I’ve been doing gigs for about 50 years now, if I count the rock, top-40, and fusion bands that I played with in my early teens. A few audio recordings from those halcyon days exist, which I rarely (read: never) revisit because of their awkward youthfulness. I do wish I had videos of some of the legends I got to share the stage with in the late ‘70s when I began seriously playing double bass on real jazz gigs: Jimmy Raney, Jay McShann, Johnny Hartman, Buddy Tate, Buddy DeFranco, Gerald “the Wig” Wiggins, Buddy DeFranco, Jamey Aebersold, Helen Humes, Barney Kessel, and others. Images of those legendary players are burned in my mind, but without any video to back up the memories. I moved to New York City in 1980—it would be a few years before I got caught on video.
The first television-quality video in which I appeared is The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from October 25, 1984. I played with Claude Bolling and Hubert Laws, as part of a tour with Claude, who was still riding high on the success of his Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio, which he originally recorded with Jean Pierre Rampal. When I returned to my hometown of Louisville for a Christmas visit a couple of months later, my six minutes of fame on The Tonight Show was the talk of the town. My proud mother had taken a photo of the band from the television screen during the show, and she talked up my appearance around her church—proving to all that her son, who was finally on television was doing something worthy. If it was on TV then it must be good, right?
“When are you going to be on The Tonight Show again?” asked one of the deacons at the church.
“Well,” I said. “It’s quite difficult to get an invitation to be on The Tonight Show, and I don’t have any concrete plans or firm offers from Mr. Carson or Doc Severinsen.”
The nice deacon seemed perturbed. “Well, maybe your career will pick up again soon,” he counseled.
The Porno Option …
I had another video offer in the early 80s. I was playing a duo gig at One Fifth Avenue—a noisy, slightly overpriced Greenwich Village bistro. One Fifth was one of the many Bradley’s-wanna-be venues in the collection of piano-bass duo clubs in Manhattan—so close to Bradley’s physically, but far removed from being a real jazz hang.
During the break before the late set, a slightly greasy man at the bar offered to buy me a drink. Pro tip: Never accept the offer of a free drink from a stranger unless you really hope for something weird to happen. The drink was served, and he started chatting me up: “You sound good on that thing, buddy! What do you call that thing anyway?” Before I had a chance to answer, he blabbered on.
“Too bad they pay you like shit here. I can get you a gig that pays double what you’re making here…double!” At that point, I still thought he was talking about a gig playing the bass. One Fifth Avenue paid $60 a night (four hours, three sets, no dinner), which was pretty good money for a duo gig at the time. Bradley’s, which was the best duo club in New York, paid about $100 per night (early ‘80s), unless you were on the top of the jazz food chain—in which case you might eek out $125 or even $150. Bradley Cunningham had a rule that the musicians working at the club could either eat free or drink free. I was amazed at some of my heroes who performed at Bradley’s who chose the “drink free” option, and still managed to play like legends.
“I make videos … You know, videos that people wanna see,” my new friend continued. I asked him if he meant music videos—this could be a big break for me as a bass player. I might jump right into the music video business on the newly-launched MTV channel! I could make some videos with a glam band—David Bowie—Cyndi Lauper—Billy Idol—Madonna! Maybe someone is looking for a young jazz bass player to add that special something to their pop masterpiece.
The barfly continued with his sales pitch. “Yeah, yeah…I make videos of guys like you with some nice girls just hanging out and having fun … You know, videos that people wanna see.” I still didn’t quite get it.
“You with some nice girls, just hanging out,” he continued. “There might be some guys there, too. You like to hang out with guys, right? And…uh, you might have to take your clothes off. You know, videos that people wanna see.”
With that, I got the picture. I inhaled the rest of my drink and told the guy I had to go get ready for the last set. After we played the final note, I slipped on the bass cover and scurried through the club, as only a New York bass player can do—faster than you can say “Ron Jeremy” three times fast. Bass on the wheel, amp over the shoulder—I pink-panthered out of the restaurant, using my superpower so no one noticed me—and onto 5th Avenue to search for my car that was parked somewhere too far away.
