Thursday, March 12, 2009


Birth name Steve Swallow
Born October 4, 1940 (age 68)
Origin Fair Lawn, New Jersey, U.S.
Genre(s) Jazz
Occupation(s) Double bassist, Electric bassist
Instrument(s) Double bass, Electric Bass
Associated acts Jimmy Giuffre, Art Farmer, Carla Bley, John Scofield,

Steve Swallow (born October 4, 1940) is a jazz bass guitarist and composer born in Fair Lawn, New Jersey.

As a child, Swallow studied piano and trumpet before turning to the double bass at age 14. While attending a prep school, he began trying his hand in jazz improvisation. In 1960 he left Yale, where he was studying composition, and settled in New York City, playing at the time in Jimmy Giuffre's trio along with Paul Bley. Since joining Art Farmer's quartet in 1964, Swallow began to write. It is in the 1960s that his long-term association with Gary Burton's various bands began.

In the early 1970s, Swallow switched exclusively to bass guitar, of which he prefers the 5-string variety. Along with Bob Cranshaw, Swallow was among the first jazz bassists to do so (with much encouragement from Roy Haynes, Swallow's favorite drummer). He plays with a pick (made of copper by Hotlicks), and his style involves intricate solos in the upper register; he was one of the early adopters of the high C string on a bass guitar.

In 1974-76 Swallow taught at the Berklee College of Music. It is often speculated that he had an influence on the contents of The Real Book, which includes a fair number of his early compositions. He later recorded an album of the same name, with the picture of a well-worn, coffee-stained Real Book on the cover.

In 1978 Swallow became an essential and constant member of Carla Bley's band. He toured extensively with John Scofield in the early 1980s, and had returned to this collaboration several times over the years.

Swallow had consistently won the electric bass category in Down Beat yearly polls, both Critics' and Readers', since the mid-80s. His compositions have been covered by, among others, Jim Hall (who recorded his very first tune, "Eiderdown"), Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Stan Getz and Gary Burton.


"I believe it's written somewhere: 'Steve Swallow has to sit uneasily at the piano for ten hours before receiving his next idea,' so I sit there as patiently as possible. Eventually, an idea always comes..."

"Occasionally, when I run into a great bass backstage at a festival I'll play a few notes on the low E string, just to feel the instrument vibrate against my belly."


Steve Swallow was born in New York City in 1940, and spent his childhood in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Berfore turning to the acoustic bass at age 14, he studied piano (with Howard Kasschau, who also taught Nelson Riddle) and trumpet. His otherwise miserable adolescence was brightened by his discovery of jazz. He took many of his first stabs at improvisation with Ian Underwood (who subsequently became a Mother Of Invention and an L.A. studio ace), with whom he attended a swank New England private school. 

During his years at Yale University he studied composition with Donald Martino and played dixieland with many of the greats, including Pee Wee Russell, Buck Clayton and Vic Dickenson. In 1960 he met Paul and Carla Bley, left Yale in a hurry, moved to New York City, and began to play with Paul Bley, The Jimmy Giuffre Trio and George Russell’s sextet, which featured Eric Dolphy and Thad Jones. He also performed in the early '60s with Joao Gilberto, Sheila Jordan, and bands led by Benny Goodman, Marian McPartland, Chico Hamilton, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, Clark Terry and Bob Brookmeyer and Chick Corea.

In 1964 he joined The Art Farmer Quartet featuring Jim Hall, and began writing music. Many of his songs have been recorded by prominent jazz artists, including Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Stan Getz, Gary Burton, Art Farmer, Phil Woods, Jack DeJohnette, Steve Kuhn and Lyle Mays. And he was recently sampled by a Tribe Called Quest. 

He toured from late 1965 through 1967 with The Stan Getz Quartet, which also included Gary Burton (replaced in 1967 by Chick Corea) and Roy Haynes. In 1968 he left Getz to join Gary Burton’s quartet, an association he mantained, with occasional interruption, for 20 years. He has performed on more than 20 of Burton’s recordings, the most recent being Six Pack, released in 1992. 

