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The late Jack Bruce, the first bassist whose playing knocked me out.

I used to take a one-credit course called "Rock and Blues Ensemble" at the university where I teach. The guy who gives me bass lessons (he's named Terry) teaches it. A few years ago, Terry told me at a lesson that the class needed a bassist, so I began sitting in. I wasn't much of a player, but there was only one other bassist, and he wasn't a whole lot better than I was. Our "final exam" involved everyone playing a 10-song gig at a local bar, with different people singing and playing in different songs so that everyone got the same amount of performance time.

Over the four semesters I was in the course, I got to play bass on some of my favorite songs—Cream's version of "Born Under a Bad Sign," for instance. In later semesters I would play bass and, during one other song in the set, sing and play harmonica instead. Terry has repeatedly told me I "killed it" (that's a compliment) during our fall 2014 performance of the Allman Brothers' version of "I Must Have Done Somebody Wrong."

As I said, though, I used to play in the ensemble. Things changed last semester.
Musician friends of Terry started showing up. I live in a small town, so I knew most of them pretty well. They're good people. But they earn money from playing music, and they play in bars two or three nights a week. They most definitely aren't beginners. When they talked about keys, notes, chords, changes, etc., in the songs we were playing, they may as well have been talking Arabic. I figured what the hell: It's Terry's course. He can do whatever he wants.

I didn't know one of the newcomers very well, though. (Let's call him Pete.) Immediately, it was apparent he was the best player in the class—except for Terry, who would not be out of place onstage with anyone except the gods of blues. A mutual friend had once invited me to have breakfast with him and Pete. It was all cordial enough, but I didn't connect with Pete. Later, I learned that he was (and is) the best friend of our mutual friend, so I decided he must be a very good, and very smart, person.

At the blues class, though, this guy's presence intimidated me. It was nothing he said or didn't say, nothing he did or didn't do—it was more matter of his being a terrific player who had a lot of smart things to say about the music and the artists whom Terry talked about in class. In previous semesters, I added comments and wisecracks to the discussion because I know a lot about rock and the blues. With so many other new people in the room who knew their stuff, I didn't say a thing because I felt out of place, as if I were swimming in a riptide, being pulled far from the musical shore. It felt like the class had turned into a Musicians' Guild meeting. I had no logical reasons for discomfort, but that didn't make it any less real.

I always sat in the back of the class because bassists hold up the bottom and, working with the drummer, keep the beat. Nobody goes to shows to see the bassists. We stand off to the side and, if we're playing properly, no one notices us. One night in class, though, was telling. Without realizing, I had pushed my chair into a back corner of the room, as far back as I could get. A week or so later, I stopped going to class. Not long after that, I put my bass down and haven't played it since.

The new semester starts at the end of this month. Terry has called twice to encourage me to re-start my lessons and join the class again. One of the other players—also a bassist, and a good one—does the same when I run into her around town.

Much as I try to work up the old enthusiasm, though, I don't have the heart for it. Some people are oil, and some are water. There is nothing wrong with either of them. They just don't mix. The new musicians are water, and I am oil, and when you pour us into the same room, we don't combine. And when a band's pieces don't fit together, the music suffers.

None of this may make sense outside the confines of my brain. But that doesn't make it any less real.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 15th, 2015 02:09 am (UTC)
It makes me sad that you're not playing anymore. I never thought the professional players belonged in that class, but as you said, it's Terry's class.
Aug. 15th, 2015 02:35 pm (UTC)
Maybe after I retire.
Aug. 16th, 2015 02:33 pm (UTC)
I agree with Anonymous. I missed you at the spring end-of-semester gig.
Aug. 16th, 2015 04:44 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Carole. "Creative differences," as they say in the biz.
Aug. 20th, 2015 01:43 am (UTC)
Do you still enjoy playing those gorgeous basses of yours in the comfort and privacy of your own home?
Aug. 20th, 2015 04:20 pm (UTC)
Nope. It got really discouraging. Just when I felt I was starting to be a competent player, I starting hearing serious fret buzz because I wasn't picking the notes cleanly. I'll probably start taking lessons again next month, though.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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