Your Instrument Chooses You: An Interview with Chuck Deardorf

Chuck_deardorfCentrum: How did you begin playing jazz?

Chuck Deardorf: I was about eleven when I started playing music. I started out a trombone player, and went through the school band program and that sort of thing, and in my senior year of high school I discovered jazz. I was also playing bass guitar at that time, mostly in rock and roll and R & B. So probably sixteen, I guess, would be the age that started to happen, seventeen, as far as jazz goes.

C: How did you decide to play the bass?

CD: Well, you know I have a theory that instruments choose you, you think you choose them, but they kind of call your name. I was a trombone player, and I was playing in big bands, and you know as horn players, especially in big bands, you play a little bit and then you just sit there for a while, and then you play some more and then you sit.  And I found myself always listening to the bass player, because they get to play the whole time, and I thought, wow they sound like they’re having a lot more fun then I am. ‘Cause they’re just in the music, and the bass just shapes the music so much. You have a lot of responsibility and freedom to really determine where the music goes. And so the bass just started calling my name and I responded. I became a full-time bass player when I was in college. 

C: Were there any bass players in particular that you listened to early on that got you excited about the bass?

CD: There was always someone. In my early years on the bass it was more of the R & B and rock and roll players. There was one guy that nobody actually knew the name of until later and that was James Jamerson, the famous Motown session player, who really kind of started a lot of what we know now as modern electric bass playing, especially in blues, R & B and funk. I listened to Blood Sweat and Tears, a bass player named Jim Fielder, who I liked a lot. I liked Jack Bruce, with the Cream, who was very innovative for his time and later I found out he was actually originally a jazz player that also played blues.  That was it earlier, and as I got farther into it I started hearing more upright playersof course, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, and Red Mitchell. Dave Holland was and still remains a huge influence on my playing.  Electric players like Jaco Pastorius, Steve Swallow, and Paul Jackson were great as well. I listened to Mingus a bit, Paul Chambers of course, and really it’s just a real lengthy list but those are a few that come to mind immediately.

C: To change direction here, how did you meet the people you currently play with?

CD: Oh, some of them I’ve known for, you know, twenty-five or thirty years. A guitarist that I co-lead a band with, Dave Peterson, I’ve known for thirty years. We used to play together back in the seventies as sidemen with other people’s bands and actually on projects of Dave’s back then. Jovino Santos Neto, I met him when he first came to Seattle from Rio, back in the early nineties, and started playing with him, and that’s been a wonderful musical relationship over the years. Bill Ramsey I’ve known since the seventies as well, matter a fact, Bill and I came to the very first Jazz Port Townsend workshop that was in 1974…how’s that for dating myself? I was a trombonist in the Evergreen College stage band and Bill was a pro that came up to do a workshop for student composers of big band music. And that was thirty-three years ago—and I’m still playing and recording with Bill, a good buddy for many years. Then there’s newer people like George Cables that I’ve toured and recorded with, who I actually met at the Port Townsend workshop back in the eighties, when I first started teaching there. And people that are still coming back, like Jiggs Whigham, [and] John Clayton of course, Jeff Hamilton, and Bill Mays among others. I should also mention pianist Barney McClure as well. He was one of the founders, along with Joe Wheeler, of the Jazz Port Townsend. On that note, Centrum and the Jazz Port Townsend have been an important part of my life for over the past thirty years, and I’m very appreciative of what Centrum stands for in developing and sustaining artists.

C: Jovino Santos Neto. In general, what’s it like working with him?  How does that group work up material?

CD: Yeah, that’s a good question. Jovino is a very prodigious composer, cranking out new music all the time. What’s really great about working with Jovino is that in Rio he was a sideman for Brazilian multi-instrumentalist and composer Hermeto Pascoal’s band, and Jovino brought up that style of composing and playing here to drummer Mark Ivester, sax player Hans Teuber, and myself. It wasn’t taught to us like, “you have to play it exactly this way.” You know what I mean? The thing I love about Jovino is that he’s a very open player, and he doesn’t want it to be exactly like they play it in Rio. He wants to blend with what we have up here, the jazz and R&B and rock, and funk, and world music, and classical music and new music. I mean, it’s all just this heady mix of styles of music that are in his music that we work out together as far arrangements, and sometimes he has specific arrangements, and sometimes it’s up to us.  A lot of it is very spontaneous too, which I also really like.

C:  In general, to play Brazilian music, what would be the first things you’d recommend musicians do or learn?

