A photo collage with Paul Watkins and David Lee “Sounds that Emerge from You”

An Interview with David Lee

Conducted by IICSI Reseaarcher Paul Watkins in 2017

Originally from Mission in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, after graduating in English from UBC, David Neil Lee spent many years in Toronto where he performed, toured, and recorded as a double bassist and cellist, worked for the jazz magazine Coda, and ran the small press Nightwood Editions. His books are wide-ranging, and include Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz (Véhicule Press 1999), The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field (The Mercury Press 2006), and the award-winning Chainsaws: A History (Harbour Publishing 2006). Lee’s first novel, Commander Zero, is published by Tightrope Books, and his most recent work, The Midnight Games (Wolsak & Wynn 2015) is a young adult novel inspired by the writings of H. P. Lovecraft. Currently, while pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Guelph in jazz, modernism, and improvisation, he lives with his family in Hamilton, Ontario.

Paul Watkins (PW): Before you became known as a writer, which includes two books on jazz, an award-winning book on chainsaws, and now two novels, you were one of the founding members of Toronto’s improvised music community. Perhaps we could start our conversation by discussing what led you to the bass and eventually improvised music. What’s the first improvised recording or performance you heard? From there, perhaps you could discuss what drew you to Toronto’s improvised music scene.

David Lee (DL): I was not from a terribly musical family, although we were all offered piano lessons which, as with high school band in later years, I dropped through sheer disinterest. I wish I had been more interested, or that my parents had forced me to continue; it would have taught me a lot. I’d be able to play piano now! Actually I had two aunts, on my father’s side, who were professional keyboardists: they both, at different times, sold pianos and electric organs in Eaton’s department stores, which was once a full-time profession. I didn’t have much contact with them, but whenever we saw them, they would play. One of those aunts, Anne Halderman, is on a Folkways Record: Folk Songs of Saskatchewan, singing a song that she wrote.

When I was in high school, in the 1960s, I took trombone for a year, decided I didn’t like music, and dropped band. Then I started to really like music, mostly on the folky side: Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Donovan (a major force at the time who gets overlooked now), and various rock bands. Jefferson Airplane, Jack Bruce: Songs for a Tailor. I had friends who were into music, so we would drive into the Coliseum or the Agrodome at the PNE grounds in Vancouver and hear, let’s see: I can remember hearing Donovan at least twice, Chilliwack who were a popular Vancouver band, and Led Zeppelin opening for Steppenwolf. This was about 1969. There was also a rock festival held in a pasture near my hometown, Mission, where my favourite group was an early fusion band called The Fourth Way. 

I only got interested in improvised music when I started playing. In university I began to play five string banjo, then guitar. I got the big Earl Scruggs banjo book, and opened it to the page where he shows how banjo chords corresponded to the same chords on the piano. A C chord on the piano has the same notes as a C chord on the banjo. This was an absolutely amazing revelation to me, a total paradigm shift. For a time, I lived in an old army barracks at UBC called Fort Camp, and I would walk up to the Music Building at night and find an empty piano room and go over chords and songs. 

I would get Guitar Player magazine out of the library in Vancouver; in every issue they had scales that you could practice on the guitar. However, I found it very boring to play scales going from say, the low E on the guitar up to the high E and back again. This did not sound like music to me. But I loved the harmonies and multitones and overtones when more than one note played at a time. In the banjo fingerpicking style, I could keep playing the G drone string with my thumb, and all the other notes in the key of G sounded much better when they had that G to play against. Plus, when I played different notes against that G drone, the G itself sounded different because of the different intervals, the different relationships between it and each note. So I would play little riffs and melodies and harmonies and patterns in G. Practicing the scales that way, I learned a lot about the scales and the different note relationships, and about why sometimes a major seventh would sound good in G and why sometimes the minor seventh would sound good, and the ways you could use them both. Plus, I already felt like I was making music, I didn’t have to wait. I got a cheap electric bass and would play little improvised pieces on it that way too.

This seemed to me to be a natural way of making music, but it was not much good for getting together with other players. I would say, “hey, let’s just play in A minor for a while,” and other guitarists would look at me blankly: “can’t we just do Me & Bobbie McGee?” Really, it was not a great way of learning to play songs, though I did some of that too and even wrote the occasional song. This was in Vancouver when I was going to UBC.

At the time I hadn’t made any connection between the kind of improvisation I had taught myself and jazz music. I’m not even sure that I knew about parts of jazz being improvised. However, I read an interview where Grace Slick said some of her horn arrangements on After Bathing at Baxter’s had been “stolen from Gil Evans,” so I found a copy of Out of the Cool. There is a long piece on that record, “La Nevada,” and I remember thinking of the various solos—Budd Johnson, Ron Carter—as just part of the arrangement, I didn’t realize the musicians were improvising.

