by Pania Simmonds

Paul Dyne – An Interview With Pania Simmonds

by Pania Simmonds

Paul Dyne – An Interview With Pania Simmonds

Paul Dyne is a Wellington-based jazz musician specialising in double bass. Born in Timaru, his own musical education has been through experience and teaching. Paul played a range of instruments and styles before he made the transition to double bass while studying Chemistry in Christchurch. He taught in Montreal for 10 years where he also continued to establish himself in the jazz scene playing with touring acts and local musicians.

Paul began teaching jazz after he returned home to NZ where he tutored at the Wellington Polytechnic Conservatorium of Music, now known as the New Zealand School of Music, where he was head of the jazz department. He is now retired from teaching but still has a very active playing career and is practising more than ever.

I decided to move to Wellington to learn from Paul Dyne. From my lessons and being surrounded in great musicians I can confirm that double bass is a labour love – it never gets easier but is so rewarding. I wanted to interview him as his experience and attitude is a valuable and inspirational source of knowledge.

In June Wayne Shorter visited NZ to play in the Wellington Jazz Festival and his bassist, John Patitucci, borrowed Paul’s bass. Two nights later he was being inducted into the Massey University College of Creative Arts’ Hall of Fame. In between those two memorable events Paul and I got together at his former residency, The Lido Café, to talk about his personal musical history.

What were your early childhood music education experiences?

We always had music around the home, in Timaru. My mother played the piano a lot. We had the usual thing of standing around the piano singing the songs of the day. She would go down and buy the sheet music from Beggs music store which I still have some of those originals. It was quite expensive actually you know, it was like three and sixpence for a bit of paper really. That was a lot of money in those days because some people were working for one pound a week, which was 20 shillings a week, and so to spend three shillings on a piece of music was actually quite a lot of money. So yes I was lucky in that sense.

My father was a very keen listener of music. He didn’t play anything but he listened to stations from overseas on short-wave radio. He often got jazz programmes. When I started to show some interest in music he offered to play those to me and he did that right through until I was in high school. The Voice of America used to play jazz programmes which were mostly big band.

He’d also collected all of Bing Crosby’s records. Now Bing Crosby we think of as a guy who recorded ‘White Christmas’ and he’s just a crooner, but in actual fact he was a jazz singer. His brother Bob Crosby had a band.

I was born in 1942 and when I was quite young I went to a movie and in the movie this young fellow was kind of geeky, which I was, and shy, which I was, but he got a harmonica and it got him popular with everybody. So I said to my parents, ‘I want a harmonica’. They bought me one for Christmas and it was a good quality harmonica, a Hohner Chromatica. I interestingly enough now was able to learn all the songs that were on the radio and play them on it just by ear. So I must have had some sort of reasonable ear thing going on and the ability to listen to something and translate it.

There was no music in those days other than sheet music, so I must have heard the song on the radio maybe a couple of times then I would have worked it out, then the next time I heard it I would have played along with it or something like that.

I went to Timaru’s Waimataitai Primary School and they had a brass band – probably, I think, at that time the only brass band of that level in a primary school in the Southern Hemisphere. People knew that brass bands were attached to factories and schools in England. So I played the cornet for a couple of years. I couldn’t deal with the embouchure thing. The more I practised the worse I seemed to get, so I wasn’t cut out to be a trumpeter.

When I went to high school I joined the recorder group and learnt to play the recorder and again I was able to play songs that were on the radio. That was in the third form. In the fourth form I bought a clarinet and immediately formed a little dance band and went out and played for dances. After about a year of that I saved up and bought a saxophone and carried on playing saxophone all the way through high school.

I had a band called the PDs, which was where my nickname came from. The band was very successful in Timaru and we did the top cabaret job there. When I went on to university I carried on playing the clarinet in the orchestra and there were a couple of pop bands. One called Lloyd and the Undergraduates, which was Lloyd Scott who a lot of people will remember from the late night Radio NZ programme. I think he is still doing it. It was based on Cliff Richard and the Shadows and I played saxophone in that. I taught myself piano just sitting at home fiddling on a piano. I sat and worked out Elvis Presley tunes. Elvis was my favourite musician of the day when I was younger, and Little Richard.

