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.
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.
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.
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).
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.