Artist Spotlight: Chuck Webb
Sam and Chuck
Chuck Webb, rhythm section bassist for Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, was recently interviewed by LOC bassist Sam Shuhan. Webb is one of Chicago’s top studio bassists and has played on hundreds of records, commercial jingles, and soundtracks. He has toured the world performing with notable artists such as Aretha Franklin, Ramsey Lewis, David Sanborn, Al DiMeola, Grover Washingon, Jr., and Freddie Hubbard. A graduate of University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, Webb is on the board of directors of the Theater Musician’s Association and is a member of the National Federation of Musicians and the National Educators Association.
SS: What got you interested in music?
CW: The simple answer is The Jackson 5. In 1969 I was 9 years old and the biggest thing in my life was The Jackson 5. The coolest guy to me in The Jackson 5 was Jermaine Jackson; I wanted to do what he did. I couldn’t sing so my parents bought me a bass and I have stuck with it ever since.
SS: What do you enjoy most about playing the bass?
CW: Being the foundation, being the transmission of the wheels of the music, having your function control that kind of thing. Being on a big stage and having your sound be amplified by thousands of watts is a really thrilling experience. Even in a small combo, having the control of the bottom is what attracts me.
SS: What was the biggest lesson you learned doing recording work?
CW: You learn how to read the room very quickly. Every session is different, the dynamic is different. You learn to come in and see if the client is there, see the stress level that the client is imposing on the situation, and learn when to figure out the answer to questions. Equipment and sound are critical because there is very little time in those situations, so you want to have the best sounding bass you can.
SS: What did a week’s work look like when you were recording jingles?
CW: My best day doing sessions, I did seven jingles in one day. But on an average week, you might do three or four sessions a week.
SS: Over the course of your career, is there a pinnacle performance or artist collaboration that stands out?
CW: Aretha Franklin. I worked for her for two years, the year and a half prior to her passing away. I wasn’t with her at the end, but I got that gig and I remember the first time standing on stage, we were playing at a state fair in Wisconsin in front of 20,000 people. I had rehearsed with the band, but not with her, and the first time she walked on stage was the first time I ever met her. And then she started singing, and there was this moment of “I’m on stage playing and I’m hearing this iconic voice”. I had to snap out of it and say, “Do your job!” That was one of the biggest.
SS: How do you manage playing upright and electric bass and different styles of music? Are you the type of person who can jump into any situation and find a way to be comfortable?
CW: Well, it’s a lot of work. I’m the kind of person that still practices all the time. And I’m very meticulous about practicing. I have a diary and I write down what I do, half the page is upright bass, half the page is electric bass. And it depends on what I’m doing. I’m working a lot on this opera, but in the meantime, I’m playing a pops show, and at 6:30 I’m doing a dance session on electric bass. You have to love to do it all, otherwise it’s too much work. When I’m in the pit with you guys and I’m not playing, I’m watching you guys. I’m trying to pick up fingerings. I’m learning.
SS: What has your experience preparing Fire Shut Up In My Bones been like?
CW: Being in the pit in this situation, I have to be a very quick study because everything is acoustic. Even though I am mic’d, the way that the orchestra balances sound in the pit with what is happening on stage is very different. I do a lot of musical theater and in that world, everything is mic’d. You have headphones and it’s all electrified. So this is a different scenario, a very different world. The big thing I will say, which may be interesting, is the whole concept of time in an orchestra, which I have experienced and learned in the past. In a musical theater situation, a conductor’s downbeat is there (gestures concisely downward), whereas here (at Lyric) it’s somewhere in here (gestures expressively above head). Being able to feel orchestral time and place half notes and whole notes where they are supposed to be with everybody else takes me more concentration than you because you’re used to doing it.
SS: This is the first time this jazz combo has played together. How has the dynamic been within the combo?
CW: It’s been great, it’s been very easy. The conductor worked with us for one rehearsal where we read through everything. Everyone is a great player and everyone feels good together. Jeff (drumset, performed the world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera) is a monster and knows the music so everything comes together pretty easy.
SS: What is your hobby outside of music?
CW: If I’m not playing the bass, I’m on my (road) bike. I’m checking the weather constantly and looking at my schedule. I’ve already got Wednesday morning blocked off for at least a couple of hours. I’ve always ridden my bike. When I was a kid, I was into riding and then when I went to college I brought a road bike, I cycled all around Miami. Before that, I was a basketball player and after a while, and enough sprained knuckles and broken fingers, I realized nobody was going to pay me to play basketball. So I had to make a decision. As much as I love basketball, I have to find something else to do, and cycling was it.
More about Chuck at his website