This article was first published in Jazzwise in December 2011 in The Player section of the magazine
The fact that Jack Bruce is still with us is remarkable in itself. Not only has he recently come out on the right side of a liver transplant, but as he is at pains to tell me, dodged death early on in his career. “I got electrocuted very seriously once at the 100 Club in the very, very early days. Something was up with the electrics in the club and I basically got fried…. but I felt quite good for a few days afterwards!”
Bruce grew up with a mother who sang Scottish folk songs and a father who was a piano player in the style of Fats Waller. “He had a kind of dubious left hand,” says Bruce. “But nevertheless, he swung like the clappers. He was also a very good mandolin player”. In his late teens the young Bruce entered a music competition. “I got a scholarship to study classical cello at the Royal Scottish Academy for Music and DraaMaa (he makes a play on the AAs) – but I didn’t go for long, and now they’ve given me an honorary doctorate! So it shows you that what you should really do is go for a few months then drop out – I recommend that to every student.”
So why did he take up the bass? “I played bass in order to supplement my income and meet girls,” comes the candid reply. He remembers buying his first upright bass from McCormacks Music in Glasgow. “There was a William Tarr bass in there [a celebrated English maker from the mid 19th century]. It was in the window and it was lovely. I’d saved up enough money to put a deposit on it and I went in there and the guy said ‘Oh, we just sold that to Ray Brown last week’. So I didn’t get that, but instead I got a plywood yellow blonde one that was quite fashionable at the time. The funny thing is that I met Ray Brown many years later and he said – ‘Oh I’ll give it to you… but he never did.” Bruce later bought a 19th century full size German bass, which he still has.
After playing in jazz bands in Glasgow and American air force bases in Italy, Bruce eventually landed in London where he got a gig with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. From there Bruce moved on to the Graham Bond Organisation, where he played electric bass. “In those days I never really was in love with the sound of the Fender Bass, although I did have a Fender six string, and I don’t think anybody really did anything great with the Fender bass until James Jamerson. I wanted to get something that was closer to a guitar sound, which is why I picked up the Gibson short scale EB3. He famously used his EB3 through the Cream years, “although I also played a Danelectro,” before moving on to Warwick instruments in the early-1970s. “I was recording in Germany and went into a guitar shop and one was hanging on the wall. It was a fretless. I picked it up and liked it. So I bought it”. Bruce prefers the four string. “It’s the classic instrument and I feel the limitations are important. Warwick have made me a couple of beautiful basses, my favourite is the Thumb bass which is a special custom model. It’s a “Rio rosewood bass, the only one of its kind. The (Brazilian) wood was cut in the 1960s and you can no longer get that wood.”
When it comes to strings, Bruce used to use LaBella flat wounds but now he’s using SITs on his Warwick instruments. “The great thing is that they stay in tune – although you’ve got to give them a good stretch.” He continues. “They’re made in Akron, Ohio. The company isn’t big, but unlike big companies you don’t have to go through three or four sets before you find a good set.”
In the early days Bruce used to cobble together his amplification, as he says – “very dangerously”.
“I remember using a Grampian amp, as there was very little else available in those days. Then of course with Alexis, both he and I went into the same amp. I used to just stick a microphone in the tailpiece of the bass wrapped up in a duster. Marshalls? We all started using Marshalls in the mid-1960s. In those days there was no real sound reinforcement on stage, so you had to play loud to get the effect that you wanted. But of course nowadays you don’t have to play that loud to get the effect that you want. Actually I’m not that keen on them, although I did have a 50-watt Marshall that I liked a lot. For many years I’ve been using Hartke. Larry Hartke used to do the sound for Miles Davis, which is when I got to know him. Then he did my sound for a while. Eventually he came up with the idea of using aluminium in the speaker cones, which gave a much wider dynamic range – but that wasn’t the sound I was looking for. But now they’ve moved on to combine aluminium and paper in their speakers and of course they’re now the biggest bass amplification manufacturer in the world.” More recently however, Bruce has been experimenting with Jonas Hellborg amps which are manufactured by Warwick.
Bruce is still hard at work and touring; in March he starts a UK tour with his Big Blues Band. But he is now more circumspect about life and music. “Music’s been part a big part of my life for sure, but I obviously have the things that we all have in common – like having a life. The dog isn’t very well today, so I’m a bit worried about him. So it’s not all just about music.”
– David Gallant