Dennis Irwin: Respect the Tradition


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I realized that my quickest growth was gonna come from taking every opportunity to play.
Dennis IrwinIn March of 2008, the jazz world lost the irreplaceable Dennis Irwin, a bassist who was a remarkable musician; a beautiful person generous with his time and his heart; and a scholar and facilitator of musical experiences without equal. Since his passing there have been tributes to this world-class sideman, which enumerate the details of his career. Not too many people know that Irwin began playing bass at 19, after years of classical clarinet and playing drums in marching bands and alto sax in R&B settings. He was first attracted to, and able to play bass in, a lot of free jazz settings.

Irwin has enlightening things to say about the psychoacoustic aspects of playing. His remarkable attention to aesthetics—and extensive experience playing chamber music—yield valuable musical lessons for players and listeners alike. He also discusses using gut strings, playing with Junior Cook, what was at the time the current generation of players, and his own philosophy of playing as a privilege and a spiritual duty.

Chapter Index

  1. Early Days: Coming to the Bass
  2. The Lure of Jazz
  3. Adapting and Driving
  4. Art Blakey
  5. Mel Lewis
  6. Strings and Things
  7. Work Ethic

Early Days: Coming to the Bass

All About Jazz: You told me you started playing bass relatively late, right?

Dennis Irwin: I started bass when I was 19, in college.

AAJ: 'cause you said before that you were...

DI: ...a clarinetist.

AAJ: Where were you going?

DI: North Texas State.

AAJ: It was already a jazz school then right?

DI: Since the Thirties. I went there for the classical thing, not for the jazz. I played a little with Red Garland before I left Texas, I subbed for a couple of weekends. By the time I left, if I had stayed a little longer, I would have gotten some more of that kind of work.

AAJ: But you had hardly been playing at all.

DI: When I left I'd been playing almost three years. I was there five years, started playing in the middle of my second year.

AAJ: So how do you go from that to playing with Red Garland in three years?

DI: Well you just have some sort of idea of where the beat is and there were so few guys, I had a lot of chances to play, so few acoustic players that I was doing more than I really...

AAJ: When was that?

DI: 1971 to '74.

AAJ: That was one of the deathly periods of jazz, so people who were playing acoustic were probably few and far between.

DI: Well, lugging a lot of stuff around with them 'cause there were Fender Rhodes at every gig, guitars and/or congas, dashikis, sideburns.

Dennis Irwin / Matt Wilson's Arts & CraftsAAJ: Well it's definitely interesting that you went from classical clarinet to playing jazz bass. Had you been interested in jazz for a long time?

DI: I played rhythm and blues on saxophone in a bunch of bands in high school. James Brown, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, that kind of stuff appealed to me—Maceo [Parker], Junior Walker, King Curtis. I was playing saxophone in that style.

AAJ: Alto?

DI: Yeah, mostly alto. I hadn't heard Charlie Parker. A friend turned me on to some Coltrane and Count Basie when I was in the 11th grade but it didn't really sink in 'til a couple of years later.

But I realize now part of my predilection for the Wilbur Ware, Jimmy Garrison kind of sound is the simplicity which is the same stuff Fathead, Hank Crawford, Maceo, King Curtis—playing on one chord with the rhythmic thing off of the keynotes, whether it's blues scale notes, or just that little lick, on the dominant or a vamp that James Brown's stuff is built up on.

AAJ: So how did the simplicity of that influence you?

DI: Well because it was funky, not just pop music—the rhythmic displacement, the economy of notes, to make a simple idea stand out.

AAJ: The soloists' stuff or your own ideas?

DI: Well those soloists' stuff I incorporated into my own vocabulary before I was ever thinking about bebop.

AAJ: As a soloist?

DI: Yeah, I was playing those solos in the bands I was in. I would take solos on these little tunes we'd play that would be little fragments here and there verbatim Maceo or Junior Walker or King Curtis. I was playing those tunes in the bands I was working in some in Knoxville, some in Houston, when I finished high school. Those were the guys that I dug the hardest. I didn't realize 'til years later the urgency of making a few notes work for rhythmic effect is similar to what appeals to me about Wilbur, Jimmy Garrison, Henry Grimes, Larry Gales, as opposed to Niels-Henning [Orsted Pedersen] or Scotty [LaFaro].

