Mario Maccaferri: An Interview with John Monteleone (Part One)
Updated: Mar 4, 2019
By Daniel Wheeldon
I first had the opportunity to meet John Monteleone in 2015 while I was living in New York, later I was able to visit him in his workshop on Long Island. John has had a life surrounded by ingenuity and artistic design from an early age, and today is well recognised amongst the finest living instrument makers. In these interactions, I heard about Monteleone’s friendship with the Mario Maccaferri whose instruments were immortalised by Django Reinhardt and the Jazz Manouche movement (popularly known as Gypsy Jazz). John was willing to have a recorded interview to attempt to capture some of these stories, which I have reproduced here for you.
Mario Maccaferri, 1933. Inv No: E.994.21.3, Monteleone ‘Autumn’ guitar, Cité de la Musique, Paris part of the Four Seasons MMA 2017.179.4
The text of the interview has been edited for readability but still accurately conveys the structure and content of the interview.
19:15 GMT, 13th January 2019.
Daniel Wheeldon – DW
John Monteleone – JM
DW: Can you tell me about the first time you met Mario Maccaferri?
JM: Sure, I looked up his phone number in the Yellow Pages. I knew that he was living somewhere between the Bronx and maybe Rye, NY. I was familiar with his instruments already because I was already working with Mandolin Brothers at the time, doing repair work, so on occasion I would get these Selmers come in to my workshop. So I hadn’t met him yet but I knew [where] he was living, and that it wasn’t so far from me, so I said ‘you know I’ve gotta look this guy up’. I found his phone number for Mastro Plastics in the Bronx, and I cold called him and introduced myself. He said ‘Yes, you make instruments’, I said ‘Yes, I made instruments, but I know about your instruments and I would love to meet you’ and he said ‘Yes come on up’.
DW: What was your impression of him before you met him?
JM: I was familiar with Django Reinhardt, and a fan of that music, and I understood that this was an unusual sounding guitar. I saw the pictures that we all have seen in the past, so I’m associating the picture of the instrument with the sound I’m hearing trying to imagine what that instrument is about. I knew it was peculiar, and yet it was playing Jazz but not yet considered a Jazz guitar per se. That kind of guitar was pretty rare over here, you seldom saw one. And I understand that in places like England and maybe France of course they would be more visible, because that was where they have come from, and a lot of the musicians were Romanies and so forth, and they were appreciators or aficionados of that music, a lot of them in England also. Over here it was a rare thing to see, and I began to see them coming through, not very often, but they would come through I would have this curiosity about them, which built up to somewhat of a crescendo. Wanting to understand more about them I thought ‘now here is an opportunity that cannot be passed up’. And that’s why I called him.
DW: And going forward, what happened?
JM: Well I brought with me a sampler too, I think I brought a mandolin though I had already made some carved acoustic archtops at the that time. I met Mario I think probably in 1981. So yeah, I brought an instrument with me to show him, I think he had expressed the idea that he would like to see what I had made, and so I dragged an instrument with me and showed it to him. And I knew it was a good instrument, and he did too, so he could identify that here was a person that was doing something he could appreciate. And I felt right away that we had struck up a friendship, he was a very friendly guy, very approachable if you ever met him you would see that he was kind of a – I wouldn’t say a large man – but I would say he had a large presence.
DW: You hear people talking about that, I know what you mean. From his point of view being a maker/designer/player, his ear would have been quite good and quick at [discerning] – he wasn’t just an entertainer he was a music genius as well. Did he play yours? Did you hear him play?
JM: He didn’t play for me right away. But here’s what happened – I went back to see him, I think it was on the second time I went to see him, when he handed me a blueprint of one of his guitars – a classical guitar. He had drawn this somewhere in the 1950s, he hands it to me and asks me if I wanted to build the guitar. I jumped at the chance and said ‘of course, I would love to’. So I took that back to the workshop and I started on it pretty quickly. I was very excited about the idea: making a guitar for Mario Maccaferri. It doesn’t happen every day.
DW: No no it doesn’t! But when you say Classical guitar do you mean? What was the base model? Was it a sort of Torres style?
JM: Well Mario, his instruction really came from Luigi Mozzani, so a lot of his practices and skills, his construction habits, were learned in a very Italianate way in Mozzani’s shop. But his Classical guitar specifically he understood where that came from. I don’t believe that he was in touch with guitars like Hauser, I don’t think so, he never mentioned it to me. But there were other makers that he was aware of, Ramirez of course. He was also friendly with Andres Sergovia, because Mario was a fine performer, concert performer himself back in the early days. In this sense he wanted me to make this classical guitar for him.
So I asked him: I said ‘well what about the Jazz models?’ And he says ‘Well Jazz, I never liked Jazz’. So I said ‘Well what happened when you were making these guitar for Selmer?’ He was in London at the time, prior to the Selmer production, acquaintance was made through a mutual friend that Mario knew and Selmer knew, this friend understood that Selmer was looking to get into the guitar business to expand their catalogue, thought the time was right to get into guitars. So here’s Mario, he’s a luthier, they made the introduction, and Selmer said ‘Of course come on over and we’ll talk and we’ll get started if things go well’. Which they did. So he goes over there in 1932 to France and they have an agreement and they give him a part of the factory near to the reed department to set up a workshop. He sets up a workshop there to build a standard guitar they called it ‘Spanish guitar’, a concert guitar, and a Hawaiian guitar, then they said we also need a Jazz guitar. So Mario didn’t like Jazz so he tells me, ‘I had to learn about Jazz, so I go to the Place de Gaulle, and the clubs that are in that area, to learn about this music Jazz.’ Because he wasn’t really familiar with it and to him it was noise, and he said ‘Well it’s like banging a fist full of metal rods on the table’, that’s the rhythm and the drive, the power. So with that in his mind he goes and thinks about it and comes up with this D-hole guitar with an internal baffle system built into it. And he never really bothered or fussed about that guitar too much other than to just make it work. So he never met Django, and he never had the desire to meet Django at the time, which he later regretted. He told me later.
