The essential, an interview with Mike Richmond
Richard Klecka interviewed bassist Mike Richmond in the late 1990s.
Q. What made you want to pick up a bass?
This 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 everything in between. The bassist in this show really caught my ear, and the sentiment stuck with me. A few years later, the Philadelphia Phillies theme song was “Big Noise From Winnetka” with Bobby Haggert, and the drummer played bass with a pair of drumsticks. This song ended up accompanying a commercial for Philly Cigar, so whenever those cigars were advertised, there was that great bass sound in the background. They were the seeds. In seventh grade, I was twelve. I had learned to play guitar by then, and tried to join the school orchestra but they wouldn’t let me play guitar because Elvis Presley was really tall and that all teachers hated the guitar. I saw a bass on the wall in the band’s instructor room and he asked if I would like to play it instead. I became a bassist.
Q. Was it an easy tool for you to learn?
Not really… they weren’t making little basses for the students at the time and the instrument was a lot bigger than me. I was little and had small hands so I had to work really hard… but it was worth it.
Q. You 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 play with symphony orchestras from all over the world. I am an instructor for the German National Jazz Orchestra and also a conductor in Sweden. I do a bit of everything. I still like old rock & roll, but I don’t do these kinds of concerts anymore. I did quite a bit of it while I was growing up with some of the bands I heard when I was a kid. It was a treat.
Q. What are your most significant experiences?
I played with Miles Davis and Quincy Jones in Montreaux. It was Miles’ last gig and recording and I got to play live with him instead of playing in front of him in the studio. Recording and videoing and working with Quincy was a real treat. I felt like a little kid again, it was a lot of fun. Years ago, I had done a concert with Ravi Shankar. I had taken Charles Mingus’ place in the Mingus dynasty group after his death and ended up in Bombay. Ravi had heard from me and asked me 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 difficult, 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 role and when the time comes for my solo I’ll improvise.”
It was a wonderful feeling because I admired Ravi Shankar since I was in college and I had a lot of his records in my collection.
Q. It must have been an honor to be invited to replace Mingus.
It was the case, to have worked a lot with him and to be a fan as well. Right after his death, his wife called me and asked if I wanted to take her place. I didn’t think I would be one of the people they would call because I was so much younger than all the other guys in the band and all of these musicians had been playing with Mingus for quite some time. I really enjoyed this job and learned a lot from Jimmy Knepper and Dannie Richmond, the band’s drummer. It was like going back to school, a great experience.
I also learned a lot from Stan Getz. He wasn’t teaching verbally, but when he was playing I really checked out what he was doing. It was a very good growth experience.
Gil Evans was one of the best human beings on the planet. Very sweet spoken, but his professionalism on stage, the way he behaved and the way he counted a melody gave me a lot of room overall. It was just the way he did things. He let me be creative but I also knew that things had to be done a certain way.
Q. What 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 solo he was very serious and he played really well, obviously, but he was a real jovial presence. I didn’t know the coda of any of the tunes, so in between the melody he would shout out the changes to me, which I found very nice since I think we were recording and filming. Here he is, telling this kid basically the chords while he was playing at the same time! Many conductors of his generation would most likely have picked me up and thrown me off the stage. He was very gentle and kind.
Q. How was the Basic Tendencies album born?
I had worked with Bob (Haddad) on other projects with Nana Vasconcelos and Badal Roy. He asked me if I wanted to do a solo bass album and I thought it would be a good idea to incorporate percussion and non-traditional chord instruments (in this case a harp). Lois Colin is a good friend of mine and is one of the best harp improvisers I know. Two of my friends (Glen Velez and Joe Passaro) played percussion and Simon (Shaheen) played oud. It’s a very melodic record. Bob is great in the studio, he really knows what’s going on with the music.
Q. How did you choose the songs you made for the recording?
Épominomous where are you? was inspired by a nursery rhyme my parents taught me when I was a child. One day this occurred to me while traveling in Austria and the melody came to me with the arrangements.
Poem for Gil (Evans) is an acknowledgment of everything I learned from Gil. He died just at the time of this recording.
Cradle song was born because I wanted to write a song with the same feeling as some of my little boy’s music boxes. I try to collect music boxes from all over the world. Each track has its own story.
Q. How were you influenced by traditional world music?
When I was a child, my mother played a lot of Middle Eastern music at home. In addition, there was a television show in the late 1940s called “Ramar of the Jungle”, which was about an American and his adventures. The show was held in India for the first two years and the background to the whole show was sitar music. It was beautiful. So for half an hour every day I could hear this type of music.
I was 4 or 5 years old and I fell in love with this sound. Years later when the Beatles entered Indian styles I started to learn a lot more about it, I bought and started playing the sitar and a Piccolo bass which is an octave higher than ‘an ordinary bass. A lot of my bass solos back then sounded a lot like a sitar.
Q. What about your teacher training? What are your memorable experiences?
I have been teaching bass for many years, both privately and also at the university level.
I won the Professor of the Year award in 1994 at New York University. At the end of the year, every May, they have banquets and I had never been there. I don’t socialize a lot and I’m not very political. This time all of my students insisted that I go to this one and told me I was a drag if I didn’t show up. I had no idea I was going to get an award, you know, I wasn’t expecting it. I’m just trying to do the job right and hope the kids really learn something.
Q. What is the modern walking bass technique?
This is a bass technique book that I wrote. When you play different jazz grooves and play a 4/4 oscillating bassline, it is called “walking bass”. There are 4 beats per measure and 4 quarter notes per measure. You can embellish these quarter notes with jumps, triplets, and other techniques to create a very modern bassline. I have been teaching since I was in college. Even though I travel the world as a musician, I trained as a teacher with a degree in education. I needed a basic text to teach, but there was nothing there, so I wrote my own book. Of all the things in my life, this book is the one I am very proud of because it has allowed so many people (and not just bassists) 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 anymore, although some of my friends play with the Blues Brothers, and getting involved in that in addition to the work I’m doing right now would take me on the road most of the day. year time and i have a young son and i don’t want to be away from him so much. Right now I’m so out of town it’s hard to keep track. I’m leaving for Italy tomorrow, coming home on Saturday and leaving on Tuesday to go to Germany. I’ll be there for a week, come home for a week, visit Russia for 2 weeks, come home for a week and a half, then go to Brazil for 3 days. From Brazil, I will fly directly to Switzerland to play a concert and have an audience with the president, then I will return to Rio de Janeiro, then I will return home for my teaching position at New York University.
Q. It looks like some pretty interesting circles …
It’s a pretty busy schedule but everyone tells me it’s better to do more than less. And you know, through it all, despite my experience and my crazy schedule, I feel like I’m just getting started. I’m still learning… every day… as a teacher, as a musician and writer, and of course as a parent. I am in a constant state of flux. I guess my personality and my lifestyle go well with music because music is always evolving and changing too.
Author: World music
Music of the World was formed in New York in the early 1980s by Bob Haddad to promote and produce musicians from a variety of traditional backgrounds. The company began by presenting traditional musicians in concert and recording high quality cassettes which were used for promotional purposes and sold at performances. In 1989, Haddad moved the label from Brooklyn, New York, to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The label has released nearly 90 CD albums with artists from North America, Africa, India, Asia, Europe and Latin America.