By Guest Contributor Nanker Phelge
“Youth is wasted on the young…” bellowed Bernard Shaw.
This a decidedly flawed quote oft-referenced by bassists, authors, web hosts, recording and performing artists, and co-hosts David C. Gross and Tom Semioli on their weekly radio show/podcast aptly titled Notes From An Artist.
Wherein early life is perpetually celebrated, Gross and Semioli are hitting their stride at a time when their peers are perceived to be headed out to pasture.
Former full-time working/touring musicians who nearly grabbed the brass ring of rock stardom in their respective 20s, Gross and Semioli parlayed their unpredictable music careers into more stable endeavors. It is a shared history with a decidedly D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) spirit that serves them well.
“We needed a lifetime of experience to do what we are doing now…” reveals Gross in his Upper West Side of Manhattan parlance. “We’ve pooled our ‘ya gotta do it yourself’ philosophy to the max. From the time we started out as musicians, we invented our own map – and geography. Along the way we’ve had to pivot – life is not static, it’s all about perpetual motion. By the time you read this, we’ll have already improved our work. We enjoy every minute of it. Every morning we have an hour-long conference ‘What can we do differently today, what can we do better!”
Adds Semioli, “We are enjoying the benefits of age, notwithstanding the occasional aches and pains. David and I draw influence from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in to the original cast of Saturday Night Live to the Joe Rogan Show. We’re not imitators, however, we learn from the masters, past and present. This is the perfect show for an AARP platform – we are living proof of the doctrine that life gets better with age even with all the bumps, bruises, and wrinkles along the way. We wear them as badges of honor!”
Gross, who has eighteen music theory, history, and transcription books to his credit, created an innovative music education platform for New York City schools entitled Empower Thru Music which places actual musicians in urban classrooms. Semioli migrated from the recording studio and the bandstand to the world of journalism as a writer / editor for Amplifier, Vh-1, Spin, Huffington Post, American Music Guide, and numerous other publications of renown.
When Napster presaged the record industry’s demise, Tom gravitated to public relations and television, representing and interviewing corporate executives, fashion designers, athletes, and celebrities for cable, digital, and broadcast media worldwide.
“I went from being the guy on stage to the man behind the curtain. Young artists loved working with me because I had been there and done that. They’d ask me how I knew so much – and my response was to keep breathing, keep exploring, and keep working…” When Covid stopped the world in early 2020 Gross and Semioli maintained their perpetual motion. Both their careers nosedived due to circumstances beyond their control, yet they managed to find each other by way of social media – in particular Facebook – the go-to destination for Boomers, Jones, and Gen X’ers. David was a fan of Tom’s Know Your Bass Player website/video series. Tom checked in regularly with David’s website/video series The Bass Guitar Channel.
“We had to work together,” says David. “We had these hours-long phone conversations which become the foundation of our show. And the fact that we’re both history buffs and voracious readers makes our research even easier. We know where to go. Knowledge is a powerful tool…”
The twosome found a home on the independent outlet Cygnus Radio – and began broadcasting as The Bass Guitar Channel.
Seeking to expand their scope beyond their beloved instrument, they remodeled their show as Notes From An Artist. Leveraging contacts from their professional lives, in less than a year on the air their roster of guests superseded what most broadcasters call a career.
“Zoom has been a boon for us” emphasizes Tom. “When I worked in the magazine biz, my interviews were mostly by phone which can be an impersonal platform especially when you’re speaking with someone for the first time – which was the usual case. In television, celebrities tend to act for the camera, however with Zoom people are relaxed in their homes and it’s a semi-controlled environment which makes for a more comfortable conversation.”
Notes From An Artist video viewers make note of the exercise equipment in David’s Zoom studio background. When bassist Tony Levin, known for his work with John Lennon, King Crimson, and Peter Gabriel appeared on the show via Zoom, his musical gear was positioned among his treadmill and weights as well. “Tony and I are both in our 70s. Physical fitness is one of the many keys to our longevity. Neither of us has any intentions of retiring. As we both said on the episode ‘retire to what!”
