Bass Salute: An Interview with Peter Dominguez

Peter Dominguez

As modern bassists, we stand on the shoulders of giants and it’s important we honor their memory as we build our own legacies. I can’t think of anyone more dedicated to both than Peter Dominguez and just this year alone is a perfect example of why.

Peter Dominguez: Bass SaluteFirst, Dominguez released a new solo bass album called Bass Salute, on which crafted jaw-dropping solo arrangements to pay tribute to his influences and bassists in general. Next, he ran the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists camp, marking the first event since the legendary bassist passed in September. Davis was a mentor to Dominguez, and the two worked together for the past 30 years.

Next up, he will serve as the artistic director for the Milt Hinton Institute for Studio Bass. The performance camp, which is designed for bassists aged 14 to 18, is returning in 2024 with a brand new venue. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center announced the week-long bass extravaganza will be hosted at Montclair State University from July 14th through the 20th.

Hinton is one of the most recorded and celebrated bassists of all time whose story must be told. Dominguez is well-versed in Hinton’s life, music, and legacy. It was during his tenure teaching at the Oberlin Conservatory that he was caretaker of the Milt Hinton Archive, which includes the influential bassist’s instruments, photos, and more. Dominguez even recorded his 2017 album Groove Dreams on Hinton’s 18th-century Italian bass.

If all that doesn’t seem like enough, I should also mention that Dominguez Is a bass professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he works with graduate and undergraduate bassists. It’s a position formerly held by his own teacher, Richard Davis.

Registration for the 2024 Milt Hinton Institute for Studio Bass will be open from December 16, 2023, through June 7, 2024. For more details and to register, visit the NJPAC website. Dominguez’s new solo album, Bass Salute, is available now via Bandcamp and more.

Given Milt’s long time in New York City, it seems fitting to be moving the Milt Hinton Institute camp closer to his home.

Milt Hinton and Peter DominguezWe always dreamed of having an East Coast presence with Milt because he lived in Queens, even though he grew up in Chicago. We got a relationship with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), and they’re doing some wonderful things in Newark… just incredible things. I think we’re probably going to keep MHI on the East Coast. A lot of the people who still have attachments to Milt are still in New York and New Jersey.

It also provides for some special opportunities. We always have a studio session in the middle of the week where we bring the kids into the studio. We usually have an amazing rhythm section there, sometimes it’s Billy Hart or Billy Drummond and we usually have pianist Luis Perdomo. Thanks to our new location we have a big surprise for this year’s studio session that I can’t talk about yet, but it will be huge.

The day after that trip we’re back at Montclair State and we’ll put all of the small bass ensembles into the studios to record them there. All the teachers turn into producers, and I’ll be the executive producer on that. Then the day after that we have the bass orchestra that will be recording in the big hall.

So we put these kids into recording situations, then we put them on stage for a performance on Saturday. You know what it’s like after you bear down on recording and hearing playback – it gets really deep in your brain. The concerts are incredible because all of the sudden there’s freedom on the stage and these kids are really listening and responding to each other without having to think through things.

With the name of the event – the Milt Hinton Institute for Studio Bass – it’s really about dispelling the classical/jazz/pop music disparity. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is. The integrity of your pitch and groove and sound and articulation all has to be there. It doesn’t matter what [style] it is.

That really opened my eyes to what players like Milt, George Duvivier, Richard Davis, and now Ron Carter do. They make you understand that good bass is good bass, and good bass makes a difference in an ensemble. You do it covertly, because sometimes people don’t realize we get command of the groove from the bottom up. I tell my orchestra players, too, that if you’re walking out of the concert and no one says anything to you, that’s a sign that you did your job pretty well.

Who are some of the guests going to be?

This year we have Buster Williams as a featured performer on the Milt Hinton concert in the evening. We’ll also have Diana Gannett, Rufus Reid, Ben Williams, Jay Leonhart, Bill Crow, and a whole lot more.

The cool thing about having all these thoroughbreds in on this is that we’ll have a short, themed faculty concert every night where the public is invited. The first night is Jersey Night because I have all these New Jersey bass players: Marcus McLaurine, Bill Moring, Rufus Reid, Martin Wind. Then the next night will be with Sam Suggs, Dianna Gannett and myself where we will do a classical bass night. Tuesday night will be “bass and voice” with Ben Williams, Jay Leonhart, Mimi Jones, and I can sing and play a couple numbers, too.

Then the big Milt Hinton celebration is Wednesday. We’ll do that special studio session in the morning, then we’ll show the [Milt Hinton documentary Keeping Time]. All the bass dignitaries will be there, like Barrie Kolstein. The big concert celebrating Milt will be that night in the big hall. That’s a big production.

