Dave Sharp

Dave Sharp
jazz double bass: player, teacher, composer
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 7 September 2006
Temperature: 65 F
Ceiling: gloomy
Ground: hail-shredded leaves
Wind: calm

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TT with HD: Dave Sharp

[Ed. note: Dave Sharp's website has most everything you need to know generally. If you want to buy a CD, then just go directly to CD Baby and purchase the already-released album Jazz Now. If you want to get a preview of some stuff destined for the new release, and just can't wait till January, (no guarantees, but it stands to reason that maybe, just maybe, he'll play some of the newer stuff), or if you just prefer your music live and kickin then go here:

22 September 10pm, Dave Sharp Quartet at Goodnight Gracie (301 West Huron St., Ann Arbor, under Live at PJ's)

30 September 8:30pm, The Joe Summers Gypsy Jazz Trio, Crazy Wisdom Bookstore & Tearoom (114 S. Main Street, Ann Arbor) ]

HD: I think the first order of business should be, before we get to tottering--oh, now you're not going to let me down, is that the deal? You're definitely tall enough to pull that off.

DS: Right! ... ... Yeah. Yeah, that seems about right.

HD: Well, I would expect you to have a certain sense of rhythm.

DS: Yeah!

HD: Just to clarify who you are, you're not the lead guitarist for The Alarm.

DS: I am not. That's correct.

HD: And you're also not the publisher of the Flint Journal.

DS: Nor the editor of the Ann Arbor News.

HD: Right. Oh, the guy you're thinking of is the same person I'm thinking of, I think. The publisher for the Ann Arbor News, Dave Sharp, moved to the Flint Journal.

DS: Oh, he did? Oh, okay.

HD: So you're not either of those people. I actually asked a friend of mine, who I trust in all matters musical, because he did an undergraduate degree in piano, and I wanted to seek his advice about the kind of thing maybe I could talk to you about, and he said: Oh, an upright base player--definitely ask to see his calluses, because bass players have great calluses. So do you, in fact, have great calluses?

DS: Yeah, I do! They're in pretty good shape right now, I have to say.

HD: So do you find yourself having to be away from your bass for periods of time long enough that your calluses disappear or peel off?

DS: Well, actually, I've been playing a long time. Initially, when I started the calluses were real thick. And then, for me anyway, they ease off after a while. So my fingers are just naturally tough at this point. I mean, they just look normal to me. But I guess if you were to look at them, they might look a little different.

HD: Okay. I once saw a television game show when I was living in Germany where these middle school students, their bet with the host of this show was that they could identify the instrument of all these classical musicians just by inspecting their bodies.

DS: Oh yeah?

HD: So they had this group of people and they were looking at their fingers and their chins and their mouths trying to find the places of wear, and basically they were like, oh for 12. They weren't able to identify anybody's instrument based on physical inspection. So you mentioned when you first started. When did you actually first take up the bass?

DS: Twenty one years ago.

HD: What age where you then?

DS: I was 17.

HD: Wow, so that's sort of late?

DS: Yeah!

HD: Did you have any other instruments before that?

DS: I played guitar for a short time in middle school. Other than that, no. When I was in high school, I was a DJ at my high school radio station and ...

HD: ... this was in Warren [Michigan]?

DS: Yeah, this was in Warren. We had a high school radio station and I was a DJ for three years. And I really got into music, all types of music. So I was just immersed in music. So after I graduated, I bought myself a bass. Taught myself how to play it for a few years ...

HD: ... do you still have that same bass?

DS: I do. In fact, I just put a new neck on it to make it a fret-less electric bass. And it's quite amazing actually.

HD: So this one was not an upright bass.

DS: No, this was an electric bass. I played upright bass later.

HD: So at what point did you realize that you were any good? For me, for example, I had this moment of clarity when I realized that I wasn't any good at music. I was in middle school, I played the trumpet in the 7th-grade, 8th-grade school band, and we got a new band director one year--he was actually an upright bass player by trade, and he wanted to create this jazz ensemble--and I remember him pointing to me in the middle this improvised piece, saying, You go, you play now! And at that moment I realized this wasn't for me, because I couldn't come up with a single note to play. Was there an equivalent moment for you, but where you said, Wow, I'm actually really good at this! I'm better than the average bear at the bass!

DS: Well, there was one moment when I was first starting to play music period, where I got together with this friend of my brother's who played drums--this was here in Ann Arbor, this was the first year I went to school in Ann Arbor ...

HD: ... U of M, right?

DS: Yeah, I went to U of M.

HD: Did you actually major in music?

DS: No, I did not. I majored in education. And philosophy. Philosophy and education was my degree. But anyway, I got together with this guy. His name was Eric, he was a drummer. And he liked a lot of the music that I liked--he was a friend of my brother's who also went to the U of M. I took my bass over to his house, he had drums set up in his basement. And we played Fire, by Jimi Hendrix. And I think it was at that point, because we clicked very well. He was a good drummer and I was a good bass player at the time. I had learned the song and knew it pretty well. It was just the two of us playing, but we really hit a pretty strong groove. And from that point on I've been playing ever since.

HD: And you went off to San Francisco to perfect your craft as I understand it? Was it specifically to study with Herbie Lewis?

DS: No, actually I met Herbie when I was out there. I went out to San Francisco to work in music and I also taught in the public schools there for five years.

HD: Really! What grade?

DS: Mainly high school.

HD: And your subject was?

DS: My subject was all subjects, because I was a substitute teacher.

HD: Oh, I did that for a while, that's a frightening thing.

DS: Yeah. And then I was a year and a half at an alternative school, where the kids, I taught them every subject: math, English, social studies, art, science, computer science all that stuff. So I taught that. Then I took a few classes at San Francisco State University and also at New College of California. That's where I met Herbie. Studied in his jazz ensemble class.

HD: So what was that like? I mean, when I see in these bios where someone studied with some great master, what I layer onto that in my head is something on the order of Karate Kid and the whole wax-on-wax-off thing, or David Caradine's Kung Fu character, Okay Grasshopper, play now the D chord.

DS: Whoah.

HD: Whoah, you almost took a tumble there!

DS: Yeah, I did.

HD: So how far removed from reality is that image I have?

DS: It's pretty far removed! Yeah, it's not like I would spend eight hours a day, for sixty days in intense meetings or study. What I would do is attend his class twice a week ...

HD: ... so it was more of an academic setting.

DS: Yeah, and we also did private lessons once a week. So I would have a private lesson and he would give me things to work on and give me feedback.

HD: So what was his feedback like? Was it more general like, Yeah, that's fine. Or, No, that still sucks?

DS: He wasn't negative. He was positive, and he'd give me feedback that would make me think about what I was doing more, which is what I think a good teacher would do. Because, see, I also teach music. That's what I try to do with my music students. I give them things to think about.

HD: So what would be an example of something to think about?

DS: Thinking about, say, the rhythmic or the lyrical nature of what you play. You know, the fact that what you're playing should express some emotion or idea. As opposed to be being ...

HD: ... a technical sequence of notes.

DS: Yeah, just a technical sequence of notes, like you're just doing something technical, that's mathematic. Because music has a mathematic element to it. So instead of doing the mathematic element, you do the expressive element, where you're expressing an emotion or an idea.

HD: So do you still compose on a regular basis? I know back when you were in San Francisco, your bio says you were composing on a fairly regular basis. You still find time to ...

DS: ... yeah! Yeah, there's a few tunes I'm working on recording right now for my new CD.

HD: This is a second CD in addition to the Jazz Now? That's been out for two or three years now?

DS: Probably about like four or five years ago.

HD: And that's still available on CD Baby?

DS: CD-Baby-dot-com, yeah.

HD: So how close is the new CD to being completed?

DS: It's pretty close. It should be out by January [2007], I'm thinking.

HD: So when you go to compose a jazz piece, as a bassist, do you actually start with the bass part or ...

DS: ... a lot of times I do. A lot of times I start with the bass part, yes. Because what I do is, I lay down the rhythmic foundation, either record it or have it in my head strong enough to where I can put a melody on it, yeah. So a lot of times I'll definitely start with at the bass.

HD: So it's not like you figure out some bass line and take it to the other members of the Quartet and say, Okay, here's the bass line! And then everybody plays along does their thing and then when it sounds good, after-the-fact you just write down the notes?

DS: Well, I did that with one particular tune that I wrote during the blackout a couple of years ago. The blackout that hit in August? That went from here to New York?

HD: Right, right, right, yeah. I think a lot of people have forgotten that happened. It was quite dramatic at the time, but I think it's slipped a lot of people's memories.

DS: It was funny, because I had a gig on that day and the gig was cancelled because of the blackout. It was down at Kerrytown right at the Farmer's Market. And all of the guys in my band were driving into town for this gig. It happened on a Friday afternoon, if I remember right, like Friday around 4 o'clock or something. And so we all showed up at the gig, we were getting ready to set up. And then the power went out. People were walking around freaking out, Power's out from here to New York! All this kind of panic, this sort of ghost town panic.

HD: People were wondering if maybe it was a terrorist attack.

DS: Right, and people couldn't find out. Everyone was in their car listening to their car radio. So that night everybody went home. The good part of it is the gig never happened, but we still got paid for the gig, because they had already cut the check. So I paid the guys and said, Thanks, see ya! So it was kind of a nice thing. But actually, I would have preferred to have played and gotten paid, but anyway.

HD: But you put the time to good use as far as composing?

DS: Yeah, I went home and all the lights were out, so we had candles in the house, and I thought, Well, I'll just play my bass. And I kind of came up with a bass line progression that is in one of the new songs on the record. I just titled it Blackout, because I wrote it on the night of the blackout. It's kind of more of a quiet, laid-back vibe to the tune. And I did present it, and one of my guys in my group--Chris Kaercher, who's the saxaphone player--he and I jammed on it a little bit, and he come up with a few melodic ideas. We recorded it and picked the melodic ideas that we liked the best. So he and I collaborated on that one.

HD: So when you actually go to make the final recording for the CD, is that a track-by-track affair, where each instrument gets recorded separately one at a time, or for jazz do you basically need to have the whole thing live?

DS: I always record live. Almost always. Completely live with the full band all at once.

HD: Can you tell the difference by ear? When you listen to recordings, can you say, Oh they did that track-by-track?

DS: Sometimes, yeah. In jazz it's almost never done. In jazz just by the nature of the music ...

HD: ... you have to feed off the energy of the other musicians ...

DS: ... yeah, it's interactive and there's a lot of interplay going on.

HD: Do you actually have a visual on the other musicians, or is it just that you can hear what they're doing through the headphones?

DS: Both.

HD: Well, the same friend who told me that I should ask you about your calluses told me that I should absolutely not ask you how you carry that giant instrument around. But I'm going to ask you anyway.

DS: Okay! Well, you know, it's not as heavy as it looks.

HD: But it's bulky.

DS: It is bulky.

HD: So you've got to have a giant car--is that an Aztec you drove over here?

DS: Yeah.

HD: So you've gotta have a giant car.

DS: You've gotta have a giant car. Although you can fit it into a Ford Escort with the passenger seat down, and you can put the headstock in the back seat. You'd be surprised ...

HD: ... but then it's just you and the bass in the car, right? You couldn't put another person in there?

DS: Right.

HD: Well, it pretty much means, though, that you've got to have a car of some kind. There's a website that launched fairly recently called CarFree Ann Arbor [www.cfa2.blogspot.com]. It's a collection of advice and suggestions for how to lead a car-free existence, and there's some really useful things that you wouldn't necessarily automatically think of, not just like Oh, you can ride your bike! But I was wondering if we'll ever see an entry on that website: Here's how to transport a double bass on your bike! Have you ever seen anybody pull that off?

DS: No, the only thing I've seen is you can buy a wheel for the bottom of it. You take the end pin out, which is the thing that you stand it on and you can raise the height of the bass. You take the end pin out, or you just screw off the end, and then you screw a wheel on so that you can just push it on a wheel.

HD: But designed more for like an airport, right?

DS: Through an airport if you were traveling, or if you were walking a hundred yards to a gig, it's pretty nice for that.

HD: Speaking of gigs, you do have one coming up at Goodnight Gracie's, is that right? On the 22nd [of September 2006]?

DS: That's right.

HD: You play there quite often.

DS: I do!

HD: Is there anything you particularly like about playing there? I mean the one time I went to Goodnight Gracie's, it seemed like the crowd was just way younger than I was, and all very youthful and high-powered. I felt completely out of place.

DS: Yeah, you know, sometimes that gig is great. And sometimes it's not so great. Sometimes there are people there and they're listening to what we're doing. Sometimes there are people there who are talking and trying to find a date.

HD: Well, who can blame them.

DS: Well yeah! And it's a little of both, really. Some nights it's great, because the whole place is listening to what we're doing. Actually, the last time, not in August, but when we played there in July, we had a really good night, where pretty much all night everybody was checking it out. In August, a totally different vibe.

HD: So I would imagine a venue like Crazy Wisdom Bookstore, where you're playing on the 30th [of September 2006] with the Joe Summers Gypsy Jazz Trio, people are going to be there for one purpose only: just to see you.

DS: That is probably the best listening room in Ann Arbor. Maybe I guess The Ark would probably be better because it's larger and it has a real sound system. But as far as a nice small intimate listening room, it's the best thing around. I mean, when we play there, people come and they listen. We usually get like 50 to 60, 70 people ...

HD: ... wow, you can cram that many people up there?

DS: Yeah! And it's just a really nice room to play. It sounds good. It feels good. People are listening, we get a lot of audience feedback.

