One day in 1999 I was out drinking with and a friend when, sort of on a drunken lark, we visited a music store and I plunked down 300 dollars for a bass guitar.
Though I had dabbled in playing the accordion and trumpet as a child, I had never before seriously tried to learn an instrument. But for some reason, at the age of 43, I was ready. I bought videos, took lessons and practiced every day. Within a year I was attending blues jams and within three years had joined a rock band.
After hitting the ten year mark at the end of 2009, I pretty much felt like a veteran.
But this March I found out how little I really knew.
Then, I traveled to Reading Pennsylvania to attend the Bass Boot camp, a weekend-long series of lectures, seminars and training on the bass guitar co-founded by and bearing the name of Philadelphia-area jazz bassist Gerald Veasley. Launched in 2002 and held each year against the backdrop of the Berks Jazz Festival, the camp gives participants the opportunity to learn from some of the premier bass talent in the world.
Though a big fan of forefront bassists like Stanley Clarke, Louis Johnson, Victor Wooten and Veasley, I had largely seen bass as a background instrument. I held that view almost literally until the morning of March 20, when I arrived at the camp and attended a class taught by Michael Manring, a one-time student of Jaco Pastorius known for his New Age work with Windham Records and his collaborations with a variety of musicians, among them acoustic guitarist Michael Hedges, improvisational guitarist Henry Kaiser, folk guitarist and banjo player John Gorka and drummer Tim Alexander.
Manring specializes in using the bass as a solo instrument, augmenting his performances with special technology such as neck pegs that allow for mid-song tuning changes and magnetic devices that permit players to stretch out notes. Before taking questions, he gave a ten minute performance that forever quashed any doubts I might have had about the bass’ potential as a solo instrument.
But more surprises were yet to come.
One reason I had come to the boot camp in the first place was to improve my slap technique. Boy did I find out that was passé! A bass player named Rob Smith taught a class on tapping, a technique in which both hands are used to fret notes.
“It’s something that looks like an extremely advanced technique, but when you break it down into an easy method, I find that even beginners can do it,” said Smith, who taught tapping as one of several midnight classes held at the boot camp. “And one of my goals is to kind of take that technique and, you know, make it as common as regular finger style, as slapping.”
A former boot camp student who became an instructor, Smith was one of several guest teachers who taught at this year’s camp. Others included Manring; Stu Hamm, known for his slapping, popping and tapping techniques and his collaborations with guitarists Steve Vai and Joe Satriani; Victor Wooten bassist Anthony Wellington and jazz bassist Adam Nitti. (Note: question and answer sessions with some of these musicians will appear in upcoming posts).
They joined a core faculty of Veasley and two members of his band: drummer Richard Waller III, who taught a “groove class”; and saxophonist Chris Farr.
“We do try to find a balance between people who are skilled at delivering information and people who are fantastic players,” Veasley said. “We really try to find both.”
Veasley said he came up with the idea for a bass boot camp after a series of workshops in Austria he gave in 2000.
“I got to see people grow and develop, you know, in a span of a few days which was really interesting and affirming…To see people make a transformation over a short period of time over a few days was something that I wanted to explore,” he said.
What finally pushed him to act on his idea was hearing of a bass camp run by Victor Wooten. “I said ‘well he’s doing exactly what I want to do,’" Veasley recalled. “That really inspired me to go for it.”
Veasley’s camp featured training in basic music and bass theory, as well as techniques such as slapping, popping and tapping. Some of those classes—such as one on tapping taught by Smith—were held at midnight!
But the highlight of the event was a Saturday evening open jam in which bass players took to the stage to play before an audience that moments before had heard a performance by Veasley’s band that had featured solos from Manring and Nitti. Undaunted by playing after professionals, the bass players came to stage mostly in groups of three, taking turns playing background and foreground.
During the jam, I noticed trumpeter Randy Brecker—in town to perform at the Berks Jazz Festival— sitting in the audience, and wondered how a horn player would feel surrounded by bass players.
Brecker, who once played on an album with Jaco Pastorius, said he was “not really” intimidated by the number of bass players in the room.
“But it’s a lot of bass,” he conceded. “A lot of bass. I don’t know how I would feel if I were up there playing.”