After UBC I moved to Toronto, and was still screwing around with folk songs and so forth, but it was not very interesting and more importantly, the people I met in music were not very interesting. It was 1974 and Toronto was full of rock guitarists and folk songwriters, dazed and confused that the sixties were over and they still hadn’t made it big. At some point I heard a large improvising group, the CCMC, and I recognized that they were more or less doing what I wanted to do, although a lot of the music was pretty chaotic. At one point, I was out of work, and my mother sent me $50, so I went to the Jazz and Blues Centre to buy a Gil Evans record, and recognized Bill Smith as one of the saxophonists in the CCMC. I started talking to Bill and soon I started working at Coda Magazine. Through Bill, I heard about the Saturday afternoon band that played in the Sandpiper Tavern on St. Clair: Stuart Broomer, Maury Coles, Larry Dubin, and Bill were, I believe, the core players, and people would come by and sit in. This music was just as spontaneous, but a lot more organized than what I had heard in the CCMC, so I started getting interested in improvised music. Plus, as people these musicians were a lot more interesting than the rock and folk players I knew. Their music came out of their actual actions and sensibilities and out of the actual lives they were living, not out of some alternate reality where they were British rock stars or Black American jazz gurus or blues legends. And they liked to play, and then sit around and drink beer: this was the kind of culture I had been looking for all along.

In that first year at Coda I heard the Anthony Braxton Quartet, with Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland and Philip Wilson, and New Delta Ahkri: Leo Smith with Oliver Lake, Wes Brown, Anthony Davis and Pheeroan Ak Laff, as well as Don Pullen and Abdullah Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand). At the Colonial Tavern I heard Charles Mingus and Ron Carter and Dizzy Gillespie.

With my interest in chords and overtones and big sounds, I had been drawn to the double bass for a while, and in Vancouver had even thought about renting one, but they were very expensive. Remember that part of the attraction of playing an instrument is the thing itself: musical instruments are fascinating things, with various strings and machine heads and tuning devices and shiny parts, and a double bass seemed like a real luxury item. A new, cheap one in a music store cost $500 which was a fortune, especially considering what I was getting paid at Coda.

However, in June 1976 I got a phone call from BC that my mother had just died of a brain aneurism. My father had a thing about responding to death unceremoniously, so he told me not to come out … to give it a few months and come out in the fall. Foolishly, I acceded to his request, so there I was sitting in a communal house in Toronto, stunned and grieving and going through the motions of everyday life. One of those motions, however, consisted of opening a copy of Buy & Sell, seeing a double bass advertised for $150 and then taking the bus out to Mississauga and buying this bass off an old country musician. That is the Hofner bass I still play today.

PW: I envy you for being able to attend shows at the Colonial Tavern, a venue where the aforementioned artists performed, along with other luminaries such as Roland Kirk, Bill Evans, and Big Mama Thornton. For me, in jazz, along with R&B, funk, hip-hop, and other genres, bass and drums are the pulse of the music. To my ear, and depending on the style or mode one is playing in, bass—like iambic pentameter—often sounds the da-DUM (rhythm) of a human heartbeat. Certainly, bass and poetry go together particularly well. I am oversimplifying things to emphasize the human quality of the instrument. As you mention what drew you to the bass were the overtones and big sounds, which are limitless in their potential for improvised sound creation. I’ve seen you play in more conventional settings with a poet—such as George Elliott Clarke—and I’ve also seen you play completely free (if there is such a thing) in large ensembles. Do you have a preference, or is it simply about making music and sounding your bass with others?

DL: I love simply improvising and devising different things to play in different contexts, and over the years I have become very good at it. I am not very good at playing written music or playing tunes, so I am starting to look around for chances to practice and get better at those things. I am playing in a really good trio right now with Chris Palmer (guitar) and Connor Bennett (saxophones). I am begging them to play some written stuff as well as improvising. If I spend too much time in my comfort zone, I start to feel that I’m selling myself short.

PW: On another note, I’m sorry to hear about your mother. It sounds like her passing was an impetus for you to finally purchase a bass. I find it fascinating that you continue to play that very same Hofner bass. Since, I’m asking you to discuss your musical philosophy, perhaps you could begin by talking about your relationship to the/your bass. Given its sheer size, it certainly is a physically demanding instrument.

DL: For some players, the physical demands are part of the appeal of acoustic instruments. Certainly, among my class of literate males—poster boys for the success of the public school system, versus the many casualties whom it has left demoralized and disempowered—we are acclimatized to the mind/body split. Control is everything, and control comes from the mind, and we are conditioned to perceive the body as the unwilling, even ungrateful, servant of the mind. This is where we get the archetype of the nerd who is highly intelligent, but can’t dance; capable of any physical exertion, even athletic accomplishment, except graceful movement, because they perceive themselves as a brain that does all the feeling and thinking, which is attached to a body purposed to do the brain’s bidding.

