In a refreshing change from your usual sweaty rock bassists, we present an interview with Paula Gardiner, Head of Jazz at the Royal College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, and a long-serving upright bassist and recording artist. Words: Joel McIver
“This is the first and only real job I’ve ever had,” chuckles Paula Gardiner when BGM meets her for a chat at this year’s Brecon Jazz Festival in south Wales. Well, if you’re only going to have one job, you might as well aim high, and it doesn’t get much higher in the double bass world than heading up the jazz department at Cardiff’s prestigious Royal College of Music and Drama. What’s more, Paula was recently nominated for a Parliamentary Jazz Award for education thanks to her work in the department, which offers students opportunities to perform as well as professional training relating to the music industry.
“The College was looking for someone to create and co-ordinate a jazz programme back in 2001,” she recalls. “They asked me in the interview what I thought was important for jazz training, and I had a lot of ideas about that, because I’d previously set up my own workshops. The two roles of academic and jazz musician complement each other well indeed: I have an allowance of time to pursue my own personal development. Obviously I can’t be out playing bass until the small hours every night when I have a full-time job, and I’m a parent too, so it’s a question of balance. But when I play, it’s so enjoyable: it still feels fresh and exciting.”
After many years touring with her own Paula Gardiner Trio and the Dave Stapleton Quintet, and recording three solo albums and many collaborations, is she still evolving as a bassist? “In anyone’s musical development, there are times when you feel that you’ve plateaued in terms of your playing, and that there are periods when you evolve,” she muses. “But I think that’s probably psychological: you never really stop evolving if you keep playing. The old adage is that once you’ve put in a certain number of hours of playing, it always comes back to you, although in the specific case of the double bass it’s a demanding instrument, there’s no two ways about that.”
Talking of which, Paula has much sympathy for bass guitar players who find the old double bass a bit difficult to play. “I’ve been through it,” she tells us. “Not only was I a guitarist before I played bass, I was a classical guitarist who then switched to jazz. But moving to the double bass doesn’t have to be as painful as you think. Choose the setup and the strings that suit you. Don’t go for a super-high setup at first, unless that is specifically what you want. It’s also important to get your posture correct right from the start, otherwise you’ll have shoulder pains later on. Don’t be afraid of the double bass – it’s such a great sound. Once you’ve heard that sound, you’ll go through anything to get it.”
Quite aside from playing the double bass, how about the basic ‘jazz fear’ that so many rockers feel when we realise how complex the music can be? Paula laughs and replies, “People are only negative to jazz when they haven’t experienced it, because they have some notion of what it is. Jazz is different for each individual, of course, but once you see jazz live you realise how much passion and humanity is in there. Perhaps people don’t think those things are there, or maybe they think that jazz is very old fashioned. Jazz has always been a young person’s music in a sense: the old guys who play it now were young rebels when they created it, after all.”
So where should wannabe jazz bassists start their education, we ask? Paula explains, “There are so many amazing bassists to learn from. I’m a big fan of Charlie Haden; I love the energy of Charles Mingus. I admire Paul Chambers and Sam Jones. Eberhardt Weber, too: his music has been really inspirational to me. Recently I’ve become a fan of an American trio called the Bad Plus. They have a fantastic bass player called Reid Anderson. They cover everything from Nirvana and Blondie to Stravinsky and Bach. Jazz is in a good place in 2014 – there’s no doubt about that.”