HD: Well, I had a guy here on the teeter totter who publishes a magazine called Don't Tip the Waiter--he's a former waiter--and one of the things that he stressed was that the standard gratuity, if the service was satisfactory, is 20%. So I was wondering, is there a rule of thumb for the pitcher that gets passed at places like Crazy Wisdom? When I've been there, there's always a pitcher that gets passed around for the musicians, or at other places, too. And I've always wondered what an appropriate amount would be. Some of it has to do with how much you can afford, you wouldn't necessarily expect some student on a limited budget to throw 20 bucks into the pitcher. But in your mind do you have some notion, say, for Crazy Wisdom, what's an appropriate amount to put in the pitcher?

DS: [laugh] I would say, let me answer that question by telling you what I've seen go in there. Because I don't think I should really dictate what should go in there. But anywhere from 2 to 20 dollars is what I've seen go in. You know, people throw in a couple of singles, they throw in a five, they throw in a ten, they throw in a twenty. Depends on the person, you know? Depends on their age, their income level. But yeah, I've seen anywhere from 2 to 20 bucks go in there.

HD: It strikes me as strange that to a lot of people, 5 bucks for that, they think is really generous, like it's a lot to put in a pitcher. But when you compare it to what you put down to go to a movie, and you compare the experience of the movie versus a guy in flesh and blood fifteen feet away from you, busting his butt to entertain you, ...

DS: ... there's two things I'd like to say about that. One is--you're absolutely right--somebody is up there busting their butt to entertain you. What people don't really realize is musicians put in hours, and days, and weeks, and months, and years or work into what they're doing.

HD: So it's not really fair to try and compute an hourly wage for the performance, and say, Gosh, if everybody puts in five dollars then for 90 minutes of work he made a 150 bucks an hour, that's too much!

DS: Right. But I mean there's the work over the long haul, the years of work that I've put in, that Joe's put in, that everyone else has put in, to playing music and learning the craft. Plus, then there's the drive to the gig, the load-in to the gig, there's the setup for the gig, the playing of the gig, the breakdown, the load-out, the drive home. And people don't really consider that, I think. There's a lot of stuff behind the scenes. Like going on the road when you're touring on the road, you play for 90 minutes, 2 hours, and the rest of the time you're either traveling setting up, breaking down, or sitting in the car doing nothing, waiting until the next thing. There's a lot of time that's eaten up that people don't see. The other thing is a lot of people have this attitude like, Oh, well, music is fun.

HD: Yeah, you should be doing this because you love music, Dave, it's fun for you!

DS: Yeah, music is fun ...

HD: ... but you should be suffering for your craft, so I'm helping you suffer by not throwing in more than a dollar into the pitcher.

DS: Right, well, you're just up there having fun, right? You're moving your fingers around and you're having fun ...

HD: ... you probably don't even have to think that hard, you've done that song so many times ...

DS: ... right, and a lot of people have that attitude like, Well, you're really having fun, so it's really not a job. They don't relate money and work and time spent to the equation. Which is why it's a struggle for musicians in the U.S., all over, because people have that idea.

HD: Yeah, I think people are quite happy to consume music, but not quite so enthusiastic about supporting musicians with their dollars.

DS: Well, the other element is that people consume music all the time now. I mean on their iPods, on their computers, on the elevator, at the mall, when they're shopping at Old Navy, when they're shopping at a grocery store. Whole Foods plays jazz--I know they have a rule at Whole Foods where you can't play vocal music.

HD: Do they really? Well, that would fit with a lot of your stuff, a lot of it doesn't have vocals.

DS: No, they can't have vocal music, all of it has to be instrumental. But music is everywhere. It used to be that music was this special occasion. When a live musician played, it was a rare thing. It was special communication, in person, by a musician providing music to somebody. Now it's all over the place.

HD: Speaking of music in grocery stores, I think it was a couple of years ago when Arbor Farms--in celebration of their anniversary or maybe it was celebrating the move to their new location-- but they actually had a live quartet of some kind right there over in the produce section.

DS: That's great.

HD: It was the weirdest thing ever, but I thought, Man, I would like to see grocery stores as a possible live music venue. I could imagine people saying, Yeah, I wanna do my shopping from 7 to 9 at Arbor Farms, because I know there's going to be live jazz there! I don't know if that would ever happen. It would take a lot of effort.

DS: It would.

HD: And a lot of charisma on someone's part to make that happen.

DS: Well, there's a place in Berkeley called the Jazz School. It's a non-profit jazz studies institute. They have six, seven practice rooms down a long hallway, and on that hallway there's a cafe and a bookshop where music books are sold. Then right outside there's tables and a stage, where people can drink their coffee and listen to music. Actually, what they do is bring the student bands who play at the jazz school play in the cafe and they have concerts on the weekend. So it's a place that has integrated commerce and education and art, which has really done pretty well.

HD: Well, listen, I want to thank you very much for coming over to ride the teeter totter!

DS: Well, you're welcome! Thanks for having me.