Berklee’s bass guru provides invaluable words of wisdom for bass players of all levels. A must-read!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
November 16, 2009
Bruce Gertz is an acoustic and electric bass player and composer from Rhode Island. After attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Bruce began freelancing on bass and became associated with many of Boston’s top players, including Bill Frisell, Mick Goodrick, Mike Stern and George Garzone. He has also toured with Billy Eckstine, Maynard Ferguson, Marlena Shaw, Gary Burton, Dave Brubeck, Jerry Bergonzi and many others.
Bruce has won numerous awards and distinctions, including the Boston Music Awards “Outstanding Bassist” Award (multiple times) and has also received a jazz performance grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Bruce is a long-time professor of music at Berklee College of Music and has also taught music workshops in Japan, Spain, Germany, Italy and other spots throughout the globe.
FBPO: Let’s start with your musical upbringing. Do you come from a musical family?
BG: My mother played piano and my dad whistled standard tunes. My dad’s father was a violinist, but he had to work other jobs to make money. I hear he was a good player, but he died before I was born and there were no recordings I’m aware of. My sisters and I all had piano lessons from age 6. Mine didn’t take because I liked to play sports outside with friends and never practiced! One of my sisters was quite good. I loved hearing her play Mozart. She later went into acting and stopped playing. I cannot understand why someone would stop playing music.
FBPO: What prompted you to pick up the guitar? Was it the same reason most of us did – because everybody else was doing it and it was just the thing to do?
BG: In the 1960s, the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan Show. I thought George Harrison was it. That’s when I, and millions of others, decided to learn to play guitar. I learned all the TV themes by ear on the bottom four strings. My reading was nonexistent and my teacher was frustrated with me.
FBPO: Why did you make the switch from guitar to bass?
BG: At age 14, I noticed I was always gravitating to the bass notes on the guitar and when listening to my parents’ radio, which had a big woofer. I told my guitar teacher I thought I should play bass because I liked the sound so much. He was happy about the fact that I wasn’t going to butcher the guitar music anymore and said, “I think that’s a good idea!” He actually doubled on bass guitar for parties, so he was able to teach me basic chord structures, which enabled me to outline chord changes and create bass lines.
FBPO: At what point did you decide you wanted to make a career of music? How did your parents feel about it?
BG: When I was 15 or 16, I had a lot of jam sessions at my house, playing Cream, Hendrix and blues. My mother was happy to know where I was rather than being off getting into some trouble at some unknown place. My father would later try to discourage me from trying to make a living at it. We had an awesome time playing as loud as possible and kicking the groove out hard! At that point nothing was more fun.
Soon after, I put together a real good blues band, Beale Street, with the best players I knew. We rehearsed a lot. With my new driver’s license, I took a few of the guys in Pop’s station wagon and went door to door to churches, frat houses, schools – anywhere we could think of – and we managed to round ourselves up a bunch of free gigs and concerts. They didn’t even ask us for a tape! We offered to set up and play for them like a live audition and, with the exception of one school, we got hired without being heard. We put up signs at all the appropriate places that said “Free Concert – Dancing Allowed.” The venues were all full of young people, including some friends and lots of other kids. We rocked every joint with our well-rehearsed blues groove machine. Once the word got out, we started asking for a cover charge.
Brown University had lots of fraternity parties and they would often call us to come play. We eventually added a horn section, one instrument at a time, and began playing Blood Sweat & Tears, B.B. King, Chicago and other horn band music of the time. Ed Tomassi, the alto sax player in the band, was the cat who turned me on to jazz and suggested I start listening to Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, (Charles) Mingus, Sam Jones, Oscar Pettiford and a long list of other great bass players. He was really into Coltrane and Bird. Those records actually had lots of blues on them, which I related to.
Although I may have not made a conscious decision, I think it was at that point I was getting hooked deeply to make a life of music. My father had held out hopes of me joining his water filtration business. He’d witnessed his own father’s struggle to make a living playing music, so he insisted I try a liberal arts college, which I did for one year. It was during the Vietnam War and there was a draft going on. I was number 3 in the lottery for being drafted. After being almost taken for the army – I got out of it due to health issues – my dad was more open to me going to music school.