I loved all that stuff. Little Richard was black but one thing about Elvis was that he learnt music from listening to black musicians on the street. A lot of his pitching of sharp nines and so on like Jail House Rock and Heartbreak Hotel and all of those sort of songs are actually more to do with how a black musician would do it, somebody with an African heritage, so that to me was what made Elvis different, he had that. Then of course he became very commercial and got further and further away from that, but in the initial period that was the music I listened to.

Then I started listening to a lot more jazz. After seeing The Benny Goodman Story that’s what made me want to buy a clarinet because it was the same theme, lonely boy sitting on the roof top in Chicago, nobody wanted to talk to him or befriend him, he learned to play the clarinet, again that resonated with me. And then I was very interested in all the Dixieland, New Orleans and clarinet players. I used to lie on my bed at night and listen to different radio stations that had jazz on them. That’s where I heard all these wonderful players that played all that really gutsy soulful music, I still love that music. The good Louis Armstrong stuff still resonates with me and of course I like Coltrane as well but I’ve never stopped loving that stuff.

The other thing that happened to me was that I got an AFS scholarship in high school I was in the seventh form at the time and I went to Wisconsin. One of the teachers I went to the high school with was very much into jazz and so I managed to learn some stuff and do some playing with her. And at the end of that trip I went to New York and stayed with a family there for a few days and they took me to some jazz clubs there. At that time there was Cozy Cole the drummer and other famous musicians of the time who are all dead now of course.

So I’ve never really had any music education. I thought about studying music at university but there was no practical music course at Canterbury at the time, it was all just musicology and history and theory. They did have the orchestra but you couldn’t go there and major on a clarinet. So I decided to follow my other abilities which were science and maths and so on and did the masters in chemistry.

In 1967 I finished my master’s degree and I became friendly with a man called Bruce King who unfortunately died recently (not to be confused with the Bruce King who is a drummer in Auckland). This was Bruce King who was interested in folk music. We hopped on a boat and went to the States with very little money and went and bought a car in Los Angeles. We travelled around the States for about nine months, sleeping in the car mostly. I went to every single jazz thing that I could go to and Bruce went to every single folk thing that he could go to. I went to a lot of the really good folk things that he went to as well, The New Lost City Ramblers, Pete Seeger and all those sort of guys. Peter, Paul and Mary. It was during this trip that I heard the Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne Shorter on tenor sax; Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; and Tony Williams on drums at The Both/And club in San Francisco, just before Miles went electric.

Was that when they actually played standards?

Yeah, they played Stella and I had to leave after a while as I was actually shaking, my whole body was shaking with the intensity. I mean, in NZ we don’t hear people play with that intensity. It sounds sort of a wee bit like anger, it often feels a slightly negative energy but it’s not, it’s just incredible power that comes from people who are playing with that passion.

I got married in 1968. I went to training college and did a little bit of teaching at Cashmere High in Christchurch and then my wife and I hopped on a plane and boat and went to America then Canada and did the same thing, bought a car and travelled around. We ended up settled in Montreal and eventually I got a job in a college, a sort of pre-university type college. They call them CEGEPs over there, an acronym for the French name and in the Quebec province there are about 33 of them. All students in Quebec had to go there for two years before going to university. It was kind of like taking a first year and expanding it into two years, The whole idea was to expose students to a number of different options so they don’t go straight into university and become a doctor when that’s not what they really wanted.

I got in as a Chemistry teacher and then found out they had this music department so I trotted down and said, ‘I play bass’. I met all these young musicians and started to play in bands as by now I’d started on the bass. The particular college had a jazz program and the people who were teaching there had played with Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald. They were just amazing musicians. Al Baculus was the teacher of arrangement. He was the top arranger for big bands, commercial and movie music in Canada, I often sat in on his classes.

But I had got my first jazz education when I was at Canterbury University. Doug Caldwell, a Christchurch piano player called me up and said, ‘Would you like to do the Milano restaurant gig?’ This was one of the first licensed restaurants in NZ and they had a live music policy and it was the Doug Caldwell Trio and his bass player had left. That was four gigs a week, four hours a night playing standards. Doug is an exceptionally good piano player, he’s 90-something now and still playing. That was a gig with a Bas Carroll playing what they call ‘cocktail drums’, which is just a floor tom with a pedal underneath it so that it acts like a bass drum, and then the drummer plays brushes on top and then he has a cymbal, so he had a very basic kit.

