by Pania Simmonds

Kevin Haines: Playing Bass Now & Then

by Pania Simmonds

Kevin Haines: Playing Bass Now & Then

Kevin Haines is a double bass player who has played in the New Zealand jazz scene for over 50 years. After a long and continuing career Haines now also teaches at the Auckland University School of Music. He currently plays with the Samsom Nacey Haines Trio who have most recently released their third album ‘Cross Now’. The album has a unique formation as friends Ron Samsom, Dixon Nacey and Kevin Haines equally contributed ideas that have evolved over their time working together. The outcome being complex but full of feeling and very listenable. Pania Simmonds met with Kevin in October 2017 to ask him some questions about his career and thoughts on playing bass and learning.

What was your own musical education? Was it very formal?

I started playing at 15 when I was playing in my brother’s band in Pukekohe. Frank Gibson’s father was enormously popular in Auckland. He heard me play and gave me a gig playing two nights a week at a dance. We used to have dances up in Khyber Pass. So he took a chance on me and I came up from Pukekohe twice a week and he taught me how to play really good time because his bass drum would go, “boom, boom, boom, boom” all night so you had to play with him. He had a great, great feel, wonderful he really was, and a very kind man. Tough and didn’t suffer fools, but he was a very kind person and he looked after me very, very well.

So that’s how I started. Then I was playing with all these other people around the city, for instance, Alan Broadbent. He is a really famous New Zealand piano player who plays all over the world. He orchestrates and played in Woody Herman’s band. Tony Hopkins and I gave Alan his first gig – he used to come to the regular rehearsal with his short pants on from school. Tony died unfortunately quite recently. So after that, I was playing on the Auckland scene and I did a few tours. Then Mike Walker was playing at the Montmartre in Lorne Street with Les Still and Roger Sellers. Les decided to stop playing and so I bought his bass which was a very unusual French bass.

In what way was the instrument unusual? Do you still use it ever?

It was one of only 12 in the world and it looked like a cello, big high shoulders – pig of a thing to play but it was gorgeous. And then at the same time, I was doing the radio bands in Auckland. That was an 18-piece band that used to play every week and we used to do radio programmes. So that all was going on at the same time when I was working with Mike Walker and Roger Sellers. We were there for about three years.

What happened to that bass is a bad story actually. There was a guy and his wife, came to NZ and got a job with the NZSO and they went right through the country buying up every bass they could find and shipping them back to the States and caught mine as well. They only paid a very small amount of money for it too. I heard recently that it was worth about 300,000 bucks.

Were you desperate for money then?

Not exactly desperate but it was around about the late ‘70s and disco was doing a big thing and I just couldn’t handle it anymore so I gave up playing for a while. And then, of course, my kids came along and I started playing again.

My education was listening to albums. Listening to Miles Davis and playing along with them and that was how I learnt, basically to play basslines and how to swing. It was listening to the best musicians and absorbing. I started listening to jazz when I was 10 a guy came to our house and he had some Stan Kenton records. So I heard them and I thought how amazing.

So I was playing modern jazz and my brother, who I played in a band with, he was still playing the old Dixieland music. So that’s why I changed and he didn’t. But you know, you gotta stay alive, so I started doing anything I could do really. I used to record a lot. And because there weren’t very many bass players I did so much work it was cool.

I worked for Terry Gray for a while. He was a very good arranger/composer and he used to do a lot of television shows so I used to play the bass for him. And then all that really cool stuff died a bit because basically it was caught by disco.

Do you know the story of Disco Demolition Night? When disco started becoming unfashionable in the late ‘70s an American anti-disco campaigner put on an event at a baseball came where crates of disco records were blown up.

What a good idea. I can think of some music today that would be good to do that to.

And no doubt the influence of technology, sequencers and that type of thing would have had an effect on the industry?

Oh, of course, but that’s a really modern thing. Because they tell me when I teach now, kids can go on to things like Sibelius. We had to write everything. If we wanted to do anything we had to write it out ourselves. And I think that actually teaches you a lot more about music, I really do, you gotta work for it.

