Chicago’s seasoned bass veteran talks about performing with jazz superstars, commissions from major orchestra and his long-running gig with Ramsey Lewis
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
March 22, 2010
Larry Gray is an extremely accomplished double bassist, equally versed in both classical and jazz. Throughout the years, Larry has worked with such jazz legends as George Coleman, Lee Konitz, Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tyner, David “Fathead” Newman, Sonny Stitt, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Kenny Burrell, Ed Thigpen, Donald Byrd and countless others. He has also toured extensively throughout the world, having performed in the Montreal, Detroit, Chicago, Monterey and North Sea Jazz Festivals, as well as venues ranging from the Village Vanguard and Carnegie Hall to the Ravinia Festival and Hollywood Bowl.
Larry has recorded with Ramsey Lewis, Nancy Wilson, Curtis Fuller, Ira Sullivan and Randy Brecker, among many others. He is a first-call studio musician, whose playing can be heard on many radio and television commercials. A talented arranger and composer, Larry has had works commissioned by many groups and individuals, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chamber Ensemble.
Larry has been featured as a solo recitalist on both bass and cello at various universities and other locations throughout the Midwest. He remains an active clinician at high school and college jazz festivals and also coaches double bassists, guitarists, pianists and cellists in jazz techniques, improvisation and music theory.
Currently, Larry is Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the past 12 years, Larry has been touring with Ramsey Lewis and can be heard on Lewis’ latest Concord release, Songs From the Heart. As a leader, Larry’s CD, 1, 2, 3 …, with guitarist John Moulder and drummer Charles Heath, was released by Chicago Sessions LTD in October 2008.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing. Weren’t you originally a guitarist? What made you switch to the bass?
LG: I actually started playing the accordion at a very early age, and then switched to the guitar at age seven. I began to get more serious about music in my teens, when I spent quite a bit of time listening to and studying jazz. I also began to study classical flute at this time. When I entered college, I was a composition major and guitar was my principal instrument. It wasn’t until the age of twenty when, having left my university studies, I began to play the double bass. The circumstances that led to that were somewhat random, but very fortunate for me, especially in light of how hard I worked on the bass once I committed to it.
In 1974, at age twenty, I joined a traveling group let by a jazz pianist named Cal Bezemer. I played that gig with a borrowed electric bass and, at the beginning, I also played guitar and flute. A few months later, on a weekend gig in Chicago, drummer Drahseer Khalid worked with us. After a couple of sets, Drahseer asked me why I didn’t play my upright on this gig. I replied that I was really a guitar player who was just “fooling around” with the bass. He said that surprised him and that I should consider playing upright because I would make a good bassist. This was my “light bulb” moment, which sent me on my way. I sold my Gibson L5 shortly thereafter and didn’t touch a guitar for many years. Now I own a couple guitars and enjoy playing jam sessions and gigs with my guitar and bass students.
FBPO: Being so deeply rooted in the classical bass tradition, did you just happen to stumble upon jazz along the way, or did you always have an equal passion for both classical and jazz bass?
LG: Actually, my background was really more in jazz and rock and roll music as a youth. My classical bass training did not begin until I was in my twenties. My awareness of jazz started with listening to the radio in my teen years, mostly on Chicago-area stations, such as WBEE, WSDM, WNIB and WVON, with deejays like Earl McGee, Larry Smith, Daddy O’Daylie and Yvonne Daniels, among others. Most importantly, it was the experience of hearing the music live, often at the Jazz Showcase, that was my main inspiration. I would also study recordings of jazz greats Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Yusef Lateef, James Moody and so many others, which became the major stimulus in my musical development.
Once I started to study the double bass, I needed to move quickly because I was “old” already and felt fortunate to be working on the bass. I put in a large amount of practice time and balanced my study between classical and jazz. Within a year of getting my first double bass, I played my first gig at the Jazz Showcase with saxophonist Sonny Stitt. This was followed by many other gigs at the Showcase in the next few years.
Throughout my twenties, I studied classical music as a double bassist with Joe Guastafeste, the great principal bassist of the Chicago Symphony, Karel Netolicka from the Milwaukee Symphony and later the Oslo Philharmonic, and the fine cellist Karl Fruh. Basically, I was studying classical and jazz music more or less at the same time. Later, at the age of thirty, I went back to the university to finish my bachelor’s degree. After beginning what amounted to my junior year, I decided to switch my focus to cello. Mr. Fruh tried to discourage me at first, but, nonetheless, allowed me to give it a try. I went on to get both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cello performance. These years were very important to me in my musical development.
FBPO: How did you become so firmly established as a jazz bassist, getting those gigs with George Coleman, McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Joe Pass, Jack DeJohnette, and so many other jazz heavyweights?
