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Caroling Would Be Unwieldy, So Kansas City's Bass Players Host A Holiday Concert Instead

Julie Denesha
Professional bass player and teacher Johnny Hamil leads students through a rehearsal of holiday tunes at his home music studio in Mission, Kansas.

As always during this season, Kansas City musicians are booked for holiday gatherings.

"Christmas is the busiest time of year. We all have a million gigs," says Johnny Hamil, an area bass player and teacher (among his efforts to promote his instrument, Hamil lures esteemed bass players from around the world to town for his annual Kansas City Bass Workshop).

Because bass players are always working in other bands, Hamil notes, they seldom have a chance to be in the same room together. But this year is different: Hamil says he’s expecting some 80 musicians to show up for his “We Wish You A Merry Bassmas” holiday concert

“It’s something that I've dreamed of for awhile — to have all the bass players from all around come together and have a 'Bassmas' concert," he says. "It's basically like Christmas caroling but for bass players."

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Thomas Stecklein, 15, says the holiday concert gives him a welcome opportunity to play melodies, which bass players don't often get a chance to do.

The idea for  began through his work with young players.

“As a teacher, the Christmas songbook is one of the great things you can use to your advantage,” Hamil says. “Some really great musical concepts can be handled in a simplified way around Christmas songs because they’re like genetically wired into us.”

That much is loud and clear on a Thursday night at Hamil's home studio in Mission, Kansas, as he leads a group of students through a funked up version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Thomas Stecklein, 15, says he’s excited for the chance to play the melody for a change.

"Normally, bass players are used to what their part is so they're not going to ask for too much, but when there's a chance to get a melody or solo you definitely take it,” Stecklein says. “So, playing the melody every once in awhile, depending on whether it's Christmas or not, I think it's bound to be fun."

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Stecklein (left), Hamil and 16-year-old Caitlin Crosby decide which song to play next. Hamil says jamming to holiday songs makes learning musical concepts fun.

Tackling familiar tunes in new ways that surprise and delight is what's most fun for Gerald Spaits , a professional musician who plays stand-up and electric bass at venues around town.

Spaits, who has arranged version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" for the concert, says playing with large groups of other bass players can be challenging.

"First of all, getting a bunch of bass players to play in tune — I'm talking about upright basses — if you can pull that off, it's a big thing," he says.

Then, he says, "You have to really play differently when you're playing with bass players. You have to be very empathetic. You wouldn't play the same thing, necessarily, with two bass players. It's actually harder to do."

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
During a break in teaching, Gerald Spaits rehearses in a practice room at K.C. Strings in Merriam, Kansas. Spaits plays double bass and electric bass at venues around town.

But Spaits agrees with Hamil about the potential for creative interpretations of music everyone hears (perhaps too much) this time of year.

"Usually, I have some private parties — or even some of the jazz gigs — you'll play some Christmas music. You can really do a lot with it if you do something with the arrangement and not just play it exactly the way it was written," Spaits says. "Or just add something new to it. Just like anything else, when you play jazz, what we do is try to make it our own. So we can do this with Christmas music, just like anything else."

Hamil says “We Wish You A Merry Bassmas” is also a way to honor an often overlooked instrument.

"It's the giving season, right? That's what Christmas is all about, giving,” Hamil notes. “Seeing your family. So we have a bass family. We also give. I know I'm biased, but bass players give so much. Because we're always in the back of the music. Nobody even knows we're there."

For one day this holiday season, anyway, that most definitely will not be the case.

We Wish You A Merry Bassmas!” 4-6 p.m. Sunday, December 17 at the Black Dolphin, 1813 Grand Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri, 816-215-2954.

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

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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