The world of Jazz has been illuminated by such legendary locally-sourced lights as Gary Burton, Joe Lovano, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Marlena Shaw. No matter how brightly they shine, however, all stars need a darker background on which to sparkle. For all of these artists and many more, that bass relief has been provided by award-winning bassist, composer, producer, and Berklee professor Bruce Gertz.
Growing up in a family of piano players and a whistler who knew the melodies of many of the Great American songbook tunes that would enter his early repertoire, Gertz began playing the piano at age six, but soon lost interest.
“I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show...and decided I wanted to play guitar like George Harrison,” Gertz recalls. After a few years on the six-string, Gertz’s guitar teacher helped him transition to the bass.
“I had been focusing on the bottom four strings of my guitar as it was anyway,” he laughs.
During his teen years, Gertz played in a variety of bands, performing various genres from blues and rock to jazz.
“I began playing Jimi Hendrix and Cream,” Gertz replies when asked about early influences. Among his earliest gigs was a show at Brown University with a blues band that featured a horn section.
“I got turned onto jazz by the horn players,” Gertz recalls.” That's what eventually led me to Berklee.”
While a student at Berklee, Gertz studied composition and arranging while developing his bass work and composition under John Neves.
“John taught me how to practice and learn,” Gertz recalls. “[He] would take his bow in hand while I took mine and he'd put something on the music stand and count it off. We'd saw through this until the 30 minutes was up and he'd say, ‘Okay- Now go home...and do the same thing over and over until it sounds good!’”
This “practice makes perfect” protocol has stuck with Gertz through the decades and he continues to espouse it to his own students today.
“I try to pass on that tradition which I believe is the best way to get results,” he explains. “If you don't teach the students how to practice then some of them will not know where to start and never get going.
When asked how he transitioned from student to teacher, Gertz recalls his Berklee roommate landing a gig teaching at the school and Gertz asking if he could do the same.
“The school was growing fast and they needed teachers,” suggests Gertz, who has been teaching at his alma mater for 40 years. “I love teaching and continuing to learn myself!”
While Gertz has honed his ability to instill lessons, he has also developed his ability to gain from them.
“As a teacher for 40 years I've also needed to be a student,” he observes, suggesting that the best teachers are those that help you find ways to teach yourself. “In the process of teaching others I've grown tremendously as a player, writer and arranger. Each year new students show up with their own little (or big) toolbox of musical ideas and techniques they've picked up watching others and then putting their own spin on things. This keeps me on my toes.”
Gertz’s passion for learning has apparently worn off, as many of his students have also gone on to teach.
“I have brought an army of teachers to the world since 1976,” he smiles, noting that many of his colleagues at Berklee were once his pupils and that they now serve in a wide range of departments, including bass, ear training, ensemble, harmony, and arranging. “High school kids start studying with me and I see them grow…. Then they go to college and many of them come back to study with me again. I love it!”
Getz’s diversity of musical interests, genres, and skills has also served Gertz well as a freelance performer. Over his decades-long career, he has recorded over 50 albums and also toured the world with the likes of Jerry Bergonzi, Bill Frisell, George Garzone, John Scofield, Gray Sargent, Mile Stern, and Kenny Werner. As the founder of Open Mind Jazz (www.openmindjazz.com), Gertz is able to perform and record his own ideas and encourage others to share as well.
“Starting your own label is fairly simple,” Gertz suggests, noting the explosion of do it yourself musicians that have arrived since the advent of the Internet and other technologies. “Find a name that is not already taken [and] trademark that with a logo.”
Before he started his own label, Gertz says that his music “stretched across seven different labels,” including some in Europe from which it was difficult even for him to get his music. As the royalty streams were difficult to follow and police, Gertz realized that going his own way was the way to go.
“It was actually more practical to produce your own product and sell it at gigs and clinics or to various online distributors like iTunes,” he observes, noting that the Berklee bookstore recently began to sell his albums and books as well.
In addition to a raft of Boston Music Awards, Gertz has also garnered a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Performance Grant, a composition award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and recognition from the music rights organization ASCAP, Billboard magazine and other organizations. As an instructor, he was recognized by the Jazz Education Network for clinician expertise and jazz performance. When asked to describe his own “legacy,” Gertz muse that, after more than 40 years of effort, he has come to be known for his performance and teaching talent. Despite his many books and myriad recordings, however, Gertz hopes to be remembered now and later as a “good person”
“I have two great daughters and a great wife and dog,” he says, noting that his four-legged friend is named after bass legend Charles Mingus. “All I can hope is that people continue to play my music.”