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Karr's Double Bass Finds Biggest Threat at Airport

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Karr's Double Bass Finds Biggest Threat at Airport

Karr's Double Bass Finds Biggest Threat at Airport

Karr's Double Bass Finds Biggest Threat at Airport

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6638789/6638790" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Gary Karr retired from touring in 2001, just before new security rules made it even more difficult to fly with a double bass. He still records and teaches at his home studio in Victoria, British Columbia. Eric Onasick hide caption

toggle caption Eric Onasick

Gary Karr retired from touring in 2001, just before new security rules made it even more difficult to fly with a double bass. He still records and teaches at his home studio in Victoria, British Columbia.

Eric Onasick

Double bass player Gary Karr has traveled the world with his huge musical instrument. In a piece for our occasional series "Musicians at Work," we hear about Karr's adventures and misadventures at airports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

People in Gary Karr's family have been playing the double bass for seven generations. Nobody, though, made their career playing solo. Then in 1962 Leonard Bernstein invited the 20-year-old Gary Karr to play his bass on national television. A career was launched. For the next four decades, he schlepped his huge instrument all around the globe. He played concertos. He played recitals. Getting to the gig could be half the battle. On planes he started out buying two seats, one for him, one for his six foot tall bass. Then things began to change. It started when the airlines installed new armrests. They made it impossible for his bass to fly coach.

Today we continue our occasional series, musicians at work. Here's Gary Karr describing in his own words life with a bass fiddle.

Mr. GARY KARR (Bass Player): When they put the armrests in, I started flying first class.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: I would phone ahead and there are about six different meals you can get - kosher, vegetarian, etc. - and I would order them for Mr. B. Fiddle.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: So I always got my two meals. Well, one time I was walking around Chicago in O'Hare Airport and over the intercom I hear, Will Mr. B. Fiddle come to the United Airlines counter, Mr. B. Fiddle.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: And the agent looked at me and then he looked at the bass. He said, Which one of you is Mr. B. Fiddle? Then he said, I just inform you that we ran out of kosher meals. Would you like another alternative?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: And then what they did in first class is they put the seats closer together so that there wasn't even room in first class to put the bass. So I was forced to place it below.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: The first bass that I got was from my teacher, who had it for 55 years. And it was a beautiful old Italian instrument that had a gorgeous carved lady in place of the scroll on the top of the instrument. And I was flying into Indianapolis. As the bass came off the aircraft, it fell off that moving ramp from the cargo door. It fell two stories to the ground, and I saw it happen.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: So when it came around on the carousel, they stopped the carousel. And I took the lid off the box and there was my instrument totally decapitated.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: I had another bad experience and that was with the famous Amati(ph) bass that I referred to as Coosey(ph), flying into Columbus, Ohio.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: By then I had a wonderful fiberglass case made for the instrument that had traveled around the world many, many times.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: I had seen it dropped and nothing ever happened, so it seemed to be really foolproof.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: The bass was put into the luggage cart that they take to the plane with all the other bags. And the neck of the instrument, the top part of the instrument, was sticking out of the cart on the right-hand side. And the driver of this long train of carts was going very fast.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: He came around the corner of the building and the neck caught the corner of the building and popped it right off.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: The ticket agent saw how sad I was and said, gee, you know, I don't know what to say. And I said, well, it's such an old instrument, it's such a shame for something like this to happen.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: He said, how old is it? And I said, it's almost 400 years old.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: And he said 400 years old? Well, now you can buy yourself a new one.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: I think I was pretty lucky, I mean considering the fact that I've been traveling for 40 years.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: I probably averaged three flights a week during that time and I only had two accidents.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: Fortunately, the damage on both basses were irreparable. The Great Amati, in fact, I think the bass has improved after I had the neck replaced and it sounded much better after that. So the ticket agent was right.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: All my life, I mean people always, when they saw me wheeling my bass down an airport corridor, there would be people who would make a remark that they thought was original and hysterically funny. Wow, why didn't you take up the piccolo?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KARR: But I have to comfort myself in the fact that there's someone always worse off than I. And you're not going to believe this. My sister didn't play the bass. She wanted to play something larger, so she took up the harp.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: In 1962, Leonard Bernstein asked Karr to play "The Elephant Waltz" for a national broadcast. Karr refused. He said the piece was ugly and demeaning to elephants. Bernstein listened. Karr got to play "The Swan" instead.

(Soundbite of music)

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