San Diego Union Tribune – By George Varga | All Things Michael
Jennifer Batten didn’t think of herself as a pioneer in 1987, when she began a 10-year stint as the lead guitarist in Michael Jackson’s band for three consecutive world tours. Likewise, the former San Diego virtuoso was focused on her playing — not making music history — during her 1998-to-2001 tenure with English guitar legend Jeff Beck. His bands over the previous 30 years had never before featured a female instrumentalist.
But Batten, who performs Friday at Ramona Mainstage with fellow guitarists Uli Jon Roth and Andy Timmons, is no stranger to being a trailblazer.
When Batten auditioned for Jackson’s band in Los Angeles, where she moved from San Diego in 1984, she performed an unaccompanied guitar version of jazz sax icon John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Even more impressive, she rearranged Coltrane’s already challenging piece as an Eddie Van Halen-styled tapping solo — which might have proved daunting for Van Halen himself — with each note plucked, then hammered in rapid succession, on the guitar’s fretboard.
“About 100 guitarists auditioned,” Batten recalled of her Jackson band tryout, speaking recently from her home in Oregon. “I really don’t know if any other women guitarists auditioned, because it was a cattle call. Everybody had 15 minutes, and I only saw the person who auditioned immediately before me, and then the one immediately after me. …
“When I auditioned, there was no band, just me and a video camera. The only guidance they gave me was to say that playing funky rhythm guitar would be the majority of the gig. So I improvised something funky, then soloed freestyle. Then, I played the tapping solo to ‘Giant Steps,’ which ended up on my first album. I ended my audition with the (Eddie Van Halen) solo from ‘Beat It,’ because I’d been playing that in Purl for a couple of years.”
Batten was called back for another audition, but it wasn’t the music that proved daunting.
“At the end of the second audition, the guy videotaping me said: ‘Michael wants to get an idea of your personality, so talk to the camera.’ That was probably the hardest part of the audition!” she said, laughing.
“Several days later, I got a call that Michael was interested, and asking if I could come in to play with his band, and see how it went. And, also, they asked, could I take a year off to tour? I said: ‘Take me anywhere, for any length of time!’ The first tour turned out to be a year and a half.”
The only other woman in Jackson’s band was a then-unknown singer named Sheryl Crow, with whom Batten shared a dressing room on tour.
Her work with Jackson led to meeting Jeff Beck, a guitarist Batten had idolized since her teen years. She had taught herself to play all the solos from his classic “Blow by Blow” and “Wired” albums, both released in the mid-1970s. By the late 1990s, she was onstage, trading lines on some of those same songs with Beck.
Batten will be a special guest when Beck performs his “50 Years of Beck” anniversary in music concert with Buddy Guy at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 10.
Asked to compare and contrast playing with Jackson and Beck, she said: “Instead of being one of seven people onstage with Michael, I was one of four people onstage with Jeff. And, with Jeff, I was responsible for playing all the harmony parts. So, if there was a mistake, it wasn’t very easy for me to hide.
“Michael wanted it to sound the same every night. And every one of the songs we did was a big hit, so people knew every note of the songs. Jeff wanted it different every night. He wanted us to fire him up to go to different musical places, each time we played.”
The first concert on her first tour with Jackson was in Tokyo. Batten, who had never been out of the U.S. before, didn’t even have a passport before joining his band. Regardless, the transition from obscurity to the world stage proved to be a smooth one.
“It was like a paid vacation,” she recalled. “We only performed two or three times a week. We got to see the world, which is very rare for most tours, because it’s so expensive to tour — especially with an entourage of 100, like Michael had. On most tours, you’re traveling and playing shows almost every night. So it was a real blessing for me to be part of those tours with Michael… He certainly he didn’t have a normal upbringing, but he was very kind and respectful, and an incredibly creative person.
“Musically, it was like being in a cover band, except all the songs were by the same artist! So playing his music was pretty natural. But the magnitude of it was interesting. Michael was very kind and respectful. He definitely had a command of the orchestra, so to speak. He knew what was going on in every department.
“I’ve heard lots of stories from other acts, where the leader was just a complete ass and would eviscerate the people in their band on stage. That was never Michael. He always kept his cool, no matter how much pressure he was under…
“At the end of one tour, for the last show, we all put on fedoras. So when Michael turned around and looked back at the band, it was a surprise. He cracked up.”
Jackson’s wardrobe crew and stylists provided Batten and his other band members with a new look and stage attire for each tour.
The results, at least for her, were decidedly mixed.
”Michael had artists draw up looks for each of us, and then hired wardrobe people, and makeup and hair people. In the beginning, I had kind of a Mohawk that looked a bit harsh. I asked him, after a while, if we could make it a little tamer, and he was fine.
“On the ‘HIStory tour, I had a nasty costume I was supposed to wear. Somebody had given Michael a portrait book that was basically full of S&M outfits. My costume was leopard-skin. It had a wig, with a nose strap attached to my head, and a ball gag that was supposed to go in my mouth.
“I put my foot down, and said: ‘Hell, no.’ This was not the message I wanted to send out to young girls. I told Michael, and he was totally cool about it.”
Did people treat her differently after her first tour with Jackson?
“They didn’t wait until the tour was over,” Batten replied. “As soon as I got (hired for) the tour, I’d hear about people who were jealous and saying backstabbing comments. But the same thing happened to the dancers hired for the tour.”
That Batten paved the way for St. Vincent, the lone-named Orianthi (who briefly succeeded her in Jackson’s band) and a generation of other gifted female rock guitarists is undeniable. So is the long, often lonely, trek she had to make.
“When I started playing in Michael Jackson’s band, Wendy and Lisa were in Prince’s band, and I thought the revolution had started (for female rock musicians),” Batten recalled. “Then, 25 years went by, and there wasn’t much change at all.
“But, in the last five years, not a month that goes by where I’m not knocked out on YouTube by some female guitarist — from here, or some distant country — who’s killing it. Nearly everybody has access to the Internet, so everyone can see them, and it’s more acceptable to see a woman play guitar now. There might have been a lot of women kicking ass on guitar before, but we never would have known it before. Now, we do.”
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