By Happy Traum
When the news of Woody Mann’s passing went out on social media on January 27, one could almost hear a collective gasp of disbelief from the innumerable acoustic guitar players, both aspiring and professional, whose lives and sensibilities he so deeply touched. It simply didn’t seem possible that this vital musician, esteemed educator, and generous human being was no longer among us. The stunning loss was profoundly felt across the United States and abroad.
Woody Mann’s unique musical style was rooted in both traditional blues and progressive jazz, with many influences in between. As a teenager growing up on Long Island, New York, he listened to folk music records in his parents’ collection: Josh White, Lead Belly, Paul Robeson, and many others. It was Peter, Paul and Mary’s rendition of “If I Had My Way” that inspired a young Woody to find and then learn from the legendary guitarist Reverend Gary Davis. Woody wasn’t old enough to drive, so his mother took him to the New York City borough of Queens, over an hour away, for weekly lessons from the Reverend, who helped him perfect his fingerpicking blues technique. According to Woody’s longtime friend Pete McDonough, “Rev. Davis became a mentor, father figure, and teacher. Woody said he just felt special in the Davis household.”
Woody later moved on to studies in improvisation with famed jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, along with more conventional schooling at Juilliard to help him top off a rich musical education. These varied influences gave Woody a broad-based foundation from which to build his own unique compositions while developing a fluid facility across the fretboard. His far-ranging, creative musical ideas can be heard on numerous solo CDs, as well as in collaborations with such diverse artists as John Fahey, Son House, Jo Ann Kelly, and Larry Johnson.
A dedicated guitar instructor, Woody was the author of numerous books and video tutorials. His live workshops and camps across North America and throughout Europe, Brazil, and Japan were popular and enlightening. I had the opportunity of seeing him teach when we worked together at his International Guitar Seminars, in California, and at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch, in Ohio. Woody’s communication skills matched his playing talents, gaining him numerous friends and fans along the way.
Woody’s endeavors went far beyond playing, teaching, and performing. He was also a skilled filmmaker. Along with his longtime partner, Trevor Laurence, he produced Harlem Street Singer: The Reverend Gary Davis Story. This remarkable tribute to his first teacher—and one of the world’s greatest traditional guitarists—won numerous international awards, as well as raves from music fans around the world. At the time of his passing, Woody and Trevor were putting the finishing touches on a film about the legendary archtop luthier John Monteleone, titled The Chisels Are Calling.
Very few people outside of his immediate family knew that Woody had been battling illness for several years, so it was a devastating shock for his friends and fans to learn that this kind, talented, beautiful man was suddenly gone at the relatively young age of 69. He will be sadly missed by his many colleagues, fans, and friends, among whom I am proud to say I was one.