John Goldsby (Interview): "That's when I realized: There are other bass players in New York!"
Updated: May 9, 2021
Master double bass player John Goldsby is deeply rooted in traditional jazz, yet he is also a joyful explorer of modernity. His working ecosystem seems perfect for that: Goldsby has been a member of the German WDR Big Band since 1994, a full time job that enables him and his colleagues to extensively dive into the possibilities of a big band, both with traditional as well as modern pieces. When Goldsby is not playing, recording or rehearsing with the WDR Big Band, he is performing with different musicians, formats and groups. Recently Mr. Goldsby invited two of his Big Band colleagues, drummer Hans Dekker and pianist Billy Test, to record a trio album called "Segment" with him – a remarkable, vibrant journey through jazz with renditions of standards (Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat", Charlie Parker's "Segment" etc.) as well as own compositions.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1958, Goldsby started off as a guitar player at a young age, then switched to electric bass – until he eventually found on the double bass. After a stint as a regular in a local jazz club's house band, where he got to play with legendary musicians on a nightly basis, Goldsby moved to New York City in 1980. His list of collaborations is long: He has played with Michael Brecker, Wynton Marsalis, Benny Goodman, Mel Lewis and many more. In 1994 he moved to Germany – and joined WDR Big Band as their regular bassist. Goldsby is a part of the WDR big band to this day.
Besides being an extraordinary musician, he is also a well-respected author and teacher. He has published three books (including "The Jazz Bass Book", a staple for bass students) and written for various magazines. His latest teaching projects are two new courses for the website Discover Double Bass.
I had the great pleasure of talking to John Goldsby via Zoom. Read the full interview below.
Tell me a little bit about the making of your new album "Segment".
As you know, the pandemic hit really hard in March. I play regularly with the WDR Big Band – and we still had a chance to do productions at the WDR studio in small groups. We couldn't go into the studio with the whole band, all 17 musicians. That wasn't allowed. But we could pick different formations and do small group recordings. When I saw the opportunity to record with Billy Test and Hans Dekker, my rhythm section, I said: "This is perfect. Screw the pandemic, we're gonna make a trio record". Billy and Hans, I work with these guys all the time. Billy has been in the WDR Big Band for about two years and he's really an inspiration. He's just 30 years old but he really has the jazz tradition in his ears and under his fingers. An amazing piano player and musician. Hans I've been working with for years and years on all kinds of projects. From straight ahead swing to more funky projects or modern jazz, all kinds of music. As a trio we are all very comfortable with each other. I thought we had a good statement to make on a trio record. It could have just as easily been The Billy Test Trio or The Hans Dekker Trio. But it was my idea, so it came out as The John Goldsby Trio.
Let's briefly talk about some of the pieces in particular. The title track is a standard by Charlie Parker.
"Segment" was one of the tunes we recorded in the WDR studios for a sort of video presentation during the lockdown. It was just one of those standard tunes: "What do you wanna play?" "I don't know, how about Segment?". It's one of the few Charlie Parker tunes – or maybe the only Charlie Parker tune – that's in a minor key. It's in B flat minor. And regarding the title: We're a segment of the big band, a small part of the larger ensemble. That also really reflects my roots as a straight ahead, jazz bebop walking 4/4 bass player. That's maybe in contrast to some of the other tunes on the album that are a little more adventurous, have different time signatures or maybe more complicated harmonies or rhythmic ideas. One thing I love about Hans and Billy: We can take any style of music and make our own statement in that style.
Did you already have a lot of those tunes in your repertoire as a trio?
Just from my background I know a lot of those tunes and Hans and Billy know them too. It's always just a great luxury to be able to call some standard off the top of our heads and just play it like that, as if we rehearsed it or as if we've been playing it for years. That's always an option for us, to call a standard jazz tune. That contrasts the choice of original compositions that are more modern regarding harmony and rhythm.
The opening track is your own composition, "Things That Go Bump".
That is a kind of American catch phrase: "Things that go bump in the night". It refers to a sound that you maybe didn't expect and you wake up in the middle of the night and go: "What was that?" A mouse in the room, a bird on the roof, who knows what that sound was. That tune sort is sort of Brasilian in flavor. It has a lot of rhythmic hits that make the tune catch. It has got a typical Brasilian approach and then in the middle of the tune I would say there is a little Pop section. And then the end of the tune has those rhythmic hits. It makes a nice playground to improvise on. You can go through the tune and it has those different sections that just really set up the soloist to improvise.
