Interview with Gerald Veasley – Part Two
This is part two of our interview with Gerald Veasley. Please click here to read part one.
Jake: I’ve heard nothing but great feedback on your bass camp. What in your opinion do you think makes your camp so unique?
Gerald: One of the special features is that we design it to be a very hands on experience. That’s critical, because people sometimes have a tendency to be shy; they tend to more or less hideout on us. So we really try to be encouraging, and get everyone to play, and to get everyone to try our concepts that they’re learning at a quick rate so things can kind of sink in. That’s very important to us. I don’t know if that’s unique to us, but certainly very important to us. We want it to be very hands on, so people aren’t spectators. We want them to be involved.
Secondly, and once again it’s not necessarily unique to us as I have to credit Victor Wooten on this, he mentioned in his bass nature camp that he looked to get people engaged on a high level in terms of their fatigue factor, as he feels it helps break down some of their barriers. Maybe that’s a trade secret of sorts.
Our days are very, very full. Usually on a Friday there is about 6 hours of instruction during the day, and then there are classes at midnight, with an opportunity to do concerts, etc. Saturdays and Sundays start at 8:00 AM. Saturday is quite a long day going straight through to dinnertime, and then there are more concerts. Each year varies in what we present. We always have a jam session that’s open to the public. There are classes all day culminating with a closing ceremony where people have to join in and play as well. We have classes day and night because there is so much energy due to people more or less rediscovering part of themselves they had forgotten about. And also, they’re inspired by the instructors as well as linking up with like-minded people that came to study. Also, there is so much excitement and enthusiasm. People basically don’t even want to go to bed, and that’s why we created our night owl classes that are optional.
People can basically sign up for whatever classes suit them. We do them on sight-reading, on slap, groove workshops with a drummer, and more. The intensity of the experience also comes through as we partner with the Berks Jazz Festival in Redding PA, which has been going on for I think for about 16 years. What that enables us to do is help us be instrumental in helping the artists who are booked at the festival to get involved with our bass students. For example, they brought in the Jaco Pastorius Big Band, so the students got a chance to see Jimmy Haslip, Victor Wooten, and myself play that great Jaco repertoire with the big band, as well as having workshops with the three of us. We’ve also had Brian Bromberg, where he’s brought in his band and gave the students a chance to see Brian at his best where he’s playing his own music. He played upright, along with various electric basses and kind of just went wild—a very talented man. We’ve also had Michael Manring doing duo concerts during that festival, and he played at the bass camp as well.
The festival itself is ten days with well over 100 acts that play during that period, so people can really immerse themselves in some great music. I think that’s something that is unique to us. The students also do a concert called the ‘Bass Bootcamp Jam’, which happens at my club, which is also in Redding PA. My club has jazz 52 weeks out of the year, so during bootcamp, we have a concert by the students right there in the club, and it’s open to the public.
Jake: So this camp really creates a highly interactive experience.
Gerald: Yes, it’s highly interactive and demanding, and we also try to make it as nurturing as possible as well. People will come in sometimes saying, “well, I haven’t played in a long time,” or “I’ve never played in front of anybody before,” or, “are you sure I can do this?” We try to break down those concept barriers during that week. We’re all students, even the instructors. We make sure the instructors are very accessible to the students, so we don’t eat separately from them, or hang out amongst ourselves. We’re one of them, and they’re free to corner us and pepper us with questions. We prefer the questions during class, but we’re right there for them at any time, up close and personal. And then what happens, and you probably get this as an instructor yourself, when somebody “gets” something you show them — (I call this the “ah-ha moment”) when the light bulb goes off and we get to see that, and that’s a very special moment. I see lots of “ah-ha” moments over the weekend.
Jake: We speak a great deal in the magazine about the concept of finding your own voice, which I feel you’ve captured as a player. Could you tell us how you think this evolved for you?
Gerald: I think some of it has been driven internally by hearing various things that I wanted to be able to do on the bass. For example, I always wanted to kind of sing through my instrument, because I have a lousy singing voice. That’s something I’ve been searching out for many years, a kind of way to sing through the bass. So the choices on the way my instrument is designed comes into play, or the way I bend a note or hold a note, or even strike a note helps me to create this singing voice.
