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Russel Blake: Transcending Expectations

Mikayla Gilbreath By

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The importance of music cannot be overestimated. The importance of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to make that music more substantive, can not be overestimated.
Nearly everyone would agree that music is one of the most significant and enduring art forms ever created by mankind, though most people still view it primarily as entertainment. An astute few seem capable of looking beyond music's obvious entertainment value, and among these is bassist Russel Blake. He views music as both a tool for healing the spirit, and as a means of removing the cultural barriers which divide us, by serving as mankind's universal language. Blake strives to convey this message not only through his music, but also through his words and actions. To Russel Blake, being a musician is a gift which carries with it a serious obligation.

During the 50s, Blake's parents moved from Panama to Brooklyn, New York, where he was born on May 27th, 1961. On his twelfth birthday Blake received an electric bass as a gift from his father. He was then compelled by his father to practice for four hours every day, just as his older brother (noted bassist Alex Blake) had been. "It was something that I did not enjoy at first. This was [my father's] vision, not mine. So at first I was resistant. For the first three months that I began studying the instrument, it was not only to teach me how to play the bass fundamentally, but to teach me to be a first-sight reader. My father saw to it that I was prepared, as a professional."

At twelve years old, and with just three months experience playing bass, Russel Blake played his first professional gig. "There was a fifteen piece Latin band that needed a bassist. So they called my father to see if [my brother Alex] was available. My father said 'No' but that he had another son who played bass. My father brought me to the gig and they thought my father was going to play, because he was carrying the amplifier and the bass. When they found out that I was going to play, they were very resistant. They were adamant and indignant about the fact that they were grown men and professionals—they could not share the stage with a child! My father had to argue on my behalf. This was at the eleventh hour, so they had no other choice. They counted it off and I read everything first-sight. At the end of the evening, instead of fourteen enemies, I had fourteen friends. When preparation meets opportunity, success is achieved."

Russel Blake's desire to move beyond the traditional boundaries of music is a mindset gained during his childhood. Blake has long admired musicians such as John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Art Tatum, and Sonny Rollins. "Those individuals transcended the capabilities and expectations of their instruments. So that was my goal, to emulate those individuals who took their artistry and transcended the expectations of it." Interestingly, Russel Blake would later spend five years as exclusive bassist for one of his idols, Sonny Rollins, with whom Blake toured and recorded two albums. "The beauty of working with individuals like that, is that you quite often learn as much from them off stage as you do on stage, because you have the opportunity to interact with them on a spiritual level, on a mental level, [and] on an emotional level. It forms you, makes you more whole as a human being."

The intensive practice and study regimen Blake began as a child continued into adulthood, enabling him to explore and develop new methods for playing his instrument. "I had to start looking at myself more as a musician, and not just an individual who is playing a supportive instrument in a band. I wanted to transcend that. In my studies, when I began playing the melodies of songs I missed hearing the bass. And when I began playing the bass I'd miss hearing the melody. So I decided to start experimenting." Blake created and now teaches the novel method of playing the four string electric bass which resulted from that experimentation. His Melodious-Chordal Technique emphasizes a unique blend of harmony, rhythm, and melody, all played simultaneously.

"The first thing I had to overcome was the mental block that says that a four string electric bass isn't capable of performing works by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Coltrane, or ragtime music from Scott Joplin—because of expectations. When people speak of soloists, they don't think of the four string electric bass. They conventionally think of a violinist, a pianist, or a guitarist." Blake has added more than 400 songs to his repertoire as a four string bass soloist. His remarkable talent is showcased in a four-CD series entitled Ten Fingers & Four Strings Solo Series (Man of Psalms Records, 2008).

Blake has served as a U.S. State Department Goodwill Ambassador in Africa and has performed live before audiences in more than 60 countries. His extensive touring and interaction with audiences world-wide has convinced him that music can breach the barriers often presented by language, race, religion, and cultural tradition. "The beauty about being a musician is that music is the universal language. Whether it was Vietnam or the high mountains of Europe, they didn't speak a word of English and I didn't speak a word of their indigenous language. Music was the language that brought us together. It was the force that brought down the wall of ignorance, the wall of non-communication, the wall of distance. Once you put a smile on their face or a tear on their cheek, once you've touched their heart, you are communicating. After the concert, folks come up and struggle to speak English, and you struggle to speak their language. But even if only two or three words are exchanged, it's understood. The most important thing is that you were able to shake hands, you were able to embrace, and you were able to start to form a friendship that will continue."

