Philly bassist talks about playing with Joe Zawinul, the Electric Mingus Project and how he’s helping usher in the next generation of great bass players!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
July 5, 2010
Exposed to music from a very young age, Gerald Veasley received his first bass at age 12 and soon began performing in various jazz, fusion and avant-garde groups in Philadelphia, where he was born and raised. Among the highlights of Gerald’s career are his long-running stint with saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., and seven years as bassist for iconic keyboardist Joe Zawinul.
As an educator, Gerald remains active with his bass seminars, workshops and boot camps, which he conducts worldwide. He is also the founder of the Electric Mingus Project, a tribute band honoring the legendary bass icon, Charles Mingus.
In addition to his prolific work as a sideman, Gerald has released several CDs as a leader, including Look Ahead, Signs, Soul Control, Love Letters, On the Fast Track, Velvet and At the Jazz Base. He can also be heard on the just-released Grover Live CD with Grover Washington, Jr.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing. How did you become a bass player?
GV: I grew up in a quasi-musical family. My mother enjoyed singing and took some opera lessons. I was inspired by watching her sing her lessons and reading the music. It made me, at the age of 5 years old, want to do something in music. In fact, I can remember running up to her with notes that I’d scribbled on loose leaf paper and asking her to sing it. So that was my first composition! And I bugged my family for a long time for an instrument. I initially wanted a piano, but somehow settled on bass because it was during a period of time where there were a lot of guitar players. There was a lot on television with guitar and I was excited by that, but I thought bass would be an easier choice. Little did I know that bass would be a lifelong challenge!
I got a bass at the age of 12 for Christmas. I took a lot of private lessons from a guitar player, ironically enough, who taught me how to use a pick and how to play scales more fluently. Then I discovered Motown and grew up listening to a lot of the Stax/Volt stuff, a lot of blues and R&B. That was what I cut my teeth on. I grew up in Philadelphia, where, during the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, every neighborhood had a band. It was very, very competitive with all these basement/garage bands and there were a lot of “Battle of the Bands” competitions. It really encouraged me to work hard. Showmanship was involved and you had to be versatile. We played everything form Santana to Cream to Chicago. We experimented with Yes and all kinds of music, so it was a lot of fun. Then I kind of discovered jazz and that changed everything. I discovered the Miles Davis album, Kind of Blue and I loved that sound immediately.
FBPO: Did you ever play upright?
GV: I never played upright. I was introduced to it a little bit by a family friend but because of my affinity for the guitar, but the bass guitar always felt more like home. My first professional experience was with a band called Reverie, which was a fusion band. It was an exciting time in my life because we got the chance to record original music and tour and that was so much fun. And that brought me to the attention of other players, like John Blake, the great jazz violinist, who I still collaborate with today. He’s fantastic and I learned a lot from him. I also met Odean Pope and he introduced me to more modern playing, the avant-garde scene. I did a lot of work in Europe and abroad with him, playing very challenging music in a trio setting with just bass, drums and saxophone. That trio was quite a sensation.
My dream was always to play with players who were in the forefront, who I grew up idolizing. That happened when I got the chance to work with Grover Washington, Jr. I was with him, off and on, for fifteen or more years, with various bands.
In the middle of all that, I met Joe Zawinul, who was also one my idols because I loved Weather Report. In fact, with the band I mentioned a moment ago, Reverie, we kind of patterned ourselves after Weather Report. When I got the chance to audition for Joe Zawinul, it didn’t feel like an audition at all. It felt like coming home. I was so familiar with his style of playing that it was as if I’d already been playing with him for years.
FBPO: I had the privilege of seeing you play with Joe at the Musicians Exchange in Fort Lauderdale around 1988 or ’89.
GV: I remember that very clearly!
FBPO: And you did a bit about “Thelonious Monk playing incorrectly,” as if you were quoting some ignorant person!
GV: That was a great time because Joe always encouraged everyone to be as creative as possible. That piece that you’re referencing was actually a poem that I had written because Joe, for some reason, admired my playfulness with words and he also liked to have a little bit of theater in his show wherever possible. So he would have us do all kinds of things, like playing around with rapping over his music and all kinds of other things. It was just a phenomenal time! Of course, the musicianship was on a very high level because Joe was – there’s no other way to put it – he was a genius.
