Local jazz bassist Bill Douglass is yet another example of the incredible musical talent that populates Nevada County.
A jazz mainstay in the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly four decades, he has shared the stage or recording studio with the likes of Marian McPartland, Tom Waits, Bobby McFerrin and Mose Allison.
Douglass moved back to this area 15 years ago and along with continuing to play shows in the region with folks like John Girton, Steven Holland and Motoshi Kosako, he is also the artistic director for the Sierra Jazz Camp, which takes place July 16-20 at the Nevada City School of the Arts.
For more information about the camp, go to sierrajazzsociety.com or call Registrar Julia Glasse at 530-273-0568
Tom Kellar: Please tell me about growing up in this area and what the impetus was for your pursuing a life in jazz?
Bill Douglass: I came this way in 1949 with my mother when I was 4, after she had divorced my blood father. When I was 13, my uncle Bill, who played piano and whom I’m named after, gave me my first 78s (vinyl records) of Jazz, of Benny Goodman, with this bass player named Slam Stewart.
He was an incredible bass player and every solo he took, he used the bow and sang in unison with the solo. He was a real virtuoso. I was so lucky, not only to have my uncle when he came up from the Bay Area to play with a little bit, and give me records and stuff, but also parents who didn’t discourage me from listening to jazz and collecting records.
By the time I left here to go to the Bay Area and San Francisco State for a few months, I’d gone from Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck and Erroll Garner all the way up to listening to Miles (Davis) and Ornette (Coleman) and Sonny Rollins.
I had been educating my ears about this grand music that I loved so much.
When I try to pass this on through teaching, I encourage people to find recordings that they love and really listen to them in depth. It’s like reading great literature.
You want to embed yourself in this tradition and of course play with other people and practice your instrument.
TK: So after many years of being a jazz fixture in the Bay Area, you decided to come back this way.
BD: My father had been a very-well respected diesel mechanic here and when he passed away, I got this inheritance and we bought land here and put a cottage on it. Then we ended up leaving the Bay Area and moving up here and I was worried because I had had such a rich musical life in The Bay Area for 35 years, playing with people like Marian McPartland and Mose Allison.
I had misgivings about coming up here, but I must say that we’ve been here 15 years and doing the Jazz Camp for this the 14th year and I think this area has grown tremendously during that time. I’ve been playing at the Stonehouse with a very good jazz group, and one of the musicians lives in Davis, but the rest of the band is from here. I feel that musically, this area has grown a great deal.
TK: Looking at the list of people you’ve played with is very impressive — folks like Bobby McFerrin, Marian McPartland and Tom Waits.
BD: One of the neat things about bass is that everyone needs a bass player. It’s an instrument that, along with drums, really energizes a group. I’ve been very lucky; I’ve played with a lot of people.
TK: What have been some of the highlights of these collaborations?
BD: Let me tell you something about Bobby McFerrin. I played with him and drummer Eddie Marshall at the Concert Hall in San Francisco and we were playing “Round Midnight” and it so touched me that I almost burst into tears on stage.
He was wondering around with a cordless mic and he came up next to me at some point and not only is he a great musician, but there was something so moving about his ability to evoke a tune like that. The way he sang the melody. The same with Marian McPartland. For 20 years I played and recorded with her, she had this great depth. She was such a seasoned professional and so generous.
TK: I have to ask you about Tom Waits.
BD: I recorded with him in the Sonoma area and he was not intimidating at all, but was really giving. At one point he told us (imitating Waits’ gravelly voice), “Now imagine you’re on a desert island and this boat goes by and it’s a death-cruise ship and you hear this band playing.” (laughing) That’s the vibe he wanted to convey to us about how we were supposed to play the tune. He was like that. Later he brought me back for another session and I was on my bass stool and he was at the piano and he didn’t consider himself a great piano player, but he was so sweet, he said, “Oh, Bill, you jazz musicians piss me off because you’re so imposing.” (laughing) And I thought, “Come on Tom, just do what you do, because I love it.”
TK: What do you want people to know about Sierra Jazz Camp 2014?
BD: I think I’d like to emphasize that sometimes jazz can seem intimidating and it is complicated in a way, but I want to make it clear that it is also accessible and I think we’re good teachers, because we start at the place where the person is at and if that means learning just one scale and improvising on that, it’s alright with rhythm, because the rhythmic quality of any music is its central point… We find out where the student is at and have a good time.
We don’t want it to be a fearful thing at all … At the end of the five days, when we do a concert on the last day, It’s amazing how far people can go if you allow them to and make the music accessible.
Tom Kellar is a local freelance writer.