In 1970 he switched from acoustic to electric bass and moved to Bolinas, California where he wrote music for Hotel Hello, a duet album for ECM with Gary Burton. Returning to the East Coast in 1974, he taught for two long years at the Berklee College of Music. In 1976 he was awarded a National Endowment For The Arts grant to set poems by Robert Creeley to music, which resulted in another ECM album, Home. He performed with such diverse soloists as Dizzy Gillespie, Michael Brecker, George Benson and Herbie Hancock, and recorded with Stan Getz (on an album featuring Joao Gilberto), Bob Moses, Steve Lacy, Michael Mantler and Kip Hanrahan. He also played on recordings produced by Hal Willner, on tracks featuring, among others, Carla Bley, Dr. John and James Taylor. 

In 1978 he joined the Carla Bley Band. He continues to perform and record with her extensively, in various contexts. He toured and recorded often with John Scofield from 1980 to 1984, first extensively, in various contexts.  

He toured and recorded ofter with John Scofield from 1980 to 1984, first in trio with drummer Adam Nussbaum and then in duet. He has since toured occasionally with Scofield, and has also produced many of his recordings. 

He has also co-produced several albums with Carla Bley, including Night-Glo (1985), which she wrote to feature him, and Carla (1987), a collection of his songs featuring her. In 1987 he also produced the first of four albums for the British saxophonist Andy Sheppard. In the ensuing years he produced recordings for Karen Mantler, Lew Soloff and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, and recorded and/or toured with, among others, Joe Lovano, Motohiko Hino, Ernie Watts, Michael Gibbs, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Paul Bley, Herni Texier, Michel Portal and Allen Ginsberg. 

Since 1988 he and Carla Bley have performed duet concerts in Europe, the United States, South America and Japan. Duets, an album of their songs arranged for piano and bass, was released in 1988, and a second recording, Go Together, in 1993. 

In December of 1989 he reunited, after 27 years, with Jimmy Giuffre and Paul Bley to record two discs for Owl Records entitled The Life of a Trio. This trio has since toured frequently, most recently in Spring of 1995, and has continued recording for Owl and Soul Note Records. 
In 1991 he composed and produced Swallow, a recording featuring his five-string bass and several of his long-time associates, including Gary Burton, John Scofield and Steve Kuhn. 
He recorded often in 1993. John Scofield and Pat Metheny’s I Can See Your House From Here, on which he played with drummer Bill Stewart, was released on Blue Note Records; this quartet toured in the summer of 1994. Real Book, his third XtraWATT disc, was recorded in December of 1993 and released in 1994; its cast included Tom Harrell, Joe Lovano, Mulgrew Miller and Jack DeJohnette. 

In Spring of 1994 he was featured at the London Jazz Festival in a concert of his compositions with lyrics written and sung by Norma Winstone. 1994 also contained concert appearances in Japan with Steve Kuhn and in Europe with The Very Big Carla Bley Band, Jimmy Giuffre and Paul Bley, The Paul Motian Electric BeBop Band, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Carla Bley and Andy Sheppard. A live recording of this trio, Songs With Legs, was released on WATT in early 1995, at which time they again toured Europe. He also recorded in Spring 1995 with Steve Kuhn, Michael Franks, John Taylor, Pierre Favre and Julian Arguelles. In July he and Carla Bley performed duets in Brazil, and in the fall returned to Europe for a lengthy tour. 

In Spring of 1996 he found himself again touring Europe, first with Bley and Sheppard and then with John Scofield and Bill Stewart. He subsequently co-produced and played on Scofield's first album for Verve Records, Quiet. He also co-produced and played on The Carla Bley Big Band Goes to Church, recorded live at Umbria Jazz in Perugia, Italy, and toured and recorded with Paul Motian. 

In November of '96 he introduced the Steve Swallow Quintet, which includes Chris Potter, Ryan Kysor, Mick Goodrick and Adam Nussbaum, to audiences in Europe, and recorded with this group after its tour. The resulting album, Deconstructed, features his compositions based on classic Tin Pan Alley song structures; it was released in early 1997. He intends to tour further with this band, and has hopes that he will thus achieve belated fame and fortune. 

He toured relentlessly in 1997 with Trio 2000 (with Paul Motian and Chris Potter), Carla Bley, John Scofield and several others, and recorded with several diverse artists, including Henri Texier (with Lee Konitz and Bob Brookmeyer), Glen Moore and Michel Portal. 

