Dave Holland: A Jazz Bassist's Bassist Holland started gigging with Miles Davis at 19 before going on to play with Anthony Braxton. Holland's own body of work is informed by family, which includes the students he mentors.

Dave Holland: A Jazz Bassist's Bassist

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128213469/128738214" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We turn now to stories from another Englishman, jazz bass player Dave Holland. He's known for the lyricism of his playing, his mentorship of younger musicians and his humility as a band leader. He certainly could claim bragging rights. Mr. Holland made his name as an unknown with Miles Davis; he's played on hundreds of recordings and for nearly 40 years he's led his own bands.

These days he seems most proud of his efforts online. Karen Michel visited Dave Holland at him home near Woodstock, New York.

KAREN MICHEL: Dave Holland's wife, Clare, doesn't need to stick around for her husband's interview.

Ms. CLARE HOLLAND: Anyway, I've heard it all before.

MICHEL: And she really has. They met when Holland was the teenaged high-school dropout playing bass with a New Orleans-style jazz band in a British pub.

Mr. DAVE HOLLAND (Musician): Hey you. Let me get a kiss. Take care out there.

MICHEL: Dave kisses his wife and granddaughter goodbye. His daughter and manager, Louise, lives just up the road in the mid-Hudson Valley of New York, close to the Catskill Mountains.

Mr. HOLLAND: This is a big part of who I am and plays an important part in what I do, even though it's not, quote, "a musical thing." It's what informs the music and makes me have something to play. Something to play about. You know, all of the musicians when I was young used to always say you had to tell a story when you're a musician. And I never knew what that meant as a young player. What do you mean a story? I'm just trying to learn how to play the changes and all this, you know. But as you get older, you realize without a story to tell, it means nothing.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL: Family, friends, fellow musicians are a big part of Dave Holland's story. After going through ukulele and piano, his mother bought him his first real bass after an uncle had made a washtub bass for him.

By the time he was 19, Dave Holland was playing with the house band at Ronnie Scott's, a legendary jazz club in London, where he got to play with Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. It was there that his friend Philly Joe Jones helped Holland get his first big gig - the night Miles Davis walked into the club.

Mr. HOLLAND: I didn't think he'd listen, to be honest. I thought what we did was not even of any interest to him. And as I was getting on the stand for the last set, Philly Joe came up to the bandstand - Philly Joe Jones, the great drummer that worked with Miles - and just grabbed my arm. He said, Miles has got a message for you: He wants you to join his band. I said, come on, you're kidding me, no, 'cause Philly Joe was a bit of a prankster, you know. And he said, no, no, it's serious.

MICHEL: This was on a Tuesday. The gig required him to be in New York City on Friday. He made it, but he still hadn't met Miles.

Mr. HOLLAND: So, I get up on the bandstand and Miles goes to the microphone and says(ph) (humming notes), and the music takes off like a tidal wave, you know. So, I just tried to fit in.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL: It took Holland a little while to figure out he needed to be himself; to tell his own stories.

Mr. HOLLAND: It was only when I started to dig my heels in that I started to realize that that's what I needed to do - that nobody was going to open the door for me, that I had to make some space. And thing that, I was reading a book at that time, and the passage in that book said, plant your banner firmly in the desert sand. And I took that to mean that you have to really make your identity clear. And so that night I went back to the gig and I said, okay, it's not about them inviting me; it's about me showing who I am.

MICHEL: On Dave Holland's website, you can see videos from his time with Miles Davis.

Mr. HOLLAND: There's one right here: Tanglewood Festival.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL: Two years later, in 1972, Holland released the first recording under his own name, "Conference of the Birds," with some of the biggest names in jazz at the time - woodwind players Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton and drummer Barry Altschul.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL: Over his nearly 50-year career as a leader and sideman, Holland has been on, he figures, a couple of hundred albums. And just as he was a young musician, mentored by the likes of Philly Joe Jones, Miles Davis and Sam Rivers, now Dave Holland takes young players into his bands.

Mr. HOLLAND: Something I try to pass on to the young players and let them know that that's an important of their life too - at some point you got to take your head out of the music and look around a little bit and have some experiences in your life that are going to feed your emotions and feed your life in general.

MICHEL: One of those young players is saxophonist Chris Potter, who has worked with Holland for more than a decade. One of the things he's learned from Dave Holland is determination.

Mr. CHRIS POTTER (Saxophonist): I don't think he ever expected the level of success. You know, I think he was just doing his thing and he was determined to do it no matter if five people were in the audience of 5,000. But it's very gratifying to see someone who really has that much depth and that much commitment to it, see him follow through and see it pay off.

MICHEL: Potter's on Holland's latest release, called "Pathways," the fourth on the bandleader's own label.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL: Holland says this music reflects something he learned more than 30 years ago from Sam Rivers. Rivers told the young bassist: Play all of the music. Find a way to use it all.

Mr. HOLLAND: And it can all be made part of one big statement, you know, that's got many facets to them that represents my experience as a player. So, that's really what I came to then, is to say, okay, I want to try and create a body of music for the band to play that we can explore all these things. Don't leave anything out.

MICHEL: Everything Dave Holland is on his new website.

Mr. HOLLAND: Some scary videos of me when I was 21 years old with Miles and some big band things and solo. So I feel like we've really opened shop now and this is a whole new starting point for us, you know, in terms of independence and being able to contact directly the people that are interested in the music.

MICHEL: And he tweets.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

SIMON: You can hear more music from Dave Holland at NPRMusic.org.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.