I sat next to Doug and I could actually see his hands and Doug used to say to me, ‘Let’s play umm, let’s play ummmm arhhh, ummmm E flat and I’d look over at his fingers. So I would see if he’d play the E flat as the first chord, but sometimes he played an F, the tune was in E flat and yet he played an F and so I would think, ‘Okay I’d better play F, then he’d play another note before he got to the E flat which I’d eventually work out was a B flat. And that was a ii-V-I you know. So that’s where I learnt a huge amount of theory. Not from sitting in a classroom but from sitting watching piano players’ hands.

I learnt hundreds of tunes with Doug and I didn’t know their names, they were always “ummm.” Doug has a very advanced harmonic knowledge so all the chord progressions he’d use for all these old standard tunes he’d modified and re-harmonised to make them really interesting and more logical and stronger. Fantastic, just fantastic.

So that was my first jazz learning and then in Montreal where I met up with the jazz guys there. I did get some lessons from the piano teacher who taught at the school but mainly I wanted to play with him so in a lesson I said, ‘I play bass and next thing he was calling me for gigs’.

So how did you get to play with people like Sonny Stitt?

I started playing in bands in Montreal. I played in a student band called Rebop and that got really well known. I kept watching the other top musicians in town and saying to myself, ‘I’m going to play with them one day’.

One of them was a saxophone player called Billy Robinson who had a Muslim name Jathiya Samad. He played in Mingus’s band near the end. You see references to him in Mingus’s books, he was living in Montreal. There was another black player there, Trevor Nurse, and he said, ‘I’d like to have you for a gig next week, I’d like to use you on bass, I’ve got a drummer sorted out, I hear you’ve got a drum set at your house and can we rehearse there?’

The drummer was Claude Ranger, who was quite a legend in Canada. There’s a big mystery at the moment as he’s disappeared, He worked with all sorts of great American jazz musicians all of who said, ‘Come on the road with us’. His response was, ‘I can’t leave my family’. He had five daughters and his English wasn’t that fantastic. But I’d seen him play and I knew I wanted to play with him, so he came in and started playing my drums and he said, ‘Paul, come here, I need you close enough so I could touch you’. And we started playing.

After about 20 minutes I looked at him and said, ‘Is that okay?’ because I had no idea at that time, I had no idea if I was a decent bass player or not. I’d done a bit of playing but had no idea where I was at, but he made some compliments saying, ‘I’m having a really good time’. And later on after we’d played a number of gigs he said, ‘Paul, do you mind if I play during your solo?’ ‘What you do mean?’ ‘When you play your solo can I play along, I love what you’re doing’. So we ended up doing these kind of duets.

Anyway he had been playing with Billy Robinson and next thing I knew Billy Robinson had called me up saying, ‘Do you want a gig?’ And so I started working with him and drummer Alvin Queen. So Billy and I played with some really high quality drummers.

So I started appearing a lot at a club called L’air du Temps which translates to like “modern times”. And a number of musicians came to hear me play there and eventually someone said, ‘Sonny Stitt is coming to town and we need a bass player. Can you do the gig?’ So that’s my most famous gig.

They said, ‘Sonny’s coming in tonight, there’ll be no rehearsal and he’ll just talk through some tunes with you and you’ll play’. So Sonny turned up and the first thing he said was, ‘Pleased to meet you Paul. I’ve just come from a gig with Ron Carter in New York’. But he was lovely. He just called the tunes and if he heard I wasn’t playing the right chords he would immediately improvise in such a way that it was obviously a G minor 7, it was obviously a C7 and he’d play the flat 9, he’d just give me these lessons and taught me tunes on the bandstand.

The piano player was from the school, Art Roberts who just died recently, and the drummer was Marvin Jolly, who had drummed for Shirley Scott the jazz organist. So I did a week with him and so when people say, ‘Did you get any jazz education?’ I say, ‘I went to the University of Sonny Stitt’.

