Catch Me If You Can
On the trail of Dave Holland, jazz’s outstanding — and very busy — bassist-bandleader
By Thomas Staudter â€¢ Photographs by Dion Ogust
The backstage scene at Manhattan’s Zankel Hall after the Dave Holland Big Band’s March 2004 performance was, predictably enough, a mixture of jubilation and chaos. Family members, friends, and assorted personages involved in the music business flooded the hallways around the dressing rooms to congratulate the affable leader and his 12 bandmates, creating a party-like atmosphere.
Sleek in his customary concert garb — dark, pressed slacks and dress shirt — Holland was aglow, his broad smile a good measure of his satisfaction. The Grammy Awardâ€“winning big band, which evolved out of the bassist’s critically acclaimed jazz quintet, had just swung mightily through the New York premiere of The Monterey Suite, a 50-minute composition that Holland had written expressly for the ensemble. He was both relieved and gratified by a job well done.
A mutual friend introduced us, and I mentioned to Holland that I’d been assigned to write an article about him. “I’ll be talking with you in a few weeks, then, when we get back,” he replied with characteristic courtliness, his clipped English accent a reminder that not all of jazz’s great bassists have emerged out of the American heartland.
Get back? Holland was leaving the next day for a monthlong tour of Europe with his quintet, then crisscrossing the U.S. with the big band until the middle of May. A few weeks of downtime was scheduled after that, but Holland returned to his home in Saugerties (Ulster) to relax with his wife, Clare, and other family members. The one chance we had to meet didn’t work out, and before you could count off a tune, the 58-year-old jazz star was back on the road — through most of June leading his own groups, and then for the next three months as part of a new quartet that featured saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock, two modern jazz masters who, like Holland, are alumni of the epochal bands Miles Davis led in the 1960s.
While musical artists like Holland, Shorter, and Hancock are referred to frequently as “legends,” that’s almost unfair, considering how formidable and startling their virtuosity and improvisational powers still are; they’re hardly ready for the rocking chair. When the quartet (with Brian Blade on drums) performed at Carnegie Hall, the music was full of goading interplay between the band members, who spent a good part of the evening beaming at each other.
Superstar gatherings and sidework, however, stand as exceptions to the rule for Holland, whose busy schedule leading his own groups leaves little time for new commitments. “One of the things I’ve tried to do is not spread myself too thin,” he says. “I like to feel that there’s some primary musical project I’m involved in, and then occasionally complement that with a few other activities.” Still, he’s particularly loyal to long-standing members of his musical circle. When I next met up with Holland, after a concert in January with his quintet at the University of Connecticut, he had just returned from an emotional tour through England with trumpeter-composer Kenny Wheeler, a musical comrade from the mid-1960s and a member of Holland’s early-1980s quintet.
“I definitely get nostalgic thinking about old friends like Kenny,” Holland admits. “He’s always been a shining example for me of how a composer should lead a band. His music has a special quality, a human frailty, that I can tell from hearing just a few notes.” Forging a musical identity is difficult, the bassist admits, “because you really have to let your soul come through the music.”
Jet lag and a rush of sentiment didn’t prevent Holland from leading his confreres in the quintet — vibraphonist Steve Nelson, trombonist Robin Eubanks, saxophonist Chris Potter, and drummer Nate Smith — through a high-energy baring of musical souls at the Connecticut gig. Afterwards, the musicians mingled with some of the audience, but before long Clare Holland, who often serves as a de facto tour manager for her husband’s bands, was pointing toward two minivans and urging departure. The group was scheduled for a concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington the following evening, and a blizzard had been forecast.
Bassists generally don’t get the credit they deserve, and in the annals of jazz you’ll find few determined and enterprising enough to lead their own bands. Holland, on the other hand, has risen to become one of the key figures in jazz. Last December, he won top honors as Jazz Artist of the Year in DownBeat magazine’s 69th Annual Readers Poll — the latest in a string of accolades. Holland modestly counters praise with the admission that he’s been a “reluctant bandleader.” His motivation, he says, derives simply from a desire “to see some music happen.”
“One of the great things about what I do is that it can help you develop as a human being
as well as a musician,” he notes. “I was quite a shy person as a young man. Music has forced me to come to terms with certain things I needed to deal with, which I think has helped me enjoy my life more.”
Holland grew up in Wolverhampton, an industrial burg in England’s Midlands. “I was an only child; my father left us when I was a year old, and my mother and I went to live with my grandparents and mother’s brother,” he recalls. At the age of four, he started to play the ukulele. Popular music — dance band, rock and roll, and “skiffle” — entered his home via the radio. By the time he was in his teens, Holland was playing guitar and bass.
