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Chuck Deardorf: Hanging On To The Groove


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As a bass player, you're singing, but you're also hanging on to the groove.
—Chuck Deardorf
Bassist Chuck Deardorf has gained a reputation for virtuosity and professionalism over a career that has thus far spanned 40 years. He has been the first call bassist in Seattle for most of his career, playing with some of the most renowned musicians in the history of jazz. For many years, despite having a prolific local jazz scene, the now burgeoning city of Seattle was considered a remote outpost in the jazz world. Many touring musicians would arrive on the scene as individuals, declining to bring a full touring ensemble. The local scene would provide the band drawing from a remarkably deep pool of musicians, often meaning that Deardorf would be on bass.

Deardorf eventually joined the ranks of the esteemed Cornish College of the Arts, ascending to leading a well regarded jazz program that featured such luminaries as Gary Peacock, Hadley Caliman, and Jovino Santos Neto.

With a reputation as a top shelf sideman well established, Deardorf released his first recording as a leader in 2011. On the eve of the release of his second recording, Perception (Origin, 2019), Deardorf was kind enough to sit down for an interview to provide insights into his career, approach to music, and life as an in demand sideman.

All About Jazz: Tell us about your upbringing, and how music entered the picture. Were your parents musical?

Chuck Deardorf: My mother was, she had played cornet is high school well. She played stride piano for herself, and for us. She passed away about seven years ago, and she had Alzheimer's ten years before that. Before that started, I brought a DAT machine over her house and recorded her. I did another session where I played with her. For her 80th birthday, I made a CD. John Bishop made up a cover, and I mastered it. I gave it to her as a birthday present.

AAJ: How special and beautiful!

CD: I had brothers and sisters who played, so it wasn't mandatory, but it was encouraged.

AAJ: Were you studying music in school, or was this a pursuit outside of academia?

CD: Starting in fifth grade I played trombone through college. I was a pretty good lead player, I didn't improvise. I picked up bass at fifteen to play in a rock and roll band. I didn't know anything. I went to Evergreen St. College in the early 70's, they had a jazz band. They had an 8-Track studio there. It was a great experience, I really learned how to listen to what I was doing.

AAJ: Can you identify a turning point that made you realize you were going to become a professional musician? Was there a defining moment or was it more of a gradual thing?

CD: That came later, after college. I was making $300 a week in 1975. Rent was $100 a month. I started playing jazz on electric. I realized I needed to play upright to get the good gigs. I was pretty much self taught. Later on I went and studied with Ron Simon, from the Seattle Symphony. This was later, in my forties. It was the only thing I wanted to do. In high school I did music and art. I was painting and drawing, and I wasn't bad. I worked a couple of day jobs. I realized I was working harder for less. That was a great motivator. I did realize early on from the teachers that I had, that to get really good at something, you had to work. So that was my goal, to get really good playing the bass. When I got into jazz, I realized I wasn't much of a composer, so I had to get really good. That was going to be my voice.

AAJ: And you did.

CD: I'm still working on it Paul. It never ends, that's what I love about it. Before I learned upright, I heard Eberhard Weber playing in Gary Burton's band live, and I loved the sound. I took one of my Fenders, and took the frets off of it. Shortly after, I heard Jaco (Pastorius) for the first time and realized someone had that idea already! I was into rock and R&B, I didn't understand jazz. I heard Charlie Parker and thought that I didn't understand what this is. Bands like Weather Report had more of the sound and timbre of what I had been listening to.

AAJ: In the late seventies and eighties you were sequestered firmly at the old Jazz Alley in Seattle's University District. Talk about your time there, who you played with and the impact it had on your musical persona.

CD: It started with Parnell's actually. It was the first jazz club in Seattle that I worked in. I was working a lot with Denny Goodhew, and Barney McClure at that time. Barney was getting gigs there at the time with his own band, and backing up people like Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Chet Baker, Zoot Sims, Monty Alexander, just a whole bunch of people like that. Playing gigs like that at Parnell's and then at Jazz Alley was my graduate school. I never went to graduate school, but that was it. For a while, Jazz Alley went down to just piano and bass. I got to do two weeks with Kenny Barron, two weeks with Alexander, Kenny Burrell. That's where I met George Cables. Finally he brought drums in and Dean Hodges would be on the gig. It was a fun time, I learned a lot.

