The Rock — bassist Geoff Cooke happily plays supporting role

That’s Geoff Cooke, one of the most brilliant bassists in and around the Northwest.
“The quiet, supportive role fits my personality, and being the glue between the drummer and the other instruments is too fun! I love playing time and actually don’t care to solo on every tune… You don’t hear too many bass solos on an AC/DC record and it seems to work out just fine, right? [laughs]”

Basically, the only way you’ll hear about one of Seattle’s best bass players, Geoff Cooke, is by experiencing him live at someone else’s gig, or through plenty of word of mouth from his legions of admirers. The University of Colorado graduate and multiple-award-winner doesn’t maintain any sort of web presence (although you can read plenty of excellent reviews of his work, like his participation in the live CD recording of See You At The Bridge) and isn’t the sort for self-promotion at other colleagues’ expense.

Cooke is the last person to blow his own horn, but the first to help out a struggling musician new in town, or make sure the other cats in the band are showcased to the best of their ability. Despite having a lot to brag about — gigs with Edmonia Jarrett, Ernestine Anderson, David “Fathead” Newman, Freddy Cole, Steve Turre — Cooke would rather just stay in the background, try to keep impeccable time and enjoy good music by good musicians.

But ask him the right questions and the floodgates open. He’s funny, engaging, wonderfully descriptive, outspoken and a true advocate for jazz:

Geoff, you don’t have a website. What gives?

As far as a website goes, I am sadly out of step with the modern world (think Art Pepper, or Chet Baker!). I should get a website going, but, truthfully, I work mostly as a sideman, so I don’t do much promotion of myself. It’s all old-school “word of mouth.” At least once a week, I get a call from a stranger asking me if I’m available for a date. Much of my other work is subbing for some of the busiest guys in town, like Phil Sparks, Chuck Kistler, and Jeff Johnson, when they can’t make a hit. An aside to that is that I have my own CDs, but don’t feel it is appropriate to sell them on other folks’ gigs. My CD was done in 1999, and I had 1,000 pressed, but I still have 500 in my attic (lol). As far as “Twitter?,” that’s something I hear sparrows doing in the bushes as I am loading my bass in the car to go to a gig!

You’re considered one of the best bass players in town, possibly the country, able to jam with any band, any singer. Who were your influences growing up? Who or what steered you toward playing bass and playing jazz music?

Growing up, my father was a top-notch traditional jazz trumpeter in the Denver area. I used to attend his gigs and rehearsals from day one. My mom was a more modern jazz lover, and through their record collection, I fell in love with 1950s jazz; in particular, Miles Davis with bassist Paul Chambers. Paul is still at the heart of my style. Anything out of Blue Note, Prestige, and Impulse Records from those years pretty much says it all for me. That vibe and pulse is the reason for my unwavering love and insistence on gut strings.

Being a kid from the suburbs, I had to do my obligatory stint on guitar in high school. To this day, I drive away from a gig listening to Van Halen or Joe Walsh to clear my head. But, the lure of jazz was too strong and I was drawn to the upright bass. Electric bass was my first instrument, which I still love as well. I must also mention, after college in Denver, I moved to New York to study privately with Reggie Workman (New School) and Buster Williams (NEA Grant) from 1991 to 1994.

What about playing bass attracted you?

What attracted me about the bass? The quiet, supportive role fits my personality, and being the glue between the drummer and the other instruments is too fun! I love playing time and actually don’t care to solo on every tune…you don’t hear too many bass solos on an AC/DC record and it seems to work out just fine, right? (LOL)

What was your first, big-deal jazz gig?

My first, big-deal jazz gig was at Jazz Alley with Steve Turre. In 1999, Steve came to Jazz Alley and my teacher, Buster Williams, was playing bass. Buster had to split back to New York to play with his band Sphere a day early, so he cleared it with Steve, who sent me some charts ahead of time. I was nervous as hell, but I got it together and showed up to the Alley. The drummer Yoron Israel was real nice, and so was Steve, but pianist Stephen Scott was unwelcoming from the get-go. I think he prefers black folks. Him aside, it went great. At one point, my son Sam, who was one [back then], stood up in his high chair and yelled “Pappa!” during my solo. I responded with a smile and a wave. On the break, Stephen berated me for “grandstanding” to my “homies.” This type of wonderful, welcoming attitude in jazz Mr. Scott displayed is one of the reasons I decided to become a finish carpenter! I’d much rather hang crown molding than listen to all that fussin’!

What are the bests/worsts of being a working jazz musician?

The best part about being a jazz musician is being able to go to the grocery store at 2 a.m. No lines, you gotta love that! I guess the downfall of jazz is seeing old, masterful musicians still doing the same gigs us younger guys are doing with nothing to show for it financially.

What is it like to go on tour nationally or overseas with a big-name act? Do you get time for sightseeing?

I did get to go overseas once with Edmonia Jarrett and Floyd Standifer, Steve Korn and Darin Clendenin. We did a tour for a jazz society in Torino, Italy. We did 13 gigs in 15 days and they treated us like kings. Every afternoon at 3 p.m., a man named Mario (who owned a tire factory with his brother) showed up to the same hotel we stayed at and drove us to a new town each day for a concert. After sound check, he would take us to a special restaurant and they would prepare us a five-course meal topped off with excellent wine, espresso and dessert. We would then play to a packed house with a standing ovation, towels, bottled water and autograph signing. We would then pile back in the van and ride back to Torino for a nightcap and a good night’s sleep. Our days were free to wander around Torino and eat and shop and rubberneck! I didn’t want to come home!

See You At The Bridge received some major critical press after it came out in 2006. A lot of your own original compositions made it on the CD. How did this come about and are any other CDs by you in the works?

My CD, See You At The Bridge, was recorded as a live radio show on KEXP in 1999. I wrote six of the nine tunes on it, and arranged them for a quintet while playing on a riverboat on the Columbia River out of Portland. I am on a new CD coming out in January with the same trio, plus Mark Taylor on alto. It’s under the pianist Ryan Burns’ name and it will be called Birds (Oddbird Records).

What would you like to do in the future musically?

Musically, I’d love to play electric bass for someone like Tom Petty, Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt or … Peter Gabriel.

Jazz-wise, I’d love to back up a name at the Village Vanguard, or tour Japan playing jazz. For now, I’m gonna hang out with my kids and girlfriend and enjoy my life… might hang a few doors too!


Interview first appeared in Examiner Nov. 9, 2009.