That sentiment is shared by their on-air invitees who span jazz, rock, classical, folk, country, and permutations thereof – and all of whom are active in their respective art. “And we hardly talk about the past – it’s all about what the artist is doing now and their future plans” boasts Tom. “Sure, history plays a big part in our show, but we put it in the context of the present. David and I are not nostalgic by nature. And our guests appreciate that – which is why they keep coming back on…”
For those of you keeping score: Select Guest List / Accreditation / Age
Bob Gruen (Photographer – Kiss, John Lennon) 78 Richard Thompson (Fairport Convention) 74 Steve Hackett (Genesis) 73 *Ron Carter (Miles Davis) 86 Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) 75 John Altman (Monty Python, Amy Winehouse, James Bond, George Michael) 73 Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) 76 Ricky Byrd (Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) 66 Colin Blunstone (The Zombies, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) 77 *Dave Swift (Later…with Jools Holland) 60 *Michael League (Snarky Puppy) 39 *Neil Jason (Bryan Ferry, Brecker Bros., Roxy Music, Diana Ross) 69 *Rick Wills (Peter Frampton, Foreigner, David Gilmour, Small Faces) 75 *Carmine Rojas (David Bowie, Labelle, Rod Stewart) Joe Bonamassa) 70 *Freebo (Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur) 79 *Larry Grenadier (Brad Meldau, Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny) 57 *John Regan (Peter Frampton, Rolling Stones, Ace Frehley, David Bowie) passed at 71 in 2023 *Bruce Thomas (Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, The Pretenders) 74 *Michael Manring (Windham Hill Records) 63 *Jeff Berlin (Bruford)70 *Benny Rietveld (Sheila E, Miles Davis, Santana) 66 *Rudy Sarzo (Ozzy Osborne, Quiet Riot, Whitesnake) 72 *George Porter Jr. (The Meters, Tori Amos, Dr. John, Robert Palmer) 75 *Gerry McAvoy (Rory Gallagher) 71 *Leo Lyons (Ten Years After) 79 *Jim Fielder (Blood Sweat & Tears, Tim Buckley, Frank Zappa) 76 *Harvey Brooks (Bob Dylan, Electric Flag, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors) 78 *Greg Chaisson (Badlands, Pat Travers) 65 *Sal Maida (Roxy Music, Sparks, Cracker, Edward Rogers) 71 *Percy Jones (Eno, Brand X) 75 Chris Parker (Stuff, Bob Dylan, Brecker Brothers) 72 *Mark Andes (Spirit, Jo Jo Gunne, Firefall, Heart, Ian MacLagen’s Bump Band) *Trey Gunn (King Crimson) 63 *Lee Sklar (James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Billy Cobham) 75 *Jerry Jemmott (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Roberta Flack) 77
All the Notes From An Artist episodes are archived on their podcast which is available on all streaming services including Spotify, BuzzSprout, Apple Music, and Amazon. “We’re battling the algorithms,” opines David. “We live in a world where twerking videos garner millions of views and social media shares but we don’t worry about stuff we cannot control. There is a need for intellectual content with depth and value and that’s what we deliver week after week after week.”
Gross continues “Our ethos is to be different. We don’t ask the usual questions – no gossip, no scandal though sometimes our subjects will make a few saucy revelations but we don’t encourage that. We follow the credo of our esteemed guest and music legend Ron Carter who has been on our show a few times to talk about his work with everyone from Miles Davis to A Tribe Called Quest and that is ‘it’s all about the Big M – music!’ We never lose sight of that! Plus we’re not fanboys – so many shows we hear on major platforms are mutual admiration affairs – not us!”
Among the duo’s running gags is the premise that David’s opinion is always right. Tom cedes to the older is wiser doctrine. Their differences stem from their slight generational divide. David is a child of the ‘60s – Tom came of age in the 70s. “David got here first…” stresses Tom, “so I understand how that tempers his views.” In one episode David and Tom debate which year in rock was superior – 1966 or 1971. David and guest author Mitchell Cohen reflexively chose’66, and Tom selected ’71 to which Cohen protested “How can you choose a year where there was no record from The Beatles or Bob Dylan!” To which Tom delivered the knockout punch “Mitch, there’s life after Dylan and The Beatles.” Among Tom’s Notes From An Artist side-projects is a video series entitled Defending The 1980s wherein he makes the case that the most maligned decade in rock/jazz / pop history was the most outstanding. Gross has yet to shoot holes through that theorem – stay tuned.
