It’s been an interesting ride so far for the former New York City taxi cab driver who makes his way now as a smooth jazz bassist. Christian DeMesones (given the nickname “Big New York” because people have trouble pronouncing his name) counts himself lucky for all the opportunities he’s enjoyed in heavy metal and now in smooth jazz.
His music is funky and deep with swinging horns and a strong-as-hell heartbeat.
How was the transition from heavy metal…to smooth jazz?
When I left NYC in 1995, I left behind the fast-paced lifestyle of playing in clubs and driving a taxi cab. It was the environment of a new job in the urban record stores and a smaller music community in Virginia that made the transition easy. I was hired to play in a three-piece funk and blues band the very first week in Richmond.
A few weeks later, I sat in on a jam with some local jazz players. It felt good and I persuaded the band leader to use me on gigs.
My last performance in Richmond was opening for Roberta Flack in 2000 in front of 30,000+…what a high!
What did you write and perform at age 18 for your high school graduation ceremony?
The composition was titled “Song for Becky” dedicated to the wife of Patrick Hicks, founder of B.I.T. [Bass Institute of Technology/Hollywood, CA] and G.I.T. [Guitar Institute of Technology]. It was a short, finger-picking composition that included chordal movements and taping and harmonics, a style that is widely popular today but brand new in 1980.
The real highlight of the moment was that visiting faculty member and jazz guitar legend Pat Martino advised the board that I should perform it in front of my classmates.
When did you learn bass?
I was mostly self-taught at the age of 15, but did take a few private lessons. It wasn’t ’til I was 18, fresh out of high school, that I attended B.I.T. and had a year of music studies.
Growing up, was your family supportive?
Yes, but my father always wished I pursued my love of cartooning and illustration. After many years and finally having my first CD release with Groove Skool band, he told me he was proud of me.
How did you get your first bass?
I remember that I bought a Univox bass from a store on Main Street in Flushing, Queens.
How did you know you wanted to be a bass player?
My first concert was Kiss in 1975, in Long Island. It was Gene Simmons who left a life-changing impression.
Talk about the personnel in Groove Skool and what they play.
Groove Skool band consists of Keith L. Anderson/sax; Kevin Grogan /keys; Lori Williams/vocals; Nick Costa/ drums; Mike Gamble/guitar; Leroy Greer/percussion and yours truly on bass and songwriting duty.
Same question, re: Smooth Jazz All Stars?
The lineup changes due to scheduling but I try to use a core of players such as Elliot Levine/keys; Eddie Baccus Jr./sax; Craig Alston/keys; Curtis McCain/percussion; Mike Gamble/guitar; Tim Steele/drums; Rob Maletick/sax. Guest artist have included Lindsey Webster, Willie Bradley, Swiss Chris, Drew Davidsen, Cedric Givens and Rob Zinn.
How would you compare the jazz scenes throughout the places you’ve lived: Brooklyn, Virginia, Hawaii, etc.?
I couldn’t tell you. Hawaii in 1981 was a rocking town and I played the military circuit performing to a bunch of rowdy soldiers. Brooklyn, unlike Manhattan, had the legendary L’Amour nightclub, dubbed the Heavy Metal capital of the World, and my band Twice Shy was a staple of the local scene. That was 1987.
When I moved to Richmond, Virginia in 1995, all I played was in R&B/jazz bars and supper clubs.
Washington DC and the area surrounding it has a handful of places and I have played many of them.
When did you first come together as a band?
I always include my very first “working” band back in 1981 in Hawaii as a template for what not to do. I was fortunate because we won over the number one talent buyer for local entertainment on Oahu but our sound was not developed. We had to learn as we played.
Today, it definitely helps to be associated with an agency.
Smooth jazz is another thing entirely. Once you get on board with the festivals all over the globe you can play original music and create a livelihood. I am still working it.
What is your favorite venue?
I don’t have one yet, just give me a large stage with a great sound system and soundman to run it with a seating capacity of 150 to 300, and I’m a happy camper. SRO, of course!
Where would you most like to play that you have not yet?
Of course, Carnegie Hall or the Beacon Theater in NYC! I have yet to make a presence on the West Coast. I would love to play Spain and the UK. I am scheduled to play Bulgaria this year – my mother’s birthplace!
What techniques do you teach in your clinics?
Thumb and plucking, also called “slap” which is something I do very well, and I like to involve students to create with me. Also, songwriting, harmony and theory.
What do students ask you about most?
How tall are you? LOL (I’m 6’ 7”.)
What do you play besides bass guitar?
