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Happy Birthday to Gary Karr

gary karr

Gary Karr celebrated his 80th birthday on 20 November 2021, and his contribution to the double bass is unique. Almost singlehandedly, he dragged the double bass world, literally kicking and screaming, into a new era where everything is possible, and we are all benefitting from his pioneering work in the 1960s and 70s. If you are of a certain vintage, you will remember how the double bass was viewed by most bassists in the 1970s and 80s, and in some quarters, those attitudes still prevail in 2021, but Gary Karr’s pioneering zeal, whether he realised he had one or not, was the catalyst for change and bassists across the world have followed Gary’s example, and the bass world has reaped the benefits of his work.

I began to play the double bass in 1974, at the age of 14, and first heard Gary Karr play in about 1979/80 when he gave a recital at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. My teacher, Laurence Gray, had met Gary previously and raved about this American soloist who was already making waves in the double bass world. We met him afterwards, and I have been a huge fan to this day. His recital included serious repertoire in the first half, a few sonatas, I think, but after the interval, he let his hair down, and we witnessed Gary ‘the entertainer.’ I remember being blown away by the sound, his virtuosity, his ability to make everyone laugh and his sheer love of music and life.

Over the years, I have heard Gary Karr and Harmon Lewis perform many times, met them both afterwards, and have always left the recital feeling that I could play anything and that everything was possible. If Gary could have bottled ‘it,’ he would be one of the richest men in the world because I am sure we would have all bought numerous bottles to inspire our rehearsal times and concerts.

In 2018 Gary’s Karr’s biography Life on the G String was published, written by Mary Rannie, and it’s absolutely fascinating. Not only is the story amazing and uplifting, but so many things have hardly changed for the double bass over the past 60 years, although there are far more opportunities than ever before. The book cleverly tells the story of Gary’s life and his struggles to become a solo bassist, against all the odds and the negativity he encountered, interspersed with his own words, which add a personal and human angle to the story. How fascinating to read about his commissions from Hans Werner Henze, Gunther Schuller and Alec Wilder and their back-stories which I didn’t know at all, and the problems of commissioning new music for the double bass.

Gary’s meeting with Mstislav Rostropovich was a real eye-opener when the great cellist, who had commissioned many of the great Russian composers, said he thought only one in every seven commissions would be a good one. In that case, if I commission 700 works for double bass, then at least 100 of them will be good. How many pieces do you have to commission before you have a masterpiece to enter the repertoire? Greater minds than mine can ponder that question, and I wonder what the answer is?

Gary’s struggles with fellow bassists and their attitude to this new way of playing and fun persona on the concert platform is astounding to read. I think I went to all his London concerts in the early 1980s when I was a student at the Royal College of Music and am sure I was the only bassist from the RCM there, and although we have only met about eight times over the past 40 years, Gary still remembers my name. How many thousands of people does he meet every year, and he still takes the time and trouble to remember you — what a superstar!

Without Gary Karr and his amazing career and dedication, none of us would be where we are today. In my opinion, he kick-started the double bass revolution from which we all benefit and gave us a role model to realise that we can all make a difference in the bass world. Gary kindly sent me a copy of his book, with a very kind and enthusiastic dedication inside, and I would recommend all serious young bassists to read his story and understand how far the double bass has travelled over the past 60 years. This truly is a Golden Age for the double bass, inspired by the example of players like Gary Karr, and if ever a bassist deserved a statue to celebrate his genius, it’s Gary.

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