Why Is Music Important (The Panel Experiment)
By Brent-Anthony Johnson
Who are you, and what do you do?
I am Bruce Gertz, Jazz Bassist, Composer, Educator, Author and producer. Professor of Bass at Berklee College of Music
Who are your primary musical influences?
John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Dave Holland, Ray Brown, James Jamerson, James Brown, Donald Duck Dunn, Sonny Rollins, Jerry Bergonzi, Charlie Banacos, Elvin Jones, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Jaco Pastorius, Stanlery Clarke, Miroslav Vitous and many more great artists including the young players coming up now. I keep my ears and mind open. All good music influences me.
What are you listening to musically, in the past 12 months that has enhanced the way you think about music and your craft?
I’ve listened to many things in the last 12 months. Some of the music that stands out is Dave Holland’s solo albums, Emerald Tears and One’s All, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Kurt Rosenwinkel with Mark Turner, Brad Meldau, Jim Hall with bassists, Neils Henning Orsted Petterson, Christian McBride, John Pattitucci, John Clayton, Joel Quarington, My daughter, Eva Gertz, I just returned from Barcelona where I heard some awesome classical guitar in a church. I’ve been recording a lot with George Garzone and Jerry Bergonzi, two of Planet Earth’s finest saxophonists and hearing them as enhanced my musical mind and spirit.
How does your personal musical voice directly relate to the function of the basses? Also, what are your main instruments?
My personal musical voice is evolving as I am as a human being. In direct relation to the function of the basses I believe that my human touch to the instrument is an extension of what I hear and feel. Once a musician reaches the point where the energy of nature can flow through one’s being and out to the listener without personal interference, something really special happens. In terms of the function of bass, being the foundation of the music as in the bottom voice of the band and a rhythmic proponent, I have always felt very comfortable in that role. There lies plenty of room for creative movement. It’s like a dance.
My main instruments are the bass guitar and upright, acoustic bass. I also play piano.
Describe your musical composition process.
My composition process varies depending upon the energy of my day. Somedays an entire tune will flow out of me either on the piano, bass or straight to the manuscript pad while other days I only have a small idea, lick or phrase. I try to write every day even if it ‘s only some bass lines to practice or solo ideas. My piano and bass practice space are both full of sheets of music, some with two measures and some with half a tune or a sketch for a tune or piece. Every idea is a seed from which a beautiful tree can grow. I have taken licks that could have been written years ago and found a song there through motivic development. It sort of happens when it is supposed to happen. My pieces have come from the bass line first or a chord progression or melody depending on what comes naturally. I have tried to force things too using specific compositional techniques but that can take time and become a frustration. Writing every day helps me to be ready when inspiration strikes.
How does music affect your culture and immediate environment?
For me music is all about sharing. I need to play music with other musicians and for listeners. By nature, I am a social person and like to communicate with others in every way. A smile, a tune, a conversation (verbal or musical), are all forms of social interaction that I strive to have in my life. As a result of being a professional musician I have had the opportunity to interact with thousands of souls and share sonic art. Over the many years I’ve taught bass and improvisation I have seen many of the players go on to spread the music and knowledge in the ways of performing and teaching others. This is a tremendous feeling of sharing cultural enrichment with the lives of perhaps millions in these days of internet and other media.
In addition to teaching at Berklee I also teach one day per week at my home for high school bassists and adult players. Teaching has become another passion for me.
What would you be, if not a professional musician?
I enjoy nature very much. When I was young before I caught the music bug my interests lied in Astonomy, Geology, Physics and woodwork. One of my current hobbies is to make hardwood boxes. They are mostly for gifts but I enjoy the process. For me music and family are most important.
What is the greatest sacrifice you’ve ever made while in the practice of being a musician, and how did that sacrifice affect you?
That’s a deep question. Having grown up in a family of five kids and being the only boy was a challenge in itself. My natural tendency coming from a tight knit family was to start a family myself. As I became serious about music and put so much of my time and energy into that relationships with women became difficult to maintain. I would do every gig, rehearsal or session that came my way. My heart was broken twice in a bad way and several other times in less bad ways. This caused me to be depressed for a while and it took me years to realize it was ok and things would work out. At the ripe age of 37 I met my current wife and mother of our two beautiful daughters. One of my old girlfriends and I lived together and had planned to marry and when that fell apart so did I. My reaction to it was to bury myself totally in the music and to keep as busy as possible. One of my best friends, Jerry Bergonzi helped me quite a lot during that period.