You recorded the album in July 2020. That was a time when the lockdown took a little break so to speak.
Yeah. In March, when the first lockdown came, everything closed. There weren't any gigs, no one was allowed to play. Then slowly some things opened up a little bit. They said "Okay, with certain regulations, when you're distanced, the room is big enough and there is no audience, you can record or make a video." That was a huge relief, to be able to get together with other musicians, play on stage together and perform live music together. There are a lot of videos on the WDR Facebook page that are snapshots of what we did in May and June. After we did those small group things we set up a date in the WDR Funkhaus to do the trio record.
There's a hauntingly beautiful version of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" on the record where you play the first two minutes all by yourself. What does that song mean to you? I am a huge fan and disciple of the jazz bass tradition. All of the great bass players – and the list is huge, but to name a few: Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Blanton and of course Charles Mingus, I can always feel these players and hear them in my own playing. Mingus was an amazing musician. Very special because he was a great bass player, a great band leader. He had a lot of different bands that he led over the years. Maybe his biggest accomplishment was that he was a great composer. He left the jazz world with all these beautiful compositions. He had a knack for writing the blues into a piece with complicated harmonies. "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" has a really bluesy melody. You just listen to it once and say: "Oh, it's some sort of blues lick". But when you listen to it in terms of harmony, it becomes this complicated, impressionistic kind of composition. That was one of his specialities: To write those very bluesy, folkloric melodies and then harmonize the melody with some kind of really hip harmony. When I played the solo bass rendition, I played the melody but I also tried to flesh out the harmony as I was playing solo. I have such respect for players as Charles Mingus. There is no way I can sound like him. But the greatest tribute I can make is to sound like myself in one of his compositions. I hope I did it justice. Who knows what he would have said about that, because he was very opinionated. It's a nice tune to blow on, especially on the bass. The standard key is E flat minor, but just out of my bass prerogative I took it up to E minor – and then when the piano solo comes in it drops to E flat minor which makes it a little darker.
Digitally, you didn't release it as one album but several EPs. Why so?
That also alludes to the title "Segment". We know so many standard tunes. We even recorded a few more tunes. During those three days of recording I think we've done 18 tunes. I thought: The clever way of doing it in this day and age is to release EPs and I think a lot of people will listen to a four, five song EP before they listen to a whole album. I thought I'll release that for people who are fans and they can digest the whole album in little segments, Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3. The album is coming out as a CD on February 16th, 2021. For my taste and impression the CD has served its purpose in life. I prefer to hear things online at this stage and I know a few younger people do as well. So the thought behind it was that we can fit more music into the album by releasing it digitally in those small segments.
So there'd be material for a fourth EP? There are more tunes in the can, but I feel we can always go back to the studio with Billy and Hans and record the next album.
Let's go back in your biography. You were born in Louisville, Kentucky. What brought you to music in the first place?
I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, that's one of the northernmost southern states in the US, I'd say. When I was in high school I started getting into playing guitar. I was playing guitar in rock bands, it was the typical thing for bass players. We were in a band with three guitar players and somebody had to play bass. So I volunteered to play the bass. That was a great move. When I was in high school, I was playing rock but a band came to our school with that guy Jamey Aebersold, a great jazz educator. He was playing electric bass that day and they played a few standards, "Song For My Father" and things like that. I thought: "This music is kind of strange but I like it." So that's what caught my ear as far as getting into jazz and exploring jazz music. Then I got into fusion and was part of a band that played Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra, things like that. I was still playing electric bass then. It wasn't until I was 17 or 18 when I started playing double bass in the school orchestra. After high school I had already caught the music bug and decided that, if I could make a living out of it, I wanted to be a professional musician. So it was after school that I started heavily practising double bass. I went to college for one year but then dropped out and played gigs almost every night on the Louisville jazz scene.
I did that for a few years until I was 21. Then I moved to New York. Which was the typical way to do it back in those days. In the late 70s there weren't many colleges or universities that had jazz programs. Most people who wanted to learn jazz just hung out at bars and jazz clubs and tried to meet older, more experienced musicians. When I moved to New York, I moved in with a couple of musicians and tried to make the scene, as they say. Just meet people, get more opportunities to play. That was in the 1980s when I moved to New York.
