Even before he steps onstage for his Friday concert in Portland, Dave Holland has made a sizable contribution to Oregon jazz. The world renowned jazz bassist owns the upright bass instrument that belonged to the late “The Walker” Leroy Vinnegar. “Rather, I’m its custodian,” Holland said this spring from his home in New York’s Hudson Valley. Holland restored the water-damaged instrument, but the bass, he says, “will always be Leroy’s.”
His purchase helped establish the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute within Portland State University’s Department of Music in 2002, three years after Vinnegar, who taught at PSU, died in Portland. Its mission is to “let knowledge serve the city” through programs and partnerships in jazz education and jazz history, public outreach, and service to the artistic community. It’s kind of repayment of an artistic debt, because it was Vinnegar’s music that helped inspire Holland to pick up the bass in the first place — a decision that led him to jazz stardom.
PDXJazz brings Holland back to Portland at 8 p.m. Friday, April 7, in Revolution Hall, 1300 S.E. Stark St., with drummer Eric Harland, saxophonist Chris Potter, and guitarist Kevin Eubanks. “The four of us have played together quite a lot. I can’t tell you what we’ll be playing,” Holland said, though no doubt they’ll perform cuts from Aziza and Prism, recent CDs. “It will be a surprise to me.”
Holland’s Vinnegar link and love reach back into the late 1950s and early ‘60s. As a teenager growing up in Wolverhampton in England’s Midlands, he haunted record stores for bassist Ray Brown’s albums and came across Vinnegar’s Leroy Walks and Leroy Walks Again!
After hearing Vinnegar and Brown, he put down his guitar and took up the bass. He argues that bass players get plenty of love: More music listeners are fond of the bass than groan at its solos, he says. “A lot of people love the bass, its sounds. Maybe it’s less featured than other instruments, not upfront all the time, but it’s so essential. Everyone feels it if it’s not there. Everyone loves a good bass line, a good riff, a good groove.”
Holland grew up in a working-class family with his grandfather, uncle, mother and grandmother (his father left when he was a baby). He played ukulele and guitar as a kid and was constantly composing, practicing, thinking about music. He decided with a minimum of angst to drop out of school at 15, which he said gave him “a burst of intensity to be a musician.” In his late teens when he moved to London, he studied with London Philharmonic’s bassist James Merrett, who encouraged Holland to enter London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, from where he graduated and still occasionally teaches.
Holland has been playing bass for 55 years, and at 70, looks as spry as he did when he wore a dashiki in Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew-era band during the late ‘60s, if his hair and beard are shorter and grayer than in those heady days. Davis discovered Holland when he walked in to London’s Ronnie Scott Jazz Club to hear pianist Bill Evans’s trio (with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Eddie Gomez). The already legendary trumpeter heard Holland the same night, though not with Evans. As Holland says, “Then Miles offered me an opportunity to play with him. … The universe sent me this amazing gift. I played three weeks at the Count Basie. He never said I had the gig, and he never said I didn’t.”
If Miles helped boost Holland’s early career, Holland has continued to grow and produce good music. He’s a newly anointed National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master (joining 144 recipients since the honor began in 1965) and a sought-after and much recorded musician. Holland has recorded over 100 albums, led 30 bands, and won multiple Grammy awards. Name any major jazz musician in the past half-century, and he’s likely played with them: Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Thelonious Monk, Ben Webster, Betty Carter, Joe Henderson, Anthony Braxton, Gary Burton, Sam Rivers, Roy Orbison, Jack DeJohnette, Kenny Barron, Oscar Peterson, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell. The list goes on and on.
Holland still speaks with a British accent though he moved to the United States when he was 21. Periodically, he crosses the pond to teach and play. He likes to cross-pollinate with younger musicians, and teaches at London’s Royal Academy of Music, Boston’s Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music.
“We learn from each other in this community,” Holland says. “I’ll hear something that will show me something. What goes around comes around. There is never a shortage of fired-up young musicians moving the music forward.”
Music keeps you young, the late and fellow English-born musician Marian McPartland of National Public Radio’s Piano Jazz program said, and Holland is a preeminent example. In robust health (he had a bout with heart trouble when he was 36 but has thoroughly recovered), he maintains constant receptiveness to new sounds and styles, and a steady work ethic. “I never minded practicing,” he declares. “Never.” Holland continues to be inspired by Spanish cellist Pablo Casals’ words about longevity in the music world. “He said ‘I keep thinking I can get a little better.’”
Not only does Holland play with jazz virtuosos and record on his own label, Dare2, he stretches into other musical realms: flamenco, classical, and recently, he has been working with Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. “The kind of music you play has more do with the musicians you play with than anything else,” Holland explains. He likes the change-ups, the diversity. “It keeps everything moving to reach across genres. It feeds my creative fire. Music is a journey. It takes you through many landscapes.”