When a bass player dies…

What does it mean when a bass player dies?

There isn’t a lot of video out there that I can find of Dave Shapiro.   You can see him at the beginning of this piece– he’s the guy hunched over a double-bass doing very solid work behind the scenes, making the other musicians look good, but around 6 minutes in, his fairly incredible solo starts:

Dave was a friend of mine– not a close friend.  We talked from time to time about doing music together, but it never quite happened.  That’s my fault.  I needed to make it happen and just never did.  

I don’t know exactly how Dave died.  There’s not much word out there about it right now.  It’s not important.

So I’m just going to share a little bit.   He and I taught at the same college for a time and at one point our courses intersected so we could commute together, which made the rides more interesting.  He knew a lot about the history of Jazz.  Had been there for a lot of it.  He hated the Ken Burns Jazz series– he had a conspiracy theory about it.  Dave had conspiracy theories about everything.  This one involved the Burns series focusing only on musicians whom the label sponsoring it (Columbia?) had signed.  I didn’t know if it was true or not.  

He also insisted on explaining to me why every single thing in Charles Mingus’ autobiography was a lie, though I don’t remember any details about it.  The rides were fun.  I never could tell how much of what he was telling me was complete crap and how much was genuine, but it was a lot of fun to hear the stories regardless.

My favorite story of his though is one I’m convinced was true.   There’s a ride from Newfane (VT) to Grafton which is not a long ride, but an unpleasant one in poor weather.  He had a gig at the Grafton Inn and there was a snowstorm.  So instead of the 20 minutes he would normally take, he gave himself an hour and a half, and slowly made his way there.  Took him most of that time but he made it to the gig.  He was the only guy in the band to make it.

It was an anniversary party for this couple.  I can’t remember which anniversary– 30th, 40th… whichever– but their son was there and asked if Dave wanted to try just jamming out some — he was a drummer and they were the only musicians there so they figured what the heck.  Turns out the son was an amazing drummer– absolutely fantastic.  They jammed together for a few hours.

Dave didn’t realize who he was.  How would he?  Dave never gave a damn about pop music.  It was all about jazz for him.  Wouldn’t have been able to tell Justin Bieber from Marky Mark.  

So he had absolutely no idea that he’d spent the evening jamming with Steven Tyler until they were wrapping up for the night.  He just thought it was funny– not so much that he jammed with a famous rock star, but that he had no idea whatsoever that he was doing it.

Dave was a great guy and a fantastic musician.  I know he didn’t have an easy life, and I know his wife died several years before him.   I enjoyed those rides with him, the strange stories.  I loved arguing with him about music theory.  

At one point, he tried to explain to me the value of 1/1 time, which basically boiled down to never having to worry about keeping proper time.  I don’t get to spend a lot of time around people who as mentally convoluted as I am.  He had his rant about 1/1 time and I had my rant about how C# and Db are completely different notes and it was a mistake to confuse them.  Between the two of us, it could be rant central, but it was great and awesome ranting that hadn’t happened for way too long.

So… what does it mean when a bass player dies?  Does the rhythm of the universe skip a beat, or is it just our hearts?  Do we lose a bit of our collective soul, or does his talent disperse throughout the world, releasing that light to the rest of us?

Dave touched a lot of lives, as a musician as a teacher, and I mean a lot and I don’t even know how to explain how important that was, not just for his music, but for his teaching and the number of students he was able to shepherd through a basic understanding of math and statistics, something sorely lacking in this world.  

I’m going to play at a local open mic tonight.  I think I’ll have to dedicate a piece to him.  

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