Dave Young: 9 valuable lessons I've learned during my life in jazz

80 years old with a new album out, the revered bassist shares some wisdom on building a successful jazz career.

80 years old with a new album out, the revered bassist shares some wisdom on building a successful jazz career

During his long career, bassist Dave Young has played with Lenny Breau, Oscar Peterson, Kenny Barron, Tommy Flanagan and many other jazz greats. (Alex Heidbuechel)

"Try to remain productive and move forward in anything you do," urged jazz bassist Dave Young on Facebook at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. "We will play music again in live performance but not for a while."

Young, a 10-time Juno nominee who turned 80 in January, is a reassuring voice for his community, which has been hit hard by club closures and restrictions on public gatherings.

The jazz veteran has been following his own advice, moving forward with various projects: physically distanced concerts at the Rex in Toronto, live streams from the Jazz Bistro and the 2020 Kensington Market Virtual Jazz Festival, not to mention the release of Ides of March, a new album from Young's quartet that includes stalwarts Reg Schwager (guitar), Kevin Turcotte (trumpet) and Terry Clarke (drums).

They play an appealing mix of jazz standards by Herbie Hancock and Lee Morgan, a couple of Young originals, a composition by Danish pianist Niels Lan Doky, and a Gershwin chestnut.

"His age never enters into any discussion," says Roberto Occhipinti, a bassist himself, Young's protégé and the producer of Ides of March and six previous Young albums. "He's perpetually youthful, always forward-looking with a very strong work ethic."

Young fostered that work ethic from a young age, growing up in a musical Winnipeg family, first studying violin and singing in the Winnipeg Boys Choir.

"I took up guitar in my early teens and listened a lot to R&B singers and absorbed the feeling they gave the music —the time feel especially," Young told CBC Music. He went to New York to take lessons with Barry Galbraith and began playing in dance bands at 15. "I was introduced to the musician's life at an early age."

Young took up the bass as a student at the University of Manitoba — "the band leader asked me to leave the guitar at home and bring a bass instead" — and the rest is history. He has led a multi-faceted career, playing in symphony orchestras, famously teaming up with guitarist Lenny Breau in the '60s, taking over the bass chair in the Oscar Peterson Quartet, leading his own jazz ensembles, and teaching at the University of Toronto's faculty of music.

Occhipinti describes him as "serious, musically, but with a very easygoing personality with a great sense of humour," which helps explain Young's vitality and longevity. We asked Young to share some of the lessons he has learned during his life as a jazz musician.

1. Learn a variety of music and instruments in your early years

"I learned early on that the more styles of music you played, the more work you got! I played classical violin and guitar repertoire, I played banjo in church groups, electric bass in pop and jazz groups — and finally string bass in jazz, both commercial and orchestral groups. I was a generalist as opposed to a specialist."

2. A good teacher is essential

"When I took up a new instrument I would focus completely on technique and sound, listening to recordings to learn what was possible. Then, I'd find a teacher to get me started.

"A good teacher is absolutely essential to avoid bad playing habits. Expect to practise three to four hours on a regular basis. When I moved to Toronto in 1967, I studied classical bass with Tom Monohan, principal bassist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Six hours of practice a day was expected — plus working in clubs six nights a week."

3. Put in the time to develop your ear

"In jazz and commercial music, ear training and transcribing are very important. You have to develop your ear so you can pick up tunes you don't know. Jazz improvisation is an aural exercise — learning to listen to all the instruments in the group is crucial. Split-second reaction is the norm in the small jazz group.

"Transcribing solos, original tunes and arrangements is a way to improve your ear. I've put together at least eight separate quintet books (Horace Silver, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Cedar Walton, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Thelonious Monk) largely based on transcribing recorded arrangements."

4. You need a vast repertoire at your fingertips

"Jazz repertoire includes Broadway musical material, movie themes, popular tunes of the day by well-known composers (George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jimmy Van Heusen, et al.), bebop, modal compositions, original jazz compositions (Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and others).

"This music includes thousands of compositions and should be memorized and at your fingertips. Many hours were spent in my early years learning this material largely from recordings. As a young musician playing in dance bands, you were expected to know many of these popular songs. Students today in jazz programs at the university level don't have a wide range of repertoire and often use their iPhones to look up harmonic changes."

5. Learn to wear several musical hats

"By my late 20s I was playing in small jazz groups, big bands, folk music, rock 'n' roll and symphony orchestras. To be comfortable in each category you must practise and play the music regularly. For example, rehearsing all day in an orchestra then playing 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. in a jazz club required mental preparation as well as completely different musical techniques.

"The world of orchestral music requires technical mastery of your instrument (arco and pizzicato), a high level of sight-reading ability, playing with other bassists in the section, counting to come in correctly and constantly watching the conductor for cues. This in itself is a life's work!"

6. Stay attuned to the younger generation — you can learn a lot from them

"I have kept my hand in teaching for more than 50 years, both privately and at the university level. Private lessons, group workshops and masterclasses are all part of the jazz education format. Keeping in touch with the younger generation is important. You learn from them as well."

7. Know your jazz history

"Studying the history of jazz is also necessary to see how the music has developed from its beginnings in New Orleans. Any well-written book on a famous musician's life offers a wealth of insight on how to succeed in jazz. I am currently considering writing a book on my musical life in conjunction with my publicist, Celine Peterson. There are many stories to be told."

8. Develop a signature sound and style of playing

"Developing a signature sound and style of playing your instrument is very important. This generally begins after the initial years of technical practice. Every young player is influenced by many mature players — their sound, facility and solo style. But eventually you have to develop your own voice. This voice should reflect you as a person — ease of playing, confidence, expressiveness, musicality and solo ability. When a blindfold test can identify your playing you have reached a musical milestone!"

9. Do what excites you

"Finally, you need a philosophy of life. Choose the life you want based on what excites you. I studied several years in university and graduated with a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of business administration. I also spent a year at Berklee School of Music in Boston and two years studying architectural design at Ryerson. I have worked a variety of jobs during my life: accountant, financial analyst, renovator and, finally, musician. I've always returned to playing music because it's exciting and always a challenge. Expressing yourself through music can be difficult but very rewarding when it works."


Hear the Dave Young Quartet and all your favourite Canadian jazz musicians on Saturday Night Jazz, hosted by Laila Biali Saturdays from 8 p.m. to midnight on CBC Music.

For more information on the Dave Young Quartet's Ides of March, visit Modica Music.