FBPO: Did you find people comparing you to Jaco, stepping in not too long after he had died?
GV: I think I had the privilege of being buffered from that by more or less, following Victor Bailey instead of Jaco. I think Victor had to deal with some of that.
FBPO: Not according to Victor! [See FBPO interview with Victor Bailey]
GV: Well, when somebody asked him how he felt about stepping into Jaco’s shoes, he said he was making a new pair of shoes. And that’s about right. So, by the time I played with Joe, I think it was understood that there wouldn’t be another Jaco and that every bass player after that would have to find his own way.
FBPO: You mentioned Motown and you mentioned Stax/Volt and some other things that you’d done in Philadelphia. The city where you grew up has a pretty rich musical heritage. How do you think growing up in Philadelphia influenced you, musically?
GV: It’s tough to say, but I get asked this question a lot because of the legacy that you mentioned, especially with bass players. Jaco spent some of his early years here. Nathan East was born here, so we’ll claim him, as well!
FBPO: Isn’t Stanley from Philly?
GV: Stanley Clarke, of course, is Philadelphia born and bred. So many great bass players came from Philadelphia. So to be part of that heritage is awesome! Victor Bailey, who we mentioned a moment ago, also hails from Philly. I think so many other cities have a great bass tradition.
FBPO: Well, I’m from Detroit, so we’ve got certainly got some bragging rights!
GV: James Jamerson and so many others. My good buddy Al Turner, one of the contemporary guys. [Editor’s note: Ron Carter and Paul Chambers must be mentioned here, as well!]. And Chicago, of course, New York… But I think there was something about that period of time that I grew up in. Gamble & Huff came along and had such a great impact on the musical heritage of the city. I think it was just the kind of situation where it was very affirming, where you didn’t feel like you were an outsider, musically, where you really had the infrastructure and permission and the support to try to be a professional musician. So I think that, more than anything, was great for me. I also had a lot of support from my family to go ahead and pursue my dreams.
FBPO: Was there a turning point in your life, maybe a defining moment, that made you realize you were going to become a professional musician?
GV: I always tell the story that when my father passed, it really opened my eyes up to the power of music because it was the only thing that made sense.
FBPO: How old were you at the time?
GV: I was 22. Before that time, I loved music, played music, never let music get too far from me, but I never thought of it as a real viable career choice.
FBPO: You said your mother was a singer. Was your father musical, as well?
GV: My father was not musical, but they both loved and appreciated music. My mom was actually a nurse. She was not a professional singer, but she loved opera and she loved gospel. The only professional musician in my family at all was my uncle, Ira Tucker, who was the lead singer for years with the Dixie Hummingbirds, a classic gospel quintet.
FBPO: I love the stuff they did with Paul Simon!
GV: Absolutely! That’s right! He joined that group when he was 14 and he died the year before last. So he was with them most of his adult life. They were really an institution. But when my father died, music just became different for me. It became sort of a hiding place, a place where I could just be still and try to sort out my feelings while listening to great music. It brought about some healing when I didn’t know where else to find it. And I thought, “Hmm… this is kind of a cool process. Maybe I could be on the other end of it. Maybe I could be on the side of making that kind of music, making some kind of music that could touch people when they need it.”
The other important thing that happened was that after my father died, Uncle Ira said, “Son, I’m your dad now.” And that really touched me because I think what he meant was that he would be there to help guide me and mold me. Also, what he meant was that he would hire me! He was producing a lot of gospel records at the time. One of the ways people can really support your efforts as a musician is to give you a gig. And he gave me a lot of gigs. I can’t underestimate the importance of that because it really affirmed that I could be a professional musician, that I could stroll into a studio and make recordings every week. That was just a critical time in my development.
FBPO: What is the Electric Mingus Project?
GV: One of the bass players that I was encouraged to check out when I was a young player was Charles Mingus. Even though I was an electric player, it was really important to check out Charles Mingus, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, all these guys that really established what the bass could be in a jazz setting, whether they were soloists or not. Of course, Charles Mingus was a great soloist and phenomenal American composer.