He tilted toward jazz after noticing that the great jazz bassist Ray Brown had won top honors in the DownBeat poll. “So I went out and bought a couple of records he was on with Oscar Peterson, and that was my starting point,” says Holland. “Two weeks later, I got myself an acoustic bass and began playing along with the records. A lot of what I learned was from listening to him; it provided a foundation for everything I do. I pay my respects to Ray Brown every time I pick up the bass, I think.” In time, Holland was carefully soaking up the work of other jazz bassists.
He left school at 15 to start working in touring dance bands in the region. His mother had remarried by then, and he couldn’t wait to get out of the Midlands. “I wanted more stimulation and education,” he says. On the recommendation of a London Philharmonic bassist who was giving him private lessons, Holland went to London and entered the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, making a number of friendships that helped carry him onto bandstands in the city.
In July 1968, Holland was backing a vocalist in a combo at Ronnie Scott’s, the venerable London nightspot, when Miles Davis, there to visit friends, heard him play. “I knew Miles was in the audience, but I didn’t think he’d be listening to me,” says Holland. Days later, the bassist was invited to join the trumpeter’s band. By November, he was in New York City, playing in one of the world’s most listened-to jazz ensembles.
“It’s always a great inspiration to play with people at a high level, and as a young musician working in Miles’s band, every performance was special,” says Holland. “I remember right after I’d moved to New York I was living in the same Upper West Side neighborhood where Miles lived, and as I was walking over to his place one night it felt like a dream. I was only 21 and going over to hang out with Miles!” The touring band Davis led at the time (which also included keyboardist Chick Corea, Shorter, and drummer John DeJohnette) had a reputation for high-energy performances, some of which are now being released on CD, much to Holland’s approval. “We were a great â€˜live’ band and it’s about time that our work was documented,” he says.
Holland stayed in Davis’s band through the recording of classic jazz-fusion albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew before departing in 1970 to cofound a group called Circle with Corea and saxophonist Anthony Braxton. Further endeavors included stints with saxophonists Stan Getz and Sam Rivers, plus the formation of Gateway, a trio with DeJohnette and guitarist John Abercrombie. Electric rock music and the paroxysms of free-jazz experimentation were shifting the landscape of America’s great musical idiom, and Holland was at the epicenter of the upheaval.
“Watching how Miles would focus everything in his playing to the audience had a big effect on us all, and you can really hear that in Dave’s full, rich sound on the bass,” says DeJohnette, a longtime Woodstock area resident. “He’s one of the few bassists I’ve ever seen bring an audience to their feet with his playing.” Holland was also influenced by Davis’s bandleading style: “From Miles I learned not to over-organize the music, to leave a lot of the decision-making to the musicians involved,” he says.
Holland served as artistic director of the jazz workshop at the prestigious Banff School of Fine Arts in Canada for seven years. He also taught at the New England Conservatory of Music before embarking on a tour in 1990 with guitarist Pat Metheny, Hancock, and DeJohnette that he says regenerated his stature and popularity in the jazz world. A few years later, critics and fans alike took notice of his new quintet.
The momentum Holland built in the last several years as a leader was tragically checked in 2000 when his son, Jacob, died suddenly of natural causes. “We came through it as a family, and we’re still coming through it,” says Holland. “But we were determined not to let it be a defining moment in our lives. He wouldn’t have wanted it to be, either.” Jacob’s daughter, Sarah, was born a month after his death, and much of Holland’s present joy comes from spending time with her.
In 2003, Holland won a Grammy for his big band album What Goes Around, and with the help of his daughter, Louise, an entertainment lawyer who has served as his manager for the past several years, he began the process of starting his own record label, Dare2 Records. Holland’s newest CD is another big band effort called Overtime (he likes titles that “let the public figure whatever meaning might occur to them,” he says). It debuted in the Top Ten of Billboard magazine’s traditional jazz chart in February, and sales are “going fantastically,” reports Louise.
Finally, the bassist came off the road in mid-February, and returned home. Once a city dweller, Holland says the need for “a more positive and less expensive environment” caused him and his wife, with Louise in tow, to move to the Valley 34 years ago, first living in Mount Tremper before settling in Saugerties in 1977. Other friends in the jazz community had hipped them out to the area.
After lunch in Woodstock, Holland carefully carried his 150-year-old bass across the green and packed it into the back of his car. “I see the spirit of jazz as an uplifting experience that takes people out of the challenges of everyday,” he says before waving goodbye. “That buzz after a concert, when everybody’s excited and animated — to me, that’s what it’s all about.”
The next morning, he was off to Oregon for another gig. ■
Photographs of Dave Holland were shot at the Woodstock Guild’s Kleinert/James Arts Center.