Secondly, I owe a lot to the necessity of what I’ve had to do with various groups, or styles of music. For example, playing with Odeen Pope back in the early 80’s. We played in a pianoless trio, bass drums and saxophone. This gave me a lot of space to create the harmonic texture beyond just playing roots and walking bass lines. It gave me a lot of freedom to play chords, and fill out the harmony, as I so desired. So these kinds of experiences, playing with different artists, and the requirements of the setting, have shaped what I’ve done. So that’s more or less the internal part, which is driven by necessity.
And then there are also the styles of certain players that I’ve fallen in love with, and what I’ve taken from them. For example, I love classical guitar, and just as in my singing, I’m a lousy classical guitar player. But I learned some things that I could apply to the bass in terms of my technique, and it gave me a broader understanding of music as well. All those things have helped me to shape my style. To bring that all into a “what should I do” answer, someone looking to develop his or her own style, I’ll say that it’s almost like the style discovers you. You can work so hard to be different, and find your own voice, and that can be very frustrating. But if you have a sound that’s in your head, or you have a sound or approach that you feel is necessary that will help you to start on your path.
For example, Larry Graham developed his slap style out of the lack of having a drummer when he played with his mother in church. So to fill out the rhythm, he started the slapping thing. So a lot of what we think of as just genius is something that’s just out of the necessity of completing that thing that you hear in your head, and it’s simply you filling in the spaces and the gaps around that. So many times for players, the innovation is out of necessity. Having a hunger really helps, a thirst for music, a love for the music and really being sensitive to the needs of what you’re doing.
Here’s the other thing. I think this idea of having your own voice also is not the only thing. It’s important, but not the only thing. I don’t know if we should put that burden on musicians to only have your own voice because basically, there is so much satisfaction you can get just from making music. But if finding your own voice is a burning hunger that you have, great, you should go for that.
I’m reminded of the book ‘Bluebeard’ by Kurt Vonnegut. This book struck me because the main character kind of has this hunger, or maybe frustration, in not having found his particular style. He’s a visual artist. Vonnegut paints him as someone who can walk into a room, sit down, and reproduce the room in an illustration on a canvas that’s so lifelike that you would feel like you could walk into it—the detail would be that accurate and vibrant. You would think that this is quite a talent. But the character is frustrated because he feels like he’s just someone that’s able to have this high skill, but there’s something that’s eluding him because he feels like if he dies, there won’t be anything or any evidence that he was here with only this skill that he possesses.
If you have that kind of burning desire to have your own voice, that’s different. Some people are frustrated because they don’t have something to demonstrate that, “Hey, I’ve done something original.” But not everybody has that, and it’s not necessary that everyone have that. Some people are just great illustrators. I don’t know that I’m any more than an illustrator myself. But some people have a desire to be artists, and more. For example, it’s a dying art, but let’s look at the studio musician. Finding their own voice is not really a part of their job description. You have to use the voice that’s necessary to make the music happen, or try to play in such a way that makes the music happen. You might want to put some of your own personality into it to help it come alive, or bring in what somebody hasn’t thought of before. This can definitely compliment the situation. Some people are actually hired for their ‘quote / un-quote’ voice, but in that setting, the voice is always secondary to the overall project. Many times I have to figure out what they want from me, whatever I am, in terms of my voice and my original sound, and to what degree do they just want bass, or want it simply to just groove a certain way. Sometimes they just want something that feels better than the synth bass part. The voice thing is a really interesting question. First you have to decide, is that something that is really important to me.
Here’s another thing that this discussion about ‘finding your own voice’ brings out, and it’s a question that I have explored myself. What happens when your voice gets in the way? For example, sometimes we can have, just as people forget musicians, a tendency to live up to people’s expectations of who we are. And sometimes, maybe you don’t want to be that person that day. And I see the same thing musically. Sometimes people can say, “Do that Gerald thing.” Well, the ‘Gerald things’ that you think you want to hear right there may not be suitable. I’ve had to overrule people and say, I’ll give you what you think you want, but I’ll caution it with saying, “I think I know something that might be more appropriate, like this section only needs whole notes, or whatever, and your gona’ love it.” So something I try to avoid is the idea of imitating myself for the sake of having my own voice.
