Like another Philadelphia-bred bassist—Christian McBride—Gerald Veasley wears a lot of hats. He started playing professionally in the late ’70s with the fusion band Reverie, and soon was performing with other Philadelphia stalwarts including Odean Pope, John Blake, and Grover Washington, Jr. One of many great Philly bassists to play with Joe Zawinul, Veasley toured and recorded with the legendary keyboardist’s Zawinul Syndicate for several years before launching his own career. He’s recorded nearly a dozen albums as a leader, the most recent being Live at South. Although known primarily as a smooth-jazz artist, Veasley’s chops and musicality are unquestioned and showcased most recently in his Electric Mingus Project, for which he plugs in the great bassist’s material and uses Mingus’ own words to connect the compositions.
These days, in addition to performing and recording as a leader, Veasley hosts a weekly concert series at the South club in Philadelphia called “Unscripted.” He and his band back a different contemporary jazz headliner each Thursday, enabling them to express a broader range of their musical tastes: straight-ahead, soul, or other flavors that might inspire. Every spring, he acts as an unofficial artist-in-residence at the Berks Jazz Festival in Reading, Pa., where he performs with his own groups and projects, including “I Got Life: The Music of Nina Simone” featuring vocalist Carol Riddick, as well as hosting a midnight jam that features artists from the festival. For the last two years, Veasley has been the president of Jazz Philadelphia, which is dedicated to expanding the audience for jazz in that city and hosts an annual conference in the fall called the Jazz Philadelphia Summit. Finally, since 2002, he’s run Gerald Veasley’s Bass Boot Camp, at which more than 100 bassists of all ages and skill levels spend a weekend learning both from noted bassist/clinicians and from each other. Don’t be fooled by the program’s gritty name; in reality, it’s pervaded by a sense of sharing and community.
In this interview, which took place during the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, N.J., the day after sets by his Electric Mingus project, Veasley talked about the lessons he learned from three powerful but very different mentors and how they inspired him to create his Bass Boot Camp.
JazzTimes: Much has been written and discussed about how you came up in the Philly jazz scene of the ’70s and ’80s, but you haven’t talked much about your relationship with your uncle, one of the most important figures in gospel music—Ira Tucker. He and his group, the Dixie Hummingbirds, were from North Carolina but ended up living in Philadelphia. How did that relationship shape you as a musician?
Gerald Veasley: The Dixie Hummingbirds’ music was always playing in the house. I had this famous uncle, at least in that gospel world. It was the most natural thing in the world to me to play some of that music. I didn’t necessarily play in church, but I was playing in gospel ensembles in school. When my father died, Uncle Ira out of the blue said, “It’s okay, I’ll be your dad now.” I didn’t understand what he meant. I was 22. He said, “Well, I’m going to put you to work.” At that time he was producing records for TK Records, which had been a disco label. They brought him in to produce a string of gospel records. In a matter of just a few months, I played on maybe 10 albums. Some of it traditional and some of it contemporary. His ears were so open and he was such a great producer, especially in terms of arranging vocals.
The other good fortune was that the arranger for those dates was [bassist] Victor Bailey’s dad Morris Bailey. I got all this experience being in the studio at a time when I really needed it, because I was kind of lost. I’d been floundering in college, not really knowing what my direction was. Then I realized that you could make a living being a musician. It gave me the confidence that I needed to pursue music. That was a big turning point for me.
I think I have an affinity for that music, just growing up in a household where that music was played a lot. I have to admit that it wasn’t just the Dixie Hummingbirds music that shaped me. It was also the contemporary music of that time, like Andrae Crouch. Closely related to it was hearing a lot of Stax—and less of Motown and the Sound of Philadelphia, oddly enough.
My earliest music was very bluesy, churchy, down-home, rootsy black music. I think it was because my family had strong Southern roots, that was the music that really resonated with them. And a lot of blues, like Lightnin’ Hopkins. When I heard glossier music, it really didn’t hit me the same way that that music hit me. Then there was finding this stack of jazz records in the house. I don’t even know who was listening to them. Miles’ Kind of Blue, Wes Montgomery’s A Day in the Life, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, a Jimmy Smith album, Ahmad Jamal. I would get immersed in these records. And then I would buy records on my own. I remember buying Bitches Brew. I didn’t know anything about it other than the cool cover. That blew my mind because, being someone who was not trained playing jazz, though I had taken music lessons and could read music, I didn’t know anything about improvisation. I was trying to teach myself Wes Montgomery solos and things like that. Hearing Bitches Brew, I thought, “I can play along with this, I understand those grooves.” The music was a little abstract, but not. It was accessible in a weird way. Between that Wes Montgomery and that Miles album, it really got me interested in this idea of imitating jazz. Not necessarily loving jazz, but playing with it, almost the way a child will play around with the sound of new words.
You worked with so many people in Philadelphia, but Grover was an important gig for you. And working with him brought you to the attention of Joe Zawinul.