The other guy I played with was Pepper Adams who was a baritone sax player. There are recordings on YouTube of that concert. I’m not overjoyed with my sound on that, I sound a bit out of tune at times, so I’ve never really pushed that around. I ended up being one of the bass players they called for any visiting artist who didn’t have a bass player.

So you kind of kept pursuing this even though you weren’t really sure how other people were receiving you or where you were at?

Yeah well, Sonny Stitt said to me, ‘I’m really digging your playing man and I want to feature you on a number so you’ll play the melody’. So I chose Lover Man. Then he’d say, ‘We’ll now feature our bass player Paul Dyne’. He came out to NZ in 1980 sometime and a whole team of us made the trip to Auckland. After the concert I went out the back and I walked up to him and I shook his hand. ‘Hey Sonny, my name is Paul Dyne,’ and his face lit up. ‘I played with you 10 years ago. I remember. It was at the Rising Sun.’ He asked what I was doing here in NZ and I said, ‘Oh, I’ve come back here to woodshed, ya know,’ or something like that. He said, ‘No, no man, you don’t need to woodshed, you can play’. And that expression ‘you can play’ is all about what people say to people. They say that or nothing.

Yes, at jazz school students get feedback – you don’t get feedback in those situations.

You don’t get called again and you don’t know why. In jazz school in a way you are privileged because we are all put in situations where it is our job to tell you what’s going on and what you need to work on.

Did you listen to yourself a lot when you played?

No. Mostly I didn’t like what I heard. Even Miles Davis, when you say, ‘Do you listen to your old records?’ he’ll say, ‘No’, because it’s a never ending journey. You don’t ever get to where you want to be. If you got to where you want to be you’d probably stop and go and grow potatoes or something. That’s the way I see music. I don’t think I’d get to the stage where I think I’m good enough on bass to stop or go and tackle the hardest job in the world. I’m personally totally aware of all the things I need to work on and I’ve been doing a little of that since I’ve started practising seriously.

So last night and yesterday afternoon was a revelation seeing the power that that John Patitucci’s got, man can he pull the strings. I thought he was going to pull my bass apart at one stage but it was good. It was what the bass needed, the bass loved it. I could hear it getting bigger and bigger as he played it.

What was Sonny Stitt like after your gigs? He seems like a very understanding person to help you through on the band stand.

Absolutely lovely man, all of those people are. The people who have done all that stuff and got to the stage where they can play anything, anytime, anywhere, any tempo and key –there’s no ego any more with those guys. Almost all of the really good guys I played with were super, super human beings as well, now whether that came first or after I don’t know, I suspect it came after.

So it doesn’t go hand in hand, but almost all of them have no ‘me, me’ thing happening, they were interested in you. Sonny Stitt, he was just as supportive. And he just said nice things at the end of the night. He would say, ‘I’ve played a gig with Ron Carter and Buddy Rich but these guys I’ve had just as much fun with’, that sort of thing. Imagine what that sort of thing does for your own self-image.

I read an interview with Ron Carter and the question, ‘Who are some among the younger generation of bass players you respect and admire?’ he answered, ‘It is such a tough instrument to get around and airlines aren’t interested so you need to hire one everywhere you go. Anyone who sticks with the upright bass is my favourite.’

Ha ha yes, it’s a brute of an instrument that’s for sure, it’s difficult to play, there’s a lot of physical work involved.

Yes, and you need to try and play in tune. How have and how did you cope with intonation?

Luckily I had some lessons early on about hand position so I realised that if you can get one thing right then you can transfer it to some areas. And the other thing of course is to have good enough ears to hear you’ve played it slightly sharp of slightly flat and then make that quick adjustment which you can make sound quite nice with a bit of vibrato.

I mean I watched Patitucci and the whole last night I heard maybe one little sour note, but it could well be he meant to do it. It would be safer for me to say I heard no intonation slips anywhere.

So I bought my own bass for 40 pounds from a girl in the Christchurch Symphony. A little Czechoslovakian bass, and when I went to Canada it sat in my parents’ attic. It should have been destroyed when I got home but it was still in tune. You should never leave a bass in an attic under tension because the heat is just going to make it go like that. I’ve still got that bass. It’s down in Tekapo now.