In the Spring of 1998 he toured and recorded with Lee Konitz and Paul Motian, and toured with Brazilian guitairst Paulo Bellinati. He also participated with Carla Bley in the Copenhagen Jazzvisits program, and was nominated for the 1999 Danish Jazzpar. In April he directed and performed his music for big band with the Harvard University Jazz Band, and in June recorded with pianist Christian Jacob. In July he participated in a tour, presenting the concert version of Carla Bley's Escalator Over the Hill. He expects to play in the Fall with Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band, in duo with Carla Bley, and with John Scofield and Bill Stewart. 

He has placed first (electric bass) in the Downbeat International Critics Poll since 1983, and in the Downbeat Readers Poll since 1985. He has also won the Jazz Times poll (electric bass) for the past few years. He lives now in contented isolation with Carla Bley, in the mountains of upstate New York. 

September 1998



A Fireside Chat With Steve Swallow

I think I can count all the hip electric bassists playing improvised music on one hand. And I can count the most interesting electric bassist in my time on one finger. He is Steve Swallow. Say what you will about the electric bass, but no one can deny the artistry of Swallow when he starts firing away on an electric bass. It is no wonder he has been winning poll after poll for the past umpteen years. I sat down with Swallow to talk about his new release with Carla Bley, his impressions of Eric Dolphy, and his time at Yale, as always, brought to you, unedited and in his own words. 

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

STEVE SWALLOW: I had a wind up Victrola in my house. My father played music when he was in college, worked his way through college playing alto saxophone and then gave it up, but retained a strong love for music. We had a wind up Victrola, with a recording of "Rhapsody in Blue," that made an immense impression on me. There is a stock kid picture of me standing on a box so I could reach the lever so I could wind up the Victrola to play the record. I think I was of the last generation to have a piano in the parlor, so at a very early age, I was at the piano and my parents noticed that I was interested in it and provided me with lessons starting when I was about five. They insisted that I do the kind of standard things, study classical piano and so I did with the same teacher that taught Nelson Riddle. I didn't find this out until a couple of years ago. I was thrilled when I did find it out. For many years I went to this guy and did the standard stuff. About simultaneous with puberty, I really discovered jazz in earnest. I think it was random. I think it was buckshot. I just happened to hear some and wondered what was that and was really drawn to it. There was a record store in the town next to the one that I grew up in, which was in suburban New Jersey. So I went to it and kind of browsed the bins and ended up buying some classic Americana. It makes me grind my teeth. I saved up money from my paper route and the first record I bought was a big band record. That kind of lured me very slowly, over a period of a couple of years, to kind of zero in what I really wanted to listen to, which was the Blue Note records that were coming out at that time. This would have been the early Fifties, going into the mid-Fifties. I lasered in on exactly the music that I loved and wanted to do it as well. It was also cleared to me right away that I wanted to do it. First thing I did was to pursue my parents to study not with a classical teacher, but with a jazz guy. I managed to, after a couple of missteps, to find a guy that taught me about chords. I was also playing trumpet, in addition to piano. I had yet to start playing bass. I went to a music store and bought a book called "Fifty Hot Licks for Trumpet."
FJ Did you manage to learn some hot licks?

STEVE SWALLOW: Yeah, I memorized all fifty of them. I was like a serial improviser. I figured that that is how it was done. I memorized these fifty licks and I just strung them together in a different order every time I took a solo. I took exactly the same solo. But all my solos were composed of these licks.

FJ Did anyone ever call you on that?

STEVE SWALLOW: No (laughing), everybody thought I was really hot and so did I. Actually, not too long after I had done that, a bunch of us started playing together. I was at this point in junior high school and after marching band practice, a bunch of us would hang out in the band room and try to figure out how to play jazz. Nobody played the bass, but there was a bass in the room, so at one point we decided that everyone had to play one tune on the bass and that way we will just keep rotating and nobody will get too hurt too seriously and we will have a bass in the band. The very first time I put my hands on the thing, I knew I was in deep trouble and I refused to pass it on to the next guy and went home on my bike with bloody figures, but the dye was cast and I knew it right away. It was one of those fateful moments where you are very sure of something.

FJ You attended Yale University.

STEVE SWALLOW: Yeah, I did. I'm not proud of it, but I did.

