UNCG becomes a place for bass

by Meredith Veto

In between tunes, a curious student in the front row of Room 217 in UNCG’s music building asks, ‘“You haven’t played together in so long, how do you still know how to communicate?’”

‘“You don’t have to see one another,’” replies bassist Reggie Workman without missing a beat. ‘“The music tells you what to do.’”

Workman, best known for his work with John Coltrane in the ’50s and ’60s, joined an all-star cast of jazz musicians for a Miles Davis alumni concert Saturday night: Wallace Roney playing trumpet; Mike Stern on guitar and Jimmy Cobb on drums. The first half of the concert featured student musicians playing fresh arrangements of Miles’ tunes, and then the veterans took the stage.

Workman worked with Miles during a three-city tour in 1964, playing Chicago, New York and Washington, DC with his group. Now, standing in front of a crowd of young faces eager to absorb his wisdom during a free student clinic a day before the concert, he reminisces.

‘“It was a very, very hot situation,’” Workman recalls, and a few students gasp when he name drops: Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Miles formed the quintet. Workman came from Los Angeles to New York that year to fill in for Carter.

‘“[Miles] could feel right away that there was a different ingredient there. He was a little uncomfortable about that and so was the band.

‘“It was very hard to compromise.’”

Workman is quick to turn the anecdote into a lesson. The musicians had to meet halfway, he says, because the music grooves a little different depending on who’s on the bandstand. Each musician requires a distinct style of communication.

A man of short stature and sharp, attentive eyes, Workman wears a black turtleneck, cargo pants, and slick, flat shoes today. He sets his elbow on the baby grand to his right and continues his story.

‘“It’s like when you walk into a room and you talk to a beautiful lady who likes the library, then you better pull out something about books.’”

Students strap their saxophones around their necks and tune their strings, lining up to jam with Workman and Cobb. Workman lightly holds the neck of his maple red double bass and taps his heels in rhythm. Sometimes he closes his eyes and points his chin up to the light like heaven is glowing down through the fluorescent bulbs. His face is serious but when he smiles it’s deep and approving, guiding the budding musicians while they improvise.

When a student misses a cue Workman throws him a look that might be attributed more to his experience as an educator than a musician, a gentle push back into the music’s time. He’s taught at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music since 1989.

‘“It’s part of our mission,’” he says. ‘“You feel like you have a gift to pass on to the next generation. You’re with new minds that have new ideas about things, and if you keep your own mind open you’re going to gain something as much as you’re going to give something.’”

At one point Workman lets Brian Tyndall take over, a young bassist with dark dreadlocks who sits on a barstool and expertly plucks away while Cobb and other students continue to jam. Workman says he needs a rest, but no sooner does he leave his instrument than he’s pacing the front row and talking to students.

‘“Jeez ol man,’” Tyndall exclaims after the clinic. ‘“It’s always different playing with a real drummer, with seasoned musicians who know what’s going on. I wouldn’t have played half as good.’”

Saturday night’s show in Aycock Auditorium opens with a unique bass performance featuring student bassist Gray Hackelman, who sings and claps along while he plays, prompting the audience to join in. The band jumps with an excited, brassy electricity from the moment director Steve Haines lifts his hand. Haines’ hips swing and his head bounces as he conducts, loosening his shaggy hair and wrinkling his suit.

After a prolonged intermission Haines introduces the four jazz pros, who stroll onto the stage and take their spots. Cobb and Workman easily find their places at the drum kit and bass while Roney, sporting shades and a shimmering gold jacket, takes a little extra time to strut.

Workman, in a muted gray and black geometric patterned sweater, leans over his bass as if it were an old friend. He stares ahead, placing his ear close to the strings and listening like it’s telling him what to do. At times he slaps his fingers against the strings so hard it seems the bass will spin around, and other times he strokes them gently up and down like he’s playing an upright harp.

Stern, whose knees buckle and bounce in rhythm, lightly strums his guitar to initiate the session. Roney tilts the mic toward the floor, points his muted horn downward and reawakens the sounds of Miles.

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