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Mike Karn: Switching Places in the Band

Former tenor saxophonist makes the transition to first-call bassist

Mike Karn
Bassist Mike Karn

Bassist Mike Karn has a doppelgänger: a NYC-based saxophonist, strongly influenced by Joe Lovano and Sonny Rollins, who released albums as a leader on Criss Cross Jazz in 1998 and 2000. But you won’t get any credit for in that secretly played Doppelganger game in which we look for faces in the crowd that resemble artists or celebrities we know well. (It’s also the theme of many a Patricia Highsmith novel and Shakespeare comedy.)

Why? Because Karn, who’s been performing with John Pizzarelli for the last five years, is in fact that very same saxophonist, who then went by the name of Michael Karn. It seems that Michael/Mike decided to transition to a career as a bass player, when he was in his late thirties. Crazy, right? No, sane. It turned out to be his greatest career move, even though that wasn’t his intention. “It wasn’t something I thought strategically about,” he explains. “There was no real plan. It was a very organic thing, because I picked the bass up and fell in love with it. I just followed it.”

Most jazz artists double on another instrument, most often piano or drums. However, in the long history of jazz there have only a been a few artists who’ve made the same transition at that higher professional level, most notably Scott LaFaro, who played tenor in school before going on to an important but brief tenure as the bassist with Bill Evans in the late ’50s. Eddie Khan likewise went from tenor to playing bass with Jackie McLean and other jazz greats. We know from LaFaro’s biography that his decision to switch was based on an instinctual affinity for the bass. The arc of Karn’s journey was similar, but much slower to unfold.

Karn was born in New Rochelle, New York, but moved to the very musical city of Rochester when he was nine years old. Later, inspired in part by family friend Gerry Niewood, along with an assist from a friend’s record collection, he took up the saxophone. “In the middle of my freshman year, a friend played me a Coltrane record—The European Tour,” he recalls. “There’s a sidelong version of ‘Mr. P.C.’ that’s like 20 minutes and ends with Coltrane and Elvin playing a duet. I don’t know why, but that was it. I literally went home and said to my mother, ‘I want you to buy me a tenor saxophone.’ That’s where it started.”

He chose to attend NYU instead of the music program at Eastman in Rochester because he would have had to study classical saxophone for four years at Eastman. Karn only wanted to study jazz. It was a fortuitous choice. “I saw Lee Konitz’s name on the [curriculum] and I thought, ‘I want to study with him,’” he says. “But they said, ‘No, you can’t study with Lee Konitz—he’s an alto player, so you have to study with Joe Lovano.’ I didn’t even know who he was, but that was just about the best thing that could ever happen.”

At that time Lovano was recording his first album as a leader, though he had already been working with various bands, including the Mel Lewis Orchestra, Paul Motian’s trio and quintet, and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. “During our first lesson, he told me that he had just signed to record an album,” Karn recalls. “And he was going to do it live at Cobi Narita’s place near the Public Theater [the Jazz Centre of New York City], with Mel Lewis’ rhythm section with Kenny Werner, Dennis Irwin, and Mel. I was there. It was called Tones, Shapes & Colors on Soul Note. I was playing all those tunes in my lessons with him.”

Lovano confirms that Karn was a part of the vibrant New York jazz scene that developed in the’ 80s. “The cats were all coming over to my loft on 23rd Street,” the saxophonist remembers. “When Mike was at NYU he was in an ensemble with Dave Douglas, Rob Brown, and Ben Allison. He was a beautiful young sax player. We worked on concepts. I didn’t give saxophone lessons. It was all about the music, playing together. I was in Mel Lewis’ band and those guys were at our gig at the Vanguard every Monday.” The bassist in the group, Dennis Irwin, had himself switched from a reed instrument (clarinet) while at North Texas State and became an important figure as Karn developed his saxophone chops.