Blackjack or 7 Card Rummy!
What is the biggest challenge with the bass?
Playing melodies on a 6-string bass without another bass or keyboard bass support. I find that the sound drops out considerably during a live performance.
When I write songs I usually give the sax or keys the melody because personally it reaches a wide audience.
In rock, it’s another animal completely. I don’t mind playing unison riffs with a distorted guitar because the music needs it.
How many basses do you own and do you have a favorite?
I own two 4 strings: a Warwick thumb and Cort Axe bass; a custom fretless 5 and Conklin 7-string. Plus, a Dean 12-string and 8-string Kramer; and a 6-string Alembic and TWO custom double neck basses!
I have to say that my Alembic has been with me for almost 20 years and so many of my songs have been written on them, but my Warwick thumb is a slap-happy funk machine that is a very close second.
Which musicians inspired you?
Because I have a hard rock history, my earlier bass heroes are Gene Simmons/KISS; Greg Lake/ ELP; Geddy Lee/Rush; Geezer Butler/Black Sabbath; Phil Lynott/Thin Lizzy; Dennis Dunaway/Alice Cooper; John Entwistle/The Who; and Joey Dimaio/Manowar.
But once I discovered Stanley Clarke/Larry Graham/Louis Johnson /Abraham Laboriel/Anthony Jackson/Alex Blake…things changed!
And the number one biggest musical imprint, the late, great Jaco Pastorius! If I had to pick the one bassist who opened my mind to arranging and composition, it would be him.
Where do you draw your personal inspiration from?
From everything and everyone, either in my personal circle or life. My wife is my hero and I truly believe that we all have a story that’s worth being told.
Talk about the track “Brother to Brother”- are there lyrics to that? What’s the story behind that song?
The original title to that song was actually “Journey to Ixtlan” from the book by Carlos Castaneda. I wrote it during my “experimental” days in Hollywood. It was directly influenced by Jaco Pastorious’ “Portrait of Tracy.”
Eventually I did write some lyrics and changed it to “Brother to Brother.” I’ve shown that song to almost every musician I’ve ever played with and never gave up on it until I finally found the right players to record it.
How long did it take to develop your own personal sound?
I am still not satisfied with my sound…but my style is coming along. I believe that “sound” starts in your fingers first.
I’ve played through Eden Amplification for 20 years and love their products, and I’m also an endorsed artist for Warwick/Framus. I love their basses.
Do you do prefer covers or original music?
In improv, how do you tell when it’s time to continue to trade solos versus starting to bring the song home?
I look for the buildup…once things start to get redundant I bring it on home. Great question!
How many CDs have you produced?
Only one (“Executive”) but my brother, Christopher Valentine, is the real producer and engineer of all my music. We are getting ready to release the third single titled “Spirit” in September.
The third single “Spirit” as mentioned, and the full-length project “They Call me Big New York ” which is not yet finished.
I am writing every day and have songs being added to another CD. I plan to release a project under Big New York and a follow-up to Groove Skool band. It’s all on God’s time line.
Who would you most like to collaborate with that you have not yet?
Philippe Saisse, Andy Narell, Rob Tardik, Walter Beasley, Uli Jon Roth, Arturo Sandoval, Herb Alpert, Lenny White, Carlos Santana, Hiromi, Punky Meadows, David Lee Roth, Rob Zinn, Gerald Veasley, Al Caldwell, Keith Horne, Simon Phillips, Ginger Baker, Herbie Hancock, Simon Phillips, Jeff Beck …I know I am missing more!
Advice to new bass players?
How bad do you want it?
And what are you prepared to do?
Always have fun. And remember, musicians are the last to get paid!
What would you most like people to know about you that they do not know?
I am a open book…a child of God who loves life and wants to create magic through music.
I have aspirations to finish two projects not related to music. One is a screenplay about my days behind the wheel of a taxi cab and the other a graphic novel, but I can’t share the story. LOL
Also, I was immortalized as a comic book villain in DC comic Firestorm issue 54. A dream come true!
Also, I love Southern gospel music and played with Luther Barnes and the Canton Spirituals at the First Mount Zion Men’s Conference that stays with me to this day.
All I ever wanted in life was to know who I am and who I belong to. Love and kindness have been top on my list.
After 30 years of ups and downs with music and love I have found a peace, a purpose and a stability that has to do with knowing God and his love. I have never believed in coincidence. There is a Supernatural, and we each have a responsibility to tap into our potential and share our gifts with others. I am thankful.
For more information, visit http://www.grooveskoolband.com.
Photo courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© Debbie Burke 2017