Faculty Profile: Bruce Gertz ’76
In June, after returning to Berklee from a semester-long sabbatical, bass professor Bruce Gertz had to shift gears abruptly. He’d spent the prior months focused on developing a practice app, recording a new album with four of his faculty peers, and releasing three additional CDs of original music on his Open Mind Jazz label. Once back on campus, he dove into his duties in the summer bass workshop with Victor Wooten, the Berklee Global String Intensive, and Berklee’s Five Week Summer Performance Program. “So far, I’ve been pretty busy this summer, and it isn’t going to lighten up,” Gertz says.
He’s not worried, though. Since joining the Berklee faculty in 1976, Gertz has managed teaching full time, playing countless jazz gigs, writing and recording material for 15 albums as a leader (and playing on many more as a sideman), in addition to raising two daughters with his wife. He’ll easily handle the tempo of the summer of 2017.
Gertz grew up in Providence, RI, in a family with multigenerational musical roots. His grandfather had been a classical violinist until the Great Depression hit and he took a job delivering fruit. His mother played piano and sang, and his father had a more unusual musical gift. “He was a whistler with pretty good pitch and rhythm,” Gertz recalls. “He’d whistle songs by George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and Jerome Kern around the house.” Because he was steeped in blues and rock as a kid, Gertz didn’t realize where the melodies his father whistled came from until much later when he began learning jazz standards as a Berklee student.
Gertz found his musical voice in the bass after trying piano and guitar. His initiation to jazz came when his high-school friend, saxophonist Ed Tomassi (now a Berklee professor), told him he needed to listen to Bird. Another friend gave him the Blues & Roots album by Charles Mingus. “Listening to that, I heard the blues in a new way and was totally blown away,” Gertz remembers. “I went to the library and read everything I could find on Mingus.” As a newly enrolled Berklee student, Gertz had a chance meeting with Mingus at Boston’s Jazz Workshop. “He had these huge hands and thick fingers—made for the bass,” Gertz recalls. “I’d been really into electric bass, but after meeting Mingus, I got serious about playing upright bass.”
Gertz was a composition major and studied with Berklee’s classical elder statesmen Bill Maloof, John Bavicchi, and Jeronimas Kacinskas, writing symphonic, chamber music, and more for his portfolio. Ultimately, though, his writing veered toward jazz. To date, Gertz has recorded 200 of his own works. “My catalog keeps growing because I write every day,” he says. “Sometimes I write a whole song, other times it’s just a snippet or an exercise for bass.”
Gertz’s acoustic bass teacher at Berklee was John Neves, who had played with such jazz giants as George Shearing, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Herb Pomeroy. He was in high demand locally and began asking Gertz to cover for him when he was double-booked. “John would throw you into the deep end of the pool sometimes,” Gertz recalls. “Just after I graduated, he asked me to sub for him at [the nightclub] Sandy’s Jazz Revival to play with [pianist] Ray Bryant, [drummer] Alan Dawson, and [vocalist] Helen Humes. But he didn’t tell them he was sending a sub.
“I showed up and everyone was asking, ‘Where’s Neves?’ Alan Dawson was really nice and said he was looking forward to playing with me. But Ray Bryant had an attitude and was wondering who this punk was. I had to prove myself on the bandstand. During the set, Helen announced that there was a very special guest in the audience, Count Basie. She invited him to sit in. Dawson, who had been playing for years, said he’d always wanted to play with Basie. And here I was playing with all of these people for the first time! Basie called a blues in F, and every note he played was perfect. It was so much fun.”
Gertz began playing steadily around Boston and built his résumé working with jazz mainstays such as Gary Burton, Billy Eckstine, Gil Evans, Maynard Ferguson, Bill Frisell, Jerry Bergonzi, Tom Harrell, Joe Lovano, and many others. He also had a weekly gig at Michael’s Jazz Club on Gainsborough Street backing Mike Stern and his guest artists just before the guitarist joined Miles Davis’s band in the early 1980s.
Gertz began teaching ensembles and bass labs at Berklee during his senior year. Soon after, electric bass was recognized as a principal instrument at Berklee. “When I got hired, there weren’t a lot of electric bass teachers here,” Gertz says. [Former department chair] Rich Appleman brought me in early on. Together with the other faculty members we really built up the department.”
During his 41 years at Berklee, Gertz has devoted lots of energy to education. Along the way, he has mentored some top bassists, including Esperanza Spalding ’05, Matt Garrison ’92, Stu Hamm ’80, Kai Eckhardt ’87, and Victor Bailey ’80.
“I’ve loved seeing these students succeed,” Gertz says. “They come back [to campus] and tell everyone that they studied with me. Then I see the things that they are doing, and they’re things I can’t do! I have my own thing, but having incredible players always telling people that I was their teacher is humbling.”
Gertz remains highly motivated. He has created a series of instructional videos and written six method books, the latest, Berklee Jazz Bass, was cowritten with fellow bassists Whit Brown and Rich Appleman. And there is more in the pipeline. “I have other books and the app to finish,” he says. “I also have a group album that needs to be mixed and I will release my third solo bass record. I just turned 60, and I want to get all of this stuff out. If I don’t do it now, when will I do it?”