Speaking Languages of Rhythm

A conversation with acclaimed jazz guitarist and Crown fest star Leni Stern

By Dillon Tabish
Acclaimed guitarist Leni Stern is returning to Bigfork for the eighth annual Crown Guitar Workshop and Festival. Courtesy photo

Leni Stern has mastered many musical languages — blues, rock n’ roll, jazz —during a lifetime of traveling the world. Gibson Guitar has named the Munich, Germany musician its female jazz guitarist of the year five times, and her 15 solo albums showcase those innovative and multi-faceted abilities. Her most recent work explores the indigenous sounds of West African instrumentalists and musicians, which are on full display in the feature-length documentary “Last Song Before the War.”

Stern is returning to Northwest Montana this summer for the eighth annual Crown Guitar Workshop and Festival in Bigfork. She is appearing at the event for the second time and is excited to take her students on a musical exploration diving into the various languages of rhythm.

The Beacon caught up with Stern before her trip to Bigfork to talk about her influences and her interest in the Crown Festival.

Beacon: Was there a song or a sound or a musician in general that inspired you to get on this path as a jazz guitarist?

Leni Stern: There were many. I loved Jimi Hendrix. When I was really young, I saw pictures and videos of him playing on TV, and it was like, ‘Wow.’ I grew up in Munich, so I heard these amazing musicians, like Dewey Redman, and a lot of different jazz artists. Aside from playing blues and rock, I got very interested in playing jazz.

Beacon: Why jazz? What was it about jazz that stuck with you?

Stern: I noticed they had so many things they had to say. They could play for so long, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is just awesome.’ I couldn’t figure out what they were doing, but I thought it was fabulous. I asked around and found somebody to teach me.

Beacon: What’s the secret to being a good guitarist, if there is just one?

Stern: Practice. Practice. Practice.

Beacon: This will be your second year at the Crown Guitar Festival. What originally brought you here to Northwest Montana?

Stern: I don’t know how we ended up there. I had friends playing there, and a lot of guitarists I love and admire have taught there. And my husband (Mike Stern) really likes Montana and the lakes and the mountains. It’s a beautiful place. And it’s a thing we can do together and we teach together. It’s a great way for us to hang out and swim in the lake if it’s not too cold.

Beacon: This year’s festival sounds like another great week-long event. What are you most excited about?

Stern: Jerry Douglas! And I’m excited to bring my African rhythms. I always felt, of all of my studies, I didn’t get enough rhythm training. No one could explain what the bottom of this was. I want to take my students and get to the bottom of that. What’s good timing? What other languages of rhythm are there other than your own? We’re going to go on a little exploration.

Leni Stern is scheduled to perform Sept. 2 at the Crown Guitar Workshop and Festival. For more information, visit www.crownguitarfest.org.

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