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SA Bassists – An Interview with Ashley Kelly by Martin Simpson

Ashley Kelly is one of those bassists that has been around for a long time and has lots of information to share with others. I spoke to Ashley earlier this year about an interview and we finally got something happening during September. Here’s what Ashley told me.

How did you get started Ashley?

I was at Art School in Johannesburg in the early sixties and a friend of mine, who had once played with the Mickey Most band, was involved in an outfit that had no bass player. One thing led to another and I started playing bass. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was a far bigger task than I had visualised and that I needed a teacher. I found a marvellous guitar teacher by the name of Gilbert Stroud, who really became a mentor to me, and soon talked me into learning guitar as well. This was the best thing I could have ever done as it immediately broadened my whole perspective as to what a bass player needed to know and do in a band. As I took in all this knowledge Gilbert started encouraging me to listen to jazzy type stuff, another great thing he did for me! I started playing with his dance band alternating on guitar and bass and had soon developed a huge appetite for the standards. Don’t think I was not listening and playing all the rock stuff as well, I was, but deep down I preferred standards over pop music.

Who were your earliest influences on Bass?

The first guy I ever listened to was Jet Harris in the Shadows, ‘just had to learn the bass solo for Nivram’. I was torn between rock players and guys playing jazz and as much as my age was dictating to be honed in on the rock scene I was out buying Oscar Petersen and Barney Kessel and as much jazz as I could get my hands on. When McCartney came on the scene, I loved his playing along with all the other rock cats around (I’m really not big on names).  The first time I heard Blood Sweat and Tears I freaked, I just loved the style of Jim Fielder and Chicago’s bass player as well.  I locked in on that style of playing and got a lot of mileage out of the boogaloo groove.  Round about this time I had started messing with upright and of course was into Ray Brown and was mesmerized by Scott Lafaro followed by Eddie Gomez and many more great upright players. On the jazz fusion side there were some really hot players; Patitucci is a really great player, as is Stan Clarke. One day a friend of mine said ‘have you heard the cat that’s replaced Miroslav in Weather Report?’ I just could not stop listening to Jaco and believe that still to this day there is nobody that can improve on Jaco; bass players knew that this was where the line was drawn in the sand! There are some outrageous players out there today (I’m really not going to reel off a string of names to impress the readers) the guys who listen know who they are, but for me the standard that was set by Jaco has not been overtaken and lets leave it at that.

How were things in those days as compared to today?  

I have a young son-in-law Neil Engel, who is an excellent trumpet player and the scene he’s involved in today is much the same as back in the late sixties and seventies. I believe that the work and practise you put in will determine your work load. With the arrival of the digital age everything changed, studio wise, live playing, just about every genre changed, it put a lot of players out of work. Back then (sixty’s and seventies) all the pro players were in clubs six nights a week and chasing down studio gigs in the day. Sadly in South Africa it was one sided, the political system favoured white players only, so one couldn’t really get a good yard stick impression had it been open to all players across the colour spectrum. It has gone the other way now that the political scene has changed, but by and large we are getting to a good overall representation of all players doing the work. Pity it was not open back then, South African music would have had a unique sound today.

 Do you play both electric and upright?

These days I only play electric but have played upright over the years, I still believe the upright is the perfect bass sound. When one is out gigging, moving an upright around is a pain, its easier playing electric. I want to get hold of a good upright again for just keeping my chops up….nothing works the chops like upright bass. I play a Sixty Four Fender jazz bass (L series) and after shopping and changing over the years always come back to Fender and wonder why the heck I bothered with all the rest. I’m also playing an Italian bass, a Manne, and love it. It is a five string and has a wonderful neck, one of the best necks I’ve ever played on a five string bass. I’m not big into amps and generally use what ever is available on a gig or take a small rig with me. I have never used pedals successfully and after a time just gave up and went back to straight in and away you go. The sound is in the bass and how you play it that determines your sound.

What style of playing are you into these days?

‘Doggy in the window’ dude! —whatever is required. It’s funny how the cycle goes around. I’m hearing so many cats playing with a pick again (I’m a closet pick player myself) and it sounds great for today’s style of music. There is one style I am really not into …….slap bass!! I find it a very obnoxious way of playing, the bass player is dictating to the rest of the band ‘here’s the up beat and the down beat as well’. Larry Graham kicked it off playing in church with just organ and bass and no drummer, so he had to play the down beat and the up beat all at the same time….that’s where it should have stayed.  I’ve been asked to play some slap tracks over the years but really don’t enjoy the style at all. I’m an old rocker and an old school ‘four’ player really, and prefer to be labelled as that.

Who are your all time best bass players?

