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Chuck Deardorf: Hanging On To The Groove

Paul Rauch By

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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.
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