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VOL. 131 | NO. 96 | Friday, May 13, 2016

Bass Learns to Focus His ‘Creative Laser Beam’


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Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.

John Bass doesn’t look like an artist. In his crisp, checked shirt and brown wingtip oxfords, he looks more like somebody’s accountant. But stick an electric guitar in his hands, and it’s a whole different story.

“I like an older guitar,” Bass confesses, lovingly running his fingers along the fretboard of an amber-and-blonde Telecaster. “You can feel where it’s been and what it has to say.”

With that, he picks out the playful opening lines of “Nuages,” a gypsy jazz standard by Django Reinhardt. With its rippling arpeggios and descending chromatic lines, it’s perfect for this sunny spring morning.


We’re sitting in a quaint stone cottage on the campus of Rhodes College, in the office of the Mike Curb Institute for Music. The organization raises awareness and understanding of Memphis’ rich musical traditions, and Bass is its inaugural director. It’s an academic job, largely administrative, which may not seem like an obvious fit for someone with a 20-year background in jazz performance.

But by focusing his “creative laser beam,” as he calls it, Bass has guided the institute to considerable success, including launching a student-produced concert series (“An Evening at Elvis’”) and winning a fellowship for innovative teaching supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“We want our students, who come from all over the country, to fall in love with Memphis,” Bass says. “For four years, they’re gonna learn what it means to be a Memphis musician – and then hopefully, they’re gonna stay here.”

Bass has been playing music almost from the moment he could walk; when he was 3, his mother started driving him to Suzuki violin lessons. But his fate was sealed at age 13, when he played the opening riff to The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman.”

“Everything just clicked,” he recalls. “From that moment, every decision I made was based on how I could keep a guitar in my hands for a little longer.”

A bachelor’s in jazz guitar seemed obvious; it would help him hone his craft. A master’s was the natural next step: It lent credibility to the private lessons he taught and allowed him to make extra money as an adjunct college professor. But teaching was never the point; it was just another way for him to keep a guitar in his hands for a little longer.

Then something changed.

“I was playing all these gigs around town, and one day I realized: There is something truly different about this place,” Bass recalls. “I thought, if I’m even gonna pretend to be a jazz musician in Memphis, I need to know the history.”

Six years later, Bass received his Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Memphis. Surprising even himself, the die-hard performer wrote a 346-page dissertation on the subject of improvisatory musical techniques among 16th-century Italian composers.

“I was like, hey, these guys are doing what I’m doing,” Bass explains. “It was a different time and place, but the instincts were basically the same.”

At the Curb Institute, Bass is charged with connecting his students – and Memphians at large – to the city’s rich musical history. To that end, he has created a series of free public concerts and symposiums featuring Memphis artists, many of whom have not been home in decades. Bass’ students teach at an after-school guitar club in Sherwood Middle School, and he places them in competitive summer jobs in the music industry.

Perhaps his greatest success has been “An Evening at Elvis’.” This original web series, for which Bass won the Mellon fellowship, is produced, recorded, edited, mixed and marketed by Rhodes students. It features musicians of local and national renown – people like Rosanne Cash, Bill Frisell and Marcella Simien – performing at an East Memphis home formerly owned by Elvis Presley.

So how do you turn a jazz player into a straight-laced administrator? For Bass, the trick lies in realizing that teaching is a creative act – and approaching it with the same passion he would bring to a Charlie Christian guitar solo.

Back at the Curb Institute, Bass is strumming “Moonlight in Vermont,” a song whose dreamy minor harmonies seem to flutter the leaves of the mature maples outside the window.

“If I can show someone they’re a great writer,” Bass muses, “if I can believe in them so much that they start to believe in themselves, so much that they start taking creative risks, then I want to do that, every time.”

John Bass is a New Memphis Fellow driving our city forward. Learn more at newmemphis.org.

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