Interview with Berklee Bass Professor Bruce Gertz

Posted on November 20, 2010


It is an honor to have Mr. Bruce Gertz in the Bass Corner this week. To anyone familiar with the name you know what a great player and teacher he is. To anyone not familiar please read on to get to know this incredibly talented Bassist. To be great players we need to learn from great players. To learn from someone who is a soul player, has a great respect for music and can present this material in a way that inspires others is a gift.

Bruce and I sat and talked for almost an hour. And what a great hour that was, I was invited to sit in the living room surrounded by lovely paintings and bass guitars hanging on the walls. A beautiful fish pond and overhanging foliage were visible just beyond the back patio, a picture of serenity. His new puppy Mingus and youngest daughter Eva (eldest daughter Ruby is away at school) popped in throughout the interview. If I had not liked and respected the man 100% (which I did) before, then I definitely did when he had to stop the interview for a second to talk with his daughter. I heard the slight bit of parental worry when asking where his youngest was going. She did not leave the house before getting a quick “Love You” from dad.   

Back to business. What a vast musical history he has. Among his teaching (he has been at Berklee since 1976), cd releases and publications, he also has played and/or toured with so many greats. The tours include, Billy Eckstine, Maynard Fergeson, Marlena Shaw, Gary Burton, Dave Brubeck and Jerry Bergonzi. He has also had performances with John Abercrombie, Bruce Barth, Gary Schuller, Georger Garzone, Cab Calloway, Bob Kaufman, Mick Goodrick, Joey Calderazzo, Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny, Eddie Harris, The 5th Dimension and Cecil Payne among others.

I thought about shortening the interview, as stated before, we talked for about an hour. I had family members listen to it and asked their opinion on what I should keep and leave out. They said “Put it all in, he’s got a lot of great things to say.” I agree. I decided to keep a lot of it and to present this interview in two parts, over the course of a few weeks. I believe Bruce has a great history and philosophy of music and I would like to share it all with you. So, sit back, grab of cup of your favorite beverage and enjoy a few moments with Mr. Bruce Gertz, you will not have any basses hanging on your wall (or maybe you do) and you most definately will not have a new little poodle pup named Mingus but I hope you can come close to having the same experience I did.

JS-Who are your main influences on the Bass?

Bruce-My 1st influences were Jack Bruce from Cream and Noel Redding from Hendrix. I played a lot of Cream and Hendrix….Then there were the blues bass players, Willie Dixon and this guy Larry Taylor who played with Canned Heat. He was the 1st guy I heard playing I vi ii V and stuff like that. His bass lines sounded hipper to me. I had started listening to Mingus…I heard Mingus playing all those hip changes too. But I was still checking out blues and rock bands and I heard him [Larry Taylor] playing lines and he was playing these jazz changes and I thought, wow, that’s pretty cool, so I started playing that kind of stuff too….on my blues gigs.

We had horn players in our band and one of those guys is a famous Berklee professor named Ed Tomasi. Ed told me to listen to Coltrane and Charley Parker, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Ray Brown and all those people.

So, that’s when I got into Ray Brown, Ron Carter and all those great upright players. I started listening to them play blues. Those are my early influences on bass. There are later ones, Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius you know, that whole fusion period. And I love Earth, Wind and Fire. I used to listen to them and play in bands that played that music. Chuck Rainey [was a big influence] and a huge influence too was Paul Jackson from the head hunters, [Herbie Hancock] he was like the Ray Brown of funk, yeah, great player, incedible.  Anthony Jackson of course. I mean, if I took the time to think about it, there’s quite a few. Will Lee is another one, I used to love that Dreams band with Abercrombie and the Brecker Brothers.

JS-You played with Abercombie didn’t you?

Bruce-Yeah, he’s on 4 of my recordings and we did quite a few gigs together. 

The influences get more up to date, there’s Dave Holland and Mark Johnson and Larry Grenadier, a young guy, I love his playing. Christian McBride of course…..John Clayton, Eddie Gomez. Scott Lafaro was a huge influence of mine back in the 70’s, Bill Evans bass player…..Percy Heath, Sam Jones, Doug Watkins.

JS-When did you start playing upright (bass)? 

Bruce– I actually started upright in 1972 when I went to Berklee. My teacher was John Neves. They called him the Ron Carter of Boston. He was a very busy guy, he actually played with Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb and he was the house bassist at the Playboy Club in Boston. He was also part of a house rhythm section at both the Newport Jazz Festival and the Jazz Workshop in Boston, they would bring a lot of guests in that needed a rhythm section, yeah, he and Allen Dawson on drums. He put me on (stage) when I was a student of his. I guess I progressed pretty well, he actually put me on some gigs ya know, surprise gigs.

He put me on a gig with Helen Humes, who was a singer with Count Basie. Allen Dawson on drums, Ray Bryant on piano and Count Basie actually showed up and sat in on the gig.

He also put my on a gig with George Shearing, blind pianist and English. He had already worked with George many times. He brings me over to the Copley Plaza Hotel to meet George and he said, “Don’t worry George, Bruce reads better than I do.” And George says, (sarcastically) “That ain’t sayin’ much John.”

JS-I read that you were really into Coltrane.

Bruce-Now that you mention Coltrane, there are the bass players that played with him that were all incredible too like Jimmy Garrison, Steve Davis, Reggie Workman.

Yeah, so now let’s talk about Coltrane’s music. I first heard Coltrane when I was in high school and my friend Ed Tomasi told me to get a record called Cannonball and Coltrane which was Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane and the music on there is just fantastic. It’s Paul Chambers on bass, that’s when I fell in love with that sound and I proceeded to build my collection of Coltrane records. As I worked with more and more saxophone players everyone wanted to play Coltrane’s music because he was like the god of saxophone.

I have actually written a song that has a kind of “Giant Steps” [Coltrane tune] progression to it….called “While You Were Out”. [This tune can be found on Bruce’s first cd]…..I’ve used the Coltrane, the “Giant Steps” type re-harms in some of my songs….and in fact on my latest cd “Thank You Charlie”….”Giant Steps” is a 3 tonic chord progression. Three keys, B, G and Eb. So, I use those 3 keys, only minor in the song I wrote.

JS-You’ve played with  lot of great musicians, do you have any favorite moments on stage? You know how we may say to ourselves, “That solo was perfectly played”.

Bruce-I think throughout your musical career you have moments that are really good and as time goes on you try and perfect your craft. You have moments that eclipse those other moments. Ya see what I mean?


Bruce-Most recently, I’ve been having a lot of good moments because I think I’m improving.

JS-Are you always attaining the “Zone”?

Bruce-I get in the zone a lot ya know. I don’t do too many gigs that I don’t want to do. So, I’m into it and I put myself into it 100%.

I remember many times in the past on some gigs with Jerry Bergonzi that feeling like I was not even here. The music was so strong that we were traveling through space or something. Ya know what I mean? The music was playing itself but it was really strong.

[I need to interrupt at this point and just say that hearing him talk like this reminds me how cool and special it is to be a musician and share this type of bond with others.]

JS-It takes you away, it carries you.

Bruce-Yeah, it takes you away, that’s what it was, it was a journey…..So, those are the kinds of things I look forward to…..I’ve had moments like that with George Garzone as well, a lot of great musicians. Also Kenny Cervenka, a friend of mine, a trumpet player.

Recently, I’ve been playing a lot with Phil Grenadier, another trumpet player and he has that effect on me as well. You’ll hear him, he’s on that cd. [Thank You Charlie] Another guy too is that Rick Dimuzio, the tenor player on there, he’s another guy, he takes me away…wow.

In terms of a solo, every so often I’ll play one that I don’t have any consciousness, I shouldn’t say that, I have a certain consciousness….I’m just in the moment so much. [At] The end of the solo, everybody in the band is like, “Wow, that was amazing.” And I don’t know what happened.

I think those are good moments…I know I did a good job on my solo. I was expressive and I obviously had an impact on the players as well as the audience…..The audience would be clapping and stuff but I don’t really know what happened except that I went somewhere…you know what I mean? I got into a good zone there, yeah.

*I think this is a good place to pause for the week. Please join me next time for part 2. May we all be blessed enough to find and be in our zone’s this week.


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