Dave Holland

September 5, 2014

ollandby Christian Wissmuller

Since the mid-1960s, Dave Holland has proven himself to be among the great bandleaders, composers, performers, and collaborators in contemporary jazz. His skill as a bassist has led to tours and recordings with some of the true musical giants of the 20th century through to the present-day: Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Stan Getz, Jack DeJohnette, John Abercrombie, Bonnie Raitt, Pat Metheny, and Kevin Eubanks are just a few who have shared a stage with Holland.

Through his work with Davis (most significantly documented on Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way), Dave Holland played a pivotal role in the development of jazz fusion. His own work – both with Circle in the early ‘70s as well as in a number of small groups in subsequent years – expands upon forms of free jazz while staying rooted in core characteristics of “traditional” jazz.

Along the way, Holland has received four Grammy nods for his work – 1999’s Like Minds, 2002’s What Goes Around, 2005’s Overtime, and 2008’s River: The Joni Letters (with Herbie Hancock). The middle two albums were released on Holland’s own label, Dare2.

As an educator, Holland headed the summer jazz workshop at the Banff School in Alberta, Canada from 1983 until 1990, and has taught at the New England Conservatory of Music – first for a couple years in the late ‘80s and today as the school’s Artist in Residence.

Dave took a break from his extremely busy schedule to chat with JAZZed about his own background as a jazz scholar and fan, his years playing amongst the elite musicians of our age, and his approach to teaching the next generation.

JAZZed: You’ve had a successful career that now spans well over four decades in the music industry, but how did you first become involved in music?

Dave Holland: I kind of came across music quite early in my life. There were no professional musicians in my family, though my mother and my grandmother played a little bit of piano. The key point was my uncle – my mother’s brother – who took up ukulele for a little while when I was about five years old. I was instantly really interested in the instrument. He showed me a few chords and that was it. I got started and just loved it. By the time I was 10 years old, I was listening to rock ‘n’ roll and asked for a guitar for my birthday, which my family got for me.

Were you taking any formal instruction at this point?

 No, it was all pretty much self-taught or picking things up from friends. I started in a band when I was 13 and we decided we needed a bass player and that’s when I started playing bass guitar. We’d all crowd around the record player and figure out Chuck Berry songs, Ray Charles songs, Buddy Holly songs – all the stuff that was going on in the late ‘50s.

When did you start to get turned on to jazz?

 That started right around when I was 15. I left school early to continue on as a professional musician. At that point, I started listening to jazz records and I heard Ray Brown and Leroy Vinnegar – two great, great players – and that got me interested in playing the acoustic bass. I used to just practice along with records – I didn’t do my first work as a professional on acoustic bass until I was 17. That was in a sort of dance band and by that time I was teaching myself to read music, just basically learning as much as I could from the people around me – asking questions, getting together with piano players, and learning tunes.

Then I moved to London and was there for four years. The first year, I was playing music in a Greek restaurant. During that time, I had my first really serious teacher who I continued to study with for the next four years. His name was James Merrett and he was the principal bassist in the London Philharmonic Orchestra and taught at the Guildhall School of Music. I studied part-time with him for a year and at the end of that time he suggested that I apply for a three-year program at the school, which I did. So I started studying at the Guildhall, but it was all classical music, of course, in those days. There were no jazz programs in the conservatories at that time.

When did you start seriously gigging as a jazz bassist?

 It happened over the four years I was in London. Between ’64 and ’68 I started playing in pubs and playing all kinds of different styles of jazz music. I was also doing studio work, I was playing in orchestras, I went on tour with Roy Orbison, I did all kinds of work – I was just a working musician, you know? But increasingly my love for jazz just took over and I started working in the better clubs in London, finally Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, working with some of the visiting artists there, as well as playing in the support groups opposite great bands like the Max Roach Band and the Bill Evans Trio and things like that. That was really a wonderful four years for me in London.

How did you wind up connecting with Miles?

 At the end of those four years, I was playing at Ronnie’s and Miles Davis came in the club, heard me play, and asked me to join his band and come to New York. That was something I had wanted to do – I wanted to go to New York after school, anyway – but I didn’t think I’d work with Miles Davis right away! [laughs]

You’ve played with so many legendary jazz musicians – do any of those individuals stick out as having been especially influential as non-classroom “teachers?”

 I’ve been really fortunate to have had the experiences in my life of playing with some amazing talents. Obviously playing for two and a half years with Miles Davis’ group, starting at the age of 21 was a major thing for me. To have that opportunity and to be in the presence of somebody who functioned on that level creatively was fantastic. He wasn’t a verbal teacher; he was somebody who would say sometimes almost haiku-like things that you would have to figure out the implications of for yourself. In that sense he was always throwing it back at you to be creative. Miles would always expect you to come up with some creative solutions for yourself. He didn’t typically dictate what he wanted specifically. Although – occasionally he did! [laughs]

I had played with Herbie Hancock when I first joined Miles, but much later on in the 1990s I had the chance to work with Herbie and his trio. That was a very liberating experience for me because of the joy that Herbie brings to playing music and the great delight that he has in the whole communication aspect of playing with other musicians. I found that to be very uplifting and inspiring.