FJ Why did you leave?

STEVE SWALLOW: To play. There is a nice story there too. It dovetails nicely with you having talked to Carla because what happened was that I was midway through my second year and I wasn't even a music major. I was majoring in Latin literature, but I was taking a lot of music courses and spending an increasing amount of time away from school. It was the early Sixties, late Fifties and there was a really healthy ghetto music scene. The black community was just full of clubs with live music and a lot of really good players who had come up from New York, usually for personal reasons, usually because they had to get away from New York to preserve their health and their sanity. There are some really excellent older guys who were very generous to me and were teaching me a lot about music. At any rate, I got a call from a friend who said a guy named Paul Bley needed a bass player, a cheap bass player for a concert he was doing and that I should do it. My friend was a guy named Ian Underwood, who became a Mother of Invention after that and we were close and played together almost every day. Ian had been exposed to Paul and said, "OK, this guy needs a bass player and you should really do this. You're going to be amazed." I said, "OK, I will do it," and went to Bard College, a small college up the Hudson River, to play this job blind. I had no idea what Paul Bley played like. I went to the record store in New Haven and there was no evidence that he existed there. I met Carla and Carla was married to Paul at that time, so I showed up expecting to rehearse and Paul said, "No, we won't need to rehearse." I said, "Well, what are we going to do?" And he said, "You'll see." He was his usual kind of elliptical self and I had no idea what was going to happen when we hit the bandstand to play this concert. It was one of those nights again where everything was very vivid and clear and nothing seemed to go wrong. Whatever note I seemed to play was the right one. I was playing in an idiom that I had never played in before. I was playing bebop in the bars of New Haven and playing in college Dixieland bands for profit as well, but I had no exposure to whatever you want to call it, post-Ornette music, I guess. It was a revelation to me. I went home, back to my dorm at Yale and got violently ill. I had an incredibly high fever for three or four days and stayed in bed and when the fever broke, I got out of bed and marched over to the registrar's office and quit and went to New York and presented myself at Paul and Carla's doorstep and said, "OK, I am here."

FJ Did they let you in?

STEVE SWALLOW: With open arms. Luckily, they remembered me and it had been a good night, so Paul was not unhappy to see me. I kind of apprenticed myself to Paul and also to Carla. I had never seen a real composer before either. So I just kind of dove in right at that point and never looked back. I think at that point, this would have been 1960, I think at that point, that's what you did if you wanted to be a jazz musician. You just packed up and went to New York. There wasn't the spectrum of options that exist today.

FJ It almost sounds simpler.

STEVE SWALLOW: Yeah, I think it was not a bad thing and it was a wonderful time to be in New York. The scene was just exploding and music was everywhere and my first loft, which was on 6th Avenue, cost forty dollars a month and there were endless five dollar jobs. For five dollars and a meal, you could play coffee houses on Bleeker Street. This was prior to the folk and rock and roll incursion into the New York coffee house and club scene and so there were endless five dollar jazz gigs and all you had to do was work eight of those and your month's rent was covered and so it was not a difficult time. It was a perfect environment in which to develop as a player. I had a perfect teacher in Paul and endless subsequent people that I hooked up with during those years in New York. It couldn't have been better.

FJ You spend time in George Russell's sextet that featured Eric Dolphy. Give me your impression of Dolphy.

STEVE SWALLOW: He was wonderful. It was interesting in that Eric was a young player when I worked with him. He never got to be an old player, but George's band was extremely young. Most of us were in our very early twenties. I was twenty-one. So Eric was kind of the elder in the band at twenty-nine or thirty and kind of assumed that role as well. We definitely saw him as the guy with experience and the guy who had found the mature voice of his own already. So we were ready to receive whatever he had to offer us. He was very gracious and very generous. He was very unassuming, but on the other hand, he spoke when he saw the chance to affect the music positively. George wrote the music and he played the piano, but he was seemingly disinterested in a lot of the nuts and bolts aspects of getting it played, the phrasing and the articulation, and so Eric jumped into that role. I think we also kind of pushed him toward it. After Eric left the band, Thad Jones came into the band and assumed that role. That was also an education and a half because he was already a brilliant rehearser. I remained in awe of Eric, even as I got to know him and saw him as a friend. I was still amazed at the flow he had in his playing. It really was, as much as anybody that I had played with at that time, the metaphor of just kind of turning the faucet on applied to him. It seemed to flow without any impediments. It was astonishing.

