Will Howard – One of Chicago’s Hardest Working Bassists by Vuyani Wakaba
On any given day or night of the week, if you are in Chicago, you can find Chicago bassist Will Howard hard at work. Whether it is corporate events, recording sessions, or club dates, Will juggles all of these gigs on any given day. In addition to working as a bassist, Will Howard gets called for his music production skills and services.
As a bassist, Will is a chameleon. He deftly slides in and out of various genres with unbelievable ease. On a corporate casual, he can be playing straight ahead jazz on his electric upright bass, and then rush off to a hip R&B gig played on electric bass. Sundays, he can be found playing Gospel music with some of the best musicians (especially drummers) in Chicago. Of course, with his recording sessions, anything goes in terms of what he may be asked to play.
Among the things one finds when talking to Will about what he does is, although he is very serious about his music career, he is very relaxed and does not take himself too seriously. Oh, and he has a legendary sense of humor…so there is a lot of laughter when talking to this seasoned musician.
BMM (Bass Musician Magazine): Will, thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk to Bass Musician Magazine about yourself and your music career. You have a great reputation for being a hard working professional and a great bassist. When did you start playing professionally?
Will Howard: I started playing at a local church when I was 15 years old. My friend got a job playing organ at the church and he dragged me along as part of the deal. I made $20 a week! I also started playing with local Gospel groups, including former members of the group “The Caravans”, who were one of the more popular female groups back in the 50’s and 60’s. By the time I got to the American Conservatory of Music (ACM) in Chicago, I was playing with people like the late blues artist Kanika Kress, as well as little jobs with my schoolmates.
BMM: Who were your early influences on the professional scene?
Will Howard: While I was still in school at the age of 19, I saw in about 3-4 week span Chicago bassists Richard Patterson (Miles Davis, David Sanborn), Bill Dickens and Ron Hall playing at a club called the Bulls that I started sneaking into. I also was influenced by my teacher at ACM, Bill Harrison, and classmates Edo Castro and Marcus Robson. I used to watch those guys and others like a hawk! Smokin’ Joe Thomas was another professional influence. I started having to learn his lines with the band David Byrd and Byrds of a Feather.
BMM: You are now at a point in your career where you are considered a major player in the Chicago music scene. What are three key things that have made you have the busy career you now enjoy?
Be easy to work with and have a sense of humor – people will want you on their gigs. Set high standards for yourself and give real effort and focus – be a self starter AND finisher.? I come from a very working class background, so I have always felt that working in Music requires the same attributes as any other job. So stuff like being on time, dressing right, and having proper WORKING equipment is a given.
2. Be Flexible:
My saying is: I am a tailor not an architect. What that means is that I give each gig or situation what it needs from my skill set. Some people need more, some people need less and I’m fine with either. In the end it’s all about serving the music, removing your ego or rather putting it in its proper place. That helps a lot!
3. Diversity and Variety:?
A few years ago I read a book about being self employed and it recommended that you seek to have several sources of income. One way to do this is to play gigs with different people in several different situations locally; teach; Record; and tour. I also write and produce music. I’m constantly trying to network and meet new people. Social media is a big help with that and the internet has opened new avenues for collaboration with musicians from all over the world. The great thing about being based in Chicago is there are music scenes – plural. Somebody’s making music everyday and every hour of the day somewhere in Chicago.??BMM: I know you very well…and I know that you have toured nationally and internationally with top shelf artists. So, it feels weird asking this question, but I must… What big name artists have you played, toured or recorded with?
Will Howard: One of the cool things is, I have had a chance to work with a crazy variety of people all around the world. People as diverse as: Chuck Berry, Carl Anderson, and Glen Jones. New Jack Swing acts Like Jade, Silk, Troop, Liza J and dates with people like Ashford & Simpson, Dennis Edwards, Lou Rawls, Marilyn McCoo, the rapper Common, Hamid Drake, Tony Bird, Henry Butler, and Mike Phillips. In the early ’90’s I started working with a guy named Tim Cunningham who was signed to Atlantic jazz so we did the whole smooth jazz circuit and we played a bunch of stuff like the ’96 Atlanta Olympics and several major Jazz fests as well as several super bowls and All-Star Games. We did stuff with people like Jeffery Osbourne and Will Downing. I also have done gigs with The Platters, The Drifters, The Coasters, Martha Reeves as well as people like Norman Connors, Jennifer Holiday, Vasti Jackson, Bobby Broom, Tom Brown, N’dambi, Julie Dexter, Marcus Baylor and a bunch of other people. When I was younger, I was in the house band of the Cotton Club in Chicago so I got a chance to jam with some of everybody. This means I played behind people like the late Bernie Mac and R. Kelly who went on to superstar entertainment careers. The phone has rung with some interesting people on the other end to say the least.
BMM: That is an impressive roster of artists, even for a first-call bassist! Do you do any other work in the music industry that you’d like to mention? For example, some musicians teach, others work as audio engineers, etc.
Will Howard: Actually, I’m glad you asked that question. Most people limit their questions about my music career to my bass playing only. Besides being a sideman, I also lead Soulgroove, a Chicago based R&B band that features some great musicians. I also teach bass lessons out of my home. In addition to that, I have had a lot of business producing remixes. I have worked on tracks from some of the biggest pop tunes by some of the biggest names in the music business.
BMM: Your started a closed Facebook group called the Chicago Bass Players. This group now has well over 500 bassists that either live or used to live in Chicago. What motivated you to start this group…and who are some of the more well known bassists in the group?
