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Nearly 50 years on, Guy Van Duser and Billy Novick are still swinging

Billy Novick (left) and Guy Van DuserBeth Christensen

It’s always been all about the music for Guy Van Duser and Billy Novick. Their love of it — with an emphasis on swing — is what’s kept them together as a fingerstyle guitar and clarinet duo for the past half-century. The first time they played together was in September 1975, at a Dance Circle concert at First Congregational Church in Cambridge. The next time will be Friday at Club Passim.

These days, Novick is busy playing with the New Black Eagle Jazz Band and juggling numerous freelance gigs. Van Duser is working on a solo CD of pop and jazz tunes, and is in his 16th year teaching at Berklee. They recently shared memories of how music has impacted them on a Zoom call from their homes — Van Duser in Hull and Novick in Lexington.


“My mother started me on piano lessons when I was 5,” said Van Duser. “I did my first recital and it went very well, and I wrote a little two-part minuet. I took it to my piano teacher and played it, and she said, ‘That was very nice. Now don’t you ever do that again. You only play what I tell you to play and practice what I tell you to practice.’ So my mother and I decided that I could stop piano.”

His father got him an accordion when he was 9. But Van Duser wasn’t very enthusiastic about it, “and it made our dog howl incessantly.” Then his father, in need of a hobby, starting playing guitar.

“I would sneak it out of his room whenever he wasn’t playing it,” Van Duser said. “One day I looked in my closet, and the accordion case was gone, and there was a guitar case there instead. At that point the two of us started playing music together.”


Novick also followed an indirect route to his instrument.

“My parents got my older brother a clarinet, but he later switched to bassoon,” he said. “So, I started playing his clarinet. When I went from elementary school to seventh grade, I started playing oboe. But when I was in eighth grade, I broke my wrist playing football, and my oboe teacher said he wasn’t going to teach anyone who put football over music as a priority. So, that was the end of my oboe career, and I went back to clarinet.”

While developing their chops, both Van Duser and Novick used a similar method: copycatting.

“When I was around 13, my brother had a Jelly Roll Morton record,” said Novick. “And I learned the clarinet parts by listening to the record.”

In high school, Van Duser was learning to play by listening to a variety of guitarists’ recordings.

“All I knew was this process of copying,” he said. “I was re-creating Chet Atkins’s solos, and then Paul Simon’s, by ear. If I heard a melody or a phrase, I could immediately play it.”

By the early-’70s, Van Duser was doing solo guitar gigs as well as playing bass in a country band. Novick was dueting with guitarist Gray Sargent and later joined David Bromberg’s band. In the mid-’70s, they were each providing live music for different modern dance choreographers. Then came that dance concert in 1975.

The story goes that at a rehearsal Van Duser did a solo acoustic guitar number, then saw Novick across the hall, with a bass player and a drummer. He thought it might be fun to play with a clarinetist, so he introduced himself to Novick and asked him, “Do you know any Benny Goodman?” Novick replied, “Yeah, I know some of that.”


“That’s exactly what happened,” said Novick. “But I would add that the group I was playing with and the piece I wrote was very avant-garde jazz. So, for someone to make the connection that I play Benny Goodman was …”

“I was just hoping,” said Van Duser. “If he said ‘No, I can’t do that,’ I probably would have walked right back across the hall.”

At dress rehearsal for the concert, they got together to play a couple of swing tunes. At the concert, they decided to play while people were walking in.

“I really liked what we did there,” recalled Van Duser. “I didn’t think we’d get to do it again, but … Billy had some free time and we played together at my place.”

Their first official gig was at Passim on Valentine’s Day, 1976. It went well, but it was clear that there could be a clash of styles. Van Duser was used to sticking with methodical arrangements, while Novick had discovered the art of improvisation.

“I tried to get my stuff in there, and Guy would be reluctant,” said Novick. “He’d try to get his stuff in there, and I would be reluctant. But Guy got me to not worry about playing the same thing twice in a row without feeling self-conscious, and I got Guy to loosen up on some of his arrangements and start improvising.”


“It wasn’t easy,” said Van Duser. “Billy would take a solo, and it was never the same twice in a row. I would work out a solo in advance, and I’d play that every time. I got frustrated because he was having so much fun, and so much freedom. I couldn’t do that because playing arranged fingerstyle guitar is so complicated that most things have to be worked out in advance. But I started trying to play notes other than the melody notes. Now I can play a solo, and it won’t be the same one I played last time. That makes it much more exciting for me.”

There were more gigs, there were recordings, there was time on the road, and there were lifestyle differences to deal with.

“I’d get up earlier than Guy and I was a vegetarian. He’d get up late and he eats meat,” said Novick, laughing. “And I’ve always been heavy into sports.”

Van Duser jumped in: “I wasn’t particularly following sports, but Billy would drive and I would read aloud from the sports page so he could keep up with the scores.”

For their Passim show, most of the pieces will be standards — think “As Time Goes By,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” — and most will be instrumentals, with a smattering of vocals tossed in.


“I think that, more than any other tune, we’ve opened with ‘Wolverine Blues,’ ” said Van Duser. “For years, we finished with ‘Caravan,’ but then our closer became ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever.’ I used to play that solo, but then we plugged Billy in. He plays the famous piccolo part on pennywhistle, as I double him on guitar. It’s one arrangement that I do not improvise on.”


At Club Passim, Sept. 30 at 8 p.m. Tickets $30; livestream $5. 617-492-7679.

Ed Symkus can be reached at