FJ You moved on to spend some time as a member of the Art Farmer Quartet with Jim Hall. Is that where you began writing music earnestly?

STEVE SWALLOW: Yeah, exactly, I did. I had written stuff in school, but only as exercises. I had never written a tune that I was willing to stand behind. The actual first tune I wrote was one that's kind of endured and been played a fair amount called "Eiderdown." I lucked out on my first tune. I took it to Art and he liked it and the band began playing it, so I started off with the illusion that this wasn't hard at all and that anybody could do this. It had taken several decades to disabuse me of that notion, but I am well disabused at this point. I wrote that tune on a dare. In those days, one had a roommate on the road. You didn't get your own room and Pete LaRoca was my roommate and we were very close and loved to stay up after the gig and talk till we dropped. I always talked a good game about theory and writing and all of that, but I wasn't producing anything at all and Pete noticed this and finally one night, called me on it and said, "Look, it is put up or shut up. I am daring you to write a tune." We were in a hotel in Berlin, Germany as a matter of fact, playing a three week gig. Those were the days, a three week gig at a club in Germany. So I took him up on the dare and said, "Yeah, OK, I will do it." During three or four afternoons, I went to the club and used the piano in the club and came up with the tune and presented it to Art. He liked it and we started playing it. So I kept at it.

FJ Was it a money bet?

STEVE SWALLOW: (Laughing) No, I think there might have been a dinner or something. I'm sure I called his bluff because I actually did write the damn tune.

FJ When did you pick up the electric bass and why didn't you just play both, acoustic and electric?

STEVE SWALLOW: Yeah, it was another one of those. You seem to have a knack for putting your finger on those kind of crossroad moments, Fred, but it was definitely one of those. I resisted the electric bass on principle for years. I refused to touch one. I had the usual jazz musician's attitude toward electric instruments and rock and roll. I was working with Gary Burton. This would have been in late 1969 and we were doing a NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show. I guess it was an early NAMM show, all the instrument manufacturers and Gary was doing demonstrations and brought me along so he didn't have to play solo and so the two of us were playing, playing twenty minutes, taking an hour off, playing twenty minutes all day long in a giant exposition place in Chicago. Midway through the second day, I was bored to tears and I had done everything, but gone into the Fender booth and so I went over there during one of our breaks and I made sure that nobody saw me. I ditched Gary and kind of snuck over. It was really like going into a peepshow or something. I looked stealthfully around to make sure nobody saw me and then split very quickly into the Fender booth. I picked up a Fender bass and the same thing happened. My fingers sent an immediate message to my brain and saying that we liked this. We want to do this. My brain was appalled and said no, but the dye had been cast. I went to the Gibson booth and did the same thing and preferred the Gibson instrument and so I asked them if I could take it back to the hotel and they said, "Sure." I took it back to the hotel and took the instrument out of its case and played it for what I thought was about twenty minutes. I looked up and looked at the clock and a couple of hours had gone by. There was no turning back. It was a very base and physical attraction that I just couldn't deny. Luckily, Gary was very supportive of all of this and receptive to the idea of using it in the band. So I began just using it on one or two tunes a night and it just gradually grew to the point where I was using it on more tunes than I was using the acoustic bass and then I moved to California with my family for a variety of reasons, but among them, to really learn to play the electric bass. At that point, I felt that I couldn't play both the acoustic and electric any longer. There just weren't enough hours in the day. I was just constantly guilty as well, when I was playing one, I saw the other sitting in the corner looking forlorn and very conflicted and so eventually, I got rid of my acoustic bass and I haven't had one since and I haven't regretted doing that either.

FJ Your approach to playing the electric is unique in that you play it as if it were a guitar.