Players Who Teach and Teachers Who Play
One of my recurring gigs—for decades—was working with Jamey Aebersold at his Summer Jazz Workshops. Jamey eventually began recording everything on audio and video—all concerts with the faculty, lunchtime concerts, student concerts—everything was caught on video, and is probably now stored in Jamey’s expansive basement, a jazz treasure trove—a Hoosier bunker of music history. Jamey was—and still is—a jazz prepper, archiving audio and video of Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Dave Liebman, James Moody, Slide Hampton, Bobby Shew, James Williams, Ed Thigpen, Louis Hayes, Jimmy Cobb, Chris Potter, Randy Brecker, and hundreds of other magnificent players who taught at his workshops. I wonder if those sounds will ever come to light, if they’ll ever be more than an echo of glorious times past. Only a few of the videos have made it out into the world, probably due to rights issues with the musicians.
I found a nice group of videos from a set at the Aebersold Workshop in Louisville in 1986, featuring players who were early mentors and role models for me: drummer Ed Soph, guitarist Steve Erquiaga, and pianist Dan Haerle—great players doing a faculty set during the heyday of the Aebersold summer clinic years.
I look back on these offerings with a mix of wonder and appreciation for the nice music we made. I feel wistful nostalgia for the dedication shown by these teachers who were also magnificent players—or were we players who liked to teach? Jamey has curated thousands of recordings and videos from his decades on the jazz scene. I played with Jamey in Louisville a few years ago (2018), and he dutifully made CDs of the whole night and sent me the recordings in the mail. Fun gigs!
New York Stories
Although I worked in New York studios in the ‘80s and ‘90s on film scores, television, and jingles—plus an insane number of live gigs—I didn’t show up on many videos, mainly because video technology was in its nascent stages. In 1993, I performed with my band at the Greenwich House in the Village and had the foresight to hire a videographer to record the concert. Here’s our version of Bill Mays’s wonderful piece, “Three Short Stories for Contrabass and Piano,” which we would record shortly afterwards for my first album as a leader—Tale of the Fingers [Concord].
I was teaching at William Paterson College in the early ‘90s when Rufus Reid—artistic director of the program—asked me to play a duo concert with the magnificent guitarist Peter Leitch. Here we are playing our version of “Solar” with a bit of edge on the tempo. Fast tempos seemed to be more common with the players in New York than with the players in Europe where I now play my quarter notes.
Louie Bellson Big Band — 1991
During a European tour, I found myself performing on a television broadcast with the Louie Bellson Big Band at the Berlin Jazz Festival—October 29, 1991. The set features a stellar ensemble (Don Menza, Scott Robinson, Jack Stuckey, Tim Ries, Joe Roccisano, Joe Wilder, John Mosca, Larry Lunetta, Bob Millikan, et al). Louie and the band are in grand form, and it’s obvious I’m having a fantastic time. This tour with Louie set the stage for my decision to move to Europe and join the WDR Big Band in 1994. I watch the Bellson video now and see my future stretch out in front of me, accompanied by the hard swinging music of a world class band. This tour set the stage for my eventual audition for the WDR Big Band and my subsequent move to Europe.
The WDR Years — 1994 to ???
Since the WDR Big Band works at the radio and TV station in Cologne, Germany, video and film recordings for television shows have always been part of my gig. During the ‘90s, pre-internet streaming, we did mostly radio productions, framed by a few high-profile television shows each year. Some of those shows can be seen on YouTube—usually curated by a super fan anxious to preserve music history. Videos from those years roll by and pay tribute to jazz masters from all over the world— Georgie Fame, Toots Thielemans, Lee Konitz, Jon Faddis, David Sanchez, Lalo Schifrin, Paquito D’Rivera, Airto Moreira, Eddie Harris, James Moody, Peter Erskine, Jeff Hamilton, Superbass with Christian McBride, John Clayton, Ray Brown, and countless others. Too many videos—broadcast on German TV at the time—have escaped the internet landscape; they have either disappeared due to the vagaries of television archiving or are buried on a VHS tape or hard drive somewhere waiting to be brought back into the public eye.