It’s interesting. I was working with Grover at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Scott Henderson picked me up and took me to Joe’s house in Malibu. They were auditioning bass players. The original bass player on that first Zawinul Syndicate album The Immigrants had a lot of work in the studio that he didn’t want to leave behind by going on the road. Oddly enough, [drummer] Cornell Rochester had somehow gotten hired by Joe. Cornell let Joe hear a song he was pitching to the band to record or play. Joe said, “Who’s the bass player?” It was me. He wanted to check me out. So Scott and I come to the house, we say hello and he takes me to the music room, he plugs in and he starts playing the Fender Rhodes, and I plugged in and played along. We were literally jamming. But it felt so familiar to me. It didn’t feel like an audition. It felt like jamming with friends. Reverie was very influenced by Weather Report and the keyboardist Mark Knox was influenced by Joe. It was one of the easiest auditions I’ve ever had, because I wasn’t even thinking. I was just playing what felt natural.
I was very fortunate working with Joe, because I didn’t know how people became professional musicians or part of touring bands. I won’t say that it felt out of reach, but it felt mysterious. It was something that I really wanted because I used to look at those Weather Report albums and imagine myself in the company of those people. Same thing with Grover. When I’d look at Live at the Bijou, I’d say, “Yeah, I love this music and I’d love to be part of it.” So it’s an affirmation to have those experiences. I’ve had a lot of moments over the years, but those two people were special.
Both were mentors to you, but they were very different people with very different personalities.
There are probably some similarities that we don’t think about, but in terms of temperament, they were so different. Grover was more self-effacing and humble, such a sweet gentleman, while Joe was the super-confident alpha male. But Grover was confident and competitive in his own way. For example, that band would be in festivals with R&B acts like Earth, Wind & Fire, Patti LaBelle, and Gladys Knight. If a promoter said the other act would follow him, he’d say, “Sure,” but he’d be determined to make it harder for them. He had that spirit of, “They better bring it.” The show did have that pop intensity, so from the audience’s standpoint it was exciting.
The other thing they had in common is a strong work ethic. With Zawinul, for example, we’d have rehearsals at his house. Before we’d go on tour, we might do six days of rehearsals and the rehearsals might be six to eight hours, but he would have already been practicing for one or two hours before we got there. Then he’d be practicing after we left, working on sounds, then take a swim in his pool and then write some notes. He was always studying something new, and not just his own music but listening to other people. Going back to stuff he loved, like Thelonious Monk or Art Tatum—still learning new solos.
Grover was the same. In his later years, he had a deeper appreciation for classical music. He even went back to school, for composition and arranging. He was also totally dedicated to learning as many of the jazz standards as possible, taking pride in how many songs he knew. You would not be able to stump him. He grew up being in those situations in those little clubs; you’ve got to know the tunes. But those two things—the work ethic and the competitive spirit—are characteristics he shared with Joe.
Joe’s bravado was something everybody talked about. You know: “Where’s jazz going, Joe?” “Well, tomorrow we’re going to Pittsburgh.” But it was so essential to have that to weather the storms, because you’re gonna have nights where the equipment isn’t working or the audience isn’t there or the money isn’t right. Things are gonna go wrong on the road that you can’t even predict and I never saw him lose it. Being a bandleader now, I realize how hard it is. Joe said something that I really believe is true, which is “It’s only about the music.” If he says you’re flat or you’re singing or playing out of tune or that’s not how this melody is played, [the problem is] not you as a human being. What you’re doing right now is not serving the music. But being on the receiving end of that, it feels personal. If you’re an artist, you’re connected so closely with what you do [that] it’s hard to separate.
By the time I was in that band, I was able to process that, and if he told me that I sounded bad, I could accept it. For example, one of my challenges, especially playing with him after Jaco, was to play more melodically. I can groove in my sleep, but to play lyrically was a real challenge. When I was given these melodic roles early on in that band, it wasn’t good. He let me know it wasn’t good. I could have either folded or I could have dug in and figured out a way to improve. I appreciated that. But I think with other people in various incarnations of that band, the criticisms may have been taken poorly.
He was particularly hard on drummers. Why was that?
He was. Now I’m filtering this through my own bandleader lens, but one of the hardest things is to get a drummer to stop thinking like a drummer. To listen to the whole thing and to think about not just the groove and rhythm, but also about the melodic part that you have in the band. One of the things he would say is, “I wish I had a drummer that would stop playing.” To just stop and let the other instruments poke through. What would happen?
Being a rhythm section player, there are a lot of things that go on “under the hood” because you want to be tight as a band and with each other. You want to make sure the time is right, and dynamically you want to be appropriate. You’ve got to support the solos in a certain way. On the other hand, you also have to be alert and aware and not go on auto-pilot. To be nimble and fresh and do something that’s required in the moment instead of what your habits do. We have physical habits when we’re playing drums or bass. Everybody has them. But in a rhythm section it can be deadly when you’re just playing your habit, instead of listening to what the moment needs. That was a lot of it.
I see you as more influenced by Grover as a bandleader, just with your relaxed stage presence and the way you set up your sidemen. There’s a generosity there that is uniquely you but feels similar to Grover. At a panel at the Jazz Philadelphia conference, you told an interesting story about how Grover would get tapes handed to him while on tour and what he’d do with them.
