Bassist Jonathan Chase Plays the Blues Among Other Interesting Endeavors

By Laurie Morrisey

The Portland Metro area is an amazing place for young musicians. The locals are proving that the blues will never die and future generations will carry on the proud traditions of the culture. One of those musicians is Jonathan Chase.

Jonathan began working as a professional musician since he was sixteen years old.  “I got my first bass guitar at the age of fourteen and found my first professional gig by accident. I was called to fill in with a blues band in a rehearsal, even though I only knew one blues song and it wasn’t one they played.  A week later they gave me a list of gigs and never even asked if I wanted to work—they just assumed I was ready to play full time.  I wanted to be a working musician but I was thrust into it early and didn’t learn what that really entails until after I’d been doing it for a while,” Jonathan said.

“After 10 years as a full time musician I transitioned into the world of autism advocacy and I do far more work in that field than as a musician.  I work as a mentor for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum and do quite a bit of work as a public speaker.  I give trainings for both parents and professionals to help them better understand what the world looks like for people who process things differently.

“I sit on the board of directors for the Autism Society of Oregon and oversee their Workshops Programs.  I also work part time as the office manager at the Synergy Autism Center,” he said.

Jonathan’s currently editing his first book. It’s a memoir about overcoming adversity and the ways in which his life differs from the common expectations for autistic individuals.  He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (high-functioning Autism) at the age of fourteen.

When discussing his musical influences he says Victor Wooten, of Bela Fleck and The Flecktones, tops his list. “I’ve attended four of Victor’s Bass/Nature Camps in Nashville, TN, and even performed with his band a few times in the northwest.  A huge part of my approach to the bass, and music, comes from things I learned from Victor.”

“My experiences in Nashville gave me a whole new perspective on music (and life).  While I never went to school, I have a very good working knowledge of music theory and the rules that we use as performers.

“When I was a kid I wasn’t excited to learn modes and scales, but Scott Pemberton (of the Scott Pemberton Trio) told me that a great musician could play ANY note and explain and justify its existence.  Years later, Victor Wooten showed me the same thing, performing solos entirely with wrong notes, and then he played with every single note, both the right and wrong ones!”

Jonathan has a unique view of music. “I see music as geometric shapes in my mind and often in the air before me as I play.  Every chord has a shape, every run or line is a series of dots with lines that connect them together.  Every note has a color and a hue to it; I think of intervals by color and ‘shade’ as much as I do by their theoretical applications.  Music isn’t just sound, it’s a visual experience with a logical foundation.

“I think of music in layers: the physical act of moving my hands on the strings, the logical aspect of identifying every note and comparing it to every other possible note as well as the context and structure of the song, and as a combination of colors and shapes.”

As far as formal training, he says, “I studied for many years with local guitarist Scott Pemberton and he taught me not just how to play music, but how to be a professional musician.  He’s an incredible musician, a wonderful teacher, and he does things nobody else can do with a stringed instrument.  Even though I’m a bassist and he’s a guitarist, we use many of the same techniques.”

He describes his music as a jazz/fusion musician in a blues player’s body. He says, “I’ve played the blues for most of my career and I work with blues bands more than anything else, but I have a great passion for jazz, soul, funk, and fusion music.  I love progressive bassists who are stretching the boundaries of the instrument and adding more to the musical conversation than the lowest tone.”

Jonathan says he listens to and studies other instruments and incorporates those ideas into his playing.  Even in a power trio he hears horns, keys, organ, and percussion in his head.  “I steal ideas from that imaginary band throughout the night, adding chords, harmonies, counterpoint, or other elements on top of the bass line.”

“Traditionally the bass is a secondary voice in a blues setting, but respected as an equal member in the jazz world.  I approach the blues as if it’s a jazz band and I appreciate opportunities to make a statement and add to the musical conversation in the same way a guitarist, harmonica, or saxophone would.  Few blues bands offer the bassist an opportunity to play a solo in a slow blues song, but I love the opportunity to step up in that context and share a voice that most people aren’t used to hearing from the bass.”

Jonathan has played the bass guitar since he was fourteen and began playing the standard guitar a year later. “I mostly play light jazz as a guitarist and most of my guitar work comes from solo gigs, not with bands.”

Although Jonathan doesn’t have a CD out, he has a few instrumental jazz pieces on his website, “I have filled in on sessions for a few local artists over the years, but I don’t have a CD out.  Someday I hope to record the CD that’s been kicking around in my head for many years: a mix of blues, soul, and jazz fusion.

“I recorded a voice for a character on the audio book The Music Lesson, written (and read) by Victor Wooten.”

He also teaches music lessons, both bass and guitar, out of his home.  “I teach a lot of music theory and every now and then I teach a bass player how to play way too many notes,” he said with a chuckle.

Although Jonathan doesn’t have a regular band, he works as a freelance bassist and performs with anyone who calls him, often with very short notice. “Sometimes I meet the band on the stage!”

He fills in with Kevin Selfe and the Tornadoes when their regular bassist is unavailable and he’s “on call” with a few other local acts. He has performed with dozens of bands over the years, sometimes as a band member but more often as a sideman or temporary fill-in.

“The life of a fill-in is unpredictable. I don’t have a single gig on the calendar right now, last month I had a half dozen, and the month before that I had a stretch of eight gigs in a week,” he said.

For most of my adult life I expected to work as a full-time musician and I wanted to be known as a great bass player.  These days I don’t spend much time on the stage and my reputation is much stronger in the autism community than in the music scene.  It’s a different world but I’m passionate about my work as an advocate and I am committed to making the world a better place for the next generation of people who think a little differently from most.

“I still enjoy getting on stage with a hot band and digging into a funky blues tune or locking in with the drummer to groove over a jumping shuffle.  I like the feeling of tension when the phone rings and a few hours later I’m standing on an unfamiliar stage with people I don’t know to play material I’ve never heard before.”

“While I still call myself a professional musician, my world is far more grounded in disability supports and advocacy than in the life of a working bass player.  My schedule is full of meetings, nonprofit events, planning sessions, and presentations.  There are months where I spend more time on a stage with a microphone than with a bass (which is odd because I don’t sing).  I love my work and the sense of fulfillment that it brings.  I may not be known as a hotshot bass player or the guy who’s on stage with the top bands ever night, but when I work with a family or give a presentation at a conference I walk away feeling every bit as positive as I do when stepping off the stage at a good gig.”