STEVE SWALLOW: I think it is. You would think I would play it as if it were a bass, but I think one of the things that drew me to the instrument initially was physically, the guitar aspect of it. I loved manipulating that instrument. Initially, I played with my fingers, but fairly shortly, after I began playing the electric bass, I discovered the pick and discovered that I preferred that, that I liked the way I could articulate with the pick and I preferred the sound that I got. I was lucky to play with a succession of wonderful guitar players, starting with Jim Hall, but in the Burton band there was an endless string of them, starting with Larry Coryell and I was able to have a twenty-four hour question answering service available to me at any time and endless examples of how to manipulate the instruments. I empathized strongly with the guitaristic approach physically. On the other hand, I have also kind of insisted whenever anybody asks over the years, that it is a bass, that even though it doesn't look like an acoustic bass and sound like an acoustic bass, it is there to perform the same functions. The day before I first played the electric bass, I loved Paul Chambers and the day I first played the electric bass, I still loved Paul Chambers and nothing changed. I didn't take up the electric bass to effect a change in the idiom that I was playing. I had no desire to do that what so ever. I just wanted to bring the electric bass to the idiom that I always loved.

FJ Will there be a time when you may return to the acoustic bass?

STEVE SWALLOW: No, I really don't, Fred. I'm so happy with the electric and learning the electric is still such a consuming and on going process that I can't imagine reaching the end of it or ever having time to divert from that course. One of the great things for me about the electric bass is that it has almost no history. There are very few people standing over your shoulder, watching you play. When I played the acoustic bass, I did feel very strongly, the presence of everybody looking over my shoulder. That history just doesn't exist with the electric bass. I have had the sense that I am plowing forward into a country that I have never been in before.

FJ Do you find that is liberating?

STEVE SWALLOW: I think it is. I found it liberating of necessity to devise my own style and my own tactics and to look for a voice on the instrument because there weren't really any that impacted strongly on me.

FJ Let's talk about your band. Chris Potter is a member of the band.

STEVE SWALLOW: Mick Goodrick and Adam Nussbaum were two old compatriots of mine. The trumpet chair changed from one record to the next. The first one was Ryan Kisor, but then he got a real job with the Lincoln Center big band. I love this band dearly. I have had a long association with Goodrick. We played together in Gary Burton's band and hung out together during my time in Boston. He still lives in Boston. I learned a lot from him. In a sense, you can hear us as one large instrument sometimes. I hear it myself and I am really thrilled by it. It is if our hands are being guided by the same brain. It is something I really value. Nussbaum and I have been together forever as well, starting with the Scofield Trio in the early Eighties. I have the classic bass player-drummer relationship with him. I can't live with him and I can't live without him. I love him dearly. We have a wonderful pugnacious relationship.

FJ You have won the Down Beat Critics Poll in the electric bass category for as long as I can remember.

STEVE SWALLOW: Yeah, I am on a roll.

FJ Do the accolades really matter to you?

STEVE SWALLOW: No. I'm not displeased, but I proceed on as I am doing now if I weren't winning the Down Beat Poll. Nothing would change. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be able to play what I want to play. I have gotten so used to doing that that I couldn't stop. I think in some ways, winning polls and that kind of stuff allows you that, affords you the great privilege of being able to play what you want to play. In that sense, I am very grateful indeed that all of that has happened. I have been doing this for so long now that I am totally unfit to do anything else. If all of that support were yanked out from under me, I would still march relentlessly on and continue doing what I am doing.

FJ It seems like you are content.

STEVE SWALLOW: Yeah, I am, Fred. I am indeed. I'm extremely lucky and I know it and I'm grateful.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and jockey at the Kentucky Derby.


Steve Swallow: Embracing Music and Greater Awareness

By Matthew Miller

For 50 years, Steve Swallow has represented the pinnacle of jazz bass playing. First on acoustic, then exclusively on electric bass, the versatile Swallow approaches every musical situation with grace and understated virtuosity. His discography reads like a Who's Who of the important improvisers of the 20th and early 21st Century. Swallow continues to tour extensively around the world and record with Carla Bley, Gary Burton, John Scofield and many others. AAJ contributor Matthew Miller spoke with Swallow at his winter home in Camino, in the British Virgin Islands. 

All About Jazz: Has the New York audience changed during your career? 

Steve Swallow: Yeah, sure. When I began playing in the late '50s, there was a circuit of clubs in minority neighborhoods that sustained the music. You were playing for a community. That scene imploded in the late '60s and shifted to a primarily white, male audience and that hasn't really changed since then. That was a major shift.
AAJ: That shift corresponded with the emergence of jazz education. As someone who has taught in addition to gigging, touring and recording, can you give your impression of jazz education?

