Interview with legendary bass guitarist Carol Kaye - one of the most prolific and widely heard musicians

"You can't fake playing in Jazz; it's your real self. This attracts people at many points in their life, when they're ready for it."

Carol Kaye: The Reality of Jazz Feeling

Carol Kaye is an American musician, best known as one of the most prolific and widely heard bass guitarists in history, playing on an estimated 10,000 recording sessions. Carol Kaye was born in Everett, Washington to musician parents, Clyde and Dot Smith, both professionals. She has played and taught guitar professionally since 1949, played bebop jazz guitar in dozens of nightclubs around Los Angeles with top groups (also in Bob Neal's jazz group with Jack Sheldon backing Lenny Bruce, with Teddy Edwards, Billy Higgins etc.), accidentally got into studio work late 1957 with the Sam Cooke recordings and other big recordings on guitar for the 1st 5 years of studio work in Hollywood.

In 1963 when a Fender bassist didn't show up for a record date at Capitol Records, she picked up the Fender bass (as it was called then) and augmented her busy schedule playing bass and grew quickly to be the no. 1 call with record companies, movie & TV film people, commercials, and industrial films. She enjoyed working under the direction of Michel LeGrand, Quincy Jones, Elmer Bernstein, Lalo Schifrin, David Grusin, Ernie Freeman, Hugo Montenegro, Leonard Rosenman, John Williams, etc. as well as the numerous hits she recorded for hundreds of recording artists. Beginning in 1969, she wrote her first of many bass tutoring books, "How To Play The Electric Bass" effectively changing the name of Fender Bass to Electric Bass and began teaching 100s of Electric Bass students, many of them now famous themselves. Also worked with: Beach Boys, Phil Spector, The Doors, Ritchie Valens, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Sonny & Cher, Joe Cocker, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Frank Zappa, Ike & Tina Turner, Simon & Garfunkel, Herb Alpert, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, The Monkees, Buffalo Springfield, Joe Pass and many others. Her tutors are endorsed by such notables as Professor Joel Leach, 10-year winner of the Pacific Jazz Festival Awards with his famous Cal-State Northridge Jazz Bands, and Plas Johnson, jazz/blues studio sax legend ("Pink Panther"). She stepped out to perform live with the Hampton Hawes Jazz Trio in the mid 70s, has given many seminars all over the USA, and is a leader in Electric Bass education.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Carol Kaye sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

It's not technical at all. Music is a feeling, and should be from your innermost feelings, getting down to your gut-feeling, what you were born with is a righteous quest that every musician should strive for... but always in the context of the song itself. There's a reason why Standards last for many decades, excellent songs, excellent chord changes to create your music on... respect it. I'd say to most, never be "cute"... play it seriously always... cute is when you're kidding .... if you love music, you're not kidding with it...btw, Jazz all comes from Standards, first thing to know when studying it.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and highlight moment of your career?

When I played Jazz guitar.... and on bass, sometimes during an occasional fine record dates and excerpts also in movie or TV-film work. But also, many memorable fine concerts with Joe Pass or Hampton Hawes also.

"Music is a feeling, and should be from your innermost feelings, getting down to your gut-feeling, what you were born with is a righteous quest that every musician should strive for... but always in the context of the song itself."

Why did you think that the Jazz music continues to generate such a devoted following?     

It is the most-complex in music and I do believe for rock and soul fans, it's progressively next on the demand-list by ears. Its complexity, guarantees continued interest. You can't fake playing in Jazz; it's your real self. This attracts people at many points in their life, when they're ready for it.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? Which memory makes you smile?  

Almost every day or night in Studio work. Anyone loving music is who I want to be with ..."star-names" don't mean anything to me. We saw music products designed to "make people into stars, whether they "could sing great or not"... a true musical talent is who the real musicians love to be with...but of course in the "music business of Hollywood", we were hired to get hits with 'everyone'... sometimes the so-so singers surprised us…the powerful tracks we put underneath them, made them better singers....with the giants like Ray Charles, was easy, and it easily sparkled with feeling and great music, others we had to work hard to achieve that.....what brings a smile to me? Thinking of my children, the way they were, and their  successes and our little inside family things... I never did anything from short bursts of time (I recorded day and night sometimes, not much time to spend with them) we had intensive good times and it was all natural... we were all very close. I'm proud of my 3 children; they were wonderful kids....are/were wonderful adults too. I say "were" with one as she died at age 52 from breast cancer, very lovely woman, so smart and yes I miss her all the time.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? How has the music changed over the years?  

People thinking of music and being as good as they can be knowing that's the way to success (and good pay) - it has to be MUSIC, and MUSICIANSHIP FIRST ... but instead ... today I hear the following in the music - self-complimenting themselves of "how good they are" ... or "admiring themselves during performances" ... or .... just in it to be "stars" ... or "just for the money" etc. everything but the struggle to become good, to be a fine musician, whatever happened to the joy of practice and getting good, so good, they'd work everywhere?!

