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January 13, 2019IM -
Ken Dow, of Local 325 (San Diego, CA) is the original bassist for the worldwide hit musical Jersey Boys. He worked with multiple Tony Award-winner Des McAnuff since the show’s inception at La Jolla Playhouse, and performed the show nightly on Broadway for 10 years. Dow has traveled all over Europe and the United States for more than 20 years playing jazz, classical, funk, folk, hip-hop, soul, blues, bluegrass, rock, and music that defies conventional classification. He has worked and performed with a wide array of distinguished artists, including Pete Townshend (The Who), Brian May and Roger Taylor (Queen), Sara Watkins of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) Billy Crystal, and more.
International Musician recently spoke with Dow about his career, his time in the pit on a Broadway show, and his recent projects:
IM: You performed with the show Jersey Boys every night for 10 years. Was it tough coming out of such a long performance on one show and switching gears, taking on new projects?
KD: For me, steady work like that is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, steady income, let alone a pension, is a fanciful aspiration for, I would guess, most freelance musicians. I was grateful to have that. Depending on your mindset, the fact that you’re playing the same music every show could mean you have to expend very little mental effort to perform. Of course, it can also become like musical data entry, looked at from another angle. One of the nice things about working on a [union] Broadway musical is that, contractually, you’re allowed to take up to 50% of the shows off in any given quarter. So whenever the opportunity to work in a different musical context presented itself, I jumped at it. Some of my most memorable moments of my time in NYC come from those outside gigs.
IM: Tell me about the beginning of your career. How did you get into singing?
KD: I took piano lessons as a young kid, which, in my opinion, is probably the most holistic way to start playing music. The fact that all the notes are laid out before you, they all look different from each other, it’s easy to see patterns in harmony, you’re working with both bass and treble clefs, etc.
My mother’s parents were both professional musicians, so she thought musical ability might run in the family. She pretty much forced me to sing duets with her, even before I started playing bass in junior high school, and I’m glad she did. Now I sing backups on most gigs I do, and lead vocals on some. That, and the fact that many of my electric bass heroes—Geddy Lee of Local 149 (Toronto, ON), Paul McCartney, Peter Cetera of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL), etc., played and sang simultaneously, led me to believe it could be done.
I also joined the San Diego Youth Symphony when I was in junior high, where I played upright bass. In my opinion, you can’t get a better overall music education than by playing classical music. The way harmony functions, the way your part fits into the whole, sight reading, technique, stamina, working with others… It’s the best! I found out later, once I started taking more advanced theory classes in college (UCSD), that I already knew most of what they were talking about, just without the terminology in some cases.
IM: Did you start out doing sessions? What types of gigs did you play?
KD: My brother, drummer Kevin Dow (also of Local 325 and also a Jersey Boys alumnus) and I started putting bands together in high school, but even before that some of the older students started asking me to join bands. I also started playing with professional rock bands fresh out of high school. It was often a situation where I was too young to be in the bar we were playing, so I’d have to wait outside during set breaks.
My time in the San Diego Youth Symphony also partially prepared me to start playing jazz upright bass professionally. Over time, my musical interests broadened, as did the styles of music I would get called to play. I love playing recording sessions, but I came of age a little too late to be part of the golden age of sessions, unfortunately.
IM: When did you join the union and in what ways has it helped shape your career?
KD: I joined the union back in the 90s, when I started working on an open-ended run of Forever Plaid in San Diego. I knew that all of the major playhouses in town were union houses, so I knew that’s where the high-quality work was.
IM: Who are some of your major musical influences?
KD: Like most musicians, I’d imagine, I started out being fascinated with great players of the instrument I’d chosen. Electric bass: Jimmy Johnson, Anthony Jackson (Local 802), Nathan East (Local 47), Pino Palladino, Geddy Lee, John Patitucci (Local 802), Jaco Pastorius, all of whom led me back to James Jamerson, Chuck Rainey (Local 47), Paul McCartney, and Peter Cetera.
IM: How do those influences come through in your own music?
KD: Almost every gig I play, I find myself thinking, “Well, time to cut another check to [INSERT ARTIST HERE]!” I feel like my own playing might best be described as an attempted amalgam of the bassists I like listening to. Also, I feel like the role of the bass in most groups pushes the bassist towards a holistic understanding of the music being played, rather than a granular focus on one’s own part. I feel the best musicians, regardless of instrument, all do this. For that reason, over time I’ve come to admire songwriters, composers, and orchestrators at least as much as individual instrumentalists.
IM: Can you describe one or two of your more memorable experiences?
KD: In October 2002, the rock band Queen was scheduled to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and founding members Brian May and Roger Taylor wanted to put on a concert that night. At that time, they didn’t have a regular band lineup, so they asked Chris Thompson (formerly of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, lead singer on their famous version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light”) to share vocal duties with several other great rock vocalists, including Jeff Scott Soto and Patti Russo, and to get a rhythm section together. My brother Kevin and I had already been working with Chris, so he asked us to do it.
Once Brian and Roger arrived at rehearsal, we worked on two or three songs, then took a break. At that moment, Brian came walking up to me to introduce himself. I nervously shook his hand as he examined the three instruments I’d brought, prompting him to declare, “Those are beautiful basses you have there. Do they make them just for you?”
This was one of the first high-profile gigs I’d done, so the idea of people making basses just for me was preposterous. Of course, that’s the world Brian May lