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Ben Wolfe: The Freedom to Create

Stephen A. Smith By

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AAJ: You said at one point that you started out playing tuba...?

BW: I started on tuba, yeah. When I got into high school, I got really into electric bass. I played funk. I wanted to be a funk bassist, and a studio musician. I read Guitar Player magazine, and I was like, "Yeah. That's me, man. I'm gonna be the new studio ace." That was my fantasy. I also started playing bass trombone. I was doing all these things in high school. At one point, I was like, "I'm gonna play tuba in the symphony, I'm gonna play bass trombone in a big band, and I'm gonna be a studio electric bassist."

But then I got to college. I was playing electric bass in these jazz combos. I started playing more and more electric bass. Then I started playing in Top-40 bands. Now I'm a bassist, who played trombone and tuba. Then I quit the Top-40 bands, and said, "I'm done. I'm playing only jazz. I'm going to be a jazz bassist." I started fooling around on the upright, and it was like, Bang! I'd found my home. It made sense, it felt right...and then everything switched, and I started practicing the upright bass. Eventually I just stopped doing everything else. I was always a musician; but I was a focused musician, for the first time.

I remember one time in high school, with this stage band, we played one of those jazz festivals. They wanted me to play upright on a tune, because it was a Count Basie number. We didn't have a pickup, so I just played with a mic on the bass. The judges at the contest were really into it. I remember that day...and that's what I ended up being.

My father used to always tell me that. He'd say, "You know, you like the electric bass and all that; but when you get older, you're going to be into the old upright jazz bass players. You'll see." I was like, "Yeah, whatever, Dad." [Laughs.] And he was right.

AAJ: Obviously your dad was into music, too.

BW: He played violin with the San Antonio Symphony. He quit playing, but he loves music. He was great for me, when I was young. He used to get mad at me for playing out of tune. I'd be like, "Dad, how'd I sound tonight? I've got my new Rotosound wound strings." He goes, "You didn't play one note in tune all night." He got mad at me for talking onstage during high school concerts. He said I was unprofessional, and that I embarrassed him and my grade school teacher who was there. [Laughs.] I wasn't getting paid. I was unprofessional! But he was great. I still think about some of those things.

He had a lot of records in the house. There were all kinds of music -classical music, jazz... It was like it was there for me to explore, without being told to explore it. He played Charlie Parker for me the first time. He played Paul Chambers for me. He played Mingus for me. He played Billie Holiday for me. He played all these people for me, that I'd never heard before. Then he gave me the records, when I moved to New York.

I think one of the reasons I'm in jazz, and music in general, is that I was allowed to be, by my family. My mother's not a musician, but she goes to hear chamber music all the time. They were into it. I never felt that I wasn't supposed to be doing it. I started playing music in seventh grade. When I was in high school, I heard someone say they were going to do something else for a living; I didn't even know that existed. I was very naÃÃ'¯ve. I just assumed, "Well, we're musicians, here."

AAJ: You've recorded with some pretty big names, in some major studios. And now you're recording with two microphones in someone's living room. That must be a big change.

BW: I just wanted to try it this way. And it worked.

AAJ: Did you have to adapt your playing?

BW: No. You have to adapt your playing the other way, in the big studios. A lot of times, now, people record in separate rooms. For me, that's just not happening. You don't really hear anybody. You hear headphones. So you absolutely are not hearing who you're playing with. When it's like that...I can play that way, but my whole concept of music is out the window. My whole thing is about interaction. The minute you're in separate rooms, with the headphones on and all that stuff, it's fake. It's an illusion before it's even a CD. That's just not for me. Don't get me wrong; I love making records. As far as my own style, I would never do it that way.

But the main difference is that I'm the leader and it's my music, versus being a sideman, and it being someone else's vision. That's the real difference—that it's my vision, and not someone else's. That's a much bigger difference than any of the other stuff.

AAJ: How does that come across differently in your playing, your taking the lead?

BW: If I'm doing a record for someone else, I'm trying to get what they want, and keep my own identity, and trying to find little spots in the music for the bass. When I'm the leader, man, I could rehearse all day. I love it. I'm the bassist, but I'm also being like a conductor. I love that. I feel more complete, like I'm really using what I think about. I'm able to really do what I do. Whereas when I'm a sideman, as a bassist—which I love doing; I'm not trying to lessen that—most of the time, I feel like I'm just half. But that's how it should be. When you're a sideman, you don't want to impose your whole thing, because it's not yours. Music's definitely a team sport. When I'm playing with whomever—Diana, Harry, Wynton, whomever it is—it's not my thing. It's not my band. So you have to figure out how much of 'you' you can be. Or what version, I suppose. You know what I mean? I can't come on someone else's bandstand, and say, "OK, look, I need you to do this, I need you to do that..." Even though I do that, which sometimes pisses people off. [Laughs.] I'm trying to learn not to. But that's why I want to do my own thing, because that's where I feel the most comfortable. I feel much more comfortable. And I have this endless energy, which amazes me. I can just go all day when it's my thing. All of a sudden, I just...Whoosh! Like I'm alive. It's my favorite feeling. It's funny: People think I'm being dark. Usually I joke around, all the time. But when I'm doing my rehearsals for my records, and when we're recording, I don't tell any jokes at all. I don't kid around. I'm very serious. But at the same time, I'm having more fun than I ever have when I'm laughing and joking around. It's just more real. It feels right.

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