FBPO: Having grown up in Rhode Island, I suppose Berklee was the obvious choice as the place to go for your education, wasn’t it?
BG: Again, Ed Tomassi was an influence. He couldn’t stop talking about Berklee and how cool it was that he would soon be going there. Being an hour away also made it easy to check out. Rhode Island was teeming with great players and they all knew about Berklee.
FBPO: Having performed with some of the biggest names in jazz – Gil Evans, Dave Brubeck, Lee Konitz, Cab Calloway, George Coleman, John Abercrombie, Gary Burton and so many others – what prompted you to become an educator?
BG: I fell into teaching when people started asking me for lessons. I was about 22 at the time, still a student at Berklee, and students would come to my apartment. Extra cash is always welcome! Berklee was growing at a quick rate and needed cheap teachers, so they hired many upper class students, including me, as part-time help. I had a good friendship with one of my mentors at the time, Rich Appleman, the head of the bass department. He hired me to teach some bass labs. I also got hired to teach a few ensembles. I was able to write for them, too, which was great experience. I guess the idea of teaching bass was – and is – about the best day gig an aspiring bassist could have. Now I could pick which gigs I wanted to do, without being “a musical prostitute.” This also meant I was involved in music every day and most evenings. I’ve always loved traveling and I get to do a comfortable amount of that as well. This past year, I’ve been to places as nearby as Pennsylvania and as far away as Venezuela, Hong Kong and Israel. I got to play with a lot of great people on those trips.
FBPO: How does it feel to be back at Berklee as an esteemed professor, after having gotten your start there as a young student?
BG: Berklee is a great school and I’m proud to be a part of it. When I was a student, I played sessions with Joe Lovano, Billy Drewes, Jamey Haddad, Ted Lo, John Scofield and lots of other great musicians. I also played in bands with Bill Frisell, George Garzone, Mick Goodrick and Mike Stern. I think Steve Smith and I had an ensemble with Charlie Mariano, too. I also had a group with Kurt Rosenwinkel. James Williams, Mulgrew Miller, Donald Brown, Bevan Manson, Alain Mallet, Danilo Perez, Cyrus Chestnut, David Kakowski, Larry Goldings, Aaron Goldberg, Christian Jacob, Eric Gunnison, Lawrence Fields and so many other great pianists and players lived in Boston over the years. I’ve been truly blessed to have played with all of them. I also had a host of killer students, including Victor Bailey, Jeff Andrews, Skuli Sverrisson, Peter Herbert, Alain Caron, Stu Hamm, Matt Garrison, Esperanza Spalding and many more.
FBPO: What advice do you give your students about choosing a career in music? On the one hand, they need to demonstrate their passion for the music and give it everything they’ve got. On the other hand, they’ve got to be able to make a living. How do help them find the right balance?
BG: What a great question! If someone is not passionate about what they do, I would say, “Do something else until you find what it is that sparks your passion.” Life is always better when you follow your passion. If you luck out like I did, you get to live your dream and help others do the same. Once you know what it is you want to do, don’t let anything get in the way of achieving your goal. In most cases, a serious musician should probably pursue a musical day gig. For me, it’s teaching.
FBPO: Do you have any special “Bruce-isms” you drill into your students about grooving, keeping time, playing in tune, etc?
BG: Yes, actually. I have several:
- Time and Intonation are paramount to bass playing. Without “T & I” you’ve got nothing to bring to the gig.
- Always play into the instrument, imparting your time and feeling.
- If your little fingers are down and your big ones are up, away from the fingerboard, put them down.
- Don’t waste time and energy playing away from the instrument. Put yourself into it. Both hands.
The things my teachers taught me are valuable and I pass them on. They include:
- repeating notes to train yourself to look ahead when reading;
- using your right arm as a model bass neck to work out fingerings when you’re not with your instrument; and
- how to listen to the bass part and figure out a chord progression.
Other important things to keep in mind:
- Playing in tune requires good ears. I have my students transcribe parts from recordings for both pitch and rhythm.