Thursday the faculty concert will be Standards night. Someone might play the Koussevitsky Concerto, then we’ll have jazz standards. You know, we’ve got Billy Hart to play drums all week and Luis Perdomo playing piano, so who knows what will come out of that! Maybe some bassists will want to do a solo, but I’d say, “Hey…. You wanna play with Billy Hart?” [laughs]

Friday we’re bringing in Eddie Perez and Jennifer Vincent for Latin night. Jennifer has a bunch of these Cachaito exercises to share with everybody. Finally, Saturday night is the kids’ concert.

People say, “That’s a lot!” And I say, “That’s right it’s a lot!” I wear these kids out. They’re gonna be sleeping at 10 o’clock.

You know, Ben was 11 when he met Milt. He was probably the youngest recipient of the Milt Hinton Scholarship. That’s what I received in 1981.

And you were the first recipient, correct?

Yes, I was the first one to get it. Back then I wasn’t finished with my Masters. People ask me what I got, and he sent me $750, which was pretty cool. I took some lessons with it and I bought a bass case. Milt was famous for buying bass cases for people.

He did it for Bob Cranshaw. He saw him in New York and said, “If you’re a professional, you can’t be walking around with that raggedy-ass bass case.” So he went to Imperial Music and bought him one.

That’s the generosity of Milt Hinton, and he’s still giving today. That’s an important thing about the MHI – people might be shy of the price tag, and it’s on campus, too. But they have to go through the whole process to really [get it], and we have scholarship money. Milt left a quarter of a million dollars in scholarship money for bassists. So we can make it work for everybody. That’s Milt still giving.

Who do you know that leaves that much money in a bank account?

I don’t know any bass players, that’s for sure! [laughs]

Milt is omnipresent. I have an archivist come in and do a big presentation about who Milt was. The kids do a deep dive on Milt to understand why he is so important to bass playing. The quotes of Milt are just gold. “When you teach you learn twice.” “Don’t be sharp. Don’t be flat. Just be natural.”

Once you understand more bout Milt, whenever you get into a jam you can think, “What would Milt do?” His Wikipedia page is very extensive because we worked on that with the archive to make it totally accurate. There’s so much misinformation about Milt.

Sometimes people say, “Milt drove to this gig,” but Milt never drove. He had that kind of stature. When he was 13 in Chicago he fell out of a truck – obviously a bootleg operation. He was working for the Capone family. He was in the hospital because he almost lost his finger. They came in because the doctor was going to cut off his finger and in walks Al Capone. He said, “Don’t cut the finger off.” That’s a Milt Hinton story! And ever since then he never drove.

He was such a gracious man, but he was also such a player. He was up there with the best. Being able to share this person who set the bar so high for everyone else.

One of the things I love about the work you’re doing is that you’re keeping the memory and music of super important players alive. You have the Milt Hinton camp coming up, but you also help run the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists camp. That still happened this year even after his passing, right?

Yes. It was our 30th camp and now we have a documentary about it that’s making the film festival rounds.

We filmed it at the 25th camp in Madison in 2018. We had John Clayton, Christian McBride, Andy Raciti from the Milwaukee Symphony, Diana Gannett, myself, and more. We got a grant to support the filming, then the pandemic hit and it kind of sat there. We thought this would be a promotional film for RDYB.

The director asked me what I wanted to do with it, and I said, “Just go through it and get all the interviews and the moments with the kids and all the performances. Collect the ‘a-ha’ moments. Let’s just see what we have.”

We got almost 2 hours of cuts to look through and sure enough, the theme started to happen. I knew from doing these Richard Davis Foundation events that they’re spiritual for everybody: the families, the kids, and even the teachers. That’s what keeps these clinicians coming back every year. It’s a think tank to teach. It’s been the model for the ISB Young Bassist program and so many other bass camps. We’ve incorporated Suzuki method and early childhood and all that kind of stuff into it.

Last summer, I took a cut of the film in to Richard while he was still here. He didn’t mince words. “There’s too much of this, too much of that,” he said, or “There’s too much of this person.” When we’d do these conferences and do Q&A’s at the end, Richard would take the mic out of someone’s hands and say, “That’s enough.” [laughs] He didn’t want monologues.

So the film, which is called String Theory, really points to what he did with the Foundation. In that same token, I wouldn’t have been able to start the Milt Hinton Institute without the Richard Davis Foundation. I always said that, adding on the studio component, we’re going to make the macro version of RDYB. RDYB is only two days, where MHI is a full week. We’re basically doing the same kind of curriculum, which is a proven curriculum for 30 years. This is also going to be our fourth Milt Hinton Institute.

It makes sense, too, because Milt was Richard’s mentor in New York. Milt took him to the studios and the contractors and said, “Look. Richard – play for these guys.” Richard was poor at the time, so Milt would bring him home and his wife Mona would cook them chicken wings. Milt was very influential for Richard coming to Madison. They had a deep connection.