“Dennis was an inspirational figure from way before the bass was even a glimmer in my mind,” Karn explains. “In 1984 there weren’t very many bass players playing gut strings, and spending as many Mondays as I did at the Vanguard, as well as all the other times and places I heard him; his sound and whole way of playing became my kind of Platonic ideal for a bass player. I played with him a few times when I was in school, and I knew when I got gigs of my own I would hire him. When I was playing at Augie’s in the late ’90s he was my first call and we played a lot up there, and we got to be friendly. By that time I was firmly a hard bop-type player in the mode of Rollins, Coltrane, and Joe Henderson, so his project for me was getting me into the earlier tenor sounds and styles. He made me several Don Byas tapes and talked a lot about Golson as well. He’d want me to play ballads that way, and when I got it he was so happy and effusive about it. When I didn’t, he was very old-school, even saying stuff to me while we were playing—‘C’mon Mike, goddamnit.’”

From NYU Karn went right to the road, with Ray Charles, no less. He was out of school one week when he got that job, via trombonist Armin Marmolejo, a veteran of the NYC Latin-jazz scene who spent some time as a ringer with the NYU jazz band, and was a member of Ray’s band.  Marmolejo got bassist Darren Solomon, who Karn sat next to in the NYU big band, a gig with Ray. “A week later there was a message on my door saying, ‘Ray Charles called, call back anytime.’ I called him back and they put me through to him and he said, ‘You were recommended and do you want to do the gig and it pays [this much].’  And I said, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ He said, ‘All right, there’ll be a ticket to San Francisco for you tomorrow.’ I did that for two years.”

Karn was in the first tenor chair, so he was about six feet from Charles every night. “He was so consistent,” Karn remembers. “I knew how tired I was, so he had to be exhausted at times. In those two years, there were maybe three or four nights where I thought, ‘Well, he’s a little tired.’ But he just did it every night. And to feel that power and charisma radiate from someone that heavy each night was really something. If you made a mistake, he would turn that look on you and it was like he was X-raying you. He heard everything.” It was Karn’s first road experience and it was formative. “Growing up and learning to be responsible for yourself” was one lesson. “And having to be consistent myself as a professional musician.”

After that, Karn played on the NYC jazz scene and later toured with Harry Connick, Jr.’s band for five years. He recorded those two albums for Criss Cross, co-leading with fellow tenor sax player Jerry Weldon on Head to Head in 1998 and as sole leader on In Focus in 2000. He was also making records and performing as a sideman, including a stint with Charles Earland, with whom he recorded on the album Stomp, shortly before the organist’s death in 1999.

Cover of In Focus album by Michael Karn

But it was several years earlier, when he was teaching at Mannes College around 1990 or 1991, that he first picked up the bass. Literally. “The adult education program there had their own bass,” he says. “I was down there and I picked it up.” Hey, it’s just four strings, how hard could it be? “Exactly,” he says, laughing. “Somebody, I think it was Larry Grenadier, was there when I picked it up and I held it right. He was like, ‘Oh.’ I started messing around with it and the woman who ran the program offered me an ensemble. We had no money then and she said, ‘You can teach a group, but you have to play bass in it.’ I got an old plywood bass for nothing and got it fixed up. For about six or seven months, I taught the ensemble.”

A saxophonist friend called him to play bass for a gig in a restaurant in South Jersey every Friday and that lasted for about four or five months. “I could just barely make it through the gig,” Karn recalls. “I’d be swollen and blistery, with what little technique I had. I always had a good beat and I knew harmony from learning all the saxophone stuff. At least I could walk manageable bass lines and it felt good. The instrument was a struggle, but whatever. Then I put it down. At that point, instead of getting into the bass, I re-dedicated myself to the tenor. I was in the middle of what I call my ‘New York ass-kicking period,’ where I thought I was pretty good. But I found out that I wasn’t.”

It was another bassist who pulled him back in and pushed him forward. “In 2003 I ran into the bassist John Webber, who also played guitar, and he knew that I played a little bass,” Karn says. “At the time he was getting gigs that paid so little that no actual bass player would do them. He asked me if I wanted to do these gigs and I had just gotten off a long Harry Connick tour. My bass was broken, so he lent me one of his. I went over to his pad for about a month or two. We would play together, him on guitar and me on bass. He would show me a couple of things. He’d show me what not to do. Somebody heard us and started hiring us together. His guitar nickname is Webs Montgomery, but he can really play.”

Opportunities to grow on the bandstand started to happen more and more. “In 2003 or so, I was walking by this Upper West Side club and I looked in and saw a buddy of mine, alto saxophonist Julius Tolentino, and he signaled for me to come in. He said, ‘Do you have your tenor?’ I said, ‘No, but can I play bass?’ He gave me a look, but I played the last two tunes of the gig. He said, ‘Man, you sound really good—do you want to do the gig next week?’ That really got it going.”

Karn played with Tolentino, along with Jeb Patton on piano and Peter Van Nostrand on drums, at that gig on many a Tuesday for the next three to four years.  Around that time he was still with Connick’s band, though they weren’t touring a lot, so he was able to devote more time to practicing bass. By 2007 he bought a good bass, the one he still has now. At that point he was getting calls to do gigs as a bassist with more high-profile artists like Lew Tabackin and Jon Hendricks. He also befriended David Wong, a first-call bassist with Roy Haynes, the Heath Brothers, and the Vanguard Orchestra.

“If you have good time, if you know some tunes and if you can walk a bass line that’s intelligible, yes, you will work,” he says. Now if you can solo a little bit and you can read and have some chops, then you can move up the ladder.” 

Bassist (and former saxophonist) Mike Karn

Karn’s big break came in 2010 when John Mosca called him and asked if he could sub on bass with the Vanguard Orchestra. The late Dennis Irwin was in the chair for many years, followed by Phil Palombi and Wong. Of course, those bassists had other opportunities of their own, so subbing was often necessary. “I barely had the technical ability then, and my reading bass clef was a little shaky,” Karn explains. “I think what they decided was that it felt good. Which is what they really wanted most. ‘Let’s give this guy a few months and if he can get the reading and the parts together, then we’ll keep using him.’ Then after three or four months in January 2011, they called me to go on the road for the first time. I did all their road trips that year except one. [Drummer] John Riley and I had a hook-up right away and the band seemed to like me.”

Word got around about the saxophone guy who played bass with the Vanguard band, and soon Karn was getting way more calls for bass than for saxophone. But it wasn’t just the number of gigs that resonated for Karn. “First of all, I felt like my talents fit the role of a bass player better than a tenor player,” he says. “I always had good time for a tenor player. I understood harmony. I could play bass lines that made sense because I understood how to play harmony one note at a time. It also felt more comfortable—for me as a person—being a sideman as opposed to being in the spotlight. I embraced that immediately. When I was leading a band as a tenor player and the spotlight would be on me, I would sometimes be nervous. But on bass, I’ve never felt that. I remember doing a show at the New School with the Vanguard band and I looked up and there was Buster Williams right in front of me. Even then I wasn’t nervous. There was a recognition that this is right. I thought, ‘I’m going to go with it.’ It worked out.”

Playing with the Vanguard Orchestra brought things full circle for Karn, who had so often watched his friend and mentor Dennis Irwin play with the band back in the ’80s. Irwin died of liver cancer in 2008. “No one particular bass player influenced me to pick up and pursue the bass, but Dennis was definitely an influence once I did,” Karn recalls. “I didn’t directly study or copy him the way I did Sam Jones, Paul Chambers, Wilbur Ware, Ron Carter, Bob Cranshaw, et al. His influence was more through osmosis. Having heard and played with him so much, certain things just soaked in and became a fundamental part of how I wanted to play without even thinking too much about it. I think that’s why I hit it off so well with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra guys. I didn’t come in there looking to play like him so they’d like me. It just sort of came out that way.”

Mike Karn in a 2016 clinic with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra:

Looking back at the transition, he recognizes that it was not a conventional move. “If you think about it, it’s pretty insane. I was in my late thirties. And I’m going to my wife, ‘Can I spend $8,000 on a bass? You know that saxophone thing that’s been paying the bills? I’m going to play the bass now.’ I just had a feeling early on that I could do it. Almost like a curiosity. Someone said to me once, ‘You know times are tough when Mike Karn has to switch to bass, because he’s not working enough on tenor.’ It wasn’t that.”

Bassist Mike Karn, with John Pizzarelli (l) and Konrad Paszkudzki (r)

For the last five years, he’s been a part of Pizzarelli’s group, often in a trio without a drummer. Once again, like Lou Gehrig getting his break with the Yankees when Wally Pipp was injured, it was all about the sub. Karn recalls the chain of events that led to this close musical partnership. “In December 2015 I got a text from John asking if I could make a gig with him in Stamford, Connecticut on Friday. I thought, ‘This is a joke.’ He was using the Detroit bassist Paul Keller for road things, but he knew that he needed a NYC bass player. John asked Mosca and Harry Allen for recommendations and apparently I was the only guy who they both recommended. He brought my name to his drummer at the time, who was Kevin Kanner, and he said, ‘Stop right there, he’s the guy.’ For several months, Paul and I split the gig. If the band flew somewhere, he would do it. But if we drove to the gig, I’d do it. We had a tour in Europe that was just for the trio without drums. And it just clicked.”

“I told Mike and [pianist] Konrad [Paszkudzki] that the only way this would work monetarily is if we did it with three guys,” Pizzarelli says. “I was thinking myself, ‘Will this work?’ It’s a specific sort of thing to play without the drums. We got a gig at an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side: ‘Let’s go and see if this works.’ And immediately from the downbeat, it was clear that everybody knew what they were doing. I knew that Konrad was a big Nat Cole fan. And the time feel that I had with Mike was perfect.”

The feel for time in a classic guitar/piano/bass trio is indeed key, with the guitar on the two and four and the bass on the one. “John and I had an immediate connection with rhythm,” Karn explains. “We feel the beat in the same time and place. And Konrad’s time is great. We could swing it ourselves without the drums. The three of us had such a chemistry that the drums became a fourth wheel.” Paszkudzki would leave the trio in 2019 and Isaiah J. Thompson and Tadataka Unno have shared the piano chair since.

These days Karn doesn’t play the saxophone professionally, and he rarely even plays it personally. “I say that I’m semi-retired,” he explains. “The saxophone is more forgiving than, say, bass or trumpet. But I couldn’t maintain the standards on bass and also maintain the standards on the tenor, because I had a certain idea of how I wanted to sound when I played in public and I was starting to lose that. I’d rather remember it as something I was good at once, as opposed to something I hung onto. It’s in my closet, I take it out and run my fingers over it, but I don’t really play it.”

Karn has no trouble giving advice to any established musician thinking of making the switch: “Don’t do what I did. Get bass lessons immediately. I waited a long time. On the saxophone I learned how to play the instrument before I learned how to play jazz. I had moments where I felt I was letting the saxophone dictate the music as opposed to being strictly musical. I wanted to see if I could do the opposite on the bass: that only the music would come and the bass would be subservient. But that’s stupid because there were some basic things that, if I had learned them earlier, I might have gotten further than I’ve gotten now. Bass is hard.”

Why exactly? “It’s physically challenging. And there’s the telescoping, in that the difference between an A and an A-flat gets smaller as you go down the neck. You’re shrinking the thing as you go. There’s no frets. If you play it wrong, you could hurt yourself. A lot of bass players have back issues. If you have enough talent and stubborn enough, you could do it.”

Nonetheless, Karn feels good about his decision to become a full-time bassist. “Bass is a mentality. I play solos and I think I do pretty good, but that’s not why I went to the bass. I went to the bass because of the accompanying. I love walking bass lines. You have to be cool with the mindset of being somewhat in the background.”

Pizzarelli recognizes just how much has gone into Karn’s re-education on the instrument. “He knows and can recognize all the other bass players,” the singer and guitarist says. “He knew a lot more of the bop records from the ’50s than I did. He’s made a study of all those great bass players and records.” Karn’s former saxophone teacher agrees. “He arrived to it after playing with and hearing a lot of bass players,” Lovano says. “It’s like me with drummers. It happened in a natural way for Mike. He’s a natural on the bass, but he was a natural on the tenor too.”

Interestingly, Lovano hadn’t seen Karn play bass until recently. “He shocked me,” says the saxophonist. “I went to the Vanguard to hear the big band and Mike was subbing for somebody. I was happy to hear him play bass like that and I knew that his connection with Dennis [Irwin] brought him to that playing field.”

Conversely, Pizzarelli has only heard about Karn the saxophonist. “I never heard him on tenor, but everybody tells me how good he was,” Pizzarelli says. “He’s totally embraced it [the bass]. I don’t think his musicianship is lost just because now he’s playing a different instrument. He knows so many songs and his feel is terrific, so I can only imagine how good he was [as a saxophonist]. He’s just a great musician, and that part carried over.” As Lovano says, “Mike has had a beautiful journey.”