Bertram Turetzky: Contrabass Pioneer

Robert Bush By

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The lazy guys who play just like they did twenty years ago, don't interest me much. I like the guys who are always moving forward, always trying something new.
Contrabassist Bertram Turetzky's career is nothing short of extraordinary. He almost single handedly redefined the role of the bass in 20th Century classical music, from one of back row support to that of featured and celebrated soloist. Even within the confines of classical music, Turetzky's range is huge: he is a master of early, pre- Bach music; a noted performer of chamber music; a veteran of symphonic ensembles; and he's played everything from Brahms and Strauss to 20th Century mavericks like John Cage and Edgard Varese. Well over 300 composers have written works specifically for him to perform. He released the first classical LP led by a contrabassist in 1964, Recital Of New Music (Imaginary Chicago Records). He has studied with New York Ballet principal bassist David Walter, whose other students included Ornette Coleman sideman David Izenson and noted virtuoso Richard Davis. He has been teaching the instrument at a master level, since the late fifties.

It is, perhaps, as a teacher that he is most revered. One way of measuring a teacher's importance is by the success of his former students. Turetzky's record in this regard is almost unbelievable. One of his student's, Manfred Hecking, plays in the prestigious Vienna Philharmonic. The winner of the Thelonious Monk 2009 Bass Competition, Joey Johnson is a former pupil. John Leftwich, who went on to play with Carmen McRae, and Rickie Lee Jones studied with him, as did virtuosos Mark Dresser, and Bob Magnusson. He took a young, raw bassist who sang, Kristin Korb, and opened doors for her. Perhaps his most famous student is bassist Nathan East, (Fourplay, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins). East got an offer from John McLaughlin to join his "One Truth Band" in the 1970's. He turned down the offer to finish his studies at U.C.S.D. with Turetzky.

Even before his career in classical music, Turetzky loved jazz. His depth of experience in the many genres that define the idiom is likewise astonishing. As a young Jewish kid, he jammed with black Swing-era stars in the 1950s—playing, to this day, with an Ellington repertory band. Charles Mingus accepted him as a student, (though Turetzky backed out). When playing mainstream jazz, Turetzky's sound, time and ideas are totally authentic. He plays with a full, dark, acoustic sound that is reflective of players like Mingus and Ray Brown (two of his favorites), while maintaining his own distinctive identity.

One of Turetzky's defining characteristics is his creation of what are known as extended-techniques. You could say that he wrote the book on extended contrabass techniques—literally. His master edition of these ideas, The Contemporary Contrabass (University of California Press, 1974), is still the standard practicum for both virtuoso bass studies, and a kind of cookbook for New Music composers. Indeed, many of those 300 commissions were written for him after composers got a look at what the bass was capable of.

Turetzky was playing world music at least 30 years before anyone thought of calling it that. Turetzky's vast experience in all of these other fields informs his masterful work as a free improviser. He has recorded many albums for multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia's Nine Winds Records, often with Golia himself. Likewise the Israeli record label Kadima Collective Recordings has begun to feature him, most recently on Triangulation II (2010), with Golia and trombonist extraordinaire George Lewis.

Despite having the distinction of being one of the most recorded contrabassist's in America, Turetzky isn't even thinking about resting on his laurels. He's got a restless, inquisitive muse, is looking forward to projects with Anthony Braxton and Bobby Bradford, and has begun writing his autobiography.

Chapter Index
  1. I'm Still Around. The Early Years
  2. Hartford Jazz Scene
  3. New York Reconnaissance / Meeting Mingus
  4. Lack Of Classical Bass Repertoire
  5. New York Debut
  6. Moving to California. U.C.S.D.
  7. Stellar Students
  8. Amplifiers. Solid Body Versus Acoustic Basses
  9. Peers and Contemporaries
  10. Vinny Golia, George Lewis and the Future

I'm Still Around. The Early Years

All About Jazz: I know from talking to you earlier that you are interested and eager to let people know what you're doing now.