I attended an IAJE (International Association of Jazz Educators) convention in 2002 where I saw a workshop by a high school band director who was archiving videos of his young band on a website that people could watch on demand using the new technology of the internet. What a mysteriously wonderful thing it seemed like at the time. YouTube (founded 2005) and Facebook (founded 2004) had not yet launched. Even MySpace didn’t start filling the internet with jazz and funny cat videos until 2003, which is the same year that iTunes music began selling mp3 downloads. Spotify came on the scene in 2006—streaming a never-ending library of everything, almost. It seems like we’ve been living with internet technology forever—but it’s sobering to consider that it has only been with us for a fleeting couple of decades.
When I returned from the 2002 IAJE convention, inspired by the possibility of providing audio and video directly to music fans, I didn’t find many enthusiastic ears. I reported my findings about the high school band director and his video-on-demand website back to the WDR, but the mega-media company remained focused on radio and television. Most people could not recognize the potential for something they couldn’t see and hear for themselves. We kept producing TV shows through the naughts—Take 6, Hiram Bullock, Maceo Parker, Chano Dominquez, and other luminaries. It would be another 15 years or so before the WDR Big Band would kick into gear with video productions and live streaming aimed towards an internet audience. These days, studio video productions and live streams are a large part of what the WDR Big Band does—producing high-quality music for our local fan base, which is also accessible to anyone in the world with an internet connection. Most of our projects are now produced for both video and audio consumption. Amazing. We still play concerts for live audiences—often with a large video team that tags along to make sure whatever we’re performing is adequately documented.
Yes, Boomer—Just Like the Old Days!
Sometimes we just play a concert for an audience that isn’t recorded with audio or video. I love those performances, because the music is there only for particular people in the audience—and the musicians onstage. It happens and then it’s over—the music is gone into the ether, staying alive only in the collective memory of the people who were present. Yes, Boomer—just like the old days.
The Covid pandemic forced everyone to rethink how to provide music directly to music fans in their homes, without any in-person contact. The WDR production team took giant steps during the lockdown years to make sure high-quality video productions found their way to our local and international audience.
Clubs, concert venues, music teachers, and practically all musicians now deal with making videos for live streams, or to be later shown on YouTube, Facebook, or other media channels. It’s worth noting that earlier in my career, most services like recording audio or video during a live gig were compensated as extra payments to the performer…the gig pays $X, but if they are recording audio for whatever reason, it pays $XX, and a television show, video, or movie soundtrack would pay $XXX, plus eventual residuals.
Nowadays, most musicians are used to video recordings being just another part of any gig. The gig pays $X, and “by the way—we’re recording everything on video for our archives, and we’ll be posting the best parts—or heck, maybe the whole concert—to all social media services, forever.” I’m not against that in principle—the concept of having every note that one plays archived on audio and video for all eternity encourages a high standard of excellence. Sometimes, it’s stressful being on video, but I’m generally happy with most videos that find their way online—even though I’m also very analytical and critical of my own playing (that’s the “high-standards” part that hopefully helps me improve).
In the spirit of putting the videos out there and keeping track of a bit of what I’ve done over the past decades, I’ve made a playlist of 300+ videos (and growing every day) from the past 40 years of bass playing. I’m honored and humbled to have shared the stage, jazz club, bar, roadside dive, university concert hall, brothel, festival stage, and living room, with some incredible musicians—some famous, and some who should be famous. Have and look-listen and see if anything in this eclectic sampling piques your interest.
300+ Videos — More Coming Every Day! Video Playlist:
Facebook — Even More Videos!
Facebook hosts an extensive collection of videos of the WDR Big Band on our page, created and curated by jazz musician extraordinaire and videographer Mattis Cederberg. These beautiful, intimate videos don’t usually show up on the YouTube channel, but they are well worth checking out!
You Want to Play the Double Bass?
I’ve also made a playlist of educational videos from Discover Double Bass, Truefire, and some other spots where I’m talking about or demonstrating bass technique. What does the internet’s future hold for those of us making music? I’m not sure, but we can certainly learn from the past, one video at a time. Happy watching & listening!