John Bass earned a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Memphis.
Specifically, the degree is focused on 16th century music compared to modern jazz pedagogy and how musicians then might have been taught improvisation.
Where does one go with such a degree?
Bass has taken it across Midtown to Rhodes College where he is the director of the Mike Curb Institute for Music. The Curb Institute was established to preserve and promote the distinct music traditions of the South, as well as research its effect on history, economy and social systems.
What better place than Memphis, the genesis of so much in popular music? And what better place for a musician from Mobile, Ala.?
Bass’ father was a physician by trade and also an after-hours banjo player, so Bass grew up with music in his ears and, eventually, a guitar in his hands.
After a typical adolescence spent playing in garage bands around town, Bass took the not-so-typical turn of seriously studying jazz. His high school band director suggested the University of Southern Mississippi, where Bass majored in jazz guitar.
He and his wife, Johnnie, considered Memphis for their respective pursuits and programs. She is an audiologist now with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and he received his master’s in jazz guitar from Memphis before pursuing his doctorate.
While working on that advanced degree, Bass began teaching guitar as an adjunct professor at Rhodes College, which doesn’t offer a degree in music, per se, yet in the liberal arts tradition students can graduate with a Bachelor of Arts and a major, or emphasis, in music.
“I started the modern incarnation of the jazz program here (at Rhodes); there wasn’t a band or combos or anything when I got here,” Bass said. “The first semester I was here, I literally just put up a flyer saying, ‘Does anybody want to play jazz?’”
When the Curb Institute was endowed by Mike Curb – legendary songwriter, producer, record company owner and politician – in 2006, Rhodes and Bass were just beginning to broaden the scope of music instruction at the college.
Nine students had responded to that first call for musicians in 2004 at a time when it wasn’t even offered in the curriculum.
“Second year, we got it put on the books as a class and started to build it from there,” Bass said. “Over the course of the years, it started to get momentum and to grow organically. It built to the point within a few years where we had the semblance of a big band, and then some smaller groups.”
“A lot of my time is spent fostering these partnerships, which is great.”
Director, Mike Curb Institute for Music
Still working as an adjunct, Bass wrote grants for the Curb Institute to bring in national artists such as Ellis Marsalis, pianist father of Wynton and Branford, for shows and mini-residencies visiting classes and putting on clinics.
“This was one of the first, big scale concerts we did,” Bass said.
Such initiative and dedication helped propel him into the position as the Institute’s first and only full-time director so far since 2010. As such, Bass is charged with setting programming, administration of the Institute, developing and promoting music events at the school and in the community.
He also works with students – not through the classroom, but through the school’s Fellowships Initiative, explaining that “fellowships are student experiences that connect classroom learning with real-world experience.” Bass oversees fellows working in research, outreach and recording.
He has cultivated the Institute’s community partners, including the Levitt Shell, Crosstown Arts, the Blues Foundation, Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Foundation, Germantown Performing Arts Center and the Memphis chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Nearby Cypress Middle School falls into the Rhodes College Learning Corridor and has been adopted by the college. Rhodes students, through the Curb Institute, run an after-school guitar club at the middle school.
“We have a group of five students right now who go over two times a week to teach guitar lessons and mentor and just be present,” Bass said.
Bass and his wife have two children, Ella and Nate, both being raised in the musical tradition. Bass said Memphis and Rhodes are a perfect fit for him and his family.
“A lot of my time is spent fostering these partnerships, which is great,” he said. “I get to go around and meet really interesting people – performers and executives – and I’m still a professional guitar player. It’s nice because I know musicians in town and now I know people who are working in administrative fashions and I know academic people, so the Curb Institute, being situated here at Rhodes, is really interesting.”