Before you moved to New York, you had a gig as a regular player in a club band, where you played every night. How important was that for your career? That was hugely important. Louisville is a medium sized city, maybe half a million people in and a million people around the city. There were only a few bass players in town. Because I was young and energetic, really trying to learn jazz and hanging out with musicians, I got this gig at the jazz club. It was called Stanley J's, a club in downtown Louisville. The manager's policy was to have a house trio. Actually he had two house bands. He had a legendary guitar player named Jimmy Raney playing the early set and then our trio, with a piano player named David Leonhardt and a drummer called Darryl Cotton, we played the late set. Then he would bring soloists who were traveling around and who'd do a week at the club. I was really inexperienced, not only trying to learn the double bass but also trying to learn the jazz language, the repertoire, the style. I got to work with musicians such as the great jazz singer Helen Humes, Johnny Hartman, Buddy Tate, Buddy DeFranco, Barney Kessel, Dave Liebman, Tom Harrell, all these jazz players who were legends. We would work for a whole week in the club. I would struggle my way through the week. But I did well enough not to get fired from the gig and I could learn from those players who came through and were just doing their gig. I was soaking up everything I could, practising all day and then go and playing the gig at night. That gig lasted for about nine months. After that I thought: "Okay, this is what real jazz is really like. I have to move to New York."
Were you already able to make a living when you played in the house band?
Yes, back then in the Seventies in a place like Louisville there were a lot of gigs. People played six nights a week in clubs. It's really different than it is now, when you're really lucky you can get two nights in a club somewhere. There were a lot of working bands and they were playing in different clubs. All different kinds of genres, rock, pop, funk, jazz. Hotels would hire jazz trios or quartets. There was a lot going on. As a young musician, I didn't have high expenses. If I made thirty dollars a day, I was totally cool. I could pay my rent, I could buy something to eat and I could practise the bass. That was all I cared about at that point. Sort of the same thing when I went to New York. It started off with minimal financial compositions for those gigs, it was just passing the hat or tips. We would make four dollars a night, almost nothing. But it was still playing every night. Eventually, the money started getting a little better and the gigs started getting a little better. But a really good bass player, when they knew the tunes, could work all the time. It was just a matter of knowing the jazz language, knowing the repertoire and being able to fit in with a lot of different situations.
"That's when I realized:
There are other bass players in New York…"
How was New York when you arrived there? What were your expectations – and was it tough to set foot there?
It wasn't tough, because I moved in with two friends of mine, who I had known from Louisville. Basically I just loaded all my stuff into my car in Louisville and drove up to New York. It's about a fifteen hour drive. I remember driving across the Brooklyn Bridge and listening to the radio. You could get jazz on the radio! I thought "Wow, this is different''. Right when I showed up at this apartment that I was about to move into with two other musicians, they were having a jam session. And the bass player was really good! I basically parked my car, got my stuff in the apartment real fast and then I got to sit in on the jam session. That's when I realized: There are other bass players in New York …and so far the one I've seen is really, really good! That's one thing I really love about New York and realized right away. I've been there to visit before but when I lived there, we would go out and visit clubs where you could maybe sneak in and have just one drink and stay for two sets if the personnel was busy and didn't notice you were in the corner, having only one drink. On one night I could hear Ron Carter, George Mraz, Red Mitchell – all these great bass players, just in the little area of Greenwich Village. I remember one night I was walking from club to club, listening to all these amazing players. I think I was walking past the Village Gate, which had a window to the street and I heard the bass coming out. It was another amazing bass player and I didn't know who it was. So I went to the door and it was Reggie Workman, you know, the famous bass player who had played with John Coltrane. He's playing in this club, he's up in the window and I checked it out for a while. It was Jazz heaven at that time. I'd go out every night and hear all those legendary players, just walking from club to club. As I said before, there weren't many universities that taught Jazz, so the typical way to make contacts was to play jam sessions. There were a lot of jam sessions happening. I'd meet people and make my services available. "If you need a bass player, let me know". Those jam sessions led to gigs and other opportunities.