LG: Basically, it was a matter of becoming a part of several music communities in Chicago and playing a lot of gigs in many different genres. I have always held in high regard the idea of the professional musician who is a lifelong student and who plays appropriately, regardless of what type of music is at hand. Many of the gigs I’ve done came about either at or through my connection with the Jazz Showcase, including early gigs with Sonny Stitt and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, as well as more recent gigs with McCoy Tyner and Benny Golson. The opportunities for touring might have been more limited for a musician living in Chicago, but because of my work at the Jazz Showcase, I had the opportunity to play with a great variety of players, often without leaving town.
When I did go on the road, it was generally with someone who was not from Chicago, like Clark Terry, Monty Alexander, Frank Wess, Larry Coryell or Joe Williams, all of whom had heard me or heard of me and would engage me for performances.
In general, gigs came about through word-of- mouth. To this day, I stress to my students that the focus always needs to be on the process and the craft, which should be a lifetime pursuit. Then, by maintaining connection to the community and being open to the music at hand while at the same time valuing professionalism, things will happen. Whenever I encounter a new artist on a gig, there is always a feeling of connection, of commonality. This connection comes out of that mutual lifelong dedication to study and growth.
FBPO: While you’re firmly entrenched in the local Chicago music scene, you still do your share of traveling and touring, too. I bet that keeps things interesting.
LG: Traveling can be fun and also rewarding. I tend to work a lot when I’m traveling, doing things like reading, writing or mental practice. Overall, though, I tend to be a homebody and my favorite place to be is with my family. Therefore, I try to bring them along whenever possible. My wife, Karolyn, and daughter, Soffia, probably like New York City best of all, though we’ve been to Europe many times and are hoping to be able to go to Japan later in 2010. I had to travel without them on the last two trips to Japan with Ramsey Lewis and that was very difficult. I wanted to be able to share the trip with them. Hopefully I will be able to do so next time.
FBPO: In addition to being a player, you’re also an accomplished composer and arranger. Do any of the pieces you’ve written stand out as being particularly special or memorable?
LG: Composing for me is a habit, much like practicing and improvising. Improvisation and composition are very related. Composing balances these other activities and pushes me to investigate, learn and grow. I’m looking forward to the next large piece I have been commissioned to write for the Jazz Institute of Chicago. It is a work for a violin, viola, cello, bass, jazz guitar and drums and it will be premiered in October of 2010.
FBPO: You’ve spent many years as a teacher and clinician. We’ve all seen the diligent and talented students who want to become great players, but, at the same time, they need to prepare to make a living, too. How do you help your students find that balance?
LG: This is a great question for all of us, especially now with the tremendous changes that have come to the music industry. The thing that has always kept me happy and balanced is the fact that I see myself as an independent contractor, never working for just one person, and constantly working and improving as an artist – in other words, as a self-employed person who is ready for all kinds of work. I used to say “a gig is a gig,” and I think that applies more than ever these days.
Students often expect that they will be playing in the most ideal of circumstances and anything less is of no value to them. This is an injurious and unhealthy way to look at things. Many of my most memorable moments have taken place in some obscure place that no one would think could possibly be “significant.” So many times, when we visit some place where a famous person has worked, we are struck by how ordinary it is. It is the activity that went on in that place that is worth remembering. Therefore, if you are truly balanced and truly dedicated to the process of growth and study, you will not be disappointed when something does not go your way, but will instead use that as an opportunity for further growth.
FBPO: You’ve enjoyed such as diverse career as a player, writer and educator. What lies ahead for Larry Gray? What would you like to do next?
LG: I want to continue recording in some new contexts. Along with a few interesting ensemble ideas, I am in the planning stages of another solo bass CD. I am putting the final touches on a book collection of my own compositions to make available to those who are interested. Couple all of this with the ever-evolving instructional opportunities online and I am certainly keeping busy! Often one idea leads to another and I am doing my best to juggle and make time for all of it.
My recent CD, 1,2,3… on the Chicago Sessions label was a great opportunity. I am pursuing more performances with this terrific trio because I really enjoy playing with these musicians, John Moulderon on guitar and Charles Heath on drums. I continue to tour with Ramsey Lewis, who just released a new CD entitled Songs from the Heart.
I also spend a great deal of time in connection to my position as Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We have a great program and I’m constantly inspired by the many students there with whom I work. I continue to find that each area of my work feeds into the other areas, and I do certainly like it best that way.
FBPO: What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically oriented?
LG: These days, when I’m not working as a performer or as a teacher, I’m spending time with Karolyn and Soffia. One of my jobs at the moment as a homeschooling parent is teaching advanced algebra and AP music theory, which I’m enjoying very much. I try to keep up with Soffia’s other work as best I can, but she’s so far ahead of me as it is! Other than that, I enjoy running and reading philosophy.