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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.

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