Another musician who’s been very important for me is Kenny Wheeler, a Canadian musician who moved to London in the ‘50s. I met him when I lived in London, but after moving to New York I continued to stay in touch with him and I’ve played on his recordings. Playing Kenny’s music and having a chance to get on the inside of it was really very inspiring for me and gave me a chance to learn a lot about his approach to writing. It also gave me some new things to think about in my own work.

 What were the differences between learning as you did at Guildhall and learning by playing alongside those incredibly accomplished musicians?

 One of the things, I think, is when you’re learning through your contact with other musicians, you’re learning at your own pace. Not everyone learns at the same speed or needs to learn the same thing at the same point in their studies, so you find yourself looking for certain experiences of playing with musicians to get a feeling for how they approach playing, how they put together their solos, how they prepare themselves, their mindset, and things like that. These are all really important things and that tradition continues to this day – and I have to say the New England Conservatory fulfills that very well. They really focus on one-on-one contact between the faculty and the students. There are a lot of exchanges going on that really are very much like those exchanges I had when I was coming up – not in a formal classroom – where you’re asking for information as you need it and getting some guidance from a more experienced player as to how to release your own creative forces and realize your particular individuality on your instrument.

How did you come to be associated with NEC?

 My first experience with NEC was in the ‘80s, when I took on a full-time teaching position there from 1988 to 1989. I taught ensemble classes as well as studio teaching – one-on-one teaching. There’s enough structure in the core program to give the fundamentals that are required in terms of learning about writing, composing, arranging, history of music, ear training, and so on. But a very important part of it is the ensemble experience that the players have there and the one-on-one contact with the faculty and, of course, the students can shape their studies with different teachers, depending on who they want to spend time with. So I didn’t just teach bass players – I had singers, horn players, piano players, drummers. You have a chance to interact in a very personal way with the students and I enjoy that part. It leaves room for flexibility in terms of how you teach and what each particular student needs at that point in their journey.

These days you’re NEC’s Visiting Artist in Residence – what does that entail, exactly?

 It involves a one-week visit per semester, during which time I do a number of things. One of which is to coach two ensembles with a view towards having those ensembles perform my compositions at the end of the week. During the week, I do master classes and I do some one-on-one teaching with the bass players. What I like about it is there’s a sense of continuity that happens from semester to semester so I do get a chance to follow up with students and get to know them during their studies at NEC.

Do you have a preferred teaching format: one-on-one, large groups/master classes, or ensemble coaching?

 Not really. I think each approach has its place. The ensemble coaching is a very important part of it because that’s actually taking a collection of music and working on it with the students and playing with them, which is also very important – having that musical dialogue go down. That gives us a chance to work in a group context and really work with concepts dealing with the communication between people in the group and the development of the music. On the other hand, during some of the master classes, we might sit for an hour or two examining four or five composers, we’ll listen to recordings and discuss scores or lead sheets, and examine different ways in which we’ve used the materials to build an ensemble performance. The one-on-one thing allows for intimacy, which leads to a little more freedom for the students to talk about what they’re doing and how they’re approaching things.

 What do you enjoy most in your role as an educator?

The thing I enjoy the most as a teacher is the dialogue, the exchange. It’s not a one-way process – teaching – for me. It’s a dialogue that goes back and forth and the student can be a very active participant in the teaching experience. When you have a student who’s engaged in that way, it makes the experience of teaching that much more fulfilling. The chance to connect with ideas that the new generation is bringing into the music and seeing where they’re taking the music now is another thing that’s very inspiring to me.

Are there aspects of the job you find to be less enjoyable?

 What’s frustrating is the feeling that you don’t have enough time to spend. Unfortunately, teaching can often be on a schedule. Things have to be created within frameworks, so you can’t avoid that, but sometimes you wish you had another 10 or 15 minutes to keep that train of thought going and to work more with that student.

Do you have any words of advice for your fellow jazz educators?

 All I can say is teaching is about a connection. And I think good teachers will know that already. It’s a communication that goes on between two people. Sure, one person assumes the role of teacher and the other of student, but there’s much more to it than that. I try to approach it as: one musician to another. We might be at different stages in our musical journeys, we might have had different experiences, but we’re there to share those experiences and communicate about them. If I can do something to help a young player tap into his or her creative ideas and release them and to inspire them, I feel that my job is done. For me, the goal of teachers should be to ultimately make themselves irrelevant. In other words, you want to at some point be able to say, “OK, you’ve got it.” You’ve handed the process over to the student – they are their own teacher now, they continue on the path of learning, but they put together the program for themselves.  

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