Rockin' with Jazz

Old Towne Talent
Guitarist Gary Turner, with bandmates Peter Pfieffer on drums and Victor Acosta on keyboards, says, “We play jazz and the music we like, and we have a lot of fun doing it.”

Gary Turner isn’t your typical rock ’n’ roll-turned-jazz guitarist.

Sure, there were those 14 years in the 1970s and 1980s when right out of high school he hit the road with his pop rock band, Gazebo. They toured the country, playing five or six gigs a week, 50 weeks a year in nightclubs and hotel lounges, including the landmark Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.

“We were constantly working,” Turner recalls. “We had to travel a lot, but that was part of the deal.”

And then there was the night in 1981 when Gazebo was the opening act for Three Dog Night, performing during that band’s reunion tour at a Christmas party for the Hollywood Radio and Television Society.

“I thought we were on the way to making it big, but after that we were back in the clubs again,” he says. “Still, we were rock stars for a little bit.”

While Turner was spending all those nights on the road, he was also saving and investing. A homeowner at the age of 23, he set aside at least 10 percent of everything he made—something his dad encouraged him to do.

But all that time on the road was a grind.

“It was a tough life,” says Turner, a graduate of the prestigious Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. “If you got sick, you still had to perform and struggle through it, because the others couldn’t work if you didn’t.”

So in 1986, he went into business, landing a position with Huntington Beach Mazda, where he later became general sales manager before moving to a Honda dealership in Downey. The jobs came with two benefits he rarely enjoyed while touring: good health insurance and paid vacation.

The car sales business was Turner’s life for a little more than 20 years. While he kept playing guitar, it was only occasionally, until through a friend he was invited to play guitar with the Cypress College Jazz Band.

Turner also took on gigs with college big bands and the Cypress College Jazz Vocal Ensemble, leading to a performance at Carnegie Hall. But he always felt more musically fulfilled with smaller ensembles.

“Playing guitar in a big band is kind of like being admiral of a navy in Nebraska—there’s not a lot to do. You just play chords, and it can get boring,” he quips. “So I kept getting into smaller groups; then it got down into a trio.”

That’s where Turner, who quit his job about a decade ago, has spent the last few years. He performs with keyboardist Victor Acosta and drummer Peter Pfieffer—each of them bringing varied resumes into the group. Acosta, who has a PhD in mathematics and teaches at Cal State Long Beach, plays left-handed bass, and organ and piano with his right. A professional drummer, Pfieffer hooked up with the Grammy winning Queen of Funk Chaka Khan in 1989 for a world tour and has been featured on recordings by jazz artist Eric Gale.

Whether it’s working in the studio or performing in front of an audience, the three have developed a special relationship, says Pfieffer. “When we’re playing, during the solos it’s kind of like a conversation. We’re just three friends having a good time.”

With a repertoire that includes jazz standards, selections from the Great American Songbook, reimagined pop songs and some originals, the trio has been a regular at the Orange Home Grown Farmers & Artisans Market the third Saturday of each month since fall 2014. They also perform at private events.

Turner is married and now lives in Santa Ana’s Floral Park. He enjoys playing the guitar and doing arrangements three to four hours every day in his home studio. He’s also in a men’s senior baseball league, playing Sundays year-round, and pursues other interests, but mostly it’s music.

“Jazz is amazing because you have this repertoire of tunes that every player does — ‘Stella by Starlight,’ ‘All the Things You Are,’ ‘Misty’ and others. You can find 15 different versions of each tune by really great players.

“You can listen to all of those, take them in and make your own arrangements,” he adds. “That’s what I love to do.”

The Gary Turner Jazz Trio performs at Ruby’s Streamliner Lounge, 186 North Atchison St., Orange, every first Friday of the month at 7:30 pm. Information: www.garyturnerjazz.com

Published in the Jan/Feb 2018 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review

Photograph by Jeanine Hill

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