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Kris Funn: Bass Player, Story Teller

R.J. DeLuke By

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I wanted to approach [composing] from a very accessible way, almost like I'm playing and writing a letter to my nine-year-old self —Kris Funn
Kris Funn didn't start out on bass but, coming from a musical family, there was little chance he wouldn't at least test the water and see what music was all about. In time, the bass reached out and grabbed him.

He's since had a career that has had him playing his immense bass skills to the bands of Kenny Garrett, Christian Scott, Nicholas Payton, Sean Jones and other notables. Now he is stepping out as a leader, when possible. If his 2018 recording Cornerstone is any indication, the future is bright. It's filled with funky influences, sleek and slick jazz and bits and pieces of other influences that have affected Funn over the years. The compositions are strong and the execution is exceptional.

Funn's father has been a music teacher in the Baltimore city public school system for some 40 years and was a touring musician as well. He plays mostly trombone, but also some bass. "So I've been hearing jazz since the beginning of my time," says the Washington, D.C.-based Funn. "There are early pictures of me in one of those baby backpacks, I'm on his back at one of his gigs."

He started on trumpet at about the age of 4, walking in the footsteps of an older brother who also played trumpet. It was expected he would play, but as he grew a little older, he came to the realization that not everyone has to play an instrument. It became a bit of a drag.

"I wasn't into it so much, growing up. My brother was so much better than me," he says. "I was like, 'I hate this.' But when I got to high school and picked up the bass, I fell in love with it. It was something new. I wasn't chasing my brother anymore. It helped me to understand what is going on in a jazz quartet."

Soon, "I was obsessed. I would come home from school, practice until dinner time, then practice until I went to sleep," Funn says. As he grew on the instrument, he listened to Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, Christian McBride, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter and Oscar Pettiford.

"A good friend of my dad's was an instructor at my high school. I was coming from middle school where I was playing the trumpet," he recalls. "My dad never said it, but it was made pretty clear to me that if I was going to live in his house, I was going to be in the school jazz band. When I got to high school, there were no trumpet chairs open. The only chair that was open was the bass. My dad's friend really needed a bassist. My dad was like, 'Put Kris on bass.' So he put me on bass. Luckily it worked out."

He was quickly thrown into the professional fire. He had only been playing the upright for about a month, when a friend of his father's needed a bassist for a gig.

"My dad always had the confidence to throw me into an situation... They said, 'Do you think Kris can do it?' My dad said, 'Yeah. He can handle it.' There's no way I should have been on this gig. I remember riding for two hours to play a wedding. I didn't destroy the gig. But it helped me realize the role of the bass. By then I was just playing the root of the chords on every song. The fact they had no serious issue with that, I was like, 'OK. I know my job here.' I learned early what I was supposed to be doing."

Eventually, as a high school student, he was playing gigs all over Baltimore "in places I was probably too young to play in. I played with Warren Wolf, the vibraphonist from Baltimore. We would play a lot in bands around town all through high school."

After high school, Funn was still obsessed with the bass and had an inkling he would go to New York City and make his way as a musician. His parents had other ideas—college. He was off to Howard University in nearby Washington, D.C. "I didn't have a plan. In my brain, I didn't want to go to college to study music. I got to college on an educational scholarship. I felt that was another side of the brain. I didn't want to waste a free education on music when I got my dad in the house. I'd already been a music major."

The first couple months "I went through the motions of being a music major. But I had a friend who was doing computers. It intrigued me, so I decided to major in computer science, all the while taking jazz improv and playing in jazz band," says Funn. "Back then D.C. was amazing. I had a steady gig four nights a week. I was taking 20 credits. I would go to school all day and play jazz all night. Doing homework on the breaks. It was intense back then. This was around 1999 or 2000."

Funn performed in the Howard University Jazz Ensemble and graduated with an honors degree in computer science. Upon graduation, he was at a bit of a crossroads. But his path to music was settled soon—in a big way.

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