Robert Yelin was born on September 25, 1944 in Yonkers, N.Y. His family moved to New Rochelle, New York when he was 9 years old. He started to take an interest in the guitar at 15 after hearing some records by rock-and-roll guitar players Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Robert started to take guitar lessons from Gus DeGazio, a local area instructor who played him Johnny Smith’s famous recording of “Moonlight in Vermont”. From that point on he came to know that this was the type of music he wanted to play!
Yelin continued his guitar studies with DeGazio but now devoted himself entirely to jazz. It was at this time that Robert started his extensive collection of recordings by all of the famous jazz guitarists. He studied guitar technique and harmony for three years with Augie Lamont and advanced his jazz guitar understanding by watching the leading jazz guitarists of the day including Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, and Chuck Wayne play in New York city jazz clubs.
By the time Robert Yelin was 18 years old he was playing solo jazz guitar in restaurants and by the time he was 20 he had decided to make a career out of music. For the next 15 years Yelin performed at many of the leading New York jazz spots like The Village Gate and Sweet Basil’s. He combined this career with a day time job in the Yelin family’s clothes manufacturing company. He is likewise a prolific arranger and writer on the guitar. From 1968 – 1982 he wrote over 30 articles for Guitar Player Magazine alone as well as articles for Downbeat and Cadence magazines. Starting in 1982, Robert became a professor at the University Of Colorado where he taught the history of jazz and worked with the jazz guitar ensemble there.
It was also during that exact same year that Robert Yelin was diagnosed with diabetes and muscular dystrophy. The physical issues from these illnesses brought his jazz guitar playing career to an end. With a mix of excellent medical treatments and personal self-discipline, Yelin was able to start playing once more in 1996. Robert Yelin is a unique figure in the jazz guitar world. As well as being a gifted player he has one of the world’s largest collections of jazz guitar audio and video recordings. His video collection has actually been an excellent source of reference to scholars and jazz guitar enthusiasts alike.
I had the pleasure of leisurely spending an afternoon with Robert Yelin at his home in Littleton, Colorado when I was about 35 years old. He played some of his charming jazz guitar chord melody solos for me on a gorgeous Gibson Kalamazoo Award model archtop guitar that he owned. I immediately knew why Robert was described in jazz guitar circles as a “guitar chordiologist”! He had quite an arsenal of jazz guitar chords under his fingers to say the least. For my part, I played some Bach compositions for him on my Manuel Contreras classical guitar and he truly got a kick out of hearing them!