AAJ: The swing and the conciseness, the urgency, saying a lot...

DI: and being able to convey a message without having done a whole lot of intellectual work too. That was the first thing I was drawn to. I wanted to and was able to incorporate that into playing the bass. I played drums in the marching band all through high school. I played clarinet the first two years, but in the 10th, 11th and 12th grade I told my band director I didn't want to take my good French clarinet out onto the marching field. "The rhythm section's kind of a drag anyway, why don't you let me play the drums? Let me help these guys out on the drums, 'cause you got enough clarinets to sink a battleship."

AAJ: It's an interesting image, right?

DI: So I didn't think I was gonna be that much help to them but I said, "We need more drums" and it was more fun to do. So I was fortunate they let me call my own shot. So I'd been a drummer already.

AAJ: Snare?

DI: Timbales, tom-tom, bass drum. I went through the whole percussion section. Looking back now I didn't really know my rudiments. I was able to rough off some little stuff that I thought was funky. We had little drum cadences and patterns worked out.

AAJ: This is where?

DI: In Atlanta, 8th and 9th grade. Rhythm and blues feeling was kind of always in the back of my mind. My mom liked Dinah Washington, Nat Cole. The early Aretha record that's a tribute to Dinah, she had that record on Epic with show me the way to get to "Soulville" and "Unforgettable." So looking back now mom really had better taste than I thought she did at the time. My brother liked some jazz; he was kind of a beatnik so I was hearing jazz around the house when I was a little kid.

AAJ: So what made you go toward the bass?

DI: Toward the end of my little classical career, I was doing some conducting also. From the bass side of things, I enjoyed being part of the continuum. I don't know if I'd enjoy it so much sitting on my hands counting measures like in the Monday [Vllage] Vanguard) night band, I know that drives those cats crazy. But even on bad nights I'm enjoying myself because I'm playing all the time. I had a free semester of lessons after I finished my piano requirement. I signed up to do that, I took lessons.

Gary SmulyanI didn't realize there was a gap to be filled, that there weren't enough bass players for all the drummers, piano players, horn players. One could do a lot of different sessions. It seemed like by the time I could play a couple of scales and get the bass down the hall without slamming it through the doorway or something—I didn't own a bass for about a year-and-a-half. My friend Bob McCready and I shared a bass at school; we were worried about taking it out of the building. I was lucky. It took a couple of years to get over the feeling of being the least experienced person in the group which I always was. But that feeling stayed with me for a while.

After a while I realized "Well, I do know something about playing and I can assert this and that without continually asking, "Do you want me to do it that way?" or "Show me how you want to do this." I had accumulated enough experience after a certain point and it wasn't all jazz experience. A lot of skills and insights from playing classical music really apply to correct ensemble playing in jazz. My clarinet teacher at North Texas was a real stickler about intonation; he had a degree in physics also—Lee Gibson....Now I still apply what Lee had me thinking about—playing correctly in tune, blending timbres comes over into jazz. Mostly intonation.

After about six months of [bass] lessons I was hooked on it, the nice sensation. I didn't start out with the bow. I started out thumping. [I progressed to the point where] I might have had a shot at the One O'Clock band, the best jazz band at North Texas State, the year that I just wanted to take a semester off. That's why I came to New York in '74, not even planning to stay. I just had a temporary job at Discount Records on 8th Street near University Place, right across the street from the Cookery. My old high school buddy Mike Quinn had a minimum wage record store job and had a little pad in the Village.

I didn't ride the subway my first eight or nine months in town. So I'd walk to and from work and didn't have to go anywhere to hear music outside of Greenwich Village. So I stayed downtown and walked around looking for anybody I could meet who was carrying a horn case or a cymbal bag. I'd give them my number and a lot of times end up getting together with guys. Charles Brackeen I played with in town. Philip Wilson, a drummer from St. Louis, I had a couple of good weekends with. I learned a lot from Philip. I would think that he would try to play free, we'd be playing a modal thing with some time and at a certain point it felt like he was spreading it out, starting to play free so I would just let the groove go and start playing free. He'd say, "Come on, where's the groove, man?" And luckily we got to do three weekends instead of just ending with one. So by the 5th or 6th night of our playing together I was able to hold my pulse even when he would start to do some Elvin-ish type stuff. I started to realize he had a whole other fix on holding this here and playing something off of that.

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