I liked the sound of the bass. As well as the sound itself, there was something about its role in the band. Listening to Canadian radio, there was not much jazz or r&b, so it took me a long time to find out about the players in those genres. But for some reason, listening to rock and pop music of the time, my ear tuned in on those bass lines that were singing away beneath the melody and the chords. The bass was filling a role there that appealed to me in itself. And the notes themselves were substantial, physical; you felt them as well as heard them. I think I was drawn to the bass for the specific ways its technique and its sound could connect me to the world.

In playing an acoustic instrument, you can bridge this false divide and acknowledge the extent to which we all think with our bodies. To a brainy young guy such as myself, the bass was a way of doing this. It is a big instrument, so to play it, you have to move a lot. In free improvisation, you have the leeway to incorporate sounds into your repertoire that might not fit with standard bass lines, but they are sounds that emerge from you, as a player, moving and approaching with the bass in ways that appeal to you, so you are not moving to produce a specific sound so much as using the sound that has emerged from making a specific move that appeals to you.

PW: I hadn’t really thought too much about the physical demands of the instrument as one of the primary reasons people start playing the bass. The physical challenge is, of course, part of the fun. Some DJs continue to play analogue turntables and vinyl even though digital is more “convenient” and accessible. I think that no matter what instrument you’re playing, even ones that are less tactile and digital, that dualism between body and mind is often a fiction. This is not to suggest there isn’t a difference between DJing using a laptop and a DJing mixing vinyl on a physical turntable, or playing electric bass versus acoustic bass, because there is, but I think the body is still engaged in some way, even if it is simply the audience dancing to the music coming out of the speakers. Perhaps more young people would take to analogue instruments if they were taught that music is not just something of the mind, but involves a lot of physicality, like a sport. And for those who do play and study jazz in university—and there is always a physicality to playing jazz—it seems that much of what is taught in these programs is predominately an exercise of the mind. Think of all the improvised solos by John Coltrane or any other jazz legend that are taught vis-à-vis rote memorization. Not that Coltrane didn’t practice all the time, but when he plays his instrument you can hear and feel both his mind and body (or his “Body and Soul”) sounding through the instrument.


I want to switch gears and ask you a final question about your work as a novelist. A few years ago you published your first novel, Commander Zero, and you have recently published a second: The Midnight Games. How does this creative process differ from playing the bass, or does it?

DL: I am currently mulling over his idea: that writing fiction and improvising music are both about creating imaginative worlds. First you establish the terms of reference for that world. When you begin an improvisation with another musician who is a strong improviser, you very quickly hear and absorb their terms of reference, and you enter into those terms as best you can, although usually that means revising them a bit. Players who quickly understand and accept each others’ terms of reference can launch into a good group improvisation: a successful performance creates an imaginative world that clearly works on its own terms.

I find it is the same when writing fiction. Imagine a character and then put them in a house: you have just established a relationship: an imaginative world that connects the person and the thing. Why are they in that house: do they own it, are they a tenant, are they a guest—invited, or not? Every decision you make defines that world a little more clearly, and so it affects your subsequent decisions as you write. In studying improvisation in fiction I am currently less interested in writers who improvise with the form, than in writers who improvise within the form: that is, writers who write a lot and so are repeatedly forced to approach the same problem in different ways. Much of the work of writers such as Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, and Georges Simenon is valuable in a strictly literary sense: yet they produced such prodigious amounts of prose that there was clearly not much time to reflect, much less rewrite. One could make an analogy with great jazz players: a live recording of the Miles Davis Quintet from say, June 1, 1958, and a live recording of the same group from June 2nd can be listened to with equal appreciation as very different entities. Even if the group is playing a similar repertoire, there will be a lot of valuable music there, and a lot of reasons to reflect and compare critically on the different performances from each date. Even if they are using fairly trite tunes, say If I Were a Bell or My Funny Valentine, as source material, the musicians build and improvise on them; in each piece, they construct an individual and substantial imaginative world.

PW: David, always a pleasure. Thanks so much for sharing your thinking about music, improvisation, and writing with us. It’s been very insightful.

DL: Music is a way of knowing yourself and knowing the world. You learn by playing, and you learn by talking about it. Although my playing has changed slowly and gradually over the years, I feel as if my perspective on what I play and why and how I play is constantly undergoing radical shifts. I have just about finished my dissertation, on the improvised music in Toronto where I began to play bass, and just from discussing the music, I have found myself generating a wealth of ideas about what we were doing in, say, the 1980s, that never occurred to me at the time. Music is really just the most amazing thing.