Remembering Bert Carlson

Bert Carlson onstage.

We are deeply saddened to report the passing of our friend Bert Carlson. Bert was a remarkably gifted guitarist, and a sweet and generous soul. He will be fondly remembered and missed by all the countless folks who were lucky enough to hear him play, learn from his teachings, join him to jam on some tunes, and, of course, especially those who got to call him friend. Though he was battling cancer, Bert served as a Master Artist to multi-instrumentalist Danny Knicely in our Folklife Apprenticeship Program this past year. Bert was to join Danny for a set on our stage at the Richmond Folk Festival this past weekend. Sadly, he didn’t make that one, but the band played an exuberant set in his honor, as we know he would have liked.

While Virginia is seldom associated with jazz, the Commonwealth has produced a disproportionate number of artists who have put their indelible stamp on this uniquely American music. Virginia has produced some of the most celebrated jazz vocalists including Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Ruth Brown, and Keely Smith. Accompanying these vocalists were a cadre of highly influential and revered guitarists. Bert Carlson, of Bath County, followed in the footsteps of these luminary jazz guitar masters, such as Charlie Byrd, Steve Jordan, and Tiny Grimes. Bert was not classically trained, learning instead through what he calls the old fashioned way, “at the gig—sink or swim.” He has performed hundreds of dates each year and mentored many students in his native Illinois and later Washington, D.C., before settling down in Bath County, Virginia, in 2001. Before his passing,  Bert apprenticed Danny Knicely in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. Having Danny assume the role of apprentice might at first seem curious, but in truth Danny and Bert have been learning from one another since they met. “I’ve known Danny for 18 years,” Bert says. “Over that time, he’s stolen my jazz licks and I’ve stolen his bluegrass licks. We haven’t really talked about it. We just steal.”

Bert Carlson and Danny Knicely.

Bert’s smile lit up many a room, and his music raised many a spirit. Lord, we’ll miss you Bert.

WTJU (91.1 FM, and streaming here) will air a tribute to Bert on Thursday, October 25 from 4 to 7pm.