Will Howard: A keyboard player Friend of mine started a group for Chicago based keyboard players on Facebook, more as a resource for finding subs. I thought that would be a good idea for bass players too, so I created a page and just invited every bassist I knew or was friends with on face book. It might have started with 30-40 people but by the first week, there were over 100 and growing every day. It is when it got up to about three hundred people that the potential started to show as to what a great resource it could be. We decided to focus the membership to people with a Chicagoland connection from ether living here or are from here or have spent time in the area so we could really dig in and deal with specific regional issues and be a resource.
The cool thing is that we have a variety of bassists, from people just starting out to world class bassist, as well as stars like Richard Patterson, Bill Dickens, Bob Lisik, Larry Kimple, Chuck Webb, Ethan Farmer and many, many more. We also have a select group of music equipment manufacturers, luthiers, string company reps, etc.
We recently had a great get together to take a group photo of as many Chicago bassists as could attend at the site of the historic Chess Records on Nov 9th, 2013, and we are planning more events in 2014.
BMM: Word on the street is that you are currently working on a solo CD. Can you tell us more about it…and when you plan to release it?
Will Howard: I have always written songs and had a very early interest in the recording process. I actually produced and mixed my first record when I was 18 for my church choir. I have played on a lot of different things but never considered myself an “artist”. However, as the music business changed over the last several years, I saw there might be room for me too. In Jan 2012 I was invited to play at the NAMM Bass Bash, which I consider a high honor just to be among all the greats involved with that event. For my set, I did all original music, and afterwards several people asked if I had a CD out. Over the last several years I put stuff up on Mp3.com and Myspace but I started really trying to get serious about working on the CD project in 2013.There have been some setbacks but I hope to start releasing music in the first quarter of 2014.
BMM: Please be sure to let Bass Musician Magazine know when you’ve finished your solo CD so we can review it.
Will Howard: Sure, I’m going to start releasing some of the music soon and try to take advantage of all the different delivery systems available to independent artists today.
BMM: Moving on to your gear… Can you share with us what basses you use? I’m very familiar with your main bass, which you affectionately call the ” Wilnordowsky ” (representing your first name, Nordstrand pickups & Sadowsky preamp it has).
Will Howard: Yeah that bass is the second collaboration between me and a local Chicago legend luthier/repairman Jerry Loy who has done all of my work, and a bunch of other guy’s work, for years. The first bass we did was a neck-thru 5 string with a maple/purple heart neck and maple fingerboard, mahogany body with a maple top. It has Lane Poor pickups and a Bartolini preamp. I was going for a very modern sound with that bass and it was my main live axe for many years. With the Wilnordowsky, the idea was basically a Jazz bass on steroids, but very light weight. So it’s a bolt on with a swamp ash body and a Maple neck/fingerboard. The pickups are in what I call a compromise position; the front is in 60’s position, and the back is in ’70’s position. That bass has Nordstrand Big Split Pickups and a Sadowsky Pre which is a great combination, and it sounds great passive too. I’m blessed to have several other basses and am planning another custom build soon.
BMM: What do you do for amplification and what speakers are you using currently?
Will Howard: I have several rigs I use Live but I switch between an Eden WT400 or Epifani 502 head. I also have an old SWR Bass 350 rack mounted in my home studio as a preamp. I have several speaker cabinets including two 112 Epifani cabs and one micro 112 DNA which has become my go to cab for smaller gig’s because of its small footprint and big sound. I also have a 4×10 and two 2×10 Eden cabinets so, needless to say, I have options.
BMM: I know from past conversations that you are not one of those players who chase endorsements. Can you tell us what endorsements you do have?
Will Howard: I always figured that if you took care of the playing the other stuff would come and that endorsements are a 2-way street. I play and record, but I also have done clinics and I write. I generally include any company I endorse in those activities. Right now I enjoy relationships with Essential Sound Products (www.essentialsound.com), S.I.T Strings (www.sitstrings.com), DNA Amplification (www.dnaamps.com) and Dunlop (www.jimdunlop.com) and I look forward to expanding the range of things we can partner in.
BMM: Who are your favorite well-known bass players you like to listen to?
Will Howard: It’s a cliche to say I listen to everybody, but I really do try to. We live in a time where you can get so much information quickly that I find new people every day from around the world to check out.
BMM: I won’t ask you to name the Chicago bassists that you feel should be checked out by our readers because I know that may get you in trouble with anyone you may forget to mention.
Will Howard: Yeah don’t ask (laugher…), but I will say some of the finest bassist in the world in any genre either live in Chicago or are from Chicago. I’m proud to be from Chicago.
BMM: Thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to talk with us about your career. As the highly respected Chicago bassist that you are, do you have any parting words of wisdom to leave us with?
Will Howard: My Belief is, the kind of musician you become is a reflection of what kind of person you strive to be. Also, we are simply channels, so the less of you (ego, insecurities, fears) is in the way, the more that music can flow through you. Music is about relationships and balance – you have to remain mindful of that and also remain in a learning mode.
BMM: Will Howard can be found online at www.willgroove2.com and on Facebook facebook.com/will.howard.37625
This interview was conducted by Vuyani Wakaba (www.vuyani.com), a South African bassist who lives and works in Chicago. Vuyani Wakaba can be found on Facebook (www.facebook.com/vuyaniwakaba) or on Twitter (www.twitter.com/vuyani).