John Geggie: Unexpected Conversations

John Kelman By

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John GeggieMost cities have them: musicians who act like a lightning rod, focusing and driving their jazz scenes. In Ottawa, Canada, bassist John Geggie has been one of those significant focal points for two decades, but in particular over the past ten years. He's one of the founding organizers and faculty members of Jazzworks which, amongst other things, runs an annual Jazz Camp—a weekend boot camp for aspiring musicians from near and far, at various degrees of skill, to hone their jazz chops. He's hosted the late-night jam sessions at the TD Canada Trust International Jazz Festival for most of the past eight years, creating a vibrant, happening place where local musicians get the opportunity to sit In with his crack trio and some of the international artists who are invited to the festival. He's played with local artists in, out and on the periphery of the jazz sphere, including Chelsea Bridge, The Angstones, Ian Tamblyn and the National Arts Center Orchestra. He's toured and recorded with another great Ottawa musician (now living in New York), D.D. Jackson, as well as other Canadian artists including saxophonists Frank Lozano and David Mott.

Most important, however, is his Geggie Concert Series, an annual run of shows at the National Arts Centre's club-like Fourth Stage, where he invites artists from around the world to perform in new groupings that often lead to further collaboration. Marilyn Crispell, Myra Melford, Craig Taborn, George Colligan, Bill Carrothers, Josh Rager, Steve Amireault, Gary Versace, Edward Simon...these are but a few of the pianists he's worked with since the series began this decade. Other artists include saxophonists Ted Nash, Donny McCaslin, Mike Murley and Quinsin Nachoff; guitarists Kevin Breit, Paul Meyers, Vic Juris and Roddy Elias; trumpeter Cuong Vu; bassist Mark Dresser; and drummers Nick Fraser, Jim Doxas, Ian Froman, John Fabroni and Jon Christensen. And the list goes on, with musicians forming an ever-expanding network for Geggie, all committed to coming together for "without a safety net" performances, where rehearsal is usual minimal and, while some shows succeed better than others, all of them are worth seeing, as his series invariably sells out or comes very close to.

And yet, as he approaches fifty, Geggie has never released an album under his own name...until now. But rather than releasing a single album, in 2009 Geggie released two long overdue albums—Geggie Project (Ambiances Magnétiques), a largely introspective and free-flowing trio disc with pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Nick Fraser; and Across the Sky (Plunge Records), a more mainstream-focused disc with, again, Fraser, but this time a quartet date featuring Toronto pianist Nancy Walker and American saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a saxophonist whose star has been on an upward trajectory over the last few years, playing with artists including Dave Douglas, Maria Schneider and David Binney.

Humble and self-effacing, Geggie's easygoing demeanor has, in addition to his inestimable skills as a writer and performer in a wide variety of contexts, contributed in no small part to his growing success and reputation. He may be the sole composer of the preconceived music on both albums, and the de facto leader of both projects, but that's not how Geggie views things. "When I talk to people," Geggie explains, "I ask 'Would you like to come and play some music with me,' and it's not about me. It's just, 'I'll be playing bass.' It's not just about me and my compositions and my vision, it's about the collective, and I think what people appreciate is that aspect—that it's going to be a collective process and we're all going to be contributing to it.'"

Geggie grew up in Wakefield, Canada, across the river from Ottawa, in the province of Quebec. "I grew up with music in the home," the bassist recalls. "My parents were really into music, with lots of records, lots of classical music, lots of jazz. My dad had a friend who had a whole bunch of 78s, so dad would tape them—he had a reel-to-reel tape recorder—old Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford and all those people. So I was exposed to it at a very early age.

