Kansas City Bass Evangelist Spreads Love For The 'Deep, Dark Voice'

Aug 4, 2016

Kansas City audiences might know Johnny Hamil from his funky bass lines in the band Mr. Marco's V7. But Hamil is also a music teacher and a one-man evangelist for the deep sounds of the double-bass.

That evangelism is what inspired Hamil to create the Kansas City Bass Workshop and, for the past seven years, some of the instrument’s finest players have traveled across the world to teach the next generation of musicians in Kansas City.

Aspiring bass players also travel here as well. For five days, around 70 students gathered for the workshop at Shawnee Mission North High School.

Among them was thirteen-year-old Laszlo Gaspar, who had come all the way from Manhattan Beach, California. He says when he walked into his first class he felt like he’d found his tribe.

“Oh I was just blown away, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, there’s so many basses,'” says Gaspar. “It’s so nice, with the dark deep voices and everything. It was a complete new experience and I was really happy.”
 

Johnny Hamil instructs young students of the bass in a small dressing room in the performing arts wing of Shawnee Mission North High School.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

 Hamil is following in the footsteps of his mentor George Vance, who was known for his innovative method of teaching the bass to young players. When Vance died of cancer in 2009, Hamil decided to start a bass workshop of his own.

“What you want to teach them is how to just be in love with playing the bass,” Hamil says. “Once they do that, it doesn’t matter where they go or what they do, they just become this really great human being.”

As the workshop’s reputation has grown, Hamil’s been able to bring in musical powerhouses like the legendary double bass player François Rabbath, who is based in Paris and has performed with the likes of Duke Ellington, Edith Piaf, and Ornette Coleman.

Rabbath is  a virtuoso player, but he treats students of all ages as fellow musicians.

“You must respect them and speak with them like adult, not like children,” Rabbath says. “When you would teach anyone, you must be no one yourself. The king: It’s the kids. You must hold them and you must love them and share with them your knowledge. You cannot share your knowledge unless you make it equal to equal.”
 

Bass virtuoso Francois Rabbath assists Oregon Symphony musician Nina DeCesare with her bowing during a master class for faculty.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

Tracy Rowell of Cleveland, Ohio, is also on the workshop’s faculty. Rowell says technology has revolutionized the rich tones of smaller basses. The students she teaches now begin playing as early as four years old.

“People had to figure out how to not only make the body of the instrument small enough, but also how to have the strings easy to push down on the fingerboard," she says.
 

Hamil takes the lesson into the hallway as he discusses teaching methods with an aspiring bass instructor.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

Yet younger kids need a different approach, so Hamil has struck a balance teaching basic skills in an entertaining way.

Eight-year-old Brandon Lewis says his favorite class with Hamil has an unusual name.

“Weird and Wacky and Potentially Dangerous,” Lewis says. “Weird and wacky means it’s kind of weird like you never know what’s going to happen. And how it’s wacky, well, it’s just nonsense basically. And the potentially dangerous part: We might lose someone, or put out an eye.”

Some say Hamil’s enthusiasm is irresistible. 

“Johnny has the kind of passion about what he does, and he has a real vision for teaching and for sharing his love of teaching,” says Rowell. “People get excited about what they’re doing just being around Johnny.”
 

Upright basses at rest during a question-and-answer session with Grammy-nominated bass player Mark Dresser.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

For Hamil, teaching the instrument he loves helps him keep his groove both as a musician and a teacher. He says at its core, playing the bass is about being a good listener.

“I want to listen to them. And so at a young age they realize there are people wanting to hear them,” he says. “And I think that’s really important, because through music we can speak. Getting people to hear that voice, and understanding how big you can grow through that, is very, very powerful.”

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her@juliedenesha.