How long did it take for you back then to get to the next level in your career? When did you start getting really busy – or was it like that from the beginning?
In a way I was busy from the day I got there, because I moved in with two musicians. That doesn't mean I was making much money, it just means that because we had a place where we could play jam sessions, I could play every day and every night with other musicians. That's what really contributes to the development of a young musician. I think in some way university programs and colleges have replaced that. When you go to a university jazz program, that's what you want: To be in a group of fifty, eighty or more young, like minded musicians. You want to have some mentors, teachers and you want to play as often as possible. Have opportunities to play new music with different people. The university has sort of taken that responsibility now, whereas it used to be just jam sessions and hanging out in clubs.
To answer your question: When I first started there, we'd play in clubs where we got paid ten or twenty dollars a night. But for me, if I was doing that five or six nights a week, that was actually enough money to get by on. And then I started to get paid fifty Dollars or a hundred Dollars – and then eventually the gigs paid 150 or 200 … and I'm talking back in the 80s. The only way to make more money was to play more gigs and that was still possible. There were a lot of different opportunities to play different styles of gigs, with singers, trios, hotel gigs, Broadway show gigs, recording gigs, big band gigs – I did all of that when I was there. It didn't take long, it just took many years to eventually move up the ladder to where I was more comfortable as a bass player and people took me more seriously as a musician so they'd hire me for better gigs.
I think a turning point was in 1985, when I was hanging out with Red Mitchell, a very well-known bass player. He hired me for a gig where he was playing piano. Because Red hired me as his bass player that really gave me a push, a stamp of approval: "Red Mitchell likes this kid, so he must be okay". That was a huge turning point, mentally also. Just being around Red, hearing his thoughts on music, improvising, being a jazz musician. Another turning point was my first big studio gig, playing on the soundtrack for the "Cotton Club" movie by Francis Ford Coppola. It featured music from Duke Ellington. Just being in that studio scene! We recorded several weeks for that soundtrack. After that I was in the studio scene so I got called to do jingles, record dates and different things as a studio musician. That was for my young age a dream of mine: I liked all types of music and I thought: "Wouldn't it be great to come in and work on different projects on a daily basis, playing different styles of music and record it in the studio?" I liked the studio scene a lot.
"Dave Holland really taught me a lot and was a huge inspiration about everything."
Because you spoke earlier about university students having mentors: Did you have some sort of mentor in your early years, in New York or before that?
When I was in Louisville, my first bass teacher was a guy called Daniel Spurlock. He was the first principal bass player with the Louisville Orchestra. He took me through the basic Simandl method book. He gave me a lot of confidence and foundation on the bass. Then a great mentor for me in Louisville was a guitar player whom I took bass lessons with. That was really interesting: To be coached by a guitar player – but as a bass player. His name is Jeff Sherman, he was teaching a lot of students in the 70s and he's still teaching loads of students now. I'm not sure how old Jeff is, but he's still in Louisville playing gigs, teaching. Jeff Sherman really helped me a lot back in the 1970s.
And then Jamey Aebersold, who is a great jazz educator, lived across the river in Louisville. He has always been a mentor and a good friend to me. I played with Jamie a lot, I played on his play-along records. I would go to his house and play jam sessions back in Louisville. When I moved to New York, I tried to figure out who I could take lessons with. I didn't have a lot of money but I still wanted to continue relationships with good bass players. So I got in contact with a bass player called Michael Moore, who is a fantastic musician and soloist. He has got a unique sound. And he has got his own approach to thumb position technique, which I basically stole and added from to my own technique. Over the course of a few years, I took lessons with Michael, maybe once every couple of months. About the same time I took lessons with Dave Holland. Dave Holland really taught me a lot and was a huge inspiration about everything. He was very open. The great thing about Dave: if he can play something on the bass, he can explain to you exactly the technique he uses to play that. There is no mystery about Dave's bass playing. He can say: "Well, it's because I practised this harmonic thing and I'm doing these string crossings and I'm doing this rhythmic pattern and then I did that slowly and then I applied it to that tune…" He's a very methodical teacher and practiser. I learned a lot from him and Michael Moore.
Did Dave Holland's pragmatic, non-secretive approach also influence your own teaching style?
Maybe so. I think my teaching style evolved from working with Jamey Aebersold. He started using me as a teacher in his camps when I was 21. I wasn't prepared for that as a teacher. I hadn't been to college, I had a lot of holes in my techniques. I asked him: "What can I teach?". He gave me that simple, but sage advice. He said: "Just teach what you know. Figure out what it is you know and then teach that to the other person. You play with a good sound, how do you get that good sound? You seem to have good time, teach them how to play with good time. You seem to know a lot of tunes, teach them how to play tunes". I really got thrown in into that teaching aspect when I was very young. The thing that I found is that every student is different. Some people need or want to learn from a visual aspect or they want to learn theoretically with a piece of paper in front of them. Other people need to hear something and be able to sing something and then play it. A lot of times it's the challenge to get the analytical people to open up and try and listen more – and to get the people who just play from feelings and emotions to analyze what they're doing more. It's always a balance and I try to find that in my students: What do we need to talk about here? A lot of students will present something that is very good – but we need to find out how to make it better. We need to find out where the problems lie and how they can open themselves up to become better musicians.
You have played with so many great players in New York: Michael Brecker, Mel Lewis, George Benson, Wynton Marsalis, Benny Goodman just to mention a few… Is there any memory you're particularly fond of? For instance about working with Michael Brecker?
I didn't know Michael Brecker really well or play in his band. But a friend of mine, Randy Sandke, who is a trumpet player, was also close friends with Michael. Michael played on a few of Randy's records in the 80s, and I was playing with Randy a lot. So through Randy I got to know Michael. We recorded some things together. The thing about Michael is: He was a regular guy who practised A LOT on the saxophone. He'd be the first one to tell you that he had practised things and that he had got his licks and approaches to harmony. The great thing about Michael Brecker was: He had also this creative spark that made him play unexpected things. It was not just barreling over with technique. It was a musical approach, whatever he was improvising or whatever he was playing. That's what you always hear in great jazz solos, his brother Randy Brecker also has that: There's always this element of surprise coupled with impeccable technique that grabs the listener. All the great jazz soloists, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, they all have this element of surprise as well as a masterful technique – which is what Michael Brecker had. When I have the honor to work with somebody on that high level, it brings me up. I might not reach their level, but the expectation is there. Playing with those great guitar players, Herb Ellis, Larry Coryell, George Benson: They have their own sound and when they start playing, it grabs you and pulls you into their world. That's the thing I've noticed about all of these really strong musicians. A lot of the legends are legends because they have that kind of personality. When they start playing, it's like the star power that pulls everybody to them. That's one of the wonderful things about getting to work with a lot of different players. Younger players might have that too: You might feel that spark, but it might not be as refined as with somebody like Brecker or Benson or somebody like that.
"Europeans want to know specifically what the musical instruction is."
1994 you moved to Germany to become a part of the WDR Big Band. How did that come about – and how much of a culture shock was it to move from New York City to Cologne?
Well, I moved from New York City to Lohmar, which is outside of Cologne, even more of a "dorf" [German for "village", MB] I was traveling around with a drummer called Louis Bellson. We did a tour in Europe, I think that was about 1991. We played a jazz festival and the manager of the WDR Big Band was at that festival. He approached Louis and said: "Will you come and be a guest with the WDR Big Band? And by the way, our bass player has retired. We're looking for a new bass player, so bring your bass player with you. That's how I got invited for the first time in 1992. By coincidence, a friend of mine – a trumpet player called John Marshall - was living in the apartment above me in Brooklyn. At the time he was auditioning for the trumpet chair at the WDR Big Band. I knew John was going back and forth and doing all these auditions for the fifth trumpet position in the band. Then I got invited to be a guest with Louie Bellson. At that point it was not a real thought to pack up and move to Germany. But I saw that this is a really wonderful opportunity here, this job where they play all the time. It's a full time big band job, which is unheard of in the US. I've been playing with a lot of big bands, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Toshiko Akiyoshi's big band, Louie Bellson's big band, Loren Schoenberg's big band – different bands around New York, but they weren't steady big bands like the WDR. When I was a guest with Louie Bellson I checked out the scene. I knew John Marshall was trying to get the gig. A few people in the band asked me if I'd be interested. I thought about it. In New York, of course, you never say "I'm not interested". Then you automatically lose the gig. Of course I said "I'd love to do the gig. Let me know if it comes up". I didn't hear from them at that point until about two years later. Then I got a phone call and they said: "You're still on the list!". I said "What list?". "The bass chair at the WDR Big Band". "Oh okay. Bring me back over!" So I went over there for a few more projects and I realized that the audition process was getting very serious. That was 1993. I played a project with Maria Schneider, then I played a studio project, then a project with Jens Winther, a Danish composer, where I played electric bass. Then they offered me the gig afterwards. I had to decide, together with my wife Robin, if we wanted to leave New York. She was working as a jazz pianist and we just had our first baby. We thought it would be good to get out of New York. And if we move somewhere, why not to the middle of Europe. It turned out to be a great decision. I love the WDR Big Band, I've been there 26 years now and it's always a thrill to work with the colleagues in the band. Everybody's got their own personality, there's lots of great talent in the band. I'm happy that we still have got government support to continue the service that we do there. It's not a given that a government financed radio station would have an ensemble like that. So far we're doing okay. I think we've provided a good service during the lockdown. We've brought out a play-along app, which a lot of people are using. We're doing a lot of live streams, so we are still providing a lot of culture, big band music, jazz music to the fans and listeners.