I leave all that transcribing software stuff or the students. I don’t want to go there. Transcribing is one thing but in some respects, you can transcribe all you like, but you still gotta play it, and you gotta play it so you really mean it. And that’s a big difference.

I haven’t met your son Nathan, but I have seen him play and listened to his music.

He’s a very good player. He’s one of those guys who is a very natural player. We did a lovely ‘standards’ concert late last year and he and Kevin Field joined the trio we have with Ron Samsom and Dixon Nacey. That was a great night as everyone was very relaxed and blew up a real storm!

Asked if there is something in the Haines’ genes that makes him so good, your other son Joel replied. “Respect is due to my father really… he is the only person to have taught me. He taught me the sounds of jazz.”

Interesting as he doesn’t like to play ‘jazz’. And yet he plays so cool, it sure sounds like jazz!

So how did you engage your sons in jazz? Was it a natural process, or did you push them with some kind of direction?

I did push them but I always remember Nathan saying to me later on in life, “…when I was in the womb I used to listen to Art Blakey,” so that’s an interesting way of looking at it because when Nathan was born I was still playing very actively. And Joel also. Because it’s so much a part of your life I think it’s just natural that you pass it on.

Think of how many musicians that have sons or daughters who end up playing, there are lots of them. And I’m sure it’s because kids want to basically emulate what their parents do. And we got all of them going in the school system where they learn on a Saturday morning. I’ve got a picture up on our wall at home of the kids when they were really, really little and there’s Joel with a ukulele and Nathan with a recorder.

So I didn’t influence them that way. But we gave them all those opportunities and it was only later on in life when they started to show a real aptitude for music that I put a band together and got my drummer friends to work with them. They were just real naturals. It’s really funny because Joel says that but he has very, very little to do with jazz and he’s not interested in it at all, whereas Nathan’s the other way. So why does that happen?

There are some things you can’t actually explain.

I think I learnt more about playing from teaching than I have in my life before, whereas when you’re young and playing you’re doing it because you love it. When you are at school or something you start to find out why it is you are doing something. That’s interesting in itself because you know I’m not a great learned musician, but I know what it should be like and I know how it should feel and how it should sound. And so really that just keeps me moving.

I have played with a lot of great musicians. I played with Nat Adderley. That’s probably the most famous one I drag out of the box. But he was such a lovely guy he was no problem at all, such a very nice person. Good musicians are always easy going.

Was that just the one gig or a tour?

We did that twice with him actually. But we did this gig when Nat came through town and Tommy Adderley was involved I worked with Tommy for a long time. When I went back to playing again we were playing in The London Bar and Tommy was in there for a long time. He was interesting as he had a big hit in New Zealand in the ‘50s. He came here on a ship and he was English. He was a great singer, and he was very good and he liked jazz so he ended up singing jazz. Nice guy but he was very hung up on lots of drugs and that stuff you know? Don’t go there, very bad!

That’s quite a common story with jazz musicians…

Never did any of them any good either.

I was watching a documentary about Eric Dolphy and he never touched drugs but when he was in Paris he died of undiagnosed diabetes. He ate the same kind of food every day for every meal. He collapsed at a gig and was taken to hospital but the doctor thought he had overdosed on drugs and he didn’t bother to look further into to it. So he died.

That’s terrible! You know about Scott LaFaro? Probably the best bass player who’s ever lived actually. He was not doing any drugs either. He used to give Bill Evans a real hard time as Bill was such a drug taker. He was terrible, shocking, but LaFaro was the absolute opposite and he wouldn’t have anything to do with it.

It’s quite interesting, him and Charlie Haden used to live together. And I remember reading something about Charlie. He said that he was very disappointed that the last thing that him and Scott LaFaro talked about was the fact that (Charlie used to take drugs too, I think I’ve got that right, I might have it wrong), the last time they saw each other they had an argument about drugs and LaFaro sort of picked up his bass and walked out the door. And of course, he died in a car crash as he was travelling back to see his mother in New York.

