12/12/09

Gerald Veasley's Bass Boot Camp Not So Tough

Bassist Gerald Veasley has performed and recorded with Grover Washington, Jr., Joe Zawinul and Odean Pope, has built his own career through a series of recordings on the Heads Up label, and has a nightclub named after him, but the accomplishment he seems most proud of is his special program to teach bass to adults. It’s called Gerald Veasley’s Bass Boot Camp and has been held at least once a year since 2002. The next session will be held on March 19-21, 2010 in Reading, Pa., as part of the Berks Jazz Fest.

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Gerald Veasley
By Robert Hoffman
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Brian Bromberg and his 300 year old bass
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Gerald Veasley's Bass Boot Camp

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For the inspiration of the program, Veasley credits a fellow bassist as well as a teaching experience overseas. “I had gone to Europe and done a series of workshops and classes, working with a small group of musicians over an extended period of time. And I realized that I saw much more of an effect with that intensive experience and thought, ‘Well, this would be a cool thing to do.’ After I got back, I was speaking with a student of mine and he mentioned that he had just attended Victor Wooten’s Bass and Nature Camp. And it hit me that he was already doing what I wanted to do, but I thought that I could do something a little different. Not necessarily any better, but different.” Veasley added that he has enormous respect for Wooten, who has been very supportive as a friend and colleague. And the two have ended up teaching at each other’s camps.

The partnership with the Berks Jazz Fest offers plenty of advantages, including access to some stellar clinicians. The workshops take place at the Crown Plaza Hotel there, where many of the festival performances also occur, so the students can take in shows during down time. The venue also allows the students to do a capstone performance and jam that is open to the public.

Who “enlists” for this Boot Camp experience? “We get pilots, doctors, prosecutors, you name it. These are people who have real jobs and on the weekend, maybe they play with bands. Or maybe they want to just play with some friends. Some people call them weekend warriors, but they’re really playing for the fun of it. And for, say, a guy at 45 it’s a lot safer than going out on a basketball court once a week.”

For Boot Campers, the measure of success is not necessarily becoming a bass player for a living. As Veasley proceeded to talk about some of his former or recurring students, he sounded like a proud father. “One lady, she was really afraid to play in public. But at our camp, you have to do that. After the camp, she went home and auditioned to play with a blues band and got the job.”

But it’s not all about getting a cool gig. “One middle-aged woman had this dream about playing the bass, so she tells her daughter the next day that she’s going to buy a bass and learn how to play. She found out about the camp and came to last year’s session. She had such a spirit, I was curious as to what she did for a living and she told me that she was a grief counselor for those affected by 9/11. Now she’s trying to find a way to use the music to somehow help with her work.”

And sometimes the gig they get may not be the one they originally imagined. “One 40-something guy really wanted to leave his day job and become a full-time musician. And he recently got his wish. He’s now the bassist for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. And you know that’s a real road gig and challenging music too. You have to be careful what you wish for, I guess.”

For some, the entrepreneurial spirit runs deep and no lessons will change that. “This one camper had a day job in the family business of gourmet food. He wanted to get out and do something different, but he didn’t want to be a professional musician. He wanted to do some sort of business. So, he ended up creating a boutique bass store, providing real specialty basses. I’m always amazed by my students.” And clearly proud.

Veasley also has done the boot camp on a smooth jazz cruise sponsored by Capital Jazz. He said that those participants were entirely different. “Most of those folks haven’t played at all and just want to learn how to play bass. You know, for me, teaching is all about those “Aha” moments, when a student does something they’ve never done before and something clicks. Well, with this group, it’s all “Aha” moments! We’ve had 35 students in one day.” The next cruise is October 23-30, 2010.

Not all his campers are middle-aged types, but that seems to be the norm. “We’ve had kids as young as 12, but you know we really tend to teach different things than what you want to learn as a young person. Like how to balance working in a job with working with a band. How to manage your life.”

The boot camp moniker makes it sound like a pretty rough few days. As someone who has known Veasley for about 30 years, I can attest that I’ve only heard him raise his voice once or twice and each time it was warranted. He hardly seems like the drill sergeant type. “Yes, I almost regret the title, because it conveys something very different than what we do. It’s catchy, but it doesn’t really tell the story. It doesn’t accurately reflect how nurturing the environment is.” Veasley pointed out that over 50% of the students return the next year, so that demonstrates a marked difference between his program and a boot camp. I know few soldiers who willingly returned to the latter.

But the program is intense, at least in the time that the students (and teachers) put in. “We do about 30 hours over the course of a weekend. And what’s interesting is that all the surveys we get back from the students tell us that they want more. After sessions on Friday evening, we then start at 8 am on Saturday and Sunday. And when the sessions are done, they’re still hanging around wanting to play more. We do midnight classes and they’re well-attended. Incredible, really.”

The list of teachers for the next Boot Camp is incredible as well, including South African legend Bakithi Kumalo, fretless virtuoso Michael Manring, jazz master Brian Bromberg and rock chopster Stu Hamm. And of course, Veasley himself. Though he said that he feels that he and his fellow teachers contribute less to the production than the students themselves. “We set up an environment for things to happen. It’s their energy and their participation that make it go. The clinicians are great, but it’s the students who have created a community.”

The cost for the weekend is $499, with discounts available for reservations made before the end of the year. For more information about the program, go to Gerald Veasley’s web site.

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