Bertram Turetzky: Well, yeah; you know, I was born in 1933, I'm 77, and people say "Well you don't go downtown any more, you pick and choose your gigs" and I don't travel much anymore, I don't enjoy that so much, plus there's always the issue of are they going to have an instrument that speaks to me, so that I can do my very best, because you know, it's important to always do your very best. So yeah, people ask, "Is he still around?," I'm thinking about putting out a CD, and calling it I'm Still Around.

AAJ: Not dead yet...

BT: [Laughter]...not dead yet.

AAJ: Let's start at the beginning, you were born in...

BT: I was born in Norwich, Connecticut. It's south of Hartford. It was an old river port, and it came up from the river shaped like a rose, so it is "The Rose" of Connecticut. It was the place that the Mohican Indians roamed. As a little boy, there was a library at the corner of Broadway and Rose and they had a lot of books about American Folklore and, as I kid, I used to love reading books about the west and these American heroes like Paul Bunyan and Cochise and Crazy Horse. I was there recently and it brought back all of those memories.

AAJ: So, growing up, why music?

BT: That's a good question. There was no music in the family, we've been going back, trying to find it, there might have been a cantor way back. My father was a business man, he was ah, not very, no he was successful, he just didn't like it very much, and my mother was from that area between Russia and Eastern Europe. They discovered when I was 5 years old that I'm a bronchial asthmatic, so I spent a lot of winters in the hospital. So, when you're in the hospital, what are you going to do? You can't run around, you can't play games, in those days, there was no television. So I began to be a speed reader, and one of those writers I really liked was Mark Twain, and in Twain's writing, there are all these references to the banjo, and I thought, "What is a banjo?" I looked it up and saw what it was, and one day in grammar school, a note came around offering music lessons—one of the instruments being taught was the banjo. So my dad shelled out 35 bucks for a banjo...

So, I also played with some of the people from high school in my same socio- economic background as me, so that was one group, in fact that was the Jewish group...you see culturally, I lived in a bubble, you know, an orthodox Jewish house, everything was done that way, you know my grandmother never ate dinner with us, everything was proscribed in a certain way, so we ate Kosher foods you see, I never had a hamburger till I was in college, unless my mother made it with chopped Kosher meat.

So, I had those guys and I had the older musicians and I had friends, one of whom was an older black guy who played boogie-woogie piano and I jammed with him. So I started to really enjoy playing, and then, I started to hear jazz music, and that was it for me. And the instrument that did it was the bass, because you know, Robert, that the bass is the glue between the rhythm and the harmony. And I remember, it's like holding everything together, it's like Atlas holding up the world.

AAJ: Do you remember your first bass?

BT: Oh yes, I do. I don't remember exactly how old I was, but it was fifty dollars. I've traced that bass for a while because it stayed in CT. and when I sold it, I sold it for more, and it got bought and sold by various people until it was worth several thousand dollars at a certain point. I mean, I didn't try to make money at it—I'm not a business man, I consider myself an artist and a student, and a teacher.

So, anyway, I got a teacher and started to learn, and at age sixteen, I'm learning to drive and driving down the Connecticut shore, me and the guy who is teaching me and we run out of gas. A couple stopped, and their name was Ed and Val Owens, which I still remember. My friend Bob, who I was with, said, "Yeah, if you'll give me a ride to get gas, he'll stay behind, because all he does is talk about jazz. He is starting to drive me crazy !" And they said , "Good—because that's all we talk about, too!"

So they came back and said, "We have a friend, Eugene Sedric who's coming to visit next weekend, you should come over and bring your instrument." That Eugene Sedric was the clarinetist for the
Fats Waller band. He was from St. Louis and was called "Honeybear," and he was a sweetheart of a guy. So I came down there on Saturday with my guitar and a fake-book and he played and improvised, and I played and improvised, and afterwards he said nice things and then he asked if I played the bass too, and I said yes. He told me he had a gig the next week on the shore, and he said, "Maybe you'll come and play with us, would you like to do that?" and I said, "Well, sure."

And I did that quite a few times—he would bring a lot of the old black swing stars, and they were all very nice to me. They gave me advice like when playing with the trombone, stay out of his register, when playing with the clarinet, do something different. It was just like orchestrating, but they didn't call it that. So, at that point, the bass sort of took over my life.
About Bertram Turetzky
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