When Covid restrictions were relaxed in late 2021, Gross and Semioli took their radio/ podcast show to the concert stage. Once again, they called on their colleagues whose resumes include Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones, Joan Jett, Ian Hunter, Hall & Oates, J. Geils Band, Iggy Pop, and Late Night… with David Letterman to namedrop a few.
“I’d become friends with the sister in law of Roger Daltrey of The Who” recalls David. “Roger and Pete Townshend are the founders of the international charity Teen Cancer America which provides support for young cancer victims and include such activities as learning an instrument, recording, and performing before an audience. The power of music and healing is overwhelming – and we wanted to be a part of that. Tom had cancer, I lost friends to cancer – we had to do something.”
Gross and Semioli put together two Teen Cancer America fund-raisers in a matter of weeks. Daltrey and Townsend couldn’t make the trip due to travel restrictions however, they taped a message and sent a video that was played before the musicians took to the stage.
“Getting people out of their homes wasn’t easy” remembers Tom, “the media was scaring people, misinformation was rampant– but we managed to pull off successful shows at two of New York City’s signature venues – The Cutting Room and The City Winery. We even hosted a series of scaled-down performances at the hallowed Bitter End and The Stitch Bar and Blues in the old garment district for our following who couldn’t quite afford the prices at the other two venues.”
David chimes in “And we didn’t want our shows to be old-timers day. We mixed and matched artists from ages 21 to well over 70. Everybody rose to the occasion. We imparted our wisdom to the younger players and us old dogs learned a few new tricks too. The synergy was mutual.” And if that wasn’t enough to keep them busy – David and Tom put together an improvisatory bass, guitar, and percussion ensemble performing in venues in Harlem and the East Village of New York City. Gross found time to compose and lead a solo ensemble named Theorcolus which now performs at exclusive clubs in Manhattan.
Yet senior life is not without its down moments. Semioli experienced two major life changes for the worse. In March of 2021, Tom’s wife Leona became seriously ill. Her diagnosis after months of tests and hospitalizations was Progressive Supranuclear Palsy – a rare, incurable neurodegenerative disorder. Tom assumed the role of full-time caregiver.
“She was an incredible fan of the show – you could hear her laughter in the background on our podcasts. PSP is often misdiagnosed as Dementia or Alzheimer’s as the symptoms are nearly identical. The difference with PSP is that it progresses much, much faster. My mom passed away from Dementia in May of 2022 after years of being bedridden. The emotional and financial burden was tremendous. Leona’s illness doubled that burden.”
Though life expectancy is usually about four years, Leona passed suddenly in March of 2023. David and his wife Nancy were there just hours after she transitioned peacefully traveling from their Connecticut home to the Bronx.
“A lot of people are afraid of being a caregiver, but it is a rewarding experience. You need to do it for your loved one and yourself” Tom intones. “Her passing is further inspiration for David and me to do as much as we can while we’re stomping around on this mortal coil.”
David’s daughter is a star photography student at the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York City. “I am such a big fan of my daughter’s work and I’m not just saying that as a doting father. She inspires me. And apparently, I inspire her too. At one of our shows, she came on stage to introduce us and gave an impromptu speech about how cool it was to have a dad who is still a rock and roller! And this is coming from the Tik-Tok generation.
David’s wife Nancy, a former actress and model turned film producer helms her own production company Summer Girl Entertainment. Her most recent documentary We’re Still Here was inspired by David and Tom’s musical colleagues from the East Village of Manhattan. She also curates art shows featuring some of New York City’s most eclectic artists and poets.
David and Tom find the title of Nancy’s film amusing as it relates to their lives.
“Of course, we’re still here…bass players never go away. We’re always supportive, we’re always needed. Playing bass keeps us young – we’re still learning our instrument.” After years of experimentation, Tom returned to his trusty traditional four- string Fender Jazz. David plies his craft on a custom Ken Bebensee six-string with a pink hue complimented by neon pink coated strings.
“Our peers continue to argue about how many strings should a ‘real bass’ be” laughs Tom. “As we learned from Ron it’s about the ‘Big M’ music – and I’ll add to that the ‘Big L’ – life! Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re too old….”