Apart from the structural framework: Is playing in the WDR Big Band different than playing in a big band in the US?
It is different. In the US most big bands are working on a very tight budget. So the rehearsal time is usually very limited in the US. The focus is on "Ok, let's play through this music. Are there any mistakes? Let's work it out. Get it done fast, get it recorded or ready for the performance". In the WDR Big Band we have the luxury, much like a symphony orchestra, to have several days to prepare new music. That is a huge difference, just the luxury of having the time. That's one thing that sets the WDR apart: The attention to detail and the quality of the ensemble playing. Just because we have enough time to rehearse all these intricate parts and work things out, so they're close to perfect and precise. The other thing with American bands: It's usually a big band full of jazz soloists who happen to be playing in a big band. With the WDR Big Band, it's a group of musicians who love to play big band ensemble music. Everybody in the band is a jazz soloist, but the focus is on the ensemble playing and the team work. A big generalization between a European band and an US band is also: The Europeans want to know specifically what the musical instruction is. This might be the result of having too much time to rehearse, but they want to know: "Do we really want to play this mezzoforte, crescendo to forte? Or is it a sforzando? What about this one note, is it really long?" There is a lot of discussion about that. In the US there is some of that discussion, especially in studio dates. But a lot of the big bands will just say: "You'll hear it, you know how it's supposed to sound. Let's just play it, see what it sounds like and then deal with it. If we miss a crescendo or some dynamics somewhere or someone's playing too loud, that's part of the jazz experience." With the WDR Big Band we try to go more into detail to get all the intricacies of the music worked out.
How does a regular year with the WDR Big Band look like for you?
It's a full time position. If you subtract travel days and double rehearsal days, we are doing 40 to 50 concerts a year and maybe 140 to 150 days in the studio. A typical schedule would be: We rehearse Monday to Friday and do a concert on Saturday. Or maybe we do two concerts, Saturday and Sunday. We have four to five days to rehearse a project and then we do one or two concerts. How the schedule exactly falls also depends on if we have guest soloists or if there's a conductor coming in from somewhere else. Then the focus of the band is sort of: We divide our time between traditional big band music, modern, exploratory big band music like the WDR jazz Prize or the Composer's Corner, where young composers get to perform their works with us. And then we might do Fusion or Latin projects, which are sort of away from the tradition. Then we do education projects, maybe a quarter of the time. We just did a project with the Sesame Street dog (laughs), a children's project. We're trying to bring kids the sound of jazz music, because that's something they don't hear all the time.
You're also playing electric bass in the WDR Big Band sometimes.
I like playing electric bass. I consider myself an upright bass player first, but I started out as a teenager playing electric bass. So in a way, whenever I'm picking up the electric bass, I feel like I'm 15 again. I like playing it. There's so many electric bass players who have taken the instrument, especially the solistic styles, to a really high level. Henrik Lindner from Dirty Loops or Frederico Malaman, players like this who are just amazing soloists on the electric bass. I'm more in the Will Lee style, where you play for the music, you try to lay down a pocket and make the music feel good. I like playing electric bass, but I don't practise it all the time. So when I see I have a project where I have to play electric bass coming up in two or three weeks, then I start playing it every day so I won't be surprised with myself when I get to the gig.