Having the Milt archive, I realized that some of the lessons I learned and direct quotes of how to play and how to record yourself really came from Milt, but it came to me through Richard.
These guys are still blowing me away on records. I washed a whole bunch of records yesterday. I’ve got a stack of them with Richard on them and it’s incredible. Barbra Streisand, Phil Woods, early Sarah Vaughan…

One of the reasons to come to Madison was that what I had done for Milt’s legacy in those ten years, I could do with Richard Davis. I have his famous Lion Head bass. I used research funds and the University bought it from the family. Milt’s bass will always be at Oberlin and it will always be Milt’s bass. No one else will own it. The University of Wisconsin owns the lion head. It’s the studio bass. It’s a Ferrari. With the sloping shoulders, you can get around on it so easily.

Cleaning out Richard’s storage locker, we now have a Richard Davis Archive in the library. Then I have the documentary, plus we’re keeping RDYB going.

Our last interview was way back in 2011, and in the end, you mentioned you were working on an album called “Bass Salute.” In between then and now, you had released Groove Dreams, so was Bass Salute in work this whole time or did the projects mix?

I think I said that when I got permission from Madeleine [Crouch] and the ISB to use that photo for the cover. That’s from a 1970 edition of Bass Soundpost. It’s been in the hopper, but then Groove Dreams came along. This is before Milt came back into my life, before playing his bass for eight years. Groove Dreams came out of that, and then Bass Salute was always the next iteration of solo playing and developing that.

With Groove Dreams, I probably recorded 20 tracks of different songs. Now I’m up to 40 solo pieces because I did another 20 for Bass Salute and then just sat on them for a minute. It’s that “queer, divine dissatisfaction” that we all go through after you record something, so I sat on it.

The other thing I sat on with Bass Salute for so long was because I was using the Lion Head, plus I purchased an instrument from Richard – a 1741 Viennese bass. I honored Richard’s wishes of not claiming that bass until after he passed, so I wasn’t going to put this out until then because I used it. Now it’s mine and I can claim It’s mine, but he didn’t want it to be claimed yet. There were personal reasons for him due to how he got the bass and the person he got the bass from wanting him to have it his whole life. That was just a confidential thing for us, so after he passed I moved forward with post-production.

Bass Salute also honors the giants of bass.

I realize that when you put things out art-wise, it has to be attached to something greater than yourself. That’s what makes it successful. Most people don’t get it, but for the people that do, that really matters. You always want to walk on the stage where it’s not just about you and your ego. That’s why I dedicated Bass Salute to Ron and Eddie and Buster and Richard and Milt and Lucas Drew. I’m saluting everybody that’s picked up a bass and tried to get those half steps in tune.

I do dedicate a lot of the songs specifically to those people, too. I played “Shadow of Your Smile” in Ron’s key. When I heard Ron play it there, I said, “Oh yeah! This lays perfectly on the bass!” Ron always figures that stuff out.

So the idea for Bass Salute came a long time ago, but I put Groove Dreams out in between.

Do you feel like there was a difference between the albums artistically or is it a continuation?

I think it’s more of a continuation and a growth. The last song on Bass Salute is one that I really stressed on, “Over Under Bow Blues.” That was a hard one. I didn’t know whether to put it on because It’s so raw and it’s not complete yet. It was just an idea that came in the morning while practicing. I put it down and thought, “Man, you gotta put that on there. That’s wild. No one’s heard anything like that out of me.” Of course, I stressed so hard on it, but my daughter told me it’s her favorite track!

Again, you’re always expanding. I’ve always loved [the Charles Mingus song] “Jelly Roll” so I started messing around with that. I was just featured with the Blue Note Ensemble and they were doing the music of Charles Mingus. Before Richard, I was all about Ray Brown and Mingus. His music is in my DNA.

You know, you don’t get gigs from putting out a solo bass album. I go play recitals at universities and stuff, but in terms of teaching these songs, you know them inside and out in any key. When you can handle them on the instrument and have three parts like any Bach suite. The musicianship part of it is really hard on the double bass, as you know. I do work on that because for doctoral students have to do a solo recital. A lot of it is right hand technique and understanding that you have to have the melody sing on top while you play the accompaniment. You can’t have it all be the same level, otherwise your ears cancel it out. It’s really a touch thing and understanding what you designate each sound to in terms of the orchestration.

You’ve been so busy with these camps and a new album. What else do you have coming up?

My next project is Richard Davis’s Love Suite. He was planning four albums of 60 songs – a collection of songs he’d wanted to play all throughout his entire life including classical and folk and protest songs and everything. I got a grant to do it and I’m going to bring in fifteen bass players to play a track, picking from Richard’s songs. Some of the sheet music for them is handwritten with notes on how he wants them to be played. So that’s for this next year to do.

When things keep coming in front of you, you just have to follow the creator. He or she has the master plan. We just follow along as musicians and keep our ears open. My motto is, “If it comes to you, pay attention.”

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