SS: I'm ambivalent about jazz education. One of my favorite lines on the subject comes from Paul Desmond, he said: "Jazz can be learned, but never taught." I've ended up being associated with jazz education because of my tenure at Berklee in the mid '70s, but aside from that, I've made it a point to restrict the amount of teaching I've done. After a few years at Berklee, I stopped because I had come to a crossroads. I had to choose between teaching and performing.

AAJ: Did you face a similar decision as a literature student at Yale in the late '50s when you left school to move to New York?

SS: Yes. In 1960, I left school because I had to play. I wanted to jump into the [New York] community of players, to search out my peers, to test myself against them. I had some reservations about leaving Yale, but I felt that I was faced with an either-or decision. I had to make an emphatic decision to embrace music.

When I came to New York, there was a community of older players and gifted peers. The university world wasn't the right environment to become a bass player. At this point, it might be a better choice for a young bassist to go to Berklee instead of NYC, but that wasn't the case then. That's not to say that New York hasn't remained the place to go. I think there's a wonderfully vibrant scene in NYC right now.

AAJ: You were a literature student as an undergrad and your recent release, So There, featured the poet Robert Creeley. How have literary influences or any non-musical interests, affected you musically?
SS: They've had a tremendously strong influence on me. Literature particularly, but also the visual arts and life around me. I've learned as much from Bob Creeley as any musical source. There's a great deal to be had from non-musical sources and my music has been greatly enhanced by them. I think there's a great danger in narrowing your sources too much. I've known remarkable bass players who have spent endless hours practicing, but they've paid a price: a lack of awareness of the world outside the bass. In the end, that limits their effectiveness as musicians.

AAJ: How has living with Carla Bley influenced you as a player and composer? How have you influenced her?

SS: We've had a profound influence on each other. It was inevitable. Our collaboration is a kind of complicated back and forth. I think I'm basically a player who writes and she is a writer who plays. I've told her more from a player's perspective and she's helped me from a composer's perspective and so we've been of most assistance to each other in that way.

We write on a daily schedule, seven days a week, in periods defined by beverage: coffee, tea, etc. It's a job. We never write together, but we do talk about it. Occasionally, one will say something that sets the other off in a promising direction. Eventually, we'll play it together and then it's back to the drawing board. You have to establish in your mind your value as a composer. Nobody calls on the phone to ask me for a piece of music, whereas when you're a player, the phone rings and you're asked to play. In terms of composing, it all comes down to self-motivation and discipline; Carla definitely has these qualities. She's shown me the discipline I lack and I've shown her things as a player.

AAJ: Her writing is so pure and personal. It seems that she's writing for herself, for the sake of the music, instead of writing for a particular player. Kind of like the antithesis of the Ellington model.

SS: She's usually writing for particular players, but the cast is changing. She's been writing music specifically for the The Lost Chords and most recently for trumpeter Paolo Fresu. In terms of Duke's music and Monk for that matter, I think it's there to be reinterpreted by subsequent generations. I think Monk's music is being played better now than in his lifetime. Young players are giving knowing and assured performances. Carla's music has a similar degree of difficulty and complexity. I strongly believe that the performances she's hoping for will happen after she's dead. Carla is constructing formidable challenges and standing apart from the community, for better or worse. She gives players what they need instead of what they want. She's done that with me.

AAJ: In terms of your playing, I've always been impressed with your sensitivity as an accompanist and the virtuosic understatement that underlies all your work. In your eyes, how has your playing evolved over the years?

SS: Um, I like to think it has evolved. I very seldom listen to my past recordings. I'm reluctant to listen to them. I'm afraid I'll find myself better in 1965 (laughs). I recently listened to a recording with Monk I did in the mid-'60s [at the Monterey Jazz Festival]. Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised; I felt I sounded good. I knew it was indeed me and I found that interesting. It leads me to believe that what you play is like your fingerprint. It's you.

