My bass teachers

My musical journey - Phil Wain

As I looked forward to taking a lesson with Steve Lawson (something we have oft talked about) I gave some thought to other teachers I’ve had on bass. As a musician and a teacher, I am fascinated by the whole process. Now, after a lesson with Steve, I am ready to finish getting this post together.

Of course, the majority of the learning we do does not come from teachers: it comes from discovery, experience and experimentation – I’ve also learned an incredible amount from fellow musos, books, guys on internet forums and various other sources. But lessons have a way of stimulating musical development.

Some of the writers I’ve learned most from have included John Goldsby (The Jazz Bass Book), Steve Vai (Martian Love Secrets), Mark Levine (The Jazz Theory Book), Chuck Sher (The Improvisers Bass Method), Ed Friedland (various), Hazrat Inayat Khan (The Mysticism of Sound and Music) Lincoln Goines (Funkifying the Clave) and Victor Wooten (The Music Lesson).

I’ve also learned a lot from clinics by artists such as Dave Liebman, Dennis Chambers, Sheryl Bailey, Trilok Gurtu, Ralph Humphrey, Marcus Miller, Chuck Rainey, Jamie Aebersold and Aaron Seferty.

But face to face lessons are something else. The best lessons are unplanned and based on the human interaction of teacher and student – perception, awareness, intelligence and compassion. I have been lucky enough to have some great teachers.

Ian Carr was an early influence. I got to chat to Ian a lot on a couple of jazz summer schools in the North of England. He was a man of great intelligence and a deep thinker on music. It was valuable to learn from him early on in my career and I also got to jam with John Etheridge and John Marshall. The BBC recorded that jam and I only wish I had a copy of the tape. Dill Katz was the bass teacher on the programme and I enjoyed his love of fretless tone -he had a cambered ebony fingerboard shaped like a cello board.

Martin Glover is another who has departed this life. Martin hired me for his jazz projects in Hull. I didn’t formally study with him but spent a lot of time with him and it was all a great experience. He had studied at the Royal College of Music and was as influenced by Bartok and Serialism as he was by Joe Zawinul. He was exactly the right person for me to play with at that time.

I spent a week in a workshop with the legendary free music and community music pioneer John Stevens . John was something else and conceptually he was a massive influence. He was a great guy to hang out with too. I also spent another week studying with Community Music East working on materials from John’s Search and Reflect Programme.

I didn’t take a lesson again for many years; and these still weren’t 1 to 1 lessons; but I did study percussion for months with Adesose Wallace playing a range of West African traditional music that had a big impact on my playing. It also helped give me a foundation for my later long-term gig with Paapa J Mensah.

I spent a year studying Community Music Workshop Skills at Goldsmiths University with Phil Mullen before I decided that I wanted to focus on playing music rather than music workshops. Phil has an enabling teaching style and a broad musical knowledge.

After all these meandering years, mostly self-taught, my playing took it’s most incredible leap forward as I finally took some private lessons. My wife prompted me to do this and I went ahead and got funding from the Goldsmiths London City Guild (as a school teacher) to spend time studying music in LA.

That was a very complete experience as I experienced intense tuition and paid time off work to focus on bass 9 hours a day for 4 weeks and boy was it worth it. I spent the great majority of that time at the Los Angeles Music Academy (LAMA) in Pasadena which is a great college and small enough that you get to know everyone.

I spent a lot of time studying with Steve Billman who is a great bassist and a wonderful teacher and human being. He had me learning jazz standard melodies and we worked on soloing and melodies – he is Mr Melody. He was an incredibly positive and confidence building teacher and we got deeply into soloing using motifs and other methods. There is an intensity and beauty that comes across in Steve’s playing for me and if you haven’t heard Steve, you really should. As someone who had played few solos before, I came to see how bass could be a melody instrument with Steve and how, as a musician, we should develop all aspects of music. He also helped me make major breakthroughs in reading and technique. Some technique things he taught me made a huge difference to my playing after five minutes.

Steve Billman Phil Wain Los Angeles Music Academy

I had some very intense lessons from Ed Lucie. As befits someone who’s studied with some of the jazz masters he was very centred on the jazz tradition and language. He had me strip my walking bass to the core and focussed on what exactly it was that a soloist needed out of a walking bassline. The limitations he provided proved a great foundation for me and focussed me on the value of simplicity in jazz bass.

ed lucie phil wain los angeles music academy

Jerry Watts Jr is Mr Technique. Not that he’s not great musically – he is – but his dexterity and grasp of a range of techniques and his ability to teach those techniques are rare indeed. Jerry also possesses a great sense of humour.

Lynne Davis is the first call for many pick-up gigs in LA. This is because Lynne’s awareness of harmony, her groove and her consciousness and listening are highly developed. If a band needs a last minute replacement on an originals gig – no charts, no rehearsal – Lynne is the woman for the gig – and you wouldn’t even know didn’t know the tunes. She made key signatures and keys intensely useful in my playing in a way I’d taken them from granted before. She’s a fine teacher.

I didn’t take lessons with Andrew Campbell but spent hours every day with him in band workshops so he had quite an influence with his musical knowledge, his experience and his restaurant recommendations. We spent hours talking music.

Phil Wain Andrew Campbell Los Angeles Music Academy

With all these lessons seeping into my playing and as I developed better practice routines my playing improved dramatically. I started getting well-paying function and cover gigs and learning material quickly by ear and I started being able to realise more of my musical ideas. Also, by developing sight-reading and playing in position, my intonation improved.

Of course a couple of years later I headed back to LA, eager for more. I took some more great lessons. I studied with Steve Billman and Jerry Watts some more and I had some new teachers.

I learned a lot from Hussain Jiffry. Hussain is an expert in Brazilian grooves and we studied percussion parts as well as the bass role in a range of Brazilian styles. I felt I had a natural affinity for this music and still use a lot of Hussain’s stuff on pretty much every gig.

Rufus Philpot came in for a day and was like a whirlwind. I appreciate a teacher who sets a fast pace and leaves you with far more ideas than you can hope to digest in the lesson. It’s a mistake for any student to think they should master a new concept in a lesson – the lesson gives you pointers and ways forward and then the development comes afterwards in practice and on the bandstand.

Rufus has chops for days and has applied Michael Brecker’s and Mike Stern’s approaches to bass soloing. Rufus gave me a lot of soloing ideas – especially focussing on using patterns. He shared some great videos of Jeff Andrews who is a big favourite of mine.

I also had a lesson with Doug Ross where we covered a lot of ground in terms of developing repertoire of musical phrases.

Head chock-full of ideas I headed back to London and got busy playing in about 7 bands at a time and exploring klezmer, Balkan and Greek and Turkish music in an acoustic ensemble. Nowadays my main outlet is jazz and I find myself called upon to solo frequently and, at the same time, I’m keen to develop composition.

After literally years talking about studying in Steve Lawson I finally got to study with him. Steve and I had discussed my studying with him before and it was just one of those things that had never quite materialised (similar to my idea about taking singing lessons).

Steve Lawson

Well, studying with Steve was a great experience. We got very deep into music and sound and isolating key components of music and developing them. At times it was close to a music philosophy lesson and I believe that what we covered in the lesson will have a lasting impact on how I play and how I conceive music.

So now it’s time to spend a month or so digesting and applying the things we covered in the lesson before going back for more. I’m happy that I was self-taught for so long as I developed a unique style but it’s always the lessons that have prompted the greatest developments in my music.

Ian Carr
John Stevens
Adesose Wallace
Phil Mullen
LA Music Academy
Steve Billman
Ed Lucie
Jerry Watts Jr
Lynne Davis
Andrew Campbell
Hussain Jiffry
Rufus Philpot
Doug Ross
Steve Lawson

8 thoughts on “My bass teachers

  1. Great reflection, Phil! It’s amazing the impact even just one interaction with a great teacher can have on the way we play, and even the way we think about our music. It looks like you’ve had some really inspiring experiences over the years, and it’s awesome you’ve been able to identify and appreciate what each teacher’s done for you so explicitly. Definitely gonna make me do some thinkin about this now… : )

  2. Wow – that’s a lot of teachers! I would like to hear more about the teachings from Ed Lucie (simplifying the walking bass line) and Hussain Jiffry (Brazilian).