Chapter Index

  1. Beginnings
  2. Chelsea Bridge and Studying with Gary Peacock
  3. Enter the Swedes
  4. Geggie Project and Across the Sky
  5. Music as Conversation
  6. An Unusual Bass
  7. Record Labels and Geggie Concert Series


"I started off playing piano when I was six years old," Geggie continues, "and learned from the local church organist. Then I played trumpet, and I was really bad at that, and trombone—and I was equally bad at that. When I was in high school, being a really bad trumpet player, I was listening to Maynard Ferguson, and I had a high school music teacher who was great, and he said 'Give me a reel-to-reel tape.' He taped Clifford Brown's Study in Brown (Polygram, 1956), an Art Farmer record, and a Chet Baker record, She Was Too Good to Me (1974), which was a CTI record with Baker,Ron Carter and Bob James. Three really very different trumpet players compared to Maynard Ferguson, and it was an amazing eye-opener for me, simply because here was trumpet being played in ways that I never could have imagined—so beautiful, rich and melodic...and vocal. It was great to listen to these three very different kinds of players.

Geggie came to the bass relatively late, in his late teens. That may not have been all that unusual, but the fact that he started on double-bass rather than electric, certainly was, for someone growing up in the 1970s. "I started playing classical bass as well as jazz," says Geggie. "I'd always been interested in both so that continued on. I'd had some problems playing brass instruments and, as a result, there was an acknowledgement that I was musical, that I had the aptitude, but I needed to play something that wasn't a brass instrument. The sound of a low instrument was interesting to me. I didn't start on electric, I actually came to electric after, which is contrary to what most people do; most people start on electric and move to acoustic. Later, I had my own challenges playing electric bass, coming from double-bass.

John GeggieGeggie's post-secondary school studies may have been geared towards his classical interests, but he soon found himself increasingly immersed in the jazz sphere. "I studied here in Ottawa, did a Bachelors Degree. I studied jazz with, and was mentored by Roddy Elias and Dave Hildinger and others, and there was a pretty thriving scene here in the '70s and '80s. Then I went off to Indiana State University for a Masters Degree. The goal was to just be doing classical music, but someone said 'You should audition for the jazz band. I got into the number two band, and it was a really great experience for me, because in Indiana, there's a great history of jazz players—Peter Erskine, a whole bunch of people. My contemporaries were people like Robert Hurst, Jim Beard, Scott Wendholt—a really fine trumpet player. David Bixler, who played in the Arturo O'Farrill big band. Travis Shook, a really nice pianist, and Shawn Pelton, who plays drums in the Saturday Night Live band.

"So it was a really fine group of people," Geggie continues. "It was challenging, being exposed to the whole hard bebop tradition, which is something I wouldn't have had, so the whole Blue Note tradition was a good thing for me. I really sucked it up, and I was playing a lot, with lots of people. Stuff in the school, sessions—something which I miss, because I don't seem to do it so much now. The people I was playing with, we'd get together all the time to work on things. Playing in smaller groups, taking jazz courses with David Baker, and playing in his small band—he had a combo—and playing in his big band. Also gigging in the area, there was work to do in Indianapolis and the Bloomington area It was a good experience surrounded by really fine players, and it was a really good thing for me, because I was learning the tradition and really being pushed. It was great getting that input and knowing that side of the jazz tradition, which I'd not really been exposed to at all up to that point."

The bassist returned to Ottawa when his visa ran out. At that time, most Ottawa musicians who wanted to go further had to relocate away from Canada's capital, but things didn't work out that way for Geggie. "I came back to Ottawa, mid-'80s, with the goal of leaving," says Geggie. "I came back because my visa ran out, and I was thinking I was going to be going somewhere else—that I'd get a job in an orchestra and do things like that—but I ended up staying in town because of the work—playing with the orchestra here and, well, just playing. If I were to put in a good word for myself, I would say that I'm tenacious about things and I stick my head down, dig in and make things work. I decided to stay here because I was making a living, but perhaps in the back of my mind I was still thinking I might leave. Then in early-'90s, I started playing in Chelsea Bridge."