In 1989 or so, I got a call from Larry Coryell, who was going to work a week at Jazz Alley. He was supposed to have Buster Williams, with Stanley Powell and Billy Hart. He called me and told me Buster couldn't make it , and wanted to know if I could do the gig. It was great, there I was all week playing the gig with Larry, and one by one every bassist in Seattle came in with a smile on their face, and then they see me. They came to see Williams.

AAJ: You have been an active mentor in education, most notably as Director of Jazz Studies at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. How does your own upbringing in jazz parallel your approach as an educator?

CD: I was the Jazz Program director at Cornish. Hugely. Being self taught, I learned all of the pitfalls of that. At the same time, I learned that if your determined enough you can learn how to do stuff. Do the work, not just the schoolwork. Do your own independent digging down to learning your instrument, listening, transcribing, taking the time to get good at what you're doing.

AAJ: And do it because you enjoy it and are inspired by it.

CD: Yes, and if you're not inspired by it, then you should be getting paid really well.

AAJ: You have played with a number of jazz legends over the years, as the first call bassist in the Pacific Northwest. Through it all you have maintained a personal style that is supportive, and at the same time, out front of the music. Talk about playing within different styles and forms of artistry with this great variety of artists, all the while establishing your own original voice.

CD: I think it's imperative. You do it through other people, it doesn't happen in a vacuum. Part of what I do as an improviser comes from being a trombone player. I could play lines, I already had that in my head. When you're a bassist, everyone is pounding it in your head to play the root. When it's time to solo, play what's in your head. You have to find a way to just sing. As a bassist, you're singing, but you're also hanging on to the groove.

AAJ: You push the beat, but it is still somehow relaxed and swinging. Is there anything technical you would say about that, if someone wanted to learn to play like you?

CD Lean in, lean into the time, unless it's a style of music where the rhythm and time is right down the middle. Straight R&B, funk, is right down the middle. It feels nervous if you push it. The stuff that gets me excited is when you're not rushing, but you're all moving forward. You're moving time forward and it's exciting to me. When that makes sense, it's what I naturally feel.

AAJ: I've gotten the impression that sometimes bandleaders aren't very interested in a bassist bringing a lot to the bandstand. The bassist might feel like bringing up the level of their contribution would not be warranted, if not actively disliked! Do you strike a balance between what a bandleader is asking for, and your own artistic tendencies?

CD: Oh sure, you have to. We have a job as well as the art. There's the art, and then there's the job if you're in the rhythm section. You have to do them both, and it depends on the music. If you're going to play completely free form, that's different, although it still requires that someone takes care of business at home sonically.

AAJ: Charlie Haden would be a classic example of that.

CD: Charlie Haden was a huge influence for me because I was listening to all these people who were spitting out all these notes, then all of a sudden here is someone playing very simply. But it was beautiful and the sound was just unbelievable. It's like the eye of the hurricane. Same thing with Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Rick Laird. He was the only guy in the band who hardly played any notes. Ron Carter in Miles' quintet in the 60's, same thing. If everyone is playing everything all the time, it doesn't do it for me.

AAJ: What are some of the keys to success as a side musician that you can share with young musicians coming up?

CD: If you want to play with someone, you have to listen to their music. Listen to the recordings, and see what they're about. That's a starting point. Then you can put your own spin on it, and make them comfortable. Then they're more apt to let you do your own thing. If you come in and say, "I only play one way, so deal with it," they'll deal with it by never calling you again. To me, part of the job is to make the band sound good. Make it feel good all the time. Then what you do on top of it is just gravy. It's a simple equation that sometimes people don't understand. I have a story that I should tell you.

Barney Kessel, the great guitarist, is on the road with a pick up trio. The bassist is young, and has been listening to a lot of Scott LaFaro. He's playing all this stuff, thumb positions. At break he goes up to Kessel and says, "Mr. Kessel, it's an honor to play with you, do you have any advice for me?" Kessel responds, "No kid you sound great, only problem is, you and I both need a bassist."

AAJ: Some lessons can only be learned through experience!

CD: The best kind of advice.

AAJ: Your career as a sideman and educator has been prolific. You released your first album, Transparence (Origin, 2011), in 2011, and will soon release a new album, Perception (Origin, 2019). Tell us about the differences in approach and the music itself.

CD: On Transparence I got into the deeper recording, did some overdubs, slicing and dicing, just because you can. One of the differences with this record is that I wanted to make it just a blowing record. We did a couple takes of each tune, I didn't overdub any solos. I wanted the energy of playing live. I wanted it to be open, here's some tunes that I really like. I didn't have them heavily arranged. I had some ideas, we kicked them around, and we just played them.

