Just the Basics
An Interview with Mike Richmond
by Richard Klecka
Q. What made you want to pick up a bass?
That story has nothing to do with jazz… I’m from Philadelphia, and in the mid-fifties, my parents took me to a Bill Haley concert and I just loved it; Rock Around The Clock and the whole bit. The bass player at that show really caught my ear, and the feeling stayed with me. A few years later, the theme song for the Philadelphia Phillies was “Big Noise From Winnetka” with Bobby Haggert, and the drummer played the bass with a pair of drum sticks. That song ended up accompanying a Philly Cigar commercial so whenever these cigars were advertised there was this great bass sound in the background. Those were the seeds. In seventh grade I was twelve years old. I had learned to play guitar by then, and I tried to join the school orchestra but they wouldn’t let me play guitar because Elvis Presley was really big and all the teachers hated guitar. I saw a bass on the wall in the band instructor’s room and he asked if I’d like to play it instead. I became a bass player.
Q. Was it an easy instrument for you to learn?
Not really…they didn’t make small basses for students at that point and the instrument was much larger than I was. I was short and had small hands so I had to work very hard…but it was worth it.
Q. You’ve played with a lot of people!
From Miles Davis and Stan Getz in jazz to Richie Havens in a folk setting to Ravi Shankar from India…I perform with symphony orchestras all over the world. I’m the instructor for the National German Jazz Orchestra and also an orchestra leader in Sweden. I do a little bit of everything. I still like the old rock & roll thing but I don’t do those kinds of gigs any more. I did quite a lot of those while I was growing up with some of the bands I used to hear when I was a kid. That was a treat.
Q. What are some of your more notable experiences?
I played with Miles Davis and Quincy Jones in Montreaux. It was Miles’ last concert and recording and I got to play live with him instead of playing opposite to him doing studio work. Making the recording and the video and working with Quincy was a real treat. I felt like a little kid again, It was a lot of fun. Years before that I did a concert with Ravi Shankar. I had taken Charles Mingus’ place in the Mingus Dynasty band after he died and I found myself in Bombay. Ravi had heard about me and asked if I wanted to play a concert and solo with a South Indian orchestra he was putting together for a symphonic piece he had written. So I practiced for a week at my hotel. The music was quite challenging, actually, and I played one of the violin parts because Ravi didn’t know how to write a bass part. So I told him “I’ll play a violin part and when the time comes for my solo I’ll improvise.”
That was a wonderful feeling because I had admired Ravi Shankar ever since I was in college and had a lot of his records in my collection.
Q. It must have been quite an honor to be asked to fill the shoes of Mingus.
It was, having worked opposite him a lot and being a fan as well. Right after he died his wife called me up and asked if I would take his place. I didn’t think I’d be one of the people they would call because I was much younger than all the other guys in the band and all these musicians had been playing with Mingus for some time. I really enjoyed that job and learned a lot from Jimmy Knepper and Dannie Richmond, the drummer in the band. It was like going to school again, a great experience.
I also learned quite a bit from Stan Getz. He wasn’t teaching verbally but when he played I really checked out what he was doing. It was a really good growth experience.
Gil Evans was one of the finest human beings on the planet. Very soft spoken, but his professionalism on stage, how he handled himself and how he would count a tune off gave me a lot of room in the ensemble. It was just the way he did things. He would let me be creative but I also knew things had to be done a certain way.
Q. How about your work with Dizzy Gillespie?
The first time I played with him I was working with Stan Getz and he joined the band for a night at the Nice Festival. He was very funny on stage. When he was soloing he was very serious and he played great, obviously, but he was a real jovial presence. I didn’t know the coda to one of the tunes so in between the melody he would yell back the changes to me, which I thought was very nice since I think we were recording and videotaping. Here he was telling this youngster in the back the chords while he was playing at the same time! A lot of band leaders of his generation would most likely have picked me up and thrown me offstage. He was very gentle and kind.
