Todd Coolman

Highly revered bassist has spanned the globe, playing with practically every major jazz artist (with plenty of symphony work too).  He tells his story to FBPO.

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
August 22, 2011

Todd Coolman earned a Bachelor of Music degree in double bass performance from Indiana University in 1975.  His first job out of school was with the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Mexico in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico.

After living in Mexico for about a year, Todd moved to Chicago, where he broke into the jazz scene, accompanying the likes of Sonny Stitt, Zoot Sims, Buddy DeFranco, Clark Terry, Marian McPartland and many others.  In the fall of 1978, Todd moved to New York City, where he would eventually perform with jazz icons Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan, Al Haig, Stan Getz, Benny Golson, Art Farmer, Tommy Flanagan, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, and numerous others.

Todd has released three CDs as a leader, Tomorrows, Lexicon, and Perfect Strangers.  He has also written two books, The Bass Tradition and The Bottom Line, both published by Aebersold Jazz Aids.

Coolman enjoyed an 25-year stint with the James Moody Quartet, as well as substantial freelance work in Europe and Japan.  Throughout his stellar career, Todd has also performed with Ahmad Jamal, Jimmy Heath, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Jay Jay Johnson, Barney Kessel, Al Cohn, Benny Golson, Stan Getz, George Coleman and countless others.

Coolman earned a Ph.D. in Music and Performing Arts Professions from New York University in 1997.  Currently, he serves as Director of Jazz Studies at Purchase College (State University of New York).

FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing?

TC: Although my parents were not musical, they enjoyed dancing during their youthful years. As a result, they heard many of the great big bands of the 1930s and 40s. They also had a few records around the house of that music. I have an older brother who was in a high school marching band. He would bring home a different instrument every week and teach himself how to play it. I became familiar with most wind instruments from that experience. We had an old, huge upright piano in the house and I took piano lessons for about a year when I was eight years old. That eventually gave way to my wanting to play baseball instead. My parents, thankfully, did not force me to take music lessons.

FBPO: How did you end up as a bass player?

TC: In junior high school, we were given a music placement exam of some sort. I scored a 99%. For that reason, it was determined that I would play a stringed instrument in the orchestra. My teacher saw my rather large hands and thought the bass would be the best fit.

FBPO: Tell me about your experience at Indiana University.

TC: It was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time. I needed great instruction and a real musical foundation, and I received that at IU.

FBPO: Were Murray Grodner and Stuart Sankey there at the time? Did you study with either of them?

TC: Mr. Grodner was the sole bass instructor when I was a student there. He, too, was a major blessing to me. He taught me, among other things, how to teach myself. That is the highest praise I can bestow upon any teacher. I stay in touch with him to this day. He is an important mentor to me and countless other bassists.

FBPO: How about David Baker?

TC: I first met David when he presented a one-hour lecture for a “classical” summer camp I attended at IU just before my senior year in high school. The lecture was electrifying. He probably has the greatest single storehouse of knowledge in the area of jazz and jazz pedagogy of anyone alive today.

FBPO: Were you leaning more toward classical or jazz?

TC: Actually, while at IU, I engaged in both equally. As I progressed through college, my interests began to lean more toward the jazz side, as a career choice at least.

FBPO: Tell me about the orchestra gig you did in Mexico.

TC: A few of my friends who had graduated before me were playing in the Orquesta Sinfónica de Xalapa, one of three National Orchestras in Mexico. When I was ready to graduate, I had a bass, a car, thirty dollars and no gig. My friends told me that the orchestra was looking for an additional bassist to fill out their section and advised me that if I sent them a recording of my playing, they would play it for the conductor. Apparently he liked it, told them to hire me and that was my audition! I drove down the day after I graduated and worked for them for nearly a year. Overall, it was a great experience.

FBPO: What took you to Chicago? How did you break in to the music scene there?

TC: I grew up in Gary, Indiana, which is near Chicago. I had begun to check out the music scene there late in my high school years. I had met a few musicians there and studied privately with Joe Guastafeste of the Chicago Symphony. While in college, I would occasionally drive up to Chicago to get another lesson with Joe.  By that time I had heard and met Rufus Reid in Chicago and he was kind enough to give me a few lessons from time to time, as our schedules would permit.

FBPO: Was there a turning point, a defining moment, when you realized you were going to make it as a professional bass player?

TC: Actually, I’m still trying to “make it” because I still want to steadily improve my playing and learn more about music in general. So, in that sense, I will probably never really “make it” entirely. However, about six months after moving to New York City, I got a gig with Horace Silver. At that time, Horace was on the road about twenty-six weeks a year, so I received a very high level of exposure at that point. I believe that gig, more than anything else at the time, provided me with a springboard into the NYC scene.

FBPO: How did things go for you when you first moved to New York?

TC: Actually, I was very lucky. At that time, a freelance bassist could get a gig and apprentice with a true jazz master if he did his homework and was prepared musically. Guys were having jam sessions every day, all day, all over the city, so I was able to circulate and meet just about everybody and then get referred to bandleaders. Dizzy Reece, Gerry Mulligan and Slide Hampton were among the first “name” bandleaders to call me for gigs around the city and the East Coast. I was working most of the time, in one context or another, and I cannot relate a romantic story about how I scuffled and so forth.  I was very fortunate in that regard.

FBPO: Having Joe Henderson appear on one of your recordings must have been truly special. Can you tell me something about him most people don’t know?

TC: Let me just say that every cut he recorded on my album was a first take. That should speak for itself.

FBPO: How about James Moody? You had quite a long association with him.

TC: Words cannot express the importance Moody has had on my career, and in fact my life. He is the most positive and truly generous person to ever touch me musically and personally and I owe him a debt of gratitude that I can never repay. You will notice that I do not speak of him in the past tense, nor do I ever intend to. He is part of me and vice versa.

FBPO: So what’s next? What lies ahead for you and your career?

TC: I am striving to become the lowest and slowest bass player on the scene.

FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?

TC: A fly fishing guide

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