Michael Ess has a diverse career as a music educator and a professional guitarist on call for many jazz and pop players in the Richmond and Washington, D.C., areas. He has performed with such artists as Jimmy Bruno, John Scofield, Clark Terry, Barry Harris, George Coleman and John D’earth. He has also performed as a leader or sideman at such venues as the Richmond Jazz Festival, the Richmond Jazz Society, New York City’s University Club, Baltimore’s Myerhoff Concert Hall, Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall, Corcoran Gallery, Spy Club and Metropolitan Club, and at the inaugural celebrations of the president of the U.S. and the governor of Virginia.
Ess tours with VCU’s Mary Morton Parsons Jazz Masters, a faculty ensemble that presents solo and group sessions at schools throughout Richmond and beyond to acquaint children with jazz, funded by a permanent endowment donated by patrons of jazz through a challenge grant from the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation. He is a regular performer with VCU alumnae and jazz vocalist Terri Murphy at the Hard Shell in Richmond’s famed Shockoe Bottom, as well as having ongoing engagements with the Terri Murphy Trio. He also performs with Baby Huey and the Babysitters, an east-coast icon offering jazz standards and commercial dance music that has shared the stage with the Commodores, Sam and Dave, the Spinners, the Manhattans, Martha and the Vandellas, the O-Jays, the Platters, Chuck Berry and the Shirelles. Ess was musical arranger and video producer for the group’s three demo videos and two recordings, “Looking for a Fox” and “See Saw,” which aired on Richmond’s 103.7 FM and had limited national play.
He began playing the guitar at age 12 and was soon playing opening shows from Virginia to New York with the Allman Brothers, Alice Cooper, Bruce Springsteen, MC5, John Denver and the Flying Burrito Brothers. He entered VCU, studying classical guitar with Jimmy Moore and Fred Wilcheck. During that time he met Pat Benatar, with whom he toured the east coast, recording the album “Live at Sam Millers.” After the stint with Benatar, he toured extensively throughout North America and Canada with the Canadian-based band Lighthouse.
Ess returned to Richmond to raise a family and reestablish his career in the area. During this time he was the house guitarist for Alpha Audio recording studio — now In Your Ear — where he performed on national advertisements for products such as Crest toothpaste, Red Man chewing tobacco and Busch Gardens. He was asked to coordinate VCU’s jazz guitar performance program in 1989 and created its very successful curriculum.
Notable former students include New York freelancer Sean Moran; Keith Howland of the group Chicago; Fighting Gravity guitarist Richard Stein; Carnival Cruise Lines arranger and guitarist Kevin Polacky; University of Richmond professor of jazz guitar Kevin Harding; and Pen Farmer — one of Richmond’s best guitarists, who was featured in Just Jazz Guitar magazine. In addition to coordinating the jazz guitar performance program since 1989 and teaching private jazz guitar lessons, Ess also directs one of the small jazz ensembles at VCU and has hosted jazz guitar workshops for students with Jimmy Bruno, John Scofield, Randy Johnston, Gene Bertoncini and Vinnie Valentino.
Ess has authored a four-volume book, “Jazz Guitar from A to Z,” and completed a studio recording of solo and duo jazz guitar pieces.