This is the beauty in the challenge of session work—starting with a blank canvas and trying to create something that wasn’t there before. For me, I don’t have to have a solo per se; I’m just as willing to do a simple bass line. I’m happy to do whatever it needs because I enjoy being able to make a contribution towards making it better than it was before, or adding something that wasn’t there before. In terms of the pragmatic what do you do in that situation, a lot of that answer has to do with your experience. And it does take a while to get your confidence to the level where you feel you know how to deal with these situations. A general rule of thumb is that I really try to trust my own instincts. I’m not afraid to say to a producer, “I’ll try, I’m open to that, but I don’t think you’ll like that.” A lot of times, producers and artists don’t really want to waste time. So it’s about developing trust, and sometimes that’s something that you can’t short circuit—it takes a while to develop that. Hopefully your credibility or your musicianship can develop that trust. Sometimes it’s the way you interact with a producer, or the artist, that helps develop that trust, even if they don’t know you. So that’s something maybe you’ve found it in your own experience, or interviews you’ve had with other players and how they handle that situation. It’s no different in the business world. Doing a deal with someone is really a situation of developing trust. When you’re engaged in a musical setting with someone, it’s more of a partnership, and I try to look at it that way. I try to set them at ease. I see that as part of my job.
Jake: Let me see if I can tie together these thoughts you’ve just expressed with my final question. I know you have a new CD coming out, which I’d like to hear about, and with what we’ve been discussing, how does it work for you in the situation when “your” in charge, and handling the producer chair?
Gerald: This will be my seventh CD as a leader. Each one has been a bit different. Sometimes they’re concept records, where I have a theme or a genre I’m working with. This particular CD is me trying to get back to focusing on my writing. The reason for my very first CD was the fact that I was a little bit frustrated with my ability to get other people to record my music. I had some placements in the band that I was working with, as well as placements with Grover Washington Jr., and Joe Zawinul even recorded one of my songs. But I always felt that an important part of who I am is the composer as well as the player, so my first two records were really focused on that premise. So with this CD, I wanted to get kind of back to that, keeping the focus on the writing. I also wanted to collaborate with other people on the writing as well.
Jake: Who was involved on the CD?
Gerald: I kept it pretty much in house. I have a pretty good team of players I’ve been working with for a while. Chris Farr, a saxophonist who I’ve been working with for about ten years has pretty much been my right hand man. Richard Waller III has been co-producing records with me since my third record. He’s always been a force in focusing with me on production. Here comes that word trust. I value their opinions, so I’m not tied to making every decision. That’s an important part of the process for me. The drummer, James Ralph, is also working with me. He’s a great drummer. What a lot of the great young drummers now have is that urban setting, where they’re coming out of the church, and have this certain way of playing that’s very aggressive, and has a great snap to it. But he also studied jazz at Temple University, as well as studying voice at Princeton. He’s young, aggressive, and very well rounded, and sensitive as well. I’m happy to be working with him for the first time in the studio. Donald Robinson is the keyboard player, as well as being a producer in his own right. Will Brock, the second keyboardist, is a really soulful piano player and a nice compliment to the band. That’s pretty much my live band, and they recorded the CD. It’s a great situation because we get to work on the music together, and that was important to me. Other CD’s were geared around bringing in different people for each of the tracks, but I like this more or less old school approach—get a band together, practice tunes, then go in and record and mix.
This approach has kind of been lost because of the technology that can enable people to work alone—the computer can do it all. Then if they don’t like what they have, they’ll call somebody else to do it, which seems to be one step away from just doing it yourself. This creates what I call “demoitess” They have what they want, but now they want you to come and make it come alive, and after four or five tries, they realize that what they want is already what they had. So you go back and do what they had and they love it. So demoitess is kind of people working in a bubble, not getting feedback. It’s great to have players on hand that can make suggestions.
This goes back to my CD “Velvet,” which I re-introduced this approach as part of my working process. Also on this newest CD I turned over about half the production to Chuck Loeb, who I have admired for a lot of years as a producer. I realized that a lot of what I was hearing on the radio that I enjoyed was produced by Chuck. He calls himself a “stealth” producer. Working in the contemporary or smooth jazz genre can be tricky sometimes. Keeping it honest, and trying to give the people what they would like to hear can be a challenge. With Chuck producing, that burden was lifted off of me. It was good not having all the responsibility over the finished product, and I knew Chuck would do that for me. We have a great mutual respect for each other, and that works well within the context of completing the project.
This CD has been described to me as my most emotional CD yet, which made sense to me as I realized the music was just a reflection of my life for the last couple of years. But with that being said, I hope there’s kind of a triumphant sound to it.
Visit Gerald online at www.geraldveasley.com