Up Close And Classical with Gary Karr

Active Bass member Laurence Mollerup interviews world-renowned solo double bassist Gary Karr.
Laurence Mollerup: Hello Gary, It's an honour to be interviewing you for the ActiveBass website. I know there have been some incredible highlights in your career like your debut with Leonard Bernstein and the NY Philharmonic. (At last year's Karr Bass Kamp you told a story about being on a riser up over the orchestra playing "The Swan" on live television, when Mr. Bernstein said "Great, now play it 8va" . . .)

Would you talk about your history a little bit?

Gary Karr: It's hard for me to talk about my history, but I will say that it's rather strange to begin ones career with a Swan song!

Actually, my first solo experience was with the Chicago Little Symphony conducted by Thor Johnson with whom I toured as soloist in 1961, the year that I began my solo career.

My appearance with Leonard Bernstein was in 1962 in Carnegie Hall in front of 7 million viewers who were faithful fans of his Young People's Concerts. I was the featured young artist on one of these programs which launched my career in a major way.

LM: You mentioned listening to the Metropolitan Opera when you were young, and trying to emulate the arias on your bass.

GK: Actually, I was the number one sub for the Metropolitan orchestra so I played four operas a week during my Juilliard student days in New York. I was so inspired by the great singers of the time that I would go to the Juilliard library, check out the scores, and imitate what I heard the night before.

LM: Who were your teachers and influences?

GK: I started studying the bass with Uda Demenstein, a Russian bassist who taught three generations of my bass playing family. I then studied with Herman Reinshagen and later with Stuart Sankey. I also studied with Gabor Rejto, cellist, Leonard Rose, cellist, Zara Nelsove, cellist, Leonard Shure, pianist, Alfredo Antonini, conductor and, of course, my mentor, Jennie Tourel.

LM: What was it like to come from seven generations of bassists?

GK: Not at all helpful. In fact, my family did all they could to discourage me from going into music. I have no contact to this day with the other professional bassists in my family.

LM: Were you intimidated when you met Pablo Casals?

GK: Quite the contrary....I felt a special bond with him because of what he faced in trying to make the cello an established solo instrument. He understood my plight better than anyone whom I had encountered before.

LM: What was it like to learn from Jennie Tourel?

GK: She taught me to think of music from a singer's perspective. To this day, I feel as though I am singing through the bass. The bass is my voice, and if I could really sing, I would like to sound like my doublebass. She taught me to phrase like a singer, to hold the intensity of long lines and to breathe with the music.

Gary Karr in Concert

LM: I know that playing with a depth of emotion is of utmost importance to you. Is there a way you help students to develop that aspect of their playing?

GK: The music one plays on the bass must reflect your soul or that which is inside you. The key to opening the door to the real you is your sound. If I can help a student to connect with his sound so that he feels that it is a part of him, it naturally follows that the instrument becomes a vehicle for expressing his inner emotions.

LM: Where can bassists study with you?

GK: I no longer give masterclasses or private lessons, but the Karr Kamp.
(LM: see Gary's web page for an article on the Bass Kamp) It takes place during the month of July.

LM: Having the Amati doublebass given to you must have been an amazing experience, what was that like?

GK: Mrs. Koussevitzky attended my debut recital in N. Y. and the day after she called me. Having never spoken to her before, I didn't recognize her voice and thought from her thick Russian accent that it was a friend playing a practical joke on me. When she said, "This is Olga Koussevitzky speaking," I replied by saying, "Yeh baby...I'll bet!!!" She invited me to her apartment and presented me with the Amati as a gift in order to carry on the legacy of her husband. Surely, it was the most important and the greatest gift of my life.

LM: What about your current instrument, the Jim Ham bass?

GK: It's my instrument of choice now because it is so user friendly and has such a satisfying tone. The Amati has always been temperamentaland difficult to play. The Ham bass does everything I want it to do.

LM: How does being owned by a dog make you a better bassist?

GK: He loves me and my bad bass playing unconditionally. No one else is willing to tolerate me to such an extent. He has become the inspiration of my life.

LM: What are Shin-Ju's favourite cookies?

GK: The ones his auntie Kay sends him from the Washington D.C.area.....they look and smell like chocolate hearts.

LM: Your instructional books are great! On your web page I noticed that you updated Volume 1 in 1996, how did you improve it?

GK: The music by Alice Spatz is a great improvement over the music by Paul Ramsier who was not as sensitive as Alice to the technical aspects of bass playing. I injected a number of changes that resulted from the feedback that I had gotten from those who used the books during the past decade or so. It is easier to understand now.

LM: I know you favour an electric bass style of fingering for doublebass, and that you concentrate on the bow arm. What other aspects of music are foremost in your method books?

GK: The books are designed to establish a good sound and a good posture with the instrument. They eliminate any fears of using the entire length of the fingerboard and they help the student to think intervalically, more like a good jazz player.

LM: What new developments in bass playing interest you?

GK: Changes in tuning, new strings, new basses, new bows (I now have a new one made by Giovanni Lucchi in Cremona, Italy who I believe is the greatest bow maker ever in the history of the bass).

LM: Where do you see the future of bass playing going?

GK: More and more public awareness of the what the bass can do, a better standard of orchestral bass playing, more major compositions written for the bass, more talents attracted to our instrument and an acceptance by the establishment for the doublebass as a bonified solo instrument.

LM: Can you talk about what your surroundings were during the recording of the Bach solo suites?

GK: I played the entire CD while gaining inspiration and maintaining tranquility by looking out at the view from my window in Victoria, BC....the sea, islands and snow capped mountains. It's so wonderful that I wish I had moved here at least five years sooner. I adore the climate and the great opportunity it affords me to pursue my favorite hobby of gardening.

LM: What new CD's do you have planned?

GK: A Jazz ballad CD with Ray Brown, Monte Alexander and others (still in the planning stages), albums of Schuman, Beethoven and Schubert as well as loads of other transcriptions I've done during the past 40 years of concertizing.

I'm planning a large number of CDs with organ and more CDs with the trio of solo bass, Harpsichord and electric bass on continuo.

LM: Thanks Gary for doing this interview, I've enjoyed it a lot.

GK: All best wishes, Gary

Visit Gary on the web at GaryKarr.com