bass drum, and said rather loudly. ‘Hey I know how you got your name! You guys sound like ‘ya never met before!” The other gig was my first time at The Merry-Go-Round Room in Brooklyn, which had a rotating bar that was not activated when we first arrived. I managed to place my amp on the rotating part of the bar floor and sat on the non-rotating part of the floor. I guess you can guess what happened!”
Jon is also a visual artist. He attained an Associate’s degree in art, and worked as an illustrator on Madison Avenue in New York City. The city’s cultural diversity stimulated Jon during his early years as a musician and visual artist. Jon’s experiences in the New York City art and music scene ranged from catching Monk and Dizzy trading sets at the Village Gate, to the Chambers Brothers at the famed Cheetah, to exploring Jackson Pollack and Warhol at the Met.
After working on Madison Avenue for a few years, Jon was drafted into the army in May of 1966 during the Vietnam War. He spent a few months in the US before being shipped to Okinawa, where he worked as an illustrator for a printing press that created propaganda leaflets. “They would fill 350 pound boxes with these leaflets and disseminate them over Vietnam. It was pretty scary stuff!” Luckily, thanks to Jon’s guitar skills, namely his ability to read music, he was able to have his army occupation changed to musician after he passed an audition for an army show band. “I still remember how the show band consisted mostly of Japanese and Filipino cats. The leader used to count off in Japanese!!” The band was pretty good and toured entertaining the troops. In May of 1968 Jon was honorably discharged and headed home.
Jon returned to the Madison Avenue advertising art scene for a short time, but soon turned down a job as art director to return to school. Jon attended what was then called the Berklee School of Music in Boston where he studied performance and composition. It was during his years at Berklee that he was first introduced to the world of creative music and sound art. He drew inspiration from music teachers and friends, including bassist John Voigt and drummer Billy Elgart. Their stimulation led him to create his first Creative Workshop Ensemble, the Rubbertellie String Quartet (RSQ) and to maintain an active new music performance schedule including the Berklee Performance Center, The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), and Mobius (the seminal performance art center in Boston at the time). Jon also enjoyed pursuing an exciting commercial music career during this time, with performances ranging from more than 40 Broadway musicals to concerts with celebrity highlights such as Johnny Cash, Luciano Pavarotti, and Leonard Bernstein. Jon also performed with ensembles such as The Boston Pops, Boston Symphony Orchestras, the Boston Opera, the Boston Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, and a range of Jazz luminaries including Howard McGhee, Jaki Byard, Bill Frisell, Jimmy Giuffre, Nancy Wilson, Sheila Jordan, Don Byron, and Bobby Watson. In 1973, while he was still performing, Jon was invited to join the faculty of what is now the Berklee College of Music.
Jon has extensive experience performing internationally, and has done workshops in Europe, South America, Central America, Asia, and Israel with fellow clinicians Gary Burton, Sam Rivers, Phil Woods and Dave Liebman. He has toured extensively, including the Seixal Jazz Festival Lisbon, Portugal, the Fort Napoleon Festival in Nice, France with Bob Nieske’s Wolf Soup and the Umbria Jazz Festival with the Berklee All Stars. Jon has also appeared with the Berklee All Stars at the Hard Rock Café in Mexico City.
Jon is also an author, and his books include The Guitarists Guide to Composing and Improvising, The Chord Factory: Build Your Own Guitar Chord Dictionary (published by Berklee Press and Hal Leonard). His new book, Fresh Music: Explorations with the Creative Workshop Ensemble for Musicians, Artists, and Teachers will soon be published by YO! Publications, Jon’s publishing company. In addition, as a co-author, he has arranged American folk songs for A Joyful Noise (published by the CORE Knowledge Foundation).
Jon has written three articles for Berklee Today magazine, and two articles for Guitar Player magazine. Jon’s teaching and performances have been honorably mentioned in music publications including Downbeat, Guitar Player, Musician and Guitar World. A documentary film called Heavy Rubber: 30 Years in the Life of an Instrument, features Jon and his invention, the Rubbertellie, in interviews and concerts. See more details about the Rubbertellie below.
Jon has recorded with many artists and ensembles including Luciano Pavarotti, The Boston Pops Orchestra under John Williams and Keith Lockhart, The Boston Symphony Orchestras under Seiji Ozawa, Collage, Bill Frisell, Nancy Wilson, Jack Pizzarelli, Bob Nieske’s Wolf Soup, and NOVA.
Jon is also an inventor. “Having played the standard guitar for years as an improviser, I wanted to explore another instrumental medium. So I invented the Rubbertellie. It is a totally standard guitar with absolutely no additives, but approached in a totally non-standard way. It is held and played differently, tuned quite differently, hence the conceptual prefix ‘rubber’ to indicate that it has stretched the traditional boundaries of the instrument.” Jon also describes another one of his inventions, the Mandolino Meccanico:“Il Mandolino Meccanico was invented to give the guitarist ultimate sustain through tremelando. A wooden, slatted barrel is festooned with 24 felt plectrums. As the barrel is rotated the 24 plectrums “attack” the guitars strings producing a shimmering series of strums or rasqueadi. “I once did a concert with a flamenco guitarist who wanted to do a ‘Flamenco meets Jazz’ and I knew the cat wanted to rasqueado (that’s that right-hand, roadrunner looking stuff the flamenco cats do) me to death. So before the concert, I hid my Mandolino Meccanico behind the curtain, and when he starting doing his right-hand roadrunner beep beep stuff I pulled out my Mandolino Meccanico and shredded the cat!!”
“I am just a happy and fortunate free-lance musician.”