'Here I was able to rejuvenate my life and find my own voice,' says bassist Reggie Washington, who just released his fourth album as a bandleader. Over a decade ago, the native New Yorker followed his Belgian love interest to a quiet corner of Bosvoorde/Boitsfort and rediscovered his passion for music.
It seems like a topsy-turvy world. Reggie Washington (55) escaped the city that jazz musicians from all over the planet crave. “But there were just too many people trying to get the same thing,” he says, explaining his departure from New York. He’s sitting at the kitchen table of his comfortable home just a stone’s throw from the Sonian Forest.
“Staying in the belly of the beast, I would not have been able to clear my head. People who only knew me back there now probably wonder: ‘Is that the same guy that used to run around, play loud, and have a weird haircut and hoop earrings?’ [Smiles] Now I am in control of my destiny, and of my machine. In New York I would be still in somebody else’s, scuffling and scraping to get to that next gig.”
The transformation can be heard in the playing and in the presentation, but most of all in the things he has to say. The prime witness to this transition, probably even the crucial instigator, was Stefany Calembert, a young Belgian who was hoping to find a fertile breeding ground for her music management office in the Big Apple. “When I met him on the streets of Harlem, he was a sideman without a project…and he had three locks of hair coming from just one tiny place on his head,” she amusingly recalls their first encounter in 2005.
“But he was wearing nice shoes!” Later on, when she saw him ironing his clothes before going to a gig (and realized he was, unlike many other men, not chasing phone numbers), she was hooked. While she was ready to move her stuff over to New York, he surprisingly said to her: “Are you crazy?” Tired of doing the same things over and over again, and turned down by the American geopolitical agenda, Washington wanted to get the hell out of the city.
Where’s your knucklehead at?
“She is right,” the bassist insists. “I used to look like somebody crazy. In the early 1980s, I had this Hotter than July Stevie Wonder-look. When Terence Trent D’Arby became popular, I had dreads. Later on, I started to cut off my hair on the sides.” Now, you might consider his baldness as a metaphor for the fresh start he made in Brussels. As a result, we find the couple surrounded by the drawings of their two young children, talking about the extensive Pokémon collection of their 9-year-old daughter, and about Choco, the house rabbit.
“He passed away last year,” Calembert says, “but laying down in front of the many visiting artists, such as Ravi Coltrane, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Roy Hargrove, he was the coolest of all.” [Laughs] While discussing their favourite pastime as a kid, Washington gets childishly excited about his Tom and Jerry DVD box set and, more specifically, about the iconic “Solid Serenade” episode (1946), in which the bass playing cat shakes the mouse out of bed with the tune “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby”. “He sounds so good, man! I always wanted to know who the bass player was. I think it’s Slam Stewart.”
Though Washington is on numerous recordings as a sideman, it’s never been about quantity. “A lot of my contemporaries have a dozen instruments, even if you can only play one at a time,” he remarks. “But it’s not the instrument that makes the sound or the magic, it comes from the hands and the heart.” Right from the start, he wanted to play something big, trying out some saxophones and cello as a kid, before ending up with bass in his early teens. In his mid-twenties, he toured Europe with drummer Chico Hamilton.
“A real father figure,” he says. “He turned us – young knuckleheads acting foolishly – into men. He taught us to be righteous, to have respect for different cultures and to be an ambassador of our genre and generation. ‘Don’t be an idiot onstage, because you never know who is in the audience,’ he told us. Even today, these wise words are a motivation to keep on top of my instrument and appearance.” In the 1990s, Washington learned how to deal with large audiences. As a member of Branford Marsalis’s successful band Buckshot LeFonque, he appeared in the popular American TV shows and in front of massive festival crowds.
“It was insane. We felt our ‘value’ was changing. At some point, I started to believe the hype, which was detrimental, but I can still see the importance of what we did back then in modern-day music.”
Music is Life
All of these past experiences somehow end up in his master classes. “Basically, I tell my students that they need to get more in touch with themselves and think out of the box. Music breathes free thinking. We don’t need lemmings walking in a straight line right off a cliff. If my students are looking for the killer bass line, they might just as well get their coats and go home, because the groove is about emotion. If someone asks me ‘How did you get that baseline?’, I can never really tell. I have to think about what happened earlier that day to get me there.”
To make his point, he recalls his bass solo for “Flint”, a recording on Steve Coleman’s 1995 album Def Trance Beat. “It was Father’s Day and I wanted to speak to my daughter (from his first marriage), but I couldn’t because her mother and I were arguing. When she hung up on me, I was destroyed. I went back to the studio and we played ‘Flint’. Afterwards, the people in the control room were in tears, asking ‘What happened?’ Life experience went into the music.”
After a career as a sideman, Calembert encouraged Washington to become a bandleader. “‘Why can I only find three pictures of you on the internet?’ she asked me. And: ‘You played with all these great musicians, why don’t you have a band playing your music?’ She pushed me to have a legacy of my own.” In 2006, he released his first album under his own name. His latest project even expanded his musical awakening. Reinventing the music of the late guitarist and singer-songwriter Jef Lee Johnson, he pays homage to one of his biggest influences, even as a singer.
“Jef was a musician’s musician. People are not aware he’s on their favourite albums by Bette Midler, McCoy Tyner, Erykah Badu, The Roots… My problem with singing was nerves. I am not the most outgoing individual. I always liked a supportive role, but that is not the nature of the beast. So now I sing to Stefany: I space out, think about her, and sing.”
> Reggie Washington. Théâtre Marni, Elsene. 9/2, 20.00