Ted Dunbar, jazz guitarist, composer, and instructor, was born Earl Theodore Dunbar in Port Arthur, Texas, on January 17, 1937. At the age of seven, Dunbar became enamored with jazz music after attending a Duke Ellington concert with his mother. Three years later, Dunbar was playing guitar and trumpet professionally around Port Arthur. He attended Texas Southern University in the late 1950s and studied pharmacy, all the while, honing his jazz skills and playing with notable performers Arnett Cobb, Joe Turner, and Don Wilkerson.
After graduation, Dunbar got a job at Hook’s Drug Store in Indianapolis, Indiana. By this time he was married and had a daughter, and the family moved from Texas to Indiana. It was in Indianapolis where he first heard popular jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery perform, and this played a role in Dunbar’s decision to relocate there. Montgomery became a major influence on Dunbar’s own style of jazz guitar, which included his “soft” approach using his thumb rather than a pick. Montgomery mentored Dunbar and occasionally asked the younger musician to fill in for him when Montgomery was on tour. While living in Indianapolis, Dunbar also studied with Dave Baker, from whom he learned to play modal jazz.
In 1966 Dunbar moved to New York City. He still worked at a pharmacy but played jazz at night and on weekends in various orchestras and on studio recordings. He appeared on numerous artists’ records, including Gloria Coleman, David “Fathead” Newman, Gil Evans, Lou Donaldson, Frank Foster, Charles Mingus, Tony Williams’s Lifetime, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, and Ron Carter, to name a few. Dunbar also played guitar in Billy Taylor’s Jazzmobile Project, the New Jazz Repertory Company, and the National Jazz Ensemble. While teaching in the Jazzmobile Workshop Project, Dunbar’s students included Kevin Eubanks, leader for many years of the house band for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Dunbar also taught Rodney Jones, a guitarist for the house band on The Rosie O’Donnell Show.
In 1972 Dunbar was hired as a jazz professor at Livingston College (Rutgers University) where he worked to develop undergraduate and master’s degrees in jazz performance. He also worked at a pharmacy part-time while performing jazz with the Rutgers Livingston Jazz Professors. Dunbar toured the United States and abroad and played jazz concerts and festivals at such notable venues as the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. Dunbar published four books on jazz harmony, A System of Tonal Convergence for Improvisers, Composers and Arrangers (1975), The Interrelationship of Chords, Scales and Fingerboard of Each one of the Twelve Tonalities of the Guitar (1978), The II-V Cadence as a Creative Guitar Learning Device (1979), and New Approaches to Jazz Guitar, Expanded (2nd) Edition (1992).
Dunbar also recorded twenty-five original compositions under his own name for the Xanadu and Muse record labels. Among his albums as bandleader were Opening Remarks (1978), Jazz Guitarist (1982), and Gentle Time Alone (1994). Most notable among these is Dunbar’s 1982 record, Jazz Guitarist, which simply included Dunbar on guitar performing complex piano arrangements. Dunbar was the recipient of Downbeat Magazine’s Outstanding Guitarist Award, and he was nominated for Ebony Magazine’s Black Music Poll of Outstanding Musicians. He continued to teach at Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies until 1998, when he died of a stroke on May 29, 1998, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Ted Dunbar was survived by daughters, Anita Kelly of Plano, Texas, and Natalie Dunbar of Pasadena, California, as well as seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild. He is one of the music legends featured in his native Port Arthur’s Museum of the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame.