Interview with Berklee Bass Professor Bruce Gertz Part 2

Posted on December 6, 2010


Welcome back to part 2 of the Bruce Gertz interview. Grab yourself a comfy chair, something cold or hot to drink and transport yourself back in time to Bruce’s house about 2 months ago. Where we will talk about, among other subjects, the evolution of jazz in his lifetime, how to become a great jazz player and what songs would he put into the “Bass Vault”.

JS – How has music evolved in your lifetime? What changes, if any, have you seen in music and more specifically jazz?

Bruce – Well, with jazz it seems like there are more and more good players….there’s a lot more younger players that are really good at a young age. So, I think jazz education has come a long way. At the same time I don’t know that the gigs are there…..they are attaining this high level of performance but there’s only so many gigs to go around, especially with jazz. Jerry Bergonzi, Bob Kaufman and myself had a 12 year run at the Acton Jazz Cafe, 12 years, every Wednesday night….now she has a rock jam that night. I guess they make more money with that.

JS – I think even the rock scene is sufferring. I just read an article in my local paper about the scene in my city and how it is sufferring because people are staying in more.

Bruce – Well, that too, yeah you know, that’s another thing about technology, the computer and all the different distractions. Flat screen tv’s and cable movies, you know? It’s like, you get a little bit of rain and say, “Honey let’s stay in and watch a movie.”

Then there’s the economy too, 10 or 15 bucks to get into a gig and you’ve got to buy a drink. Now, you’re talking 25 bucks. So, it’s kind of tough……that’s pretty much what’s happening with the scene today.

JS – You’ve been playing for a while. I’m just curious, what is it about the bass that you love? What is it specifically that has kept you playing all these years.

Bruce – When I was little, I was drawn to the vibration, you can feel it in your gut and I never knew that. I took guitar lessons from age 10 to 14 and I felt that I was always gravitating towards the low end of the guitar and finally I told my guitar teacher, “I think I like the bass.” He said, “You know, you should have said something before you wasted all this time.”

I didn’t make much progress with guitar…I took to the bass pretty fast, I think it’s just that I love that low quality to it and then as I learned to improvise and play in the higher register, I just loved the whole sound of it.

I’ve grown to appreciate Ray Brown and Ron Carter and all these great guys who get this excellent quality of tone in every register. Like one of the things I always admired about Ray Brown was that he could play high notes but they still had depth to them….they didn’t sound thin and less “bassey”, you could still tell it was a bass.

JS – How did he do that?

Bruce – I watched him play many times and it was just…it was “in” him you know. He even borrowed other people’s basses and he could still get that same sound.

JS – He just knew those minute little things you could do with your fingers, how to attack it?

Bruce – It was his touch, he had the touch and he could get the sound from it. So, that’s my life’s goal in terms of bass sound, to be able to have that quality, that great quality all around the bass.

JS – That’s one of my questions actually. What are your goals now as a player? What do you have left to learn?

Bruce-There’s no end to what you can learn and seeing Ron Carter’s master class the other day reminded me, you can always go back and learn early lessons again. Because you tend to forget, as you get more advanced, the fundamentals and they need to be addressed. Even though you may be a really good player, can you go down in the low register and play the most even sounding perfect sounding major scale in the low position 8 times without any difference in sound?

JS – That sounds impossible.

Bruce – Right, but that’s a goal to have. Play it as quietly as possible and have it be perfect, play it it louder and have it be perfect or somewhere in between. So, there’s that and then there’s encompassing the whole instrument you know. That’s a lifetime in itself, I mean some cellists and violinists would devote their entire lifetimes to playing Bach and I’ve only scratched the surface on that.

JS – Do you ever do any classical gigs?

Bruce – I did a few but that has not been my calling. I have done some chamber stuff.

Js – How do you go about writing a new piece? Where do you pull from, theory, intuition?

Bruce – I think I’ve tried just about every angle. First, I just tried to write things and sometimes they were ok and sometimes they were terrible. Then I thought to myself, let me start with some form, let me write a blues. I had better luck now because I was confining myself to the 12 bar blues, writing a head and chord progression. So, I’ve written a lot of blues progressions, a lot of major and minor blues. Then I started to think, well, I can take standard tunes and I can make changes there. Change the chords, reduce how many chords there are.

Sometimes I might come up with a really nice chord progression at the piano and I would then write a melody to it. Other times I would pick up my bass and start playing this thing, just kind of do it, like spontaneously and I realize, wow that’s a really cool bass part let me write that down….So, I’ll write it down and maybe not even know how many beats it is, might be 5, might be 7. That’s how I came up with the tune called “Discovery Zone” which is in 13.

JS – I had been thinking a little bit along those lines lately. I was writing something out for a student and was putting in the measure lines. This was a new student, I had to explain the concept of measure lines. I told them how typically at first we put music in bars of 4 beats which in turn usually ends up being groupings of 4 or 8 beat phrases. Then I thought back to the jazz tune I had been working on this week and how the phrasing is not always confined to 1 or 2 measures. Sometimes it could be 7 beats and then the answering phrase would be 4 and 1/2 beats. It made me wonder how much we become and are conditioned to that 4 beat phrase in other styles of music?