He was astounding. For goodness sake! He had everything right, there’s no question about it. It’s funny I’m teaching a lovely young guy, he’s a wonderful bass player and him and I both basically agree there isn’t really anybody quite the same. There are a lot of very good bass players around, some astoundingly good bass players these days, but there’s nobody quite like LaFaro. When you consider the time, the late ‘50s, he was just knocking it over, he was so good.

And of course, Matt Penman is the other person. Lives in New York, ridiculous player. He is really something else you know. A New Zealander who leads the world.

Did you teach him?

I taught him for a very short period of time. He was just one of those guys that was gonna succeed. I just thought, ‘What can I teach this guy? He’s teaching himself.’

I just think I’m so lucky to have seen all those amazing musicians who I saw in the ‘50s. I saw Monk in Auckland, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Oscar Peterson, Louis Armstrong, Basie’s band and Ellington’s band. It’s crazy you could do that sort of stuff. Sarah Vaughan, Herb Ellis, Dizzy Gillespie. Jimmy Smith came and borrowed our organ. A guy I used to be in a band with had a B3 Hammond and Jimmy borrowed the organ and gave us free tickets to the show!

You didn’t get to meet a lot of those people because usually they were doing a tour and they’d be in a town do the show and be gone. I did meet Louis Armstrong and he was nice, he was a lovely man.

What’s your best tip for playing the double bass? Getting a nice tone…?

Ha ha, well I usually teach that you’ve got to play fairly hard, be tough. A lot of people think bass players are guys that stand in the back of the band and are totally inoffensive, but actually, the bass player leads the band.

An interesting example of that was LaFaro, he did an amazing album with Marty Paiche who has a big band album. It’s sort of a small big band. And they do two sessions and in the first one they were able to get LaFaro and in the second session, he wasn’t around so they couldn’t get him. When you read the liner notes the amazing thing is that when LaFaro was with the band, the band just played so much better. The next guy that played was a good bass player, but that thing wasn’t there, and it’s funny because both albums are on a compiled CD and you can hear the difference immediately.

So that answers my question perfectly. The bass player runs the band. And if you ask anybody else they’d say, ‘No no!’

Have you heard our last album called ‘Cross Now’? You should because that trio exists in such a lovely way because we did two albums before that and we collaborated with a few guys on the second one, but the third one, because we were all teaching here at school.

What we would do is somebody would bring in just a germ of an idea and then we would just work on it. Dixon would say, “Oh well okay, I’ll write the lead line for this.” And we’d be in the middle of something and Ron would say, “Oh, I’m just working on this different time feel. Can we see if we can fit it in here somewhere?”

So the whole album is built that way. And it’s a complete, total collaborative album. And the music is great because we do some really tough things on there, really, really hard. I wrote one called Broken Tones because I’d fallen over at home and broke my toe, so I just called it that because I thought it fitted at the time and it’s in 7 – but then we go into this really weird thing in the middle which is in 13 where we turn the main accent beats around. So it’s very complex when you hear it, you think, ‘Oh my goodness, what the hell is going on there?’ but it’s lovely.

Dixon is a wonderful writer and he’s written some really great tunes. One of them is called The Remarkable Mr Tony Hopkins because we used to know him really well and he died about that same time. So if you listen to that and the other one he wrote called Conversations With Dr Small, one of the guys at the university here. Dixon said to me, ‘I’ve got his little part, the rest of it you write the tune,’ so it was completely backwards and forwards the whole time, a really cool way to do it. It took us about a year to work on the tunes, we just did it because we wanted to, then suddenly we said we’ve got to do this recording.

But working with those two guys is just so much fun because they’re really good guys. Wonderful, wonderful musicians. You can hear that in the second album. You can actually hear it happening.

Matt Penman told me that too, same in New York. He said that all the really good guys, gotta work with some bad guys sometimes. But he said all the times you’re working with people that you like, and they know you and you know them, it’s just fun all the time. You still gotta work with guys that are sometimes a pain.

Stan Getz doesn’t have a good reputation.

Oh yeah. Apparently, he was awful as he used to go around saying things and get people really upset. Isn’t that weird? Some people have to do that. It’s like that funny story about Wynton Marsalis when he went to London and caused so many problems with this gig he did at Ronnie Scott’s that Ronnie banned him from the place.