Describe your standing practice regimen. Also, what technical (and musical) aspects of your playing are you currently working on?
Technical things that I like to practice involve the ideas that I currently hear and want to play. This changes as I have new ideas and learn to play them and move on. At this point in my development as a player certain basic things such as scales and arpeggios up and down the neck have become more automatic and so I try to make creative lines using those things and adding various approaches to certain chord tones or scale tones. For example I might take a minor 7 (b5) chord and only approach the b5 and b7th in any number of ways, (chromatic above/below, double chromatic above/below, scale above/ below, double scale above/belowand combinations of those). I usually choose a way to do it and transpose it through the keys from the lowest chord tone to the highest chord tone and then from the highest chord tone down and back up. I like doing them in triplets. With scales I make up melodic sequences and practic those going up and down and down and up. In recent years I’ve been practicing improvising 12 tone lines. I wrote hundreds if not thousands of these and read them to the point where I can now make them up as I play. When I get to the end of a 12 tone row I usually connect by step into a new one. This can be a walking bass exercise or solo depending upon rhythm. I like to walk a lot when I practice. It allows me to put many ideas in a consistent time. As I get better at them I increase the tempo. For my right hand I can attack the notes twice each and move the left hand more carefully. I also like to practice standard tunes, melody bass line and solo. On my upright I practice all the music both arco and pizz.
What does music, and being a musician, mean to you - at the deepest level of your being?
Being a musician means being a sharing person. Sharing your soul. Having devoted most of my life to music has taught me to live in the moment which is all we really have. This moment is it. Music can help us realize who we really are. We are all individuals but we are all one.
How important is it to understand the Language of music?
For me being a teacher it is very important to understand the language of music. I have to communicate to students of music. Having expressed that, I must also admit that I have met incredible musicians who know nothing of what they do in any terms other than to perform from their heart. This to me is one of the highest forms of music and one that I have aspired to my whole life. The difference for guys like me and many of the players I know is that having not grown up in a daily performing environment from childhood means having to learn a different way. This can be learning by ear and/or studying theory and technique. My early years as a bass guitarist was totally by ear playing along with Cream and Hendrix and other records or radio of the day. Later I learned to read while studying at Berklee with John Neves. Many of the natural players I mentioned do not read music. For me it was an essential skill to have for more gigs.
How do you collect the series of seemingly random influences and articulate them through music?
What a huge question! I’m glad you used the word seemingly. Let’s take a butterfly as an example of a seemingly random influence. When I watch it fly the fluttering dance in the wind creates an image in my mind and musically it can be communicated through some flurry of notes that paint a similar shape to the butterfly’s path through the air. Another example could be a gray dark, storm cloud moving over head and causing a curtain that blocks the sunlight. This could be transposed to low bass notes and dark chords and perhaps a slow tempo. On another note is the influence of other people and interactions of various sorts. These could be happy or serious chit chat, an argument or perhaps a laughing fit. Each day we have many of these seemingly random influences and they become imprinted on our subconscious minds. Dreams are often made up of these influences and I believe music is also. Music is also something we hear on a daily basis either in the subway, supermarket, people’s cars and all over the place. If you’re like me everything I hear gets retained and played over in my mind for a while until I hear something else that’s strong enough to over ride it.
Can music ever truly become commercial? Why, or why not?
Well, there is so called commercial music but how musical it is can be questioned. The most popular currnt trends are towards fashion and sex. Music that is for dance seems to fit those trends well for most forms of media. Music for art sake such as something you would sit and listen to in a quiet place and pay attention to is less likely to become commercial in a large way because people in society would rather not engage in too much mental or spiritual activity after their daily grind at work or self inflicted stress throughout their day. We here in the U.S. are bombarded with media which is visually suggestive and musically lacking in depth. It is for the most part rhythmic to imply dancing and physical excitement rather than to be intellectually or spiritually stimulating. When I travel abroad there seems to be more of an artistic appreciation for music. Though there is still plenty of disco, house, rap and beat oriented music worldwide. It’s hard to imagine that changing anytime soon.