AAJ: Perception features compositions from a diverse group of composers, including James Knapp, Keith Jarrett, Steve Swallow, and Steve Winwood. You co-wrote one piece with Matt Wilson entitled "Grain Waves." Talk about your methodology of choosing material to record, as well as the personnel.

CD There's two groups. The first part is with Matt Wilson, Dawn Clement, and Hans Teuber. That's five tunes on the record. Matt just brings this special vibe to whatever he does. Their openness, they don't play preconceived stuff. Certain musicians tend to do things they tend to do, and that's great, but this one I wanted to be more unpredictable. Here's a template, here's the head, let's blow and see what happens. I like what happened.

The other section is a quartet with Gary Hobbs, Marc Seales and Thomas Marriott. We did three tunes. That was another dynamic, but I've been playing with Marc for forty years. We met when we both lived in Tacoma. It's that same sense of openness, I wanted to bring in that dynamic as well. With Tom on trumpet, I just love his sound.

AAJ: You have a reputation of being a perfectionist, in the sense that your work is always perceived to be at a consistently high level. Do you carry that same expectation of perfection from the bandstand to the studio?

CD: I do? Well, at one point I had to stop listening to it. It's like a painter adding and adding. It's not like changing a tune, more like sonic stuff. I'm very into making as clear a recording as possible.

AAJ:: Who did you work with for this recording?

CD: The first five tunes were done at Studio Litho with Floyd Reitsma, and the last three at Studio X with Reed Ruddy. I wanted to get into Studio X before they closed, and I mixed there as well. The thing about X is that he still had a lot of the old analog stuff in there. Hopefully he's going to reopen with it. I like technology and also the old ways of doing it

AAJ: There have been some amazing musical personalities over the course of your career in Seattle, including fellow colleagues at Cornish. Talk about some of the musicians that have impacted your career over the past 40 years.

CD: How long to you have? Bill Ramsay, I started playing with him right out of college. He's just a wonderful player and human being. He's ninety and still playing. Hadley Caliman, I just loved him, he was a character with a capital C. When he was teaching, I was his administrator. He had the most unorthodox, unacademic way of teaching. I remember him yelling at drummers, and them coming out of the classroom in tears. A year later they're coming back thanking him for doing that. It was what they needed.

Floyd Standifer I got to play with a bit, such a wonderful soul.

Jay Thomas of course. I got to play with him when he first came back to Seattle, when his father Marvin bought Parnell's. I got to know the old Jay a little bit, and then luckily, the new Jay evolved.

Gary Peacock was teaching at Cornish when I first arrived. I started teaching there because Gary didn't want to teach the electric bass students. Jim Knapp hired me. I never studied with Gary, but I got to observe him a lot. He was and is an amazing artist.

Jim Knapp was kind of a mentor for me when I first got to Seattle. I played in his composers and improvisers orchestra. He helped me get the gig at Cornish. He's just a musical fountain.

Buddy Catlett was a great guy. I loved hearing him play because he played who he was. He didn't try to sound like anybody but him. He took his time during a solo, he was melodic, played time. I learned a lot from him. Don't try to play like anybody else, play who you are.

Barney McClure helped me a lot in my younger days. We got to play with a lot of people together.

Bud Shank was another who was very helpful to me. He could be real grainy at times.

Denny Goodhew was huge for us. We lived together for a couple of years up on Capitol Hill, and played all the time. He was an amazing, gifted musician.

I met George Cables 35 years ago. One of my very favorite musicians and people. We have spent a lot of time together, rooming together at Jazz Port Townsend. He's like the Black Knight in Monty Python-through all he's been through, he just keeps coming back.

AAJ: You mentioned saxophonist Denny Goodhew. He isn't playing anymore due to a series of health issues, but he was incredible. You would see him on a bebop gig one night, and playing the next with Ralph Towner, Gary Peacock, and Jerry Granelli.

CD: There used to be a jam session every Monday night at Parnell's with me, Denny Goodhew, Dave Peck, Dave Peterson, and Dean Hodges. One Monday night was the night before Phil Woods' band was in for a week, so they were there sitting at the bar. Phil was getting really lit, and Denny was doing his thing. He knew that Phil Woods was there, so he was extra amped up. So he was done, and gets off the bandstand, and Phil walks right up to him and says, "You're a loud motherfucker." Denny said, "Well yeah." Phil responded, "Yeah, I like that! Then they started talking about saxophones. Talk about two characters!

AAJ: Putting this all into a linear perspective, you were getting some opportunities at a very young age.