CD: Well I think the first thing, and it’s been a subject of a Latin workshop that I and several other teachers at Centrum have presented over the years, is learn the specific styles within the country.  Within Brazilian music there’s like hundreds of styles, because it’s a country the size of the United States, probably bigger. And so don’t just say “oh, and here’s my Brazilian groove,” right? That’s like saying, “well here’s my American groove.” It doesn’t mean anything. You have to be specific. There are northeast styles of playing, there’s Rio styles of playing, there’s styles of playing that kind of come more from the south and São Paulo and that kind of thing. So the more that you understand that, specifically the rhythms–you know, the harmony is also wonderful, but it’s the rhythms that really delineate what particular style you’re playing, and it’s important that you know what those rhythms are and you don’t mix up say a southern Brazil rhythm with a northern Brazil rhythm, because it just doesn’t really work. It’s like mixing up an Afro-Cuban style with a Brazilian style—it’s two different styles of music. So the more you can research those styles is what I would recommend. It’s a very deep well. 

C: I have a question about the group you have with Dave Peterson. How does that group come up with material, and do you take more of a bandleader role in that group?   

CD: Well, we kind of share between Dave and I. He is the composer of that band. I don’t write myself, but do some arranging for the band. So in a way I’m more of a facilitator and he’s more of the composer/guitarist. That’s kind of what our working dynamic is, and we come from similar places musically. Dave and I are from the modern jazz tradition, but we both grew up playing fusion music and R & B and rock, so there are undertones of that, as well as straight ahead jazz, and Latin influences as well. So this band has been together for five years or so, but really, in a way, it’s actually been together more like twenty-plus years, just because we’ve played together in a lot of different situations. We just have a lot of common ground musically about what we like to do.

C: Do you have any advice for bass players looking to choose the groups they play with or looking to take a more central role in arranging or organizing, or anything like that?

CD: Well I don’t know if its specific for bass players, I’d say in general for all musicians: pick situations that will kick your butt to progress in, but also pick people you can get along with. Try to find people that aren’t going to argue and try and take power or run things the way you don’t want it run. You know, with group dynamics, you have to use a lot of psychology, and one should try to find people who are "kindred spirits," and want the same goals. And there’s actually a little axiom that I use in my Music Career class that I teach at Cornish [College], which is that there are three reasons to do a gig.  First of all, it’s fun; second; it advances your career; third; it pays money. And if you can’t find one of those three reasons to apply to gig, then I generally say, don’t do it.  It’s a simplified way of looking at it, but you know, there’s a lot of truth to it…So find kindred spirits that are going to kick your butt—find people who are better than you. That’s the way to learn.  If you’re the best person in the band, you’re not really going to learn a lot.  You’ll learn some, but not like if you’re the low person on the totem pole. Then you stand to gain the most, because you can learn from who you’re playing with.That said, one can gain a lot from helping younger players to learn, and I’ve learned so much from my students over the years.

C: One more question. When and what do you practice?

CD: I try to play every day. It doesn’t always work out, due to commitments, travel, family, work, etc., so when I do play I try to compartmentalize what I practice. For example, especially with upright bass—and it’s true for electric bass too, but it’s more crucial for upright—you really have to stay in shape. That means you have to keep your muscles in shape, and you have to play at least a minimum of an hour a day, just to keep the ball rolling. Because if you don’t play, and all of the sudden you go play a four-hour gig, you can really hurt yourself, and then you just have to stop playing. So, you have to stay in shape like an athlete. So, there’s some technical things that I do, to kind of keep that in shape, and then I’ll work with the bow, I’ll work on improvisation techniques, but working out solos, of course. I’ll do some transcribing occasionally, and just learn tunes in different keys, melodies of songs, etc. I currently play with about a half-dozen different groups, so maybe I’ll work on various material from the groups I need to brush up on, especially if I have a gig with them coming up. Just try and stay on top of the instrument, because it’s something you have to just keep hittin’ all the time. After playing thirty plus years, you still gotta play.  You still gotta play or practice. So summing it up I’d say a combination of technique and improvisation. Bach, I try and play some Bach a few times a week, and work on the cello suites, I think that’s a great thing for any instrument to play. It’s one of those things you can just chip away at for the rest of your life.

Don’t miss Centrum’s next Brazilian offering! The weekend of November 8-11, mandolin virtuoso Mike Marshall will lead a special workshop in choro music, an improvisational Brazilian style often called the "sweet lament" of Brazil. Learn more here. Register by calling Centrum at 360.385.3102, x114.