A player should be reconciled to the fact that the elements of his playing are unchanged, like his voice. Of course, there are parts that can be rearranged and that's what I've tried to work with. Technique is the broad word for it, but I need to define it further. For me, it's the sound I'm getting. It's interpretation, how to phrase, how to make the music sing and breathe. It's been an ongoing process at a steady measured pace. Every now and then one has an "ah ha!" moment, but it certainly seems to be mostly a slow, consistent move forward for me. I wish I had had a greater sense of urgency when I was 20. It took me a lot of time to get focused and even more time to hit my stride; I was a late bloomer.

AAJ: You started out on piano and trumpet. What made you take up the bass?

SS: I just picked it up in 8th grade. It hit me like a ton of bricks; it was an instantaneous conversion and I left the piano and trumpet behind. The same thing happened when I was 29 and I touched the electric bass for the first time. I knew the electric bass and I were off into the sunset together.

AAJ: Ever pick up the upright for old-times sake?

SS: No. But every once in a while, if I see a beautiful one lying backstage at a festival, like Charlie Haden's bass, I'll pick it up and hit the E string, just to feel it vibrate against my body. It's one of the great feelings in life.


Steve Swallow

Born: 4-Oct-1940
Birthplace: New York City
Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Jazz Musician
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Prolific jazz bassist
Girlfriend: Carla Bley (musician)
The Carla Bley Band Bassist 1978-present

Condemned to spend his teen years in a New England private school, Steve Swallow made his first ventures into improvisational jazz with classmate (and future saxophonist for The Mothers of Invention) Ian Underwood. He went on to study composition at Yale until meeting Paul and Carla Bley in 1960, after which he moved to New York City and began a dizzying number of collaborations and group involvements with other musicians in the New york jazz scene.

In 1968, after two years with The Art Farmer Quartet, Swallow joined a quartet led by Gary Burton, beginning a musical relationship which was to continue up through Burton's 1992 release Six Pack. In 1970, he made a change from acoustic upright to electric bass guitar, as well as making a more temporary change from East to West Coast. A series of records for ECM, a period teaching at the Berklee College of Music, and his usual plentiful-like-grains-of-sand-on-the-beach musical collaborations continued through the 70s and 80s.

Initiating the second of his long-term band involvements, in 1978 Steve Swallow joined The Carla Bley Band. The pair have worked together ever since, touring throughout the 80s, 90s and 00s in contexts ranging from duo to big band and including everything in-between. Solo projects have continued throughout, in addition to work with Pat Metheny, Karen Mantler, and many others.



Biography by Scott Yanow

Steve Swallow has long been many jazz critics' favorite electric bassist, for rather than playing his instrument in a rock-oriented manner, Swallow emphasizes the high notes and approaches the electric bass, to an extent, as if it were a guitar. He originally started on piano and trumpet before settling on the acoustic bass as a teenager. Swallow joined the Paul Bley trio in 1960 and with Bley was a part of an avant-garde version of the Jimmy Giuffre 3 during 1960-1962. Swallow recorded with George Russell and was a member of Art Farmer's quartet (1962-1965), Stan Getz's band (1965-1967), and an important edition of Gary Burton's quartet (1967-1970). The latter group (starting with the addition of guitarist Larry Coryell) was actually one of the first fusion groups, and it was during that time that Swallow began playing electric bass; within a few years he stopped playing acoustic altogether. Swallow spent a few years in the early '70s living in northern California during which time he mostly playing locally. After the late '70s he has been closely associated with Carla Bley's groups, although he occasionally works on other projects (including a reunion of the Jimmy Giuffre 3). Swallow has also proved to be a talented composer with "Eiderdown," "Falling Grace," "General Mojo's Well Laid Plan," and "Hotel Hello" being among his better-known pieces. The 21st century saw the release of several Swallow sets, including Damaged in Transit (2003), Histoire Du Clochard: The Bum's Tale (2004), and an intriguing set with poet Robert Creeley, So There (2006).



Selected discography (as leader or co-leader)

Hotel Hello (with Gary Burton)
Duets (with Carla Bley)
Go Together (with Carla Bley)
Are We There Yet? (with Carla Bley)
Real Book
Always Pack Your Uniform On Top
Damaged in Transit
L'Histoire du Clochard (with Ohad Talmor)
What a wonderful world (guest on "R.I.P." LP : , 2007.
Your Songs: The Music of Elton John (with Paul Motian, Gil Goldstein and Pietro Tonolo) on ObliqSound, 2007

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