Musical career founded on a solid bass

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BASS players don’t usually grab the headlines. Yet the virtuoso performances by the leading violin in the orchestra, and the saxophone solos in the local jazz band, wouldn’t sound quite the same without them.

Paul McKay has performed that unsung but vital role for both. Today he’s the bass player for the Bute Jazz Friends, but for more than 20 years he played the double bass in the Hallé, Britain’s longest-established permanent professional symphony orchestra - and although he might not have spent much of his performing career in the spotlight, his musical life is no less interesting for that.

Brought up in Paisley, the young Paul left school at 16 - not to study music, but to begin an apprenticeship as an electrician. Until then his musical experiences had been limited to piano lessons and abortive attempts to play both the guitar and the banjo, but in order to stay in touch with his schoolfriends - who remained in the classroom while Paul attempted to get himself a trade - he went along to listen to them play in the Barrhead Burgh Brass Band.

“Although I didn’t like it the first week,” he told us, “I soon began to change my mind, and took up the double B-flat contra bombardon tuba.

“They gave me this ancient Victorian instrument which was as heavy as it was dusty, and I had to put it in the bath as soon as I got it home to give it a clean.

“In my first year in the band we dressed in high-collar Victorian uniforms to play for the local Labour party in Bo’ness on May Day,” he recalled.

“For some strange reason that I never understood, the B flat basses marched in the front row of the band, with the E flat basses in the back row. Our music was printed on a card affixed to a lyre, clipped to the front of the instrument, so I could either march and see where I was going or play blindly and walk.

“I remember the music getting quieter as I marched across the square in Bo’ness. Finally, at risk of losing my place in the music, I glanced sideways to discover I was on my own - the band had turned left up a side street! Thereafter the trombonist beside me stopped playing and took my elbow round corners.”

After three years Paul tired of brass band music and left. But he had formed a trad jazz group with some of his brass band colleagues and, eager to pursue this less regimented musical style, he purchased a plywood double bass from Biggar’s music shop in the centre of Glasgow on hire purchase and applied to his local authority, Paisley Burgh Council, for lessons.

“I took lessons for two years at Paisley Grammar School,” he continues, “where my teacher was a very good jazz player. My one-hour lessons stretched to two and a half hours at times, then we went to the pub.

“He played with one of Glasgow’s top trad jazz bands at the time, and he asked me to deputise for him on a few occasions. The band used to play at the Newton Mearns Tennis Club’s Saturday dance, but there wasn’t much room to dance - the floor was absolutely packed. They were a fantastic audience to play to.”

Seeking to continue his musical education, Paul applied to study the double bass at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music in Glasgow, hoping that it would enable him to further his jazz-playing career - but the dearth of dedicated double-bass players at the time led to him playing in almost every orchestra the academy ran at the time.

“Towards the end of my fourth year, I realised that I needed a job,” he said, “and I saw an advert for a place in the BBC’s Northern Symphony Orchestra.

“I applied, and got a date for an audition, and then decided, on a whim, to phone the Hallé Orchestra, who invited me to go for an audition too.

“Luckily I was offered both jobs, and I chose the Halle. The BBC orchestra was mainly studio-based, but the Halle was, and is, much more of a touring orchestra. Also, the principal of the Halle string section was a fantastic player who was a real inspiration to me.”

Paul joined the Halle in 1970, and quickly settled in to a busy routine of rehearsals and concerts.

“On an average week, Monday would be my day off, and we would rehearse on Tuesday and Wednesday, play in Manchester on Thursday, Sheffield on Friday, Bradford on Saturday and in Manchester again on the Sunday.

“We used to tour England and Wales regularly, and every so often we would go on tour to Germany, which eventually became as familiar to us as the Black Country; we also played in Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Hong Kong twice, Australia, the eastern and western United States and South America.”

In more than quarter of a century with the Halle, Paul played under the batons of Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Charles Groves Benjamin Britten and Krzysztof Penderecki, and alongside Jacqueline du Pré, Nigel Kennedy and Yo Yo Mah, to name but three.

Were there ever times when it felt like just a job, we wondered? “In one way it did - we had quite a traditional repertoire, and I can’t stand Beethoven, but that was what we played the most.

“I also used to daydream during rehearsals, and sometimes during performances, and the chap next to me and I would occasionally play a game where we would refuse to turn the page and see whose memory gave out first - we never got caught!”

In the mid-1990s, though, Paul began to suffer from severe tennis elbow, which meant he could no longer play professionally. Happily for him, though, he was able to retire a couple of years later, thanks to the Halle’s sickness scheme, and moved to Bute towards the end of the decade.

Once here he was also able to resume his love affair with jazz - put on hold during his Halle years, save for occasional weddings at which he would sweet-talk the band’s bass player into letting him have a go - by joining the Bute Jazz Friends.

He also took up rock music as the bass player with Kingarth band Class C - a new direction which provided a brand new musical education, if not always in the way he might have expected.

“Pat Cormack, a teacher from Glasgow who had a house at Stravanan, was talking about forming a band, and I was asked if I fancied playing with them,” Paul told us. “So I went up to Pat’s house to listen to what the rest of them were doing.

“Pat would play a number he fancied over and over again, and we would go into the next room and play back as much as we could remember.

“Sometimes you got some strange results, though. Your increasingly geriatric memory gets slightly confused about what you thought you heard, but sometimes what you play back turns out to be slightly better than the original.”

The Class C experience was put on hold by the sudden and tragic death of band member Tam Frizell in a house fire in Glasgow in January 2010, but Paul is still playing bass regularly at the Bute Jazz Friends’ monthly gigs - and, seemingly, deriving as much pleasure from the experience as ever.

“I’m very pleased that I’ve managed to come full circle with trad jazz music,” he said. “I’m sorry I missed out on it in my ‘middle years’, but it’s good to have been able to return to it. I’m just too lazy now to catch up on what I missed!”