Q. How did the Basic Tendencies album come to be?
I had worked with Bob (Haddad) on some other projects with Nana Vasconcelos and Badal Roy. He asked me if I wanted to to a solo bass album and I thought it might be a good idea to incorporate some percussion and non-traditional chordal instruments (in this case a harp). Lois Colin is a good friend of mine and is one of the best improvisers on the harp that I know of. A couple of my friends (Glen Velez and Joe Passaro) played percussion and Simon (Shaheen) played oud. It’s a very melodic record. Bob’s great in the studio, he really knows what’s happening with the music.
Q. How did you pick the pieces that you did for the record?
Epominomous where are you? was inspired by a nursery rhyme my parents taught me when I was a kid. One day it came to mind while I was traveling in Austria and the melody just came to me complete with arrangements.
Poem for Gil (Evans) is an acknowledgement of all that I learned from Gil. He died right around the time of this recording.
Cradle Song came about because I wanted to write a tune with the same feeling as some of my baby boy’s music boxes. I try to pick up music boxes from all over the world. Each track has its own story.
Q. How did you come to be influenced by traditional world music ?
When I was a kid my mother played a lot of Middle Eastern music at home. Also, there used to be a TV show in the late 40’s called “Ramar of the Jungle,” it was about an American guy and his adventures. The show took place in India for the first two years and the background for the whole show was sitar music. It was beautiful. So for a half-hour every day I got to hear that type of music.
I was 4 or 5 and I fell in love with that sound. Years later, when the Beatles got into Indian styles I began to learn a lot more about it, bought and began playing sitar and a Piccolo bass, which is an octave higher than a regular bass. A lot of my bass soloing at that time was very sitar-like.
Q. What about your teaching background? What are some of your memorable experiences?
I’ve been teaching bass for many years, privately and also on the University level.
I won teacher of the year award for 1994 at New York University. At the end of the year each May they hold banquets and I had never gone to one. I don’t socialize very much and I’m not very political. This time, all of my students insisted that I go to this one and told me that I was being a drag if i didn’t show up. I had no idea that I was going to receive an award, you know, I never expected it. I just try do the job properly and hope that the kids truly learn something.
Q. What is the Modern Walking Bass Technique?
It’s a bass technique book I wrote. When you play different jazz grooves and you’re playing a 4/4 swinging bass line it’s called “walking bass.” There are 4 beats to a bar and 4 quarter-notes a bar. You can embellish those quarter notes with skips, triplets and other techniques to create a very modern bass line. I’ve been teaching since I was in college. Even though I travel around the world as a musician I was trained as a teacher with an education degree. I needed a basic text to teach from but there was nothing out there, so I wrote my own book. Of all the things in my life, this book is one that I’m very proud of because it has allowed so many people (and not just bass players) to learn a very useful technique.
Q. You mentioned enjoying other types of music, like Rock ‘n Roll, for example. Are you just too busy to play these types of music at this point in your life?
I’m just not in those kinds of circles any more, although some of my friends play with the Blues Brothers, and to get involved with that in addition to the work I’m doing right now would take me on the road most of the year and I have a young son and don’t want to be away from him that much. Right now I’m so out of town, it’s hard to keep track. I’m off to Italy tomorrow, come home on Saturday, and leave again on Tuesday to go to Germany. I’ll be there for a week, come home for a week, tour of Russia for 2 weeks, come home for a week and a half, and then go to Brazil for 3 days. From Brazil I’ll fly directly to Switzerland to play a concert and have an audience with the President, then it’s back to to Rio de Janeiro, then back home to my teaching position at New York University.
Q. Those sound like some pretty interesting circles…
It’s a pretty hectic schedule but everyone tells me it’s better to do more than less. And you know, through all of this, even despite my experience and crazy travel schedule, I feel like I’ve only just begun. I’m still learning…every day… as a teacher, as a musician and writer, and for sure as a parent. I’m in a constant state of flux. I guess my personality and lifestyle goes well with music, since music is evolving and always changing too.