CD Another band I got to hear a lot when I was underage in college was Red Kelly's band. He had just opened his joint in 1974, and I used to sneak in there. Bill Ramsay was playing, Red, Jack Percival. These guys were drinking copious amounts of alcohol and just swingin.' They were having so much fun, and I realized, wow, I can do this. Red was always really nice to me, very encouraging. Then there's the great saxophonist Don Lanphere. He picked up Dean Hodges, Marc Seales and me. We were so young. That's where I realized that I had to learn how to do this right now. I'm really glad I did, but people don't do that in Seattle much anymore. They sure do in New York though.

AAJ: And in Chicago and Philly.

CD: My first trip to New York was with Don, Marc, and Dean in 1984. He played the West End Cafe for 10 days. It was right near Columbia. We played there and all these bebop players who Don used to play with in the 40's and 50's came out and sat in. It was really fun. The first night we played 2 ½ hours straight of fast tunes. I finally took the bass, and set it on the ground and said, "Don we're taking a break. You can keep going if you want." He was just so happy to be back there and playing. He was great, very supportive of the younger guys. Very positive guy. He had been to the brink and came back.

AAJ: You have battled kidney disease, and received a kidney transplant, a gift of love from your brother. Tell us about that experience.

CD I had a kidney transplant in 2011, just after the last album came out. My father was a kidney patient, his father died of kidney disease, so it's a hereditary thing. Out of five children, I was the only one who got it. My younger brother, bless his heart, got himself thoroughly tested, I was a few months away from having to do dialysis. He donated. I still like him! It was an incredible experience. It was very humbling, and I realized my life would be very different now if that hadn't happened.

AAJ: The trio format in jazz is especially compelling for bassists, bringing the sound close to the front of the music. What are some of the unique aspects of the trio for you as a player?

CD: There is more opportunity to be a counter voice, to play contrapuntal and be a second solo voice. Of course the obvious example is Scott LaFaro with Bill Evans. Gary Peacock who was a contemporary of LaFaro was doing it in Los Angeles. The thing you have to remember is you still have a responsibility, but it's more abstract. To use a painting metaphor, instead of detailing, and making it look realistic, you're doing more of a Picasso thing. You still have to have one foot on the ground. You're doing more interactive things in the best situations. I've played with a lot of piano players who just want time. Monty Alexander was like that, and it was great.

AAJ: Are you as passionate about the electric bass as you are about the upright?

CD: Yes, they're two different voices. It's like tenor and soprano. Unlike a lot of bassists who double, I came at it from electric before upright, whereas most tend to add electric and start with upright. I just see it as two different sides, just different tools. It opens things up, and it depends on the music. What does the music need? I like fretless because it can be very expressive. In April, it will be 50 years since I've been playing electric bass. It's tricky. On upright there are positions that are set from 500 years of classical study. Fretless electric, you really have to put your fingers in the right spot, or it's out of tune.

AAJ: Have you performed with other bassists, either in an all bass group, or a two bass band like Coltrane's efforts with Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman?

CD: Denny Goodhew had a double bass quartet back in the day. Dean Johnson and me on bass, Dean Hodges on drums. The fun thing about playing in a two bass band is you can both walk, but you walk contrapuntally. You stay out of each other's way, try not to be in the same place, but it's really fun.

AAJ Is there anything you've always wanted to accomplish but just haven't gotten around to doing yet?

CD: There are people I'd love to play with still. I've been really fortunate to have played with a lot of people who aren't here anymore that unfortunately, younger cats won't get the chance to play with. I'd like to tour a little bit more. At some point, I'll wind my teaching gig down at Cornish. I still love teaching, so not yet.

AAJ: What's the balance in music between intellect and soul?

CD: For me, the technical part of it is the means to the end. It's not the art. It enables you to forget about what type of songs you're playing on. You don't really forget, you put it in your body, you put it in the back of your head, and that way you can let your heart play, and it will play things that you want, that you hear. At least as close as you can get. That's what we're all striving for, playing what you're hearing in your head. The technique is a means to it. There are people who have no technique at all and still can play what they hear. Take a look at some of the old blues players.

AAJ: Jazz is of course, an extension of the blues.

CD: It is for me, but not for everybody. Some people are coming at it from new music, something that doesn't have anything to do with the time or the harmony. That's great if that's what you hear. It's not what I hear.

AAJ: Finally, what would you be if you weren't a bassist?

CD: I might be an artist, but I don't know if I'm good enough to do that. I'm a big history buff, I could be a history professor.

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