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My Ode to Jack Bruce

Jack Bruce passed away this week at the age of 71 as a result of liver complications and failures this weekend and sent a shockwave through the bass playing community.

I didn’t find out about the news myself. My dad, also a bass player, sent me a text early Saturday morning saying that Jack Bruce had died. I did a quick double take at the phone. Jack Bruce died. I said it over and over again to myself but it still didn’t really resonate with me. Jack Bruce died; Jack Bruce died.

To the bass playing community, Bruce was a figurehead, a tour de force on an instrument that didn’t have many trailblazers for it during the late 60s. A musical father that introduced so many of us to bass guitar. Those reading this right now guaranteed have been touched by Jack’s playing in one way or another. There’s no denying it. Moreover, if you’re reading this, odds are you were touched by Jack’s playing as you were starting out on the instrument, too. ‘Sunshine of Your Love’, ‘Crossroads’ and many many others were the songs heard that made you say ‘I want to play bass’.

I can say this is true for me, too. I remember my first months and years on bass guitar vividly, what got me going, what made me excited to play and who I modeled my playing after. Jack and those Cream records were center stage every time.

While it was Geddy Lee who got me into the instrument, Jack kept me interested. While Rush was very scripted and rehearsed music, Cream was a rocking jazz trio according to Jack himself and Ginger Baker. Their music was fluid and malleable. Each song was different each time it was played. Each song evolved and grew as the musicians who played the songs grew and matured as well. The idea of music changing each time you played it still sticks with me and is a driving musical philosophy of mine (Phish helped to solidify it).

I remember coming home after school, putting my books down and going upstairs and turning on these videos and just jamming out until dinner and then into the night with my amp turned low (sometimes not low enough as my dad would come in around 12 or 1am and tell me to turn it off). I remember scouring the internet for more videos of live Cream but eventually my search was exhausted. But that didn’t stop me-  I just kept on watching, listening and playing along to the same songs over and over and over again.

Even during the school day, and the bus rides to and from school, I had Cream in my CD player and listened to the albums over and over again. They were one of the few bands at the time I had all their CDs and remember it being so effortless to listen to them. They weren’t like Rush who had dozens of CDs so I could only take a few with me at a time (that changed when I got my iPod Mini – remember those things?) Jack was in my ears for most of my high school life. THAT’S taking it all in.

In retrospect, playing along to Cream and Jack also taught me the foundations of music theory. When I would play along to a song, I would come up with a bass line and if I was really into the song, I’d start it from he beginning and come up with a whole new bass line. As I made more and more bass lines – dozens and dozens over the years to ‘Crossroads’ – I began to notice that some notes sounded ‘better’ than others’ against certain chords. I also noticed that the same shapes began appearing on the fretboard and those shapes could be repeated across the fretboard. Moreover, these scale shapes could be connected and run the span of the neck and still sound ‘good’ against Clapton’s chords. Little did I know, I was teaching myself the musical modes and how to play with them and it wasn’t until I started making a more conscious effort to learn music theory did I realize what I had already learned, but never called it as such.

It still hasn’t fully set in that Jack isn’t around anymore playing bass and actively maintaining his place at the top of the bass playing pantheon of greats. Maybe because he’s really the first of my bass heroes to pass.  Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, Phil Lesh, Mike Gordon, Mike Watt – they’re all still alive. I wasn’t around for the death of Jaco or James Jamerson so to know that they’ve since passed doesn’t mean much to me. I never knew them alive.

One final thought. I dug through my CD collection after finding out Jack had died and found my beat up copy of Goodbye, Cream’s final album released posthumously after they broke up and in some way a fitting album to listen to. The playing is still as fiery as ever. The live cut of ‘I’m So Glad’ is still one of my favorite Cream songs and I remember the days of jamming out to it in my bedroom after school. I took it to my car and drove around with it playing and all the memories came rushing back.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Bruce. You’re already missed.