Back to the Bass-ics

After years of playing rhythm and lead guitar, tonight I’m returning to the bass for a jam session at Roque’s Blues Hall here in Natchitoches. To reindoctrinate myself, so to speak, I’m listening back to my earliest influences and remembering why I loved the bass first and foremost during my musical development.

I started out at the end of the second grade playing classical violin. By the end of the fifth grade, my hands were big enough (and the need in the school orchestra was such) that I could handle the upright bass. Fortuitously enough, the orchestra director (Dr. James Loveman) was a double bass man himself. He gave me private lessons, and helped me blister my way through Simandl. By the end of the seventh grade, I was good enough to audition and be accepted in the Lima Area Youth Symphony.

But let’s face it — classical bass is pretty dry. I was listening to jazz and blues, and wanted to play them. I added Ray Brown’s bass method to my repertoire, and Charles Mingus, Ray Brown and Ron Carter to my turntable.

Again, fortune stepped in. My junior high band director (Dr. Dennis Mack) was a low brass and bass man, too — he played tuba, double bass and electric bass. And he was also the high school jazz band director. At time I came along, he was playing the bass for the group himself, to fill the student void. Although I was only in junior high, he asked if I would sit in. My reading chops were up to snuff, and I sailed through on the big double bass. But he wasn’t satisfied. I just wasn’t loud enough.

And here’s where the history really starts. He let me borrow his electric bass and amplifier to play with the high school jazz band. I added Carol Kaye’s electric bass method to my repertoire, and Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Bootsy Collins and Jamie Jamerson to my turntable. Of course, I also had some mighty rock influences — Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, John Entwistle. And I practiced my ass off. I slept with the bass in hand.

That was the beginning. By the time I graduated high school (with the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award for outstanding high school jazz musician in tow), I considered myself capable of playing almost whatever I wanted (or needed) on the bass. That was the middle.

Skip ahead. Skip through orchestra gigs, skip missing the audition for Ozzy Osbourne’s band by a day, skip the Blue Wave Band opening for PeeWee Crayton (who said that I was “the baddest m*f* bass player” he’d ever seen), skip Peewee’s grandson Marshall wanting to put something together with me and Jeff Lorber (which of course fell through), skip through Sun Concert Bass heads, Gallien-Krueger cabinets, skip the Faith Assembly goth and the Moondogs psychedelic revival.

When I went to Berklee, it was on a voice scholarship. Because you had to submit review tapes, and it seemed like voice was more strongly featured on what tapes I had. But on the same day I did my voice placement auditions, I ventured over to the bass department and breezed through their tryout and placement process. They wanted me to switch majors. But that would have meant losing my scholarship. That was the beginning of the end.

I played a great gig with the Bloodfarmers in NYC; played bass, and rocked, because what they really wanted was Geezer Butler, who I could replicate with my eyes closed. For me, it was just a flashback. Somewhere along the line, probably when I had to sell all my bass gear before moving to Memphis, the guitar seemed easier to transport. And all those influences I’d picked up between the beginning and Memphis — Willie Dixon, Paul Chambers, Duck Dunn, Jack Cassady, Chris Squire, Tony Levin, Jack Berlin, Geezer Butler, David Porter Jr., Steve Harris — seemed to slip away. I started playing a lot of solo gigs, which definitely were easier with guitar.

And now, 32 years from when I first picked up a bass, it feels like I’ve come full circle. In that time I’ve played in a lot of bands. In those where I didn’t play bass, I never felt the bass players really got it. In listening to a lot of bands, and watching a lot of pretty good players, you start to notice there are probably only a dozen bass players that do. All the bands where I played bass seemed to fall apart once I left them. In other words, I used to be irreplaceable.

Now, I’ve got to prove that all over again. Fingers, don’t fail me now.

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