- Attitude is, of course, a huge part of success. Being a nice cat and fun to be with it is a huge plus. You can play your ass off, but if you’re an asshole no one wants you around anyway.
- As far as grooving, it comes natural to some of us, while others need to work at it before they discover that part of themselves. We all have a pulse and heartbeat.
FBPO: You’re known as being accomplished on both the upright and the electric bass. Do you favor one over the other?
If it’s a soul or funk gig, the electric will cut through better. I do however love the sound of funk on upright. At this point I get more calls to play upright, although I do get called to play electric, too. I really love both.
FBPO: Talk a little about some of the publications you’ve written.
BG: I write almost every day. My major at Berklee was Composition/Arranging. When I began teaching, it was natural for me to write all kinds of exercises. These also helped me as a player. Eventually I had a collection of different musical lessons.
My first book, Walkin’, is a bass line book. I put in all the standards we were playing at the time plus a large collection of blues bass lines and some latin lines. It has been out since 1982 and is sold worldwide.
I also wrote 22 Contemporary Melodic Studies for Electric Bass, which includes some of the advanced material I was practicing. Students would hear me play them and say, What the hell was that? It made sense to publish them since so many people would ask for them. That one was published in 1987, although I began the exercises around 1979.
The next two books were for Mel Bay Publications, Mastering the Bass, Volumes 1 & 2. Those books make up a method I tested out on many students while writing it. It really works, but people need to go all the way through both books. Lots of people stop at Book 1. The juicy stuff is in Book 2.
My latest book, Let’s Play Rhythm, is published by Advance Music of Germany. They do beautiful books. This book is the only book anyone would ever need to learn how to improvise. It comes with 3 CDs and includes many bass lines and grooves plus solo information. It also incorporates many different types of melodies, including diatonic, rhythmic, pentatonic/blues scale, symmetric diminished and upper structure triad and intervalic. There are even some free-form style tracks to play along with: swing, funk, latin and open. I have other books to finish, too.
FBPO: How about your CDs?
BG: In the 1980s, I recorded two albums for Gene Perla’s label, PLUG, with Jerry Bergonzi on sax and Bob Gullotti on drums. Jerry and I then started our own label, Not Fat Records. We acquired the two LPs from Gene and added four more projects: Jerry Bergonzi Quartet, Featuring Bruce Gertz, Bass; Con Brio and Con Brio: The Ray, with Mick Goodrick on guitar and Jeff Williams on drums.
The trio, “Gonz,” with Jerry, Bob and me, did three projects: Uranian Undertow, Front End and Caught In the Act, the latter of which we recorded live in Australia. Those LPs still exist and have as of yet not been made into CDs.
Blueprint is now out for the second time on the Evidence label. It features John Abercrombie, Jerry Bergonzi, Joey Calderazzo and Adam Nussbaum. That was my quintet from 1991 to 2006, with which I did three other recordings. Third Eye was a live concert supported by a jazz performance grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. I recorded the concert and sold it to the Italian label, RAM Records, which also did another project with my quintet, Discovery Zone. The fourth CD was called Red Handed. It had Bruce Barth covering for Calderazzo and it’s on the Double Time label. I also recorded a quintet with Ken Cervenka, Bergonzi, Barth and Jorge Rossy on drums for Double Time. It’s called Shut Wide Open.
I did two trio records for Whaling City Sound label with Bergonzi and drummer Robert Kaufman, The Line Between and Dreaming Out Loud. Recently I started my own label, Open Mind Jazz. I have released two Bruce Gertz Quintet CDs in the last couple years, It Wasn’t Me and Reptilian Fantasies.
FBPO: What lies ahead for Bruce Gertz? What would you like to accomplish that you haven’t done yet?
BG: I would like to play with some of my heroes who I have not yet played with. It would be nice to have the money to produce many more projects. I’m certain to have more books published, teach many more great players, compose and produce more music. One of my dreams is to tour with my old quintet. It is very expensive and difficult to schedule because they are all stars and busy.
FBPO: What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically oriented?
BG: I like to take long walks in beautiful semi-wooded areas. I read books. Also I have a hobby making wooden boxes. Dancing is also fun.