John Geggie / Chelsea BridgeChelsea Bridge and Studying with Gary Peacock

A local group that ultimately garnered something of an international reputation, Chelsea Bridge was an oddly configured jazz group, also featuring vocalist Tena Palmer, saxophonist Rob Frayne and drummer Jean Martin. "I learned so much from being in that group," Geggie says, "because it was a group where there wasn't a chord player—there was Tena on soprano voice, Rob on tenor saxophone, Jean on drums and me on bass. I'd been gigging with Jean, and Rob had moved to this area because his wife had a job here, and so he was looking to play with people. We started playing together, and Rob knew Tena, who was living in Montreal, so he proposed that we start a group. It was a really good learning experience for me; we did a lot of touring and a lot of recording. Again, I see it all as a learning process. We won Le Prix DuMaurier at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 1993, for best Canadian band."

The group toured abroad, and over the course of the next few years, released a number of records for the Unity label, including Tatamagouche...Next Exit (1994) and Double Feature (1995). At the same time, Geggie began to work with D.D. Jackson, an Ottawa-born pianist who'd relocated to New York, recording albums including Peace-Song (Justin Time, 1995), with saxophonist David Murray. "It got to a point, with both those groups, that I was playing a lot," says Geggie. "It was pretty busy time here in Ottawa as well; there was Ian Tamblyn, The Angstones—that whole world of what [keyboardist/reed player] Peter Kiesewalter, [singer] Rebecca Campbell and [drummer] Ross Murray, those guys that were doing [Ottawa pop group] Fat Man Waving. I didn't play in that group, but there was that whole world, plus [singer/songwriter] Lynn Miles. So there was a group of people who were playing in a lot of groups, there were good clubs like The Downstairs Club."

He may have been working steadily, but Geggie was always looking for ways to grow and improve. Thankfully, the Canada Council for the Arts—a federal organization created to support and nurture the arts—was in full swing by that time, providing performing, touring and educational grants. "I was able to get Canada Council grants to study with people, and the first person I thought of was Gary Peacock, whose music I knew from Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio. It was only later that I became aware of the whole breadth of things that he had done with Paul Bley, Albert Ayler, Bill Evans and Miles Davis. I remember seeing him play when I was in Indiana. The orchestra went to Washington, DC to play at the Kennedy Center, and our hotel was really close to Georgetown. The night of our concert, after we'd played, I went to a club in Georgetown where I saw Marc Copland, Jeff Hirshfield and Gary. It was an amazing experience to be that close to his playing , just playing in a club.

"I've always been impressed by his vocabulary and how he expresses himself," Geggie continues. He's a very emotional, very expressive player, and I just liked the way he played things on the bass. He doesn't sound so much like a bassist, just someone playing a solo on an instrument, and I just thought I might like to study with him. I was going to see him initially because of the whole standards approach and things like that, but I learned so much more from him. He gave me lots of things to think about, lots of exercises to work on, and he was the first person to really challenge me in terms of 'Well, if you want to play improvised music you have to make certain decisions in your life, you have to be willing to make certain sacrifices and dedicate yourself to finding your own sound.'

John Geggie / D.D. Jackson"We've kept in contact," Geggie continues. "It was great; I need to be pushed and he really did that to me. Later on, thanks to the Canada Council—a great thing here in Canada, hopefully it doesn't get cut more [there have been cuts to CCA's budget in recent years]—I was able to get funding to study with [bassists] Anders Jormin and Palle Danielsson in Sweden. I'd heard Palle with so many different groups—definitely with Jarrett's European Quartet with Jan Garbarek. I remember at some stage, when [local Carleton University Radio Station] CKCU was starting out, they had records to give away and I won a whole bunch of them. There were ECM records, like an Art Lande record, a Gary Burton record with Steve SwallowHotel Hello (1975), and there were other thing— Coltrane's Interstellar Space (Impulse!, 1967). It was quite an ear opener to hear all these kinds of music and to hear the sound of ECM, that particular aesthetic, which was quite remarkable—groups like John Abercrombie's group with George Mraz, or Richie Beirach, or Dave Liebman or Art Ensemble Of Chicago.

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