Another recent project of yours were the new instructional videos you did for Discover Double Bass. Can you talk a bit about that?
I've had a nice relationship with Geoff Chalmers from Discover Double Bass. A couple of years ago, we put out two bass courses. One called "Building Up", which is more fundamentals and one called "Stretching Out", which is more advanced fundamentals. Then this past August, in the middle of the pandemic, there was a little window when I could still travel. So I went to Manchester, England and we recorded two new courses. The next course is coming out in February. It's called "Tell Your Story", it's about how to solo as a jazz bass player, how to improvise your solos. Basically I take a lot of lessons that I either teach in my private lessons or things I have written about for instance for Bass Player Magazine or Bassmagazine.com. I take these lessons and present them in video form. I try to demonstrate a technique. We have a trio there and make a play-along track. Then we have a PDF so people can download the etudes or the exercises, play-along and check out my version of whatever it is I try to explain. People seem to like it. It's a great service. Discover Double Bass features a lot of fantastic instructions from great players like Katie Thiroux, Lauren Pierce, Geoff Chalmers himself or David Allan Moore, the great classical player. There's something there for everybody. In one course you get 30, 40, 50 lessons and it's about the price of one private lesson with a good teacher. A lot of people are benefiting from that online style. It's hard to teach one on one on Zoom or Skype these days. I do it and I teach at the conservatory in Maastricht, so I teach my students online. But sometimes there's a lag time, it's hard to hear the quality of sound if you're playing bass over the internet live. I think these videos from Discover Double Bass fill that gap. You have good quality videos that you can watch over and over and then practise on your own.
"Ideas are cheap, it's implementing the idea that's the tricky part."
Despite the circumstances of the pandemic, has the last year been a good one for you?
I've been very, very lucky, yes. Part of it is just grabbing every opportunity. If I see an opportunity I just say: "Okay, I'll go for it". I've also had things that didn't work out this year, but there's always the next idea. I like to say that ideas are cheap, it's implementing the idea that's the tricky part. That's something I think any musician could use.
I hope asking this is appropriate, but people were very relieved to hear that your health situation has gotten better in the last year.
Thank you for asking. Yes, as I said, I'm very lucky. In 2019 I had a serious health condition. It had been going on for years, but I just found out about it due to back pain. I had back surgery, now I'm on medication for a still ongoing cancer problem. But the medication has everything stabilized and I feel good. I can work, I can play the bass. Hopefully it remains more of a chronic condition than something that's going to cause other problems or have me stop playing the bass. All through the fall of 2019 it took a while to get my strength back enough. But in the beginning of 2020 I was able to play gigs again. It was very difficult in the beginning.
I can imagine that. The double bass is a physically quite demanding instrument already while carrying it.
At the beginning I couldn't carry the bass due to doctors' orders. I had back surgery and they said that I couldn't lift anything more than five kilos. My colleagues were very helpful, the stage manager would put the bass right where I needed it. All I had to do was to pick up the bass and play. When I was finished I'd put the bass down and they'd pack it away. That lasted for a few months, until I got the okay and I felt good enough and strong enough to pick things up and carry the bass. Everyday's like a gift now to me. When I wake up I say "Oh, I feel pretty good! Let me go play the bass or let me go start my next project".
What's next for you?
The second new Discover Double Bass course will probably come out later this spring. So there's some work involved with that. I have ideas all the time, and ideas are fun to think of and to write down. And once you write them down, it becomes a project. Basically I just want to keep playing, maybe do some more trio gigs with Hans Dekker and Billy Test and then see what 2021 brings. I've got a lot of ongoing projects. The one thing I did notice in the first pandemic time in March: After my illness, when I could go back and play again, we were told to stay home. So I started practising things I hadn't practised in years. It was sort of amazing in a way. It's one of those existential questions: If you could practise anything you wanted to, what would it be? Well, there's so many things to practise. It's an unending list. I just enjoyed playing the bass everyday for myself. So if it comes to that again with yet another strict lockdown, I think the bass will keep me busy. But hopefully this whole pandemic will pass soon.
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