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Dominic Duval: Follow Your Melody

By Published: October 4, 2010
What Makes a Jazz Musician?

AAJ: And so you became a jazz musician.

DD:Well, as the world turns, a jazz musician is a musician who has mastered the art of extemporaneous music making [improvisation] as well as composition and theory. It has taken me a long time to "get to the bridge," as Sonny Rollins ably put it. You need to feel you have something personal to say and have the facilities to say it; it looks like it takes almost a life time.

AAJ: Ttell me about your musical education. Are you self-taught?

DD: I think a person can get education in many different ways. There's a formal education, of course, which allows you to study at a slow pace over a period of years, assimilating information. Not that much about music, but generally all education. As you go further on in the educational process you move up in the way you participate in it—college, university then a master's degree, finally a PhD. By the time you're finished with all these studies, supposedly you then have a rounded education. You might have 20 years of studying under your belt, but only five years worth of usable information.

I've always believed that educators should try to teach people that are well suited for certain trades. Let's find students that are naturally gifted, when we can. Now everyone does not have musical talent, or at least there will be varying degrees, I will agree. Doing this in principal may mean smaller classes, and less money in the various programs, However, I think the outcome will be worth the effort.

As an example, we should take a look at Mozart the composer-musician. I believe Mozart wrote his first symphony at the age of five. Do we think today, that he may have been better educated, and thus was the reason he excelled? I don't think so. I think he had a special talent/gift, more so then almost any of his peers.

Mozart while living in the period in history and geographical location as he did, had no problems with his learning process, mainly his Father. This allowed him to achieve what he finally was able too, musically speaking, that is. To conclude this line of thinking, his accomplishments would have been as great with or without a formal education. John Coltrane, the same goes for him.

Getting back to myself, I've always believed I had a special musical talent, ever since I can remember. I think I can say now after 64 years, that I was always meant to be a musician. I never had the patience to study formally; this was much too slow for me. I studied at my own pace. I've always had this ability to see music as a very simple process. It helped me to get to where I am today. Even in my younger years, when I was just learning to play, I still played better than most people in my peer group. Well, maybe not always better, but at least more original and with personality.

AAJ: Talent and hard work—is that all?

DD: There's still a physical aspect of doing something on any instrument. You have to build up a resistance to certain natural elements that cause different types of stresses on the body. Each instrument has its set of rules and regulations. If you don't know the fundamentals of an instrument, you won't be able to make music on it. Correction, maybe you can make music or some kind of sound, but to the average ear this would translate into mostly noise.

So, if I was to give you a bass and tell you to play something, and you had never played the instrument before, you would still be able to play music, or at least some notes. Would these notes be anything that you would consider musically worthwhile? I think not. And I am sure that most others listening to you would feel the same way.

Music, at least has to include a certain amount of technique and the ability to play in tune. If not this, then a natural ability that makes restrictions, brought on by the absence of technique, on the instrumentalist.

AAJ: I have always been amazed by the strength and stamina musicians demonstrate while playing a concert.

DD: There's an element to that which needs to be taken into consideration. Let's say you are a professional carpenter and employed to build a house. So you work your eight hours per day and, of course, you're tired at the end of the day. Mainly because it's a full day's work.

A musician also builds his house which is a performance. He'll go to that performance and he won't think about how he's going to be paid, or how much time he's going to put into it. He will continue to make music until he collapses. For a musician it's not so unusual to have that type of mindset.

When I used to work for Cecil Taylor, he used to play for an hour-and-a-half, sometimes two hours. It now seems impossible, when I think of those nights. I would say to myself, after it was over, "How did I ever do that?" But during thise extended periods, I never had any thoughts about time.

How you come to the job—and I will call music a job—has a lot to do with the type of stamina you're able to conjure up at that time; your health is very important.

If you are going to play somebody's wedding and you know that you have to play four hours, then that's what you're prepared to do. However, let's say the bride requests you play for another 10 minutes, I think I might complain and say: "I can't, I am so exhausted, I can't play another note." Now fast-forward to a crowded jazz club in the city somewhere. If you're playing music that you really love, you wouldn't care if they asked you to play for another five hours. You would be glad to do so, because you wouldn't feel stressed. You may feel great that people want to hear more music first; secondly, you'd have this incredible amount of energy and level of satisfaction.