What are your hopes and fears for the future of music? Do you believe in the existence of real music nowadays?

Seems strange today doesn't it? You have to believe in good music as long as there is life. I think fantasy today has almost run its course, we're all getting tired of looking in the mirror and judging either yourself or others.... it's time to ignore that and get down to business of enjoying working hard to be GOOD, finding your professionalism and learning how much fun hard-work and joy can be in your life.   Music is an entity unto itself....all you have to do is get good, and then you will have a "trolley-like tie-in to the groove of good music"   however good you want to be is always there to be earned and enjoyed.... sure you get angry at yourself if you don't do it right at first, that's the way you know you find the time to really get serious and practice. But also life isn't just 100% music, you need time to enjoy other things, your family, some hobby like fishing, anything with nature and you'll discover everything has a rhythm, has music to's always nice to connect to nature and other things...this helps you grow and help your music mature also. 

People knock on your door ONLY when you yourself get good, and then start playing out with others, growing from every live experience.  Sure it's scary at first, but that's why you practice!   I think we've dumbed down so far in music; it has no way to go but UP.

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to new generation?  

Get your time-sense together! Playing with good time was the No. 1 priority with 1950s Jazz musicians, and then 1970s it was "show-off" in all music styles, that's a negative.... it's always important to play also with good notes. Modern music (mature pop and serious soul-jazz, even fusion-jazz as well as real jazz and the Standards) uses chord changes and substitute chords to express the nuances and different interesting feelings in the music... important NOT to use the classical note-scales to find those notes... don't let it get corny with note-scales. Chordal tones and knowing how chords move is imperative to be able to play well!! But... Jazz musicians did it by ear in the 1950s, they never "talked Jazz"... they heard it, they played it. That was because those teachers knew chords, chordal notes, substitute chords etc... and taught arpeggios to build the ear not only to hear chords but also intervals... note-scales never teach that, only chord notes do... today's teachers are mainly former rockers turned teachers... some did learn chordal teaching, most didn't that's why education sometimes fails the serious musician. Time to seek out how to do it right: chordally.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Jazz with Soul and continue to Blues and Rock music?  

I have no idea. Jazz comes from Standards chord changes, and is complex to learn but not impossible.  Blues and Rock are lick-based - very few chords, much simpler and different. Nothing connected much tho' sometimes you'll use a blues lick in Jazz Improv, not the other way around tho'.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?  

Go back to the fine chordal teaching of 1950s.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?  

The incessant "me me me" that is ingrained in our societies unfortunately... makes you wonder when are we going to stop admiring ourselves and get down to the real business of living, and really enjoying life and our musicianship. Staritis I call it, as well as the phoney lifestyles ... you'd think people would get tired of that. Trying to be "hip"... bah... as if being born wasn't hip enough.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I'd love to spend at least a day with my eldest child who died of breast cancer, my sharp lovely daughter ....she had a rockous sense of humor...we'd have fun laughing at so much....our family still misses her very much.

I don't have the habit of laughing at people, but I used to when I was much younger, and soon found out, that's not good at all. Sometimes, you're looking in a mirror at yourself......I finally out-grew that and had more understanding, more empathy for others.

I know everyone is on their own path in life...but sometimes, yes it is funny (but really sad in a way) to see so many waste time in trying to find out who they are!  They're so in-love with their gadgets and use them constantly to verify who they are and their worth in life...why do that?  Who needs that?...Life is too short to wonder, it's time to get going with your life.  When it's over, there's nothing...and we've all been given this gift of life, don't waste it. If you're wondering about something, give it a rest, and play some music. You get answers faster by that than anything else. There's a super-intelligence lurking in the music you play, if you're serious about playing good.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Jazz/Blues/Rock?

I never considered myself a "woman" in a "man's field" at all.  I was a guitar player and then a bass player.  Do men call themselves "male musicians?"   No.....then why should women call themselves (or even think of themselves as) "female musicians?"  The musical note does NOT know gender; it's not a male note or a female note......  Those who try to fool themselves into thinking otherwise are just prejudiced and don't want to know the real history of women in music....Madame Shubert etc.

It's the MUSIC BUSINESS,... not the "male music business", there's always been women in the music up to the time of the rock didn't start with rock and roll...and I know for a fact that the fine women in Jazz, like the men, didn't want to bend over, and dumb down to play rock (2-3 chords) when they were superb Jazz musicians...I got paid extra well for that in the studio work and on bass, it was kind of fun (for awhile)....then even I quit (after Barney Kessel quit) etc.

Carol Kaye - official website

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