Bruce – We are pretty conditioned.

[Now back to the discussion about inspiration in writing]

Bruce – There are so many ways you can come up with a song. Recently I’ve been writing so many songs, I’ll sit down at the piano, nothing in my mind at all, you know, just noodle and if I come across something that sounds like it’s going to become something then I’ll start writing it down and next thing I know an hour later I’ve got a song. Some of my best tunes come out in 10 or 15 minutes, the whole thing. It’s just , wow, it’s a gift when that happens.

JS – What’s the best way for a person to develope themselves into a great jazz player?

Bruce – Such a huge part of playing jazz or any kind of music for that matter is listening. Particularly in jazz because it’s a language that you learn to speak on your instrument. Classical is an interpretation, type of music where you read, read music and interpret it. With jazz you actually invent it. So you need to learn the language.

I think one of the big things with becoming a good jazz player is listening to recordings of great jazz and getting all the things that have happened over the evolution of jazz music. Which goes back to the turn of the century. Blues is very important because that’s the root of jazz. So, you’ve got to start with blues, got to get blues down, rhythm changes, these are essential to jazz.

Once you get the basic language down, the blues……changes…. standard tunes, things like that. Learn a lot of phrases and things you hear people play. Figure your way around your instrument and then you can begin to have your own voice.

You learn the English language or whatever language you speak and you put the words together, put it the way you do it. Somebody puts them together a little differently, it’s the same with music.

JS – You can give it your touch after you learn it?

Bruce – Yes, but you need to get that vocabulary first.

JS – And you get that by listening?

Bruce – Yeah, I got most of my start by listening and playing along with recordings. I’d get my bass, upright or electric….put on a Miles Davis record and I would just play along with that record.

JS – There was one Miles record you told me was good to start with.

Bruce – Relaxin’?

JS – Maybe, maybe that’s it.

Bruce – There were 4 recordings he did when he finished his contract with Prestige, “Cookin’, Workin’, Steamin’, & Relaxin’.” Those 4 records, they did them in 4 days, it’s all standards…so fantastic.

JS – Was that to finish up his record deal?

Bruce – Yeah, so he could go to Columbia. Yeah, they did it in 2 days and then they said see ya later Prestige and went to Columbia.

Those recordings are a great place to start and also The Oscar Peterson Trio, “We Get Requests”, that’s another one, that’s a classic and the Coltrane “Ballads” album.

Oh yeah, [also] Charlie Parker. At the time when he recorded, LP’s were short, they wanted to get more tunes on there. If you get a Charlie Parker recording you may get 20 songs….. short solos but full of meat. Yeah, learn the licks….learn the lines, the bass lines, the whole thing by using your ear…..Learning to read, that’s another skill in itself but to be a great jazz player you’ve got to listen a lot, yeah.

JS – Your latest cd was dedicated to Charlie Banacas. Can you tell me a little about him? I see his name a lot. People always state when they have taken lessons with him.

Bruce – He was a wizard, he was a jazz wizard. He knew how to find your key to progressing as a student.

JS-That’s what everybody needs.

Bruce – Yeah and he could find that and take you as far as you wanted to go. As long as you did the work….he could find your direction. He knew what the best thing for everybody seemed to be.

He was a pianist but it didn’t matter what instrument he played, if he noticed you doing something weird he would say, don’t do that, you’re going to injure yourself.

JS – When did you first meet him?

Bruce – When I studied with him.

He had a waiting list, a 2 year waiting list. My name came up on the list but I never put my name in. So, when he called me and said, “Your name came up, I have time for you.”

I said, “Well, that’s funny, I never put my name on the list.”

He said, “Are you into it or what?”

I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” People waited 2 years.

JS – Do you think he just picked you?

Bruce – No, I don’t think he picked me. I was suspicious of Jerry (Bergonzi) and Mike Stern and other people that could have done that but no one confessed to having done it. Someone said, “You probably did it when you were drunk.”

I said, “No, I did not do that. I didn’t even know his number. How am I going to do that?”

Anyway, so I ended up studying with him for 6 years. That guy was just so brilliant.

JS – How often did you meet with him?

Bruce – Every week.

JS – Every week for 6 years?

Bruce – Yeah, about 300 lessons.

JS – That’s nice, wow! Was there any big philosophy he left you with, I mean besides hundreds? Is there one thing that really sticks out?

[This part is really good-make note and try it at home]

Bruce – He had a very special way of teaching ear training. He’d start with 1 note and then 2 notes then 3, 4, 5 until you get up to 12 notes. He would play a little chord progression like I  IV  V  I in the key of C….after those chords died out, he’d hit a note and you’d have to tell him what it was…….you’d have to do it quick and if you didn’t do it quick enough, or if you got it wrong, you weren’t ready to go on to 2 notes. So this could go on for a month or maybe longer. As long as it took you to get the 1 note every time. So you’d learn perfect relative pitch.

