Gary Karr - World’s Leading Solo Bassist
If chocolate could sing it would sound like a double bass
An interview article by Rosemary Phillips (February 2001)
UPDATE 2023: It's been many years since this initial interview. We have kept in touch and every now and then I have received a copy of one of Gary's delicious recordings. At the time of this original publication on the world wide web there were very few articles and images. Now there are many, along with great videos and stories. Gary's personality shines, and this short item, while dated, is still relevant when giving a piece of the personality of a great artist. Enjoy! Thank you Gary.
Gary Karr, also known as the Paganini of the double bass, is not only an excellent musician and teacher, he is a wonderful inspiration to anyone who passes through his life.
Listen while you read: Reverie & Tarantella (Bottesini) - Gary Karr & the late Harmon Lewis at the Lisbon National Conservatory, 2013. The audience loved him. And, you can just hear the chocolate melting!
INTRO: This article was written for one of Gary's last touring performances, a concert with the Vancouver Island Symphony in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, in 2001. He was so well received that he had encore after encore. The audience just loved him. Gary was wonderful to interview, so full of enthusiasm and caring. While I wrote the article I sat at a computer overlooking snow-laden mountains in Christina Lake, BC, the full moon rising above and lighting up the brilliant white snow, a glass of wine beside me. I was fully enjoying the moment along with the story about Gary Karr and chocolate and his amazing career. At that very time Gary was rehearsing, standing in his full-length window watching that same full moon reflect off the water in the Juan De Fuca Strait. It was magic, pure magic. As is his music and the deep rich sounds of his double bass.
“If chocolate could sing, it would sound like a double bass,” said the world’s leading solo bassist and chocoholic Gary Karr when asked how he knew the bass was his instrument. “That was my thought the day I first pulled the bow across the strings. It sounded like chocolate. If it weren’t for the double bass I’d weigh 500 pounds - I get my chocolate fix by playing a note.”
That was reason number two. The first - he was born into the seventh generation of a family of bass players. “I was surrounded by music. My sister played harp. Funny how we both chose such large instruments. Our family was the first in the neighbourhood to have a station wagon. We needed a big car to lug the instruments around.”
Karr’s guest appearance with the Vancouver Island Symphony on Saturday, Feb. 17, not only coincided with the chocolate week of the year, Valentine’s, it marked a reunion of Karr and the late Maestro Marlin Wolfe who first met in 1961 in Aspen, Colorado. Karr had not seen Wolfe since. “When he called me, I couldn’t believe it.”
It was a month after their first meeting that Karr’s career took off. “There was more media interest in classical music (then) than today, so most of the major networks carried classical performances. When I played for Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall it was televised and all of a sudden everybody knew who I was and what I did, and the concerts started coming my way. I did concert tours all over the place.”
His appearance with the VIS and their Symphonic Odyssey 2001 series also marked one of his last performances. “This is my last season. I am retiring in June from the concert world. After 40 years of concertizing I’m going to concentrate on my studio work. If I do any performing it will have to be local. Someone will have to pick me up because I won’t have a vehicle to carry a double bass.”
Buying a car for a double bass
Whenever Karr has gone to buy a car he has had to take the bass along to make sure it would fit. His dream since childhood has been to have a Corvette. So when he retires that’s exactly what he’s going to do - buy a classic vintage Corvette.
Schlepping the double bass - one story
“I could write a book - 40 years travelling (schlepping) with the double bass,” said Karr. “The first time I played in B.C. was in 1963, and in those days all the orchestras in the area booked the same artist to save costs. I first played for the Vancouver Symphony then was taken to the ferry at Tsawwassen to go to Victoria. As we walked onto the ferry we were approached by a guard who told me that I couldn’t take the bass aboard. We argued with him, then we started marching onto the ship. In those days the guards carried guns. He took his gun out of his holster and shot above our heads. That’s the only time in my life that I have been shot at. There was quite a court case after that, to rid the guards of guns.”
Victoria B.C. - Gary Karr’s favorite place to be
Victoria is his favourite place to be. “I had been coming here for 24 summers before finally making it home. I have a house overlooking the Strait and Mount Baker. I get up and look at the view and then go down and record in my studio. I can stay in my pyjamas. It’s too good to be true. I get up early because I love each day, I can’t wait for it and I don’t want to miss anything.”
Karr’s performing career is coming full circle. It started with Saint-Saën’s “The Swan” at Carnegie Hall in 1961 and will end with that same piece on June 8, 2001, in Indianapolis when up to 600 double bassists from all over the world will be coming to hear his last public performance.
How does he feel about retiring from concerts? “If you had to schlep a bass around for 40 years you’d feel pretty good.”
And his greatest moment? “I’m obsessed by the double bass. The greatest moments of satisfaction are those times when after days, weeks and months of slogging away to learn something it finally falls into place. There is nothing more thrilling. It’s like having the best chocolate cake in the whole world. And I’ve had a good amount of chocolate experiences in my life.”
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