    • Ed has this thing that, in walking bass, the triad chord tones are the main thing and any non-chord tones are like salt and any rhythmic variation is like spice – too much of either and you spoil the line.

      Of course, he’s talking primarily about the strong beats 1 and 3 and he gets you playing 2 to the bar as well like the old masters. Then the chromatics/leading tones on 2 and 4 are like glue.

      He had me improvise walking and soloing using basic chord tones only as an exercise. The thing about playing complex walking lines is that if the soloist is playing something to create tension over a particular tonality, the bassist can end up diluting that tension by playing a non-chord note that makes the horn players advanced soling idea sound like a basic triad idea.

      Also as bassists we create a harmonic bed for the solos. I like to push the harmonic element and play as melodically as possible but I wouldn’t want to distort the harmony more often than creates the right effect.

      Guys like Paul Chambers played a lot of repeated patterns at faster tempos and a lot of basic triad notes and in the first lesson with Ed I made the mistake of trying of allowing the ego to dominate and trying to play all sorts of clever twists – a mistake I’ve tried to avoid in lessons since. I feel the more humble and open the student can be, the more he or she will learn.

      There’s a great article about this on Talkbass
      Walking Bass Line Myths Exposed!

      As for Hussain, he had us listen to surdo patterns (the low drum in samba). He is an expert in the whole range of Brazilian folkloric genres. In the bass, it’s country music so the trick is to keep it very simple and focus on the groove, rhythm and dynamics.

      We spent most time on Bossa Nova and Samba as that’s the majority of what we get to play much as I love Choro, Baião, Afro-reggae and the like. Hussain had us listen to percussion parts and great performers. For bass, Samba and Bossa are essentially pretty much the same except for the tempo: Bossa essentially being a fusion of Samba and Jazz.

      In Bossa/Samba we focussed on the time feeling, length and relative dynamics of the notes. The basic unit is in 2/4 and the most common unit/bar is a dotted 1/8 note followed by a ghosted 16th note then followed by a louder 1/4 note. The quarter note on the second beat needs to be emphasised and the ghosted 16th needs to be of little pitch as possible.

      The best pattern for most contexts is root five with the five played on the 1/4 note lower than the root in pitch. Of course these things can be shaken up immensely, you have to immerse yourself in Samba and Bossa first and feel the music and speak the musical dialect!

      Good variations are to play 2 plain on old notes per 2/4 bar as on many of the old Jobim recordings with the emphasis on the second of the pair or my favourite which is to skip the first beat/note entirely which can set up a wondeful groove with the right percussionists.

      Hope this is useful!


  3. Absolutely! While I haven’t had a whole LOT of dif. teachers, the ones I’ve had have been enormously helpful. Have studied a bit with great jazz bassists Ray Drummond and Scott Steed, and currently with Michael Zisman – all have given fantastic insight into jazz traditions/technique/etc – and now INCREDIBLY lucky to study occasionally with Michael Manring, who, needless to say, completely blows my mind apart every few months. I can’t even begin to describe the impact he’s had on me, past saying that he’s completely reinvented my approach to music, lol!

    Jealous you’re studying w/ Steve!! What’d you guys discuss??

    • Ray Drummond! Wow! And Michael!

      With Steve it was almost like a philosophy session -we tried to identify aspects of my playing personalty and to break down the things I do intuitively to be able to be more in control of them. I wanted to work on aspects of my sound in melodic playing and Steve was certainly up to (and beyond) the task!

      There were things that I talked about with Steve that will impact my life and music permanently and the way I view and conceive my music. Indirectly I feel like composing more again now too!

  4. Hi Phil, enjoyed your writing. Has your LA college got anything like the Goldsmiths course you did with P Mullen? I go to LA aoften for familty reasons and like to connect with people teacing this way as I am keen to develop community music both in uk and other places.
    Thanks for any tips!

  5. I went to Goldsmiths University but I was funded by the London Guild of Goldsmiths who are entirely separate.

    LAMA is a great place, it befits from the smaller scale than other similar places developing more of the family feel. It’s not really on the community music model though; its raison d’être is to equip professional musicians with the skills to make a living playing music – mind you, working within community music might well be one of those skills!

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