JS – Did he play the notes seperate or as a chord?

Bruce – Yes, together he’d play them. they might be 2 notes next to each other and then 1 way over there [other side of piano]

One thing he taught me that I think was really the most important of all was that the music comes first. How he did that in the beginning was he made me learn all these arpeggios from the lowest note to the highest note. So naturally I had worked out the fingerings for those and I came into my lesson and he said, “That’s good, now let’s see ya do the same arpeggio starting on every finger.”……So now, all of the sudden, all my fingerings did not work. All my patterns were out the window and it was music. Now I had to pick, find the notes without using a physical hand position….I had to make a new position to play it. So, I was reaching for the notes, not the fingering. See what I mean?

JS – Yeah, we can get so stuck in the patterns and just memorizing the patterns.

Bruce – That’s when it first dawned on me that it’s not about the fingering at all.

JS – Yeah, because music is not visual, it’s aural.

Bruce – Right

Later, I was asked to be part of a lessons’ series in Bass Player magazine. This was quite a few years ago….I taught this little positional study that was a triadic study. It involved moving, changing the fingers by way of permutating the triads. Instead of 1 3 5  [play] 1 5 3, 3 1 5.

Milt Hilton said; “Play everything with 1 finger!”

JS – Yeah, you can’t cheat 🙂

Bruce – Just play everything with 1 finger, every note. Now does that mean play the music or what? Then he said; “When you get through with that, use the next finger. Play everything with that finger. So, you’re making every finger play every note.”

JS – If there were a bass vault [time capsule] from our time to be given to future generations, which 3-5 songs of yours would you like included and which 5 tunes would you want from anyone else?

Bruce – I wrote a song in 1979 or 1980 called “Red, Yellow, Green”…..Another tune I wrote back in the early 90’s called, “To Boldly Go Where Everyone Has Gone Before”……and “Discovery Zone”….But one of my most endearing songs is a very sad, emotional song called “In Memory”. I wrote it when a number of people passed away all in the same week or 2. One of my aunts died. Stan Getz died, a bunch of musicians died but all in the same week and I felt kind of overwhelmed by that. I wrote this tune……I was in a canoe with my [eldest] daughter, she was 2 years old, we were up in New Hampshire. We were paddling around the lake and this tune came to me, it was absolutely beautiful, the melody, the harmony. The whole thing came to me in my head. Went back to the cabin we were renting where I had brought my little Yamaha keyboard. Put on the headphones and proceeded to write the song…… It ended up on 2 recordings. One was a Mick Goodrich recording called “Sunscreens” and the other one was my recording called “Third Eye”.

JS – What do people need to hear 100 or 200 years from now? What do we need to make sure they hear?

Bruce – Wow, well, I really love that Wayne Shorter tune “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum.”

Jerry Bergonzi wrote so many songs that I really like. [There was] this 1 song we used to play for years and years. We played it with Mike Stern…..Mick Goodrich….played it with all kinds of people, it’s called “Loudzee”.

Then Coltrane, the way he plays “Everytime We Say Goodbye”. Love that song, love it.

Another favorite……I like “My Ideal”. I have a Coltrane recording of that.

“This Is All I Ask” by Gordon Jenkins. That’s on my new recording. Charlie Banacas taught me that song.

JS – My last question……..What’s next?

Bruce – I hope that I can continue to write and perform my music for audiences that will enjoy it. Of course, any opportunity I can have to play in front of people, I like to do that very much and recording too. I want to do a lot more recording and I have some more books in me. So that’s my future, I’m going to just keep practicing and try to get better.

This about concludes the interview with Mr. Bruce Gertz. It was such a pleasure to meet with him. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Please feel free to check out his artists page here at Guitar Video Channel. There are links to his books and music from that page. 

There were a few more points I wanted to leave you with, the 1st is one of my earliest memories of Bruce as a teacher and the 2nd is his final thoughts during the interview.

I am not sure I even told Bruce this one. I had him as a professor for 1 of the bass labs taken in my 1st or 2nd semester at Berklee. It was a lab for learning how to construct jazz bass lines. Bruce assigned a Coltrane tune, wanting us to transcribe the bass line.  Being a novice when it came to jazz, let’s just say I was very uncomfortable with the idea of it and was very intimidated by the song. I did not get much transcribed, maybe only 4 or so measures. I had to go to his office and show him what had been accomplished anyway. I told him of the difficulty I experienced. In a completely nuetral, non-judgemental tone he said, “I think you can get more of it, if you just keep trying it.”

He was right, it really is that simple. Just keep trying it, keep working at it. Those words got me through more than a few discouraging musical moments.

Bruce’s final thoughts on music:

The best gift that music has to offer is being able to be in the moment and nothing else matters except the music, you go to this place that is just heaven. That’s why I want to play every night because I want to be in that place.

Thank you Bruce!


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