As musicians, we get that all the time—other musicians giving you their tapes—especially if you have a band and you’re playing gigs with people coming to see you. It might be their first album. “Hey, check this out.” “Oh, okay, thanks.” But Grover would get those tapes or CDs after a show, and we had just finished playing for 90 minutes or whatever. He accepts the CD, goes on the tour bus and puts it in the CD player, and we all have to listen to that CD. The whole thing. It doesn’t go into his bag or into the trash can, he doesn’t give it to his son or daughter. At some point, I asked him why. He said, “You never know what you’re going to hear.” He had that respect for the possibility of what people might have to offer. His answer was “Everybody has something to say.” You might hear a gem—either in that person or in a song—that’s worth listening to. I haven’t learned that lesson yet. It requires a lot. He was very generous in that way. And generous with mentoring. He would have these relationships with teenage saxophone players in different parts of the country or even in the world, like with Igor Butman in Russia. It was not uncommon for him to invite them to the show and have them sit in with the band on the encore, which was usually “Mr. Magic,” and give the kid a solo. You know that the audience is going to love it.
I look back on those kids in my memory and there’s always a young saxophone player with his best suit on, nervously fingering the horn, getting ready to play with the nice haircut, because this is their moment. And they’d come on and play. Now, remember what I said about Grover being competitive? Well, if it’s the typical musician and they’re inviting some musician who’s a kid, they might play something relaxed and take it easy on the kid. But Grover would play full out and then turn to the kid: “Okay, now it’s your turn.” As they would play, he would just encourage them to play harder and harder. Instead of dumbing down, he would make them rise up. I always have this image of afterwards, the kid is always walking straighter and a little more confident off the stage. There was a lesson just in that.
“I didn’t drown!”
Right. And the people see them rising up right in front of their eyes. Not like, “Oh, there’s this cute kid playing.” They’re watching a master pull the best thing out of the kid. After Grover died, his mother came up to Philly and at the house she showed everyone a photo album of his youth. And there’s a picture of a young Grover, yes, with his best suit on, with his perfect haircut, holding his horn. I thought, “There it is.” He could see himself in them. He never lost sight of that, of giving people a chance, because he didn’t just magically appear as Grover. He was one of those kids who was helped and mentored and encouraged and pushed.
To me, what you’re doing with your Bass Boot Camp is an obvious reflection of that attitude. Did you start that program specifically because you wanted to follow Grover’s example?
I had been teaching a lot—individual students. I had the opportunity to go to Austria and work with a group of students in a compressed period. I think it was about four days. The focus of the workshop was that I would send my music ahead of time and the kids would arrange the music and I’d coach them and they would do a performance. The big takeaway for me in that experience was just how much people can grow in a short time. Having taught at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, where you have a whole semester and you’re hoping to see progress, it was fascinating to see how people in the right environment can make progress in just three or four days. And how do you measure that? Being more adventurous, being less shy, finding their voice, experimenting, being bolder. Not the nuts and bolts, but taking ownership of who you are as an artist. I became fascinated with that.
One of my private students had gone to Victor Wooten’s bass nature camp. I said, “Man, that’s exactly what I would love to do.” To take bass players and see, almost as an experiment, what happens when you work closely with a group of students and encourage them and give them information—can you jump-start that process? To really get people that confidence. It’s not just can you play, but can you own the space that you’re in? It takes a lot. That’s how the camp started.
Also, in terms of giving back, I realized that when I was in my twenties—I call it the Wilderness Period—I was doing fun stuff, but it was tricky to find out where I was. I wasn’t always clear on how I was doing. Because in our world, the way you measure how you’re doing is different than in other worlds. In other worlds, you measure by how much money you’re putting in the bank account each week or what promotion you get. For us, it’s how you’re growing as a musician and, as a young person, you’re the least equipped to know that. That was what the Bass Boot Camp was initially about: giving young emerging artists a jump start. And of course that’s not what it is at all now. [Laughs]
It seems more about adult learning. People in other professions who want to rekindle or even start their love of playing music.
Absolutely. It taught me what it was about, which is adult learning. We’re 18 years into this and it’s been an awesome experience.
What I noticed is that there’s a very close sense of community among the students, who come back year after year and keep in touch with each other and support one another throughout the year.
That’s right. That communal aspect of the event is where a lot of the learning is. That’s one of the credos—that everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student. I’m a bass player and I’ve been playing a long time, so I know a lot about the bass, but I don’t know everything about the bass. As a bass player, you may know a particular style very well. Maybe you’ve only been playing a few years, but you’ve immersed yourself in one area. I could learn something from you. The idea is that students learn from each other and we learn from the students. It shouldn’t be a vertical top-down thing. First, you miss out if you’re not paying attention to the flow of information. Second, you miss out if you create an atmosphere where the students are just revering the teachers. There we are, going back to Grover—everyone’s got something to say.
Gerald Veasley’s Bass Boot Camp will be held March 20-22 at the Courtyard Philadelphia. Among the clinicians will be Stanley Clarke, Derrick Hodge, Michael Manring, and Veasley himself. For more information, visit bassbootcamp.com.