Penn Jillette's Bass Magic

Penn Jillette became famous as the loquacious half of Penn and Teller, Las Vegas’ premier magic-comedy-decadence act. The part-time bassist has recently fallen hard for jazz, so much so that he let Noel Freidline record an album at his house, Four Nights at the Slammer (Free Lion), and wrote the liner notes for pianist Mike Jones’ solo disc Stretches Out (Chiaroscuro).

I played electric bass for 20 years, never seriously, never practicing, just enough to jam every week with friends and play in rock bands. [Two years ago] we had the Smothers Brothers on the show, and I was very honored to do a Smothers Brothers sketch with Tommy. I went to our bass player, Morrie Louden, who’s a monster, played with Chick Corea and all that. I said, “I want to play with Tommy, I want to play the upright, I want to play Dick’s part.” He said, “Well, it’s C and G, you know it from electrics, just put your hand there and do it.” And I said, “Yeah, but I kind of want to get the right sound out of the bass.”

The first time I touched the upright, it just felt real, it felt right to me. I loved the way the sound went through, and I always had kind of not very good ears for tuning on the electric bass, but somehow [on the upright] it went through my body and I knew when I was in tune and my hands just slid to that position. And the way the sound was produced, everything sensual and everything aesthetic was just right with it. I’m a big, huge motherfucker and it’s a big, huge motherfucking instrument. I said, “Jesus! I’m really liking this.”

I turned 45, and I said, “You know? I’m pretty good at everything I do. I’m a good talker, I can write OK, I can juggle, I can do magic. And you know, when I was, like, 12 and learning stuff? Man, I really dug it. When’s the last time I started something new? Really started a new part of my heart?” So I hired Morrie to give me weekly lessons.

I would talk to all my friends who I knew were jazzers and just say, “OK, come over to my house and we’re going on Amazon and you’re going to spend $500 on CDs. You’re just going to click on them. Just tell me.” I watched the Ken Burns horrendous thing, but I got to watch it with Mike Jones, who as far as I’m concerned is the best jazz pianist going.

Then I got started doing jazz nights at my house. I had Jonesy, and a cat by the name of Chris Tambor, who’s a great vibes player, and [arranger] Lon Bronson and [guitarist] Jimmy McIntosh. Then I got the brilliant idea of hiring two women to serve sodas naked while we were practicing, and then it turned into like eight to 10 people over. I had a big band. It’s amazing what pussy will do to jazz. I was the rich kid who had the real comfortable house and all the sodas you want and naked women and all the equipment, so even though I was the retard in the group, they’d play with me. Jonesy was very helpful getting my tone, because he likes things really brutal and raw—a lot of string noise and slapping.

We made Mike Jones an offer to have live pre-show music in Penn and Teller. And I, because it’s my fucking show, go out and, 45 minutes every night, six nights a week, play the bass with Jonesy. When you ask Jonesy what kind of music we play, he says, “Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown.” When you ask me, I say, “Oscar Peterson and…a bass player.” I wear a hat and a coat, and even though I’m very recognizable, you just don’t expect the pre-show bass player to be someone important. I’m not lit, and people don’t notice me.

I make all the money doing the Penn and Teller show, but the 45 minutes before the show is just wonderful for me. It’s very humbling to play with Jonesy. He’s never wrong. The only time he’s not perfect is when he’s kind enough, when I get lost during a solo, to adjust to me. To be able to learn an instrument and to work with one of the finest professionals in the world six days a week in a duo is unbelievable. He’s really good to play with, because he has this sense of exactly the level I’m at. And for an hour every night, I get to hear one of the greatest piano players. All this devastating jazz knowledge is just pouring over me.

There’s a different kind of logic, a different kind of symbolism, a different kind of emotion in jazz than in comedy or magic. Magic and comedy tend to be tremendously linear: you give them what they expect in a way they didn’t expect. The surprise is at a deeper level in jazz.

Everybody thinks you can take drugs and expand your mind. You can’t. But boy, does learning things do it. Because when you learn other things, you can talk to yourself. I’ve got another language to talk to myself, another way that ideas can go from my heart to my brain.

I can’t imagine anyone would see my position in jazz and not think it’s the most enviable possible. I get to play professionally, not need the money and play with the best person in the world. Beat that!

—Interview by Andrew Lindemann Malone

Originally published in December 2002

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