The aspect of time or exhaustion is never important until the next day, when you look at your hands and you say "My God, I am covered with blisters! And now have bleeding coming from these little holes on my finger tips." But during the time of the performance, it never enters my mind.

So I think the stamina comes with being able to stand away from what you do, and do it with kind of dedication and passion that kind of replaces stamina with just sheer joy.

AAJ: Who were you first collaborators, and which partners, from your early years, are still around?

DD: Musicians that I originally started playing music with at an early age—most probably none of these people are still playing music today. There are many sub-chapters in my musical history, I was playing with a wide range of musicians, very few of them have I ever heard from via the internet or the media.

I am often asked the question: "Why did you stop playing for that long period in the 1970s?" I decided to stop playing music, I never intended to play a musical instrument ever again. I sold my only bass, and was prepared to live my life as a normal person, whatever that means. My main reason was mostly for my physical and mental wellbeing.

To mention anyone's name wouldn't be fair to them. Many of these periods I speak of now are better off if left mostly to memories. This dream that I had, of playing music professionally at this level, was just a dream.

It's only in the last fifteen years or so that this has become a reality. Most of my life as a musician has been about trying to create repertoire. Working on technique and the ability that allows me to play as well as I can.

It has been a challenge to get to where I am today. If you take the time to listen to my lines, you will find them very unique. If you could put me up against a hundred bass players and try to pick out my playing, it would not be that difficult to recognize. My choice of notes, as well as the harmonies I use and the unique way I execute through the bass, should make it easy. Now I am not speaking of my soloing, this mostly applies to my playing as an accompanist.

AAJ: Please tell more about your musical background. Have you worked with big orchestras?

DD: I had a period in my life for about ten years when I would play in some big bands, more than 15-20 pieces. I'm not speaking about classical, only about jazz. Mostly it was to keep my reading chops up. This allowed me to make couple dollars through the union, while at the same time helping with my reading. These big band leaders would pay me a small fee and my expenses, if I would show up and play whatever they were working on—mostly music from composers like Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
and Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
. Some modern jazz people like Thad Jones
Thad Jones
Thad Jones
1923 - 1986
, Mel Lewis
Mel Lewis
Mel Lewis
1929 - 1990
and Slide Hampton
Slide Hampton
Slide Hampton
l; really, too many to mention.

There were lots of charts floating around out there in big band land that leaders could buy, and did. Sometimes a leader would hire me, mainly because bass players were hard to get—ones that could read, anyway. This period allowed me to practice some legitimate reading of bass parts, without having to spend too much time practicing. If not for the big band rehearsals, I would have had to spend more time reading charts that would have accomplished the same thing. Playing with an orchestra took care of that aspect of practice. Many lonesome hours—well-spent, as they were, but nonetheless lonely. Finally there was the social thing. It provided me a chance to hang out with other musicians doing what I liked to do. I enjoyed playing with these bands.

AAJ: Was it a kind of like a workshop?

DD: Yes, a workshop. Except that I was one of the few musicians who actually got paid for playing. The pianist and I, and that's it, I think. Some of the charts were quite difficult, and a few gave me the chance to solo. Ten or fifteen times a year, this orchestra would have paying gigs, in parks and such. When they did they would pay me better. This was constant all the way through the mid-'90s. I was doing that when I was working with Michael Stevens, Mark Whitecage
Mark Whitecage
Mark Whitecage
sax, alto

AAJ: What kind of orchestras?

DD: Maybe 25 musicians, for example: six trumpets; four trombones; seven saxophones. Big jazz orchestras. I played in some classical groups, however that was mostly what is referred to as chamber music. I've never really had an opportunity to play in a legit symphony orchestra. I played along with symphonic recordings but not live. I would get the score for a Beethoven symphony, Mozart or Bartok's pieces, and practiced by playing the bass part along with the recording;, that was fun.

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