A few years ago I got the idea and wondered what it would be like to take some of the music that Charles Mingus had written and filter it through my experiences playing electric jazz, playing fusion, playing avant-garde music, even playing contemporary jazz. What would that sound like? More or less as an experiment, I gathered a bunch of musicians from Philadelphia, really phenomenal artists, and decided to just try to work this music out. It’s been just amazing. In fact, we just released one of the singles from this project, a song called “Haitian Fight Song,” which is one of Mingus’ signature pieces. People will get a chance to hear my interpretation of that music.
What I found about Mingus’ music that was so inviting was the fact that he really captured the essence of jazz in addition to the musical nuts and bolts of what makes jazz jazz: It has to swing, it has to have improvisation, certain chords, that sort of thing. One of the other things about jazz that I like is the classic definition: The sound of surprise. You know, when you’re following along with it, there are moments when you don’t really know what’s going to happen next, whether it’s the soloist of the composition.
FBPO: You can say the same thing about a Steely Dan song, too!
GV: You absolutely could! You could apply that definition to a Steely Dan song. And you can certainly apply that to Mingus because in the middle of a song, he’ll change tempo, he’ll change time signature, it’ll go from something that’s very lyrical and melodic to something that’s very free. Maybe there’ll be a blues field holler in the middle of this beautiful ballad. His music never lets you go on auto-pilot when you’re listening. And I love that about it. One of the things we made sure we stayed true to was that spirit of adventure and that sound of surprises in Mingus’ music.
FBPO: I’ve always admired your willingness to reach out to the young, up and coming bass players through your workshops and your boot camps. What do you hope to see when you encounter a group that could potentially be among the next generation of great bass players? What are you hoping they’ll be like as far as attitude and expectations?
GV: That’s a great question, Jon! Sometimes when I encounter young musicians, I’m so grateful that they’re just doing it. Just the fact that they are in the act of music making is, to me, a miracle because music that gets rewarded in the way that we reward things in this country, monetarily, doesn’t always pay attention to craft. It’s not made with attention to art. It’s made in a box. So when I see young musicians who actually have taken the time to learn an instrument, along with the sweat that goes in to learning an instrument, the repetitive, unforgiving nature of learning an instrument, I’m just grateful to meet them. I just love that! That’s even before we get to any expectations of what they’ll do with it. What they’ll end up doing with it is up to them. Some of it is out of their hands, meaning the part that applies to the “music industry.” A lot of that is out of their hands and out of our hands as artists and all we can do is what we do.
The other thing about young musicians is that I’m always impressed that folks are still innocent about that. Where their expectation is not so much about career, record deal, endorsements and so on, but that they are just looking to express themselves. I love that! And so it’s gratifying to see when that’s still happening.
The other thing I have to mention is that with a lot of my work, because of the bass boot camp, I end up working not only with young musicians all the time, but often older musicians. This is a fascinating area for me.
FBPO: What do you mean by young? What do you mean by older?
GV: [Laughs] Old is me, young is you, Jon! What I mean is musicians who are not necessarily now looking to do it for a career, but have already had careers. These musicians are what the music merchants call the weekend warriors, guys who are pilots and lawyers and business owners and truck drivers Monday through Friday and on Saturday and Sunday, they’re musicians in their churches and in their garages and in bars and so on. I’m really fascinated by these musicians because a lot of times, especially when they get into their forties and fifties and beyond, where they’ve given so much of their lives over to the responsibilities of building a career and raising a family, are now rediscovering that creative part of themselves. That’s an exciting process to be a part of, to watch people kind of reclaiming the kid. So, it’s cool working with kids, but it’s also cool working with older folks who are rediscovering that kid.
FBPO: Tell me a little bit about your CD releases. You seem to love each one in a different way.
GV: Thank you for noticing that! Sometimes I learn about the CDs after they’re done and after they’ve been put away for a while and I go back and remember where I was in my life when I was recording it. I can remember what the effort was, what the struggle was in creating or producing the music. And that’s cool because part of it is the product for sure, whether or not it’s satisfying when you put it on. But part of it is the process. Frankly, the product, whether or not it’s successful in terms of sales, is really out of my control. I can do what I do as well as I can. But the process is totally within my control, how much of my heart and soul I put into it. What I learn from the process of each one is totally within my control and extremely valuable, even when it’s hard – especially when it’s hard.
Each one of those records really teaches me and often it’s about much more than music. It’s also about how much patience I may have during a certain period of time, how much I’m willing to collaborate with others, how much am I willing to let go of certain preconceived ideas that I have. So all of these things have benefited me on a personal level, just working on this music. And then, you know, every now and then, there’s a good song that comes out of it [laughs] and that’s cool, too!