In the jazz upright area three or four players are land marks for me. Ray Brown, to start with, was a wonderful swinging player and set the bar pretty high for all the rest to follow. The next two were closely connected as the one followed the other due to a car crash tragedy. Scott Lafaro was to upright what Jaco was to electric bass. He turned the whole thing around and sadly died way before most people realized what he was up to. The guy that followed him in the Bill Evans trio was a continuation of Lafaro. Eddie Gomez is a wonderful bass player, to this day still one of my all time favourite players. Today the guy to listen to is Bromberg, his chops are scary. Many great electric players out there but it always seems to come back to Jaco. So many guys are still discovering just how good he was and how far ahead of the game he was. I love Jaco’s playing, style, and sound. It’s all personal I guess, some guys love this player over another. I listen to as many as I can but still take out Jaco CD’s and hear them all in him.

Where to at your age?

Even though I’m in my sixties I still see myself as a competitive player and believe the age thing is only in your mind. While living in the States I did some community theatre work in Maryland and got to play with some old cats that had been playing in the Basie era and they were still ripping it up. I would really like to ‘retire’ into a four or five piece jazz outfit.  I also loved pit work and would like to do some shows again, maybe?!?! I don’t think I will ever want to go back and play three or four nights a week in some sort of club (not that they exist) but the wheel never stops turning and who knows what can happen.

I’m currently band director at a church in Johannesburg and do most of the writing for the band as well and really enjoy it.  The playing is not quite ‘jazz’, but enjoyable.

Goals set for the future.

As I’m really involved in teaching these days, one day I would like to write my own bass tutor. Even though there are some brilliant books out there, the guys who write them always seem to focus on one or two areas or styles and leave big gaps for someone who is really looking for the whole picture. As I’ve taught over the years, the more frustrated I have become with teaching from books that just specialise on one or two areas of playing. You have to fill in the gaps based on your own experience, which is maybe a good thing. The only book I would totally recommend is by Di Bartola, called Serious Electric Bass.  He really covers most aspects of playing from a theoretical stand point and good scale and mode info.  I’m so glad there is a large segment of young players coming up in South Africa who are college grads.

I would also love to see music being given a higher profile in South African schools as opposed to sports dominating everything that is extra curriculum. One thing I learnt in the States was the value of proper music education, if you are planning to be a “professional” musician, please educate yourself!

Your opinion on local players today, and back then?

Let’s start with back then, there were some really good solid players working the scene in those days, guys like Nippy Cripwell, Les Goode, George Wolfardt, and Charlie Johnston, all

doing what was needed to survive. The one player that stood out then (in my opinion) was John Boshoff!  Still to this day, John was and is the best bass player to come out of SA. He was playing Jaco riffs ten years before Jaco came on the scene. Today there are some really good players around. Denny Lalouette is a great player, and there are a whole slew of young guys coming out of colleges that are going to turn this place upside down.  I’m glad to see so many young players taking bass so seriously, and feel sorry for a lot of them that they don’t have the opportunity to do the type of reading gigs that were available back then. I would love to see young players concentrating more on reading and then educate the new generation, ‘arrangers’ to start writing proper parts again. (Ok I’m old)’.

What do think of music today?

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” Armstrong said it then, and it still applies today. I’m sure I’ll be torn apart for this, but in my opinion the best music has already been written.  I don’t hear great melodies anymore; it all seems to be written with the ‘video’ in mind.  I don’t hear great bass lines; usually synth bass is the choice. Music always goes in cycles—hope I’m still around when the next good playing cycle comes around!  All I pray for is that Rap music disappears soon………..come back Count Basie, all is forgiven!

As a teacher, what advice would you give a young player today?

The difference between those days and now is simply the amount of places one can go to and get the education you need. I still believe that bass playing is a wonderful way to make a living (I’m sure many would disagree). I have been at it for over fifty years and still love my job. If you were going into playing professionally you have to get a college degree in music!

You may want to teach or whatever, and a degree is vital in today’s world. I would also study sound engineering (Pro Tools or whatever) just to give yourself another arrow in the quiver.

It’s a tough profession, but if God gave you the talent and desire to play professionally, do it dude!

Of all the different genres you played over the years, which do you prefer the most?

That’s a hard call. I guess there would be two that I prefer out of all of them. Pit work the first, I just love the fact that you don’t have to have an audience gaping at you, just your chart in front of you and the conductor. It’s a real test of your musical skill to go in and play the chart exactly the same every night. A lot of players don’t like it as they say it takes away your creative side. I just love to be perfectly accurate with my playing. Secondly, a small jazz outfit playing standards. For me, it does not get any better than that. In my time, I loved studio work and spent many years at it. But when my time was up, I really did not miss it at all.

Fifty years seemed to have gone by so quickly, but even though there have been some rough patches and time spent wondering why the heck I chose to do music as a profession.

But I’d do it all again, any day. Thank you Lord for my talent.

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