I learnt a lot from Stu Buchanan too, a Christchurch musician who knew dozens of bebop tunes. Before I went to Canada I worked with a guy called Jim Langabeer who is still playing up in Auckland, he was interested in free music so I got into that. So when I was in the States I went and heard Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler was dead unfortunately. Supposedly, they reckon he might be alive somewhere.

And I kept up my interest in pop music. I’ve always followed what’s going on. I always followed a thing called Radio with Pictures which was one of the first TV programmes in NZ to play videos. I still watch all the vocal programmes, Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice. I like to keep up with what’s going on in the pop area.

I love a good song, especially a song that tells a little story. There are songs that I just get joy out of hearing them all the time. Some people will say to me, ‘Why do you listen to that. It’s dreadful and I go, ‘Well, I like it. It resonates with something in my past somehow.’

Do you think that love of pop music has influences on your jazz playing as well as the melodies?

Definitely. I like the idea of motifs, little squirly things that move away from the chord progression but still make sense. There are some marvellous players out there who do that but I still like melodic improvising. If somebody comes up with a melody I love it, and that’s why I still listen to a lot of Stan Getz and Oscar Peterson. Oscar’s got a lot of technical stuff that overshadows his melodic stuff. Chet Baker and all those guys who are more into melody and constructing a line that stands on its own and that you could sing in the shower, ya know? I hear a lot of that in good pop music.

On piano I’ve been learning a whole lot of Elton John songs, Jimmy Webb, By the Time I Get To Phoenix, Wichita Lineman, fabulous songs, wonderful. I’m still hoping that I can one day play the definitive solo with the right mix of melody, interest and a little bit of bebop alterations, not too much.

You found a double bass in university. Is that where you first picked it up?

Yeah, when I was there playing clarinet and the saxophone in pop bands and jazz bands we decided to reactivate the Canterbury University Jazz Club and they said that there was a double bass stored. So I pulled it out and since I was one of the first guys in the jazz club I took the bass home, practised on it and next thing I was doing gigs on it.

I had done some fiddling on electric bass and also had played guitar and made a solid body guitar. And of course the bottom four strings on a guitar are the same as the electric bass. It was a reasonably easy transition. I was kind of a multi- instrumentalist in the sense that it didn’t really matter what instrument somebody handed to me, most of them I could never play very well.

At what point in your musical career do you feel you progressed the most and how so?

Actually there were three main points. 1968 and ‘69 playing with Doug Caldwell at the Milano Restaurant in Christchurch was the first. I had to develop my ears to learn (no music) hundreds of tunes and I believe good ears are essential for any type of music. I also learned a huge amount of theory, harmony, chord substitution etc from playing with Doug. Then playing almost every night in Montreal during the late ‘70s at my home (I had piano and drums in the basement) and on gigs with really good players. I believe development comes from lots of playing and preferably with players who are better than you.

Third was having to teach, from 1988 on, at the Conservatorium really made me have to consolidate my knowledge of Jazz Theory, Jazz History, Improvisation, Jazz Repertoire, Keyboard Skills, Ear Training etc.

What do you think of the current jazz music industry in New Zealand?

Jazz has always been minority music. When I began serious professional playing in the late ‘60s there was only one musician In Christchurch who made his living solely from playing and writing music and that was Doug Caldwell. Nowadays there are many musicians making a living from music. Many of those are also teaching music. Jazz has also found its way into all sorts of contemporary music and now there is a wide range of what I call ‘jazz-flavoured music’ and almost all of the graduates of jazz programmes the world over are working and earning a living playing those sorts of genres but also playing their own music which is informed by their knowledge of jazz. I see it all as positive.

Interviewer Pania Simmonds (B.Mus Hons, Otago) is a music tutor at Southern Institute of Technology In Invercargill. She plays electric bass and double bass in a variety of bands in Invercargill, Dunedin and Wellington and is a double bass player in the Invercargill Sinfonia. Her early music influences were from living with her family in Te Kauwhata, North Waikato and from the school music programmes at Te Kauwhata Primary School and Te Kauwhata College.