Part I of II:
Was jazz a part of your life from day one?
It was something I was exposed to, but it was also indirectly in my soul. I started playing West African music – djembe – when I was four. I wanted to play a regular drum set, but there weren’t any spaces available in this program I was in. My great grandfather was a jazz bass player in North Carolina and he taught John Coltrane when John Coltrane was a kid, around 8 or 7 years old. He was a music teacher down there. So my dad exposed me to a lot of music around the house, but honestly I wanted to play percussion, but he signed me up on bass and I became more and more exposed to the music. When I was about 13 or 14, I went to a performance at high school and I heard Reggie Workman play live. Then definitely my focus point was shaken from wanting to be a drummer to wanting to be a bass player.
So then the jazz bass took over?
I started on classical, but I knew, coming from playing African music, I wanted to play music that would allow me to improvise, allow me to be rhythmic, allow me to communicate with other bandmates, like in a drum circle, so it all came together when I saw Reggie Workman play. From that point on, I realized it was always inside me. I always knew I wanted to be a musician and, once I traced my roots back, I said ok, I was born the same day as my grandfather, the bass player. So, the music is directly there, but as far as being a jazz musician, that was the avenue I took coming from drumming, then classical music, then being exposed to jazz in my early teens full force. Then I knew what I wanted to do as far as playing jazz.
Besides jazz, what music do you favor that might be an eye-opener to some people?
People know I’m from DC, so I’d say go-go music. I’m a huge fan. I’m also a big ‘90s R&B guy - mid ‘90s on up - and gospel music. Go-go music was created in Washington, DC, and it came about in the late ‘70s from Motown R&B music. It crossed over into a swinging groove, a simple groove over the top of an R&B groove. Nowadays, it’s between groove music, hip hop and gospel music. It has a beat that’s played on congas that defines music in a cowbell pattern and swinging music. It has a very African beat, drum and bell pattern, fusing in with hip hop, gospel and soul music. All in one. A breakout song that gained international acclaim was “Da Butt.” It was in the Spike Lee movie “School Daze.” They say New Orleans and DC, they’re cousins with the street beat.
You come upon a group of gentlemen laughing and talking jazz bass: Paul Chambers, Charles Mingus, William Breaux, George Duvivier and Milt Hinton. You can talk to one; which one?
That’s a hard one. I’ve been reading a lot about Charles Mingus, so there are some things I know about him. I would like to have a conversation with him, as he’d go to a different place musically. But I’m probably most influenced by Paul Chambers. Being 33, I’d like to talk to him because he was playing with so many people – and not Charles Mingus because of that, because he played with more people, too - but I’d like to talk to Paul Chambers to ask him what it was like being so young and being on a high stage with Miles and Trane in his earlier days, and what he did to prepare for that. I’m most influenced by him.
What’s one word to describe the way you feel when you’re performing?
Thankful. The reason I choose that word is because at that moment I’m doing what I love to do. And I’m happy listening to me doing what I love to do, thankful to be in that place and have that opportunity to be able to express myself and do my craft. When I’m playing the bass, I like to dance to the music around me, to the instruments playing with me. I like to dance with them playing.
If you could be someone else, who would you be?
[Laugh] I wouldn’t want to be anyone else. I feel like everybody deals with what they deal with. I don’t care if you’re Herbie Hancock or if you’re some guy nobody’s ever heard of. Everybody deals with their own personal things and people paint a picture how somebody else is by the success they’ve had. For me personally, I wouldn’t want to be anyone else but myself because I understand my story, where I started and where I want to go. I feel blessed with my family, I love my wife and I wouldn’t want anybody else’s life.
To see Part II click here.
Deborah DeMoss Smith hosts the Second Line, Sundays 11am-1pm.