I’m at a place where I can really step back and look at the music for what it is. Sometimes there are things that I’ll try that really fail. I have to find ways to go out on a limb and try something, try certain collaborations, try to write a type song that I’ve never written before and there’s a good chance that it won’t work. In fact, I guess I’d be a little suspicious of my records if they were all totally 100% right there. It would mean that I’m not trying anything new.
FBPO: Gerald, what kind of equipment are you using these days?
GV: Well, my ax is my signature bass made by Ibanez, which is a hand-made instrument, a 6-string with an alder body, maple top, Bartolini pickups and an Aguilar OP-3 three-band pre-amp. That’s my basic instrument, which I’m really in love with. Amp-wise, I use the Aguilar DB 750 with a 4-by-10.
For effects, I’ve been using the Boss ME-50B, which I like a a lot. I also have a nice tube DI that I use on stage whenever I can bring it, because it’s pretty big and hefty. It’s called a Reddi. It’s really an awesome piece of gear. And I’ve used that in the studio, too. It’s pretty phenomenal. It’s made by A-Designs. My other pre-amp for recording in the studio is the Avalon. I think it’s called an S-737. That’s a really nice piece. [Editor’s note: Avalon makes a 737 and an SP-737].
FBPO: How about strings?
GV: Dunlop. Jimmy Haslip introduced me to these strings. I had been with another string company for a long, long time and I was looking for something different and I tried a lot of strings and I fell in love with the Dunlops. The cool thing was that I had been used to stainless steel, but sometimes felt like my sound was a little thin. I use light gauge strings. Basically a .120 on the B and I’ve used as high as a .027 on the C string. That’s a touch thin, but I’ve always sacrificed a little tone, a little guts, so I was looking for a string that would give me a different sound. Jimmy said I should try nickel and they just sound great! They have just the right tension, too.
FBPO: What lies ahead for you and your career? What can we look forward to seeing from Gerald Veasley?
GV: Man, I’m looking for the next chapter. I’ve been involved in a lot of collaborations over the last few years and I’m looking to do more of them. I’ve got a show that I’m touring in the fall called Salute to the Philly Sound, with Will Downing doing vocals and Nick Olean on guitar. It’s going to be a phenomenal tour.
The Grover Live CD was just released, which was taken from board tapes from 1997. Jason Miles, the producer, got together with Grover’s wife, Christine Washington, and they listened to a bunch of performances and picked this one, went in the studio, did some re-mastering and the result was this CD and it’s just really, really special. We’ll be supporting that record. Jason Miles has put together a touring band, which will include Ralph MacDonald. Eric Darius will do some dates, maybe Tom Scott and some others. We just got back from Japan, where we played some festivals.
We’re also doing a lot of interesting things with the Bass Boot Camp. Of course, our main signature event every March coincides with the Berks Jazz Fest in Reading, PA, about an hour from Philly. But now, we’re doing it in other places. We’ll do feeder camps, one-day camps, one of which is going to be in Canada this summer, on July 29 in Aurora, which is near Toronto. Bass Boot Camp: Canada.
And then in the fall, I’m taking the Bass Boot Camp on a cruise for the second year in a row. We call it Bass Boot Camp at Sea, which is really neat. It’s part of the Capital Jazz Fest Cruise. Last year, we had about 35-40 students a day, playing bass on a cruise! So, we’re just kind of spreading the love of the bass.
FBPO: Does this have anything to do with Victor Wooten and Steve Bailey and the stuff that they do?
GV: Well, it’s in part inspired by Victor, who is a friend of mine, as is Steve Bailey. Actually, Steve is only a quasi-friend because he beats my butt in tennis, so I like Victor more! They’re both really cool guys. Victor has been gracious enough to be one of our instructors at times and I’ve taught at his Bass/Nature Camp. One thing about the bass community and the teaching community is a lot of cross-pollination. People support one another and you won’t find a bigger supporter of what Victor does than me.
FBPO: Last question, Gerald: How do you think your Eagles will do this year?
GV: Expectations are not high, which is a good thing. It’s kind of a rebuilding year, so if they get to 9-7, that’ll be great.