Equally important to Russel Blake is the contention that music can provide healing to those with spirits in need of consolation. "If people are coming to a concert, then they're coming not only to be entertained, they are coming to be healed, coming to laugh, cry, to feel hope again. [Music] takes their mind off of their problems. We never know what an individual is going through in an audience that comes to hear us perform. There have been people who have come to a concert having suicidal thoughts. And as a result of that concert, they left feeling entirely different. The importance of music cannot be overestimated."

During a series of concerts at Ironwood State Prison, in Blythe, California, Blake performed for an audience of 5000 hardened criminals that included murderers, rapists, and members of opposing race-based prison gangs. "These men are sentenced to 400 years, 500 years, life." As he took the stage for the first of those concerts, the powerfully-built Blake presented an imposing figure, and yet he suffered the jeers, catcalls, and derision one would expect from such an audience. "I just stood there and looked at them as I would a group of students who are being unruly. When they realized that I wasn't being intimidated by them, they sat down and I began to perform." Because Blake's repertoire includes music from numerous genres, his performance appealed to nearly everyone present. "After the first concert, word spread [and] the inmates couldn't wait to come and hear. The interesting thing I found, was that they were all brought to the same space by virtue of the power of music, and as a result of music creating that ambiance by which we could sit together in peace. It was a very dynamic experience.

"At the end of the concert, [prisoners] came to me and thanked me for coming to perform. Some of these men were crying because they said nobody would come there to perform for them. People that are [invited] to perform are generally intimidated. They don't want to go there. I welcomed the invitation, because what more challenging audience can one have than a group of inmates—people who are incarcerated and have nothing to lose? So there is a viable audience for a musician who is willing to be challenged in their artistry by performing before inmates. Our gift is not ours to keep for a selected group of audiences. Our gift is given freely by the Creator, that we must share with all who would listen, in order for their healing to take place.

"Most recently I did a solo performance for Atlanta Children's Hospital, and I performed for terminally ill children. These children were, as you might imagine, very sad. They were hooked up to IVs and machines, and this was their life 24 hours a day. [It] was a grave responsibility to not only overlook their condition and their circumstances, but to find the strength within myself to bring some sunshine to them. These were children, so they were not aware of pieces by Duke Ellington, or pieces by Jobim, Beethoven, etc. But by performing these pieces, it widened their eyes, it brightened their smiles. They were so happy, and that was very clear [evidence] of how music can bring healing into someone's life. I know, for that moment in time, I was able to touch their lives; I hope as effectively as they touched mine.

"The importance of music cannot be overestimated. The importance of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to make that music more substantive, can not be overestimated. We should allow ourselves to become interested in geology, and interested in philosophy, to become interested in so many other avenues of knowledge that are available to us. By doing so, it changes our perceptions. And once your perception is changed, you then apply that not only to yourself as a human being, but you apply it to your craft. And you begin to understand your place in the scheme of things, and how important it is to be a musician."

By transcending the expectations of his instrument, Russel Blake has helped establish the four string electric bass as a legitimate solo instrument. He has played and recorded with a long list of noted artists including Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, Paquito D'Rivera, Wynton Marsalis, and Clifton Anderson. Blake has performed in the Broadway productions of The Lion King and Dreamgirls, and even made his mark as an educator, having taught at several colleges and universities across the United States. Using his unique skills and valuable insights he also strives to broaden the public's appreciation of music through a program entitled The Universal Language Music History and Cultural Program, which he presents at schools, universities, prisons, military installations, art galleries, and senior centers. And Blake continues to add to his body-of-work as a recording artist with his latest release entitled Quiet Strength (Man of Psalms Records, 2008).

But Blake's greatest accomplishment to-date may best be reflected in the altered perceptions of those for whom he has demonstrated his unique talent, and with whom he has shared his enlightened views. Through his actions and extraordinary insight, Russel Blake is changing the way people view music in general. And he presents a compelling case attributing a much greater significance to music than as merely a pleasant diversion.

Selected Discography:

Russel Blake, Ten Fingers & Four Strings Solo Series (Man of Psalms Records, 2008)

Russel Blake, Quiet Strength (Man of Psalms Records, 2008)

Russel Blake, Silent Power (Man of Psalms Records, 2007)

Sonny Rollins, Milestone Profiles (Fantasy Records, 2006)

Cybill Shepherd, Jazz Baby (Casablanca Kids, 2005)

The Village People, In the Street (Can't Stop Productions, 1999)

Hilton Ruiz, Something Grand (RCA / Novus, 1986)

Sonny Rollins, Sunny Days, Starry Nights (Milestone, 1984)

Paquito D'Rivera, Blowin' (CBS Records, 1981)

TS Monk, House of Music (Mirage Records, 1981)

TS Monk, More of the Good Life (Mirage Records, 1981)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Donald Tipton

Bottom Photo: Jaime Valle

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