They make the guitars and as you know in 1934, the contract there’s some problem with that and they fall out of love, and after that point as we know, Selmer goes on to introduce their boutique bouche model, and they don’t like the D-hole any more. They also made a longer scale at that time and along with that they black out Mario’s name on the labels.
DW: So it was not an amiable separation. So you say he was in London before he went to France with Selmer, so was he having them made in London, before? JM: No. This was his own lutherie workshop before he had any business with Selmer. He had gone to England to set up a workshop and he had a whole catalogue of instruments: guitars and mandolins, fiddles ‘cause he was trained in all of that. And he was performing also.
DW: Going back to the classical guitar that you made for him, was that comparable to his Selmer classical guitars?
JM: Well it was different. Mario’s understanding his comprehension of the instrument was unique, I think. In that he didn’t follow to the extreme the real finesse of the Spanish school style. Although if you looked at it from the onset, you’d think it was.
So he handed me a drawing and I knew that the drawing was going to be a heavy build, but I build it according to the instruction. I built everything according to the nominal dimensions given. And along the way I said ‘okay I don’t know if this is going to be exactly what he expected’ but I built the guitar out but at the same time in the back of my head I said ‘you know what, I know this guy – I know that he has already told me that there is not enough time left in the world for him to do everything he wants to do’, so he was trying to be quick with things just trying to get it all in there. I said to myself ‘I’m going to make a spare back’.
Here’s what happened: I finished the guitar, and he comes down, he drives down to my workshop which was in Bay Shore at the time. And he was always dressed in a suit and tie, always. He drives down in his huge Cadillac, parks up right outside my shop and come in and he enjoys the guitar right away.
He’s playing it and I’m waiting for a reaction. But he kinda likes it and I don’t see him overly thrilled about it, but really enjoyed it. So he went home that day and I’m doing the countdown, I’m waiting for the phone call. Sure enough, next day he goes: ‘John, the guitar is good. Could be better. Bring tools.’. I was already packed. I had all my clamps and chisels and saws and the second replacement back, and so I drove up to his shop. I even brought a saw – a jig saw. Cos I was going in quick boys!
DW: You were going to jigsaw the back off!
JM: I just zipped it right off. Cut it right out, and dropped it right into the guitar ‘we’re going in folks’. That’s exactly what we did.
So I would go up to his workshop almost every other day or every week, spend the entire day working on this guitar which we carved out: all the bars braces fan struts, and cut new ones from a stack of Steinway wood that he collected, he had a whole shelf of cut off soundboard wood from Steinway which used to be cut into small pieces for internal struts on the plastic guitars, of all things. So he had a stack of these things, and from that we cut out all the tone bars and struts and we glued them in, in a frensy really. Had them all glued in before lunch on this one day. And then we go into his office, and in his office is a kitchen off the side of the office and his wife prepared lunch, a continental lunch of course, everything: soup, sandwich the whole nine yards of it. And then he would put the coffee on and while he waits for the coffee he get a guitar out and he would play these pieces, these beautiful Classical arrangements – his own arrangements – of things like from Schumann or Schubert or Mozart, Chopin, Albéniz, all these kinds of beautiful pieces – he would play for about 20 mins put the guitar away, we’d have coffee and then go back to work. So, by the end of the day we had the new back on the guitar.
DW: So you said you’d go back every day or every other day, but for this guitar it was all on one day?
JM: When we decided to work on that guitar it was all on one day.
DW: You zipped off the back, put the braces on, and put a new back on.
JM: Yes, everything glued up, all the bars were shaved according to how we thought they should be, and closed it up. And the next day he strung it up even. He couldn’t wait, he was always like a kid in a candy store. So he strung it up and he gave it time to adjust and he calls me he says ‘the guitar is much better, sounds good, it will be a good guitar’. So, I went back there again another time, cleaned the whole thing up and I think I brought it back to my shop and I put some more finish on it. That ended up being his guitar, he played that and his Santos [Hernandez], he had a beautiful Santos that I worked on. He played those two guitars until he died.
Continue reading this interview with John Monteleone about his work with Mario Maccaferri in Part Two
Daniel Wheeldon is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Edinburgh and currently chairs the Banjo, Mandolin, and Guitar working group for AMIS. Daniel trained and worked in London building and repairing guitars and developed an interest in early guitars and citterns. After completing his masters at the University of Edinburgh in 2015 he was awarded a Chester Dale Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where he documented and catalogued their pre-1900 European guitars.
 The term Jazz Manouche, or Gypsy Jazz, refers to a particular school of Parisian Jazz music most popular in the 1930s and ‘40s. The musicians involved, including Django Reinhardt, were predominantly from the Manouche (French Romani) community in France. As many English Romanies self-refer as Gypsies, Manouche is often translated into English as ‘Gypsy’ and the movement is perhaps most often referred to as Gypsy Jazz.
 In the interview John Monteleone refers to Gypsies in England. Although this is an appropriate contextual use of the term, as English Romanies regularly refer to themselves as Gypsies (just as many French Romanies self-refer as Manouches), I have replaced this with Romanies for an international readership. In both North America and in some other parts of Europe the term Gypsy is considered pejorative. Jazz Manouche and Gypsy Jazz, as terms which originated in France and England, define and celebrate a sophisticated and virtuosic playing style, which was developed by Romani communities with strong musical traditions.