Was he simply being a diva?

Yeah, you know the usual tricks that they get up to. And Ronnie said, ‘Nope I’m not going to have him back, I don’t care.’ Which was really cool and apparently years later he turned up and knocked on the door and the door opened and that guy who used to be his partner in the business said hang on a minute and went and shut the door again. He said to Ronnie, Wynton’s outside he wants to come in and Ronnie said no. Hahaha very funny, but apparently he ended up playing there again. But isn’t that interesting? I think that’s cool, puts people in their place.

Getting back to getting a good sound. I do think that most of it is from the hands…

See my big meaty hands? When I first started playing we didn’t have amplifiers so it was hard work. So you had to set the strings really up high off the fingerboard – and we didn’t have wound strings they were only very badly wound on the low ones, so they were gut on the top two and they were terrible things you know. I used to use my cigarette lighter to burn all the bits off. Because they’d all fray and fall apart, but that was what was available.

The interesting thing was as soon as steel wound strings came in, and amplifiers, everyone used to get that whiney sort of half-hearted terrible sound that we hate nowadays, but I use a Fishman piezo pickup that you clip on the bridge with a little Fishman pre-amp and I can modify the sound in the pre-amp and get anything. It sounds so good. You can make it as soft as you like or as hard as you like. Just by using the Fishman. Anyhow when you’re playing the actual strings, because of the fact that I learnt to play on gut strings I put my hand right on so it’s the whole part of my hand on the strings. So when you’re playing two fingers you’re just alternating between that bit.

The thumb is right underneath. In fact, I’ve even got a little groove out of it where it sits and I play it all the time, but when you get over to the bottom strings it’s quite hard because you’ve got to hook it round even further and sort of close your hand in.

Have you ever heard Edgar Meyer? He’s astounding. He bows and plays pizzicato. His background is bluegrass mandolin, that’s what he was when he started to play the bass and he was playing with his brothers and sisters. Now he plays in orchestras, bowing. He’s astounding. But at the same time on an album, he’ll turn round and play something bluegrass with all the slides and the slapping on the bass everything. You can see him on Youtube a lot. But it’s funny, he’s got little marks up his fingerboard which I could not believe when I first saw that! Here I am teaching people to never look at their left hand and there he is with these marks all the way up. That’s strange, that’s really weird. But boy does he play in tune! It’s hard work isn’t it playing the bass.

It is interesting watching people play double bass. Everybody plays it differently, especially in jazz.

Right, and getting down to technique I think so much of it comes from your left hand. Do you play the bottom C for instance on the bottom string? Near the fingerboard down by the bridge?

I use that technique of playing across the fingerboard more. There’s a lot of my students that are using it now and they’re really finding it works. But it just takes a wee bit of work to get there to begin with. Because the really cool thing about it is you can take a shape from the bottom C and the shape is the same no matter where you are on the neck. So it makes life so much easier as you can play whole scales, particularly when doing a jazz run from the 1 3 5 9 because it’s there! Rather than trying to go the other way because it’s so hard you’ve got so much distance involved.

I remember a workshop a couple of years ago with Thomas Martin who came over with the NZSO, regarding positions on the double bass. He said it was kind of like an aeroplane taking off, your position changes depending on where you want to go, so it’s all about momentum and context.

Hmmm. When Gary Carr was here he played a ridiculous Amati bass worth millions of bucks. I went to a workshop with him and that fascinated me ‘cause he was talking about trying to get the left hand to know exactly where everything is on the fingerboard. So you teach yourself whole tones, and then tone and a half, tone and a half, two tones, three tones, two and a half you know, three, all that stuff. You just keep doing over and over and eventually, your brain starts going, ‘Yup that’s right, I know where I am now.’

Because you do definitely get a great sound if you play up there, it’s cool.

Samsom Nacey Haines have released three albums. Their first, ‘Open To Suggestion’ (2009), was a mix of original compositions and selected standards, but with their 2011 Rattle Records’ debut ‘Oxide’ and its 2013 follow up ‘Cross Now’, the music is all originals.

Pania Simmonds is currently manager of the MusicWorks store in Dunedin