In this edition of his monthly column, Jonathan Herrera reveals the many lessons on life and music he's learned from the great Steve Swallow
The best perk of being a longtime bass journalist — better than the gear, free concert tickets, or pre-release music — is the regular opportunity to meet and befriend my heroes. Often these encounters begin with a scheduled interview, which is itself a rather miraculous chance to ask questions unabashedly in a forum designed specifically for that purpose. Occasionally, by some quirk of interpersonal chemistry, these sometimes-stilted initial conversations evolve into something more personal and friendly. Through the repetition of this process over many years, I’ve had the rare opportunity to explore what lies behind’s a person’s success, both formally and informally. From here, I draw inspiration and wisdom that I can apply to my own life. As I said, it’s the best perk.
I was reminded of this recently during a brief correspondence with one of my musical heroes, Steve Swallow. Steve and I first met in 2005, when I interviewed him for a Bass Player feature. For me, it was memorable for many reasons. It was early in my career at BP, and the opportunity seemed to exemplify this pervasive feeling of unearned luck I recall from those days. Once the interview began, I was entranced by Steve’s graciousness and humility — that, too, is memorable. Most resonant for all involved, though, was likely the photo-shoot portion of the day. Back then, when I wrote a feature, I would often shoot the accompanying pictures. I was way into film photography, and I would lug a Leica, Hasselblad, and all manner of gear to my interviews, fancying myself a budding Leibovitz. Just as we were beginning to set up in his hotel room, his partner in life and music, the genius Carla Bley, walked in the door. Surveying the room, a mischievous look came over her face. She suggested we all walk out onto the neighboring golf course for the shoot. Thus began one of the highlights of my budding career: conspiring with Carla Bley to convince Steve Swallow to do silly things with his bass out on a golf course for an hour while I captured it all.
Since that day, Steve and I have occasionally talked. In each encounter, whether via email or on the phone, I have continued to be inspired by his grace, humor, and kindness. He evinces clearly the sort of confidence that comes with having little to prove. He is able to clearly articulate his musical priorities and diligently go about the hard work of executing on them. Throughout this process, he seems to approach the world without the sort of ravenous hunger for approbation and acceptance that undermines so many musical endeavors.
The reason I relay all of the above is not to boast about my good fortune, but rather to relay more broadly values that our musical culture should embrace more consistently. This music thing is difficult, particularly if you’re trying to do it professionally. There are myriad cultural and economic forces at work that are aligned to block you in every direction. Given that, it seems sadistic to further complicate the journey by being difficult, unkind, gossipy, cliquey, negative, and all the other all-too-familiar unpleasant realities within our industry. If the best path to progress on our instruments begins with imitating the masters, why should that be limited to music? Learn from the attitude of Steve Swallow and others like him. Lift others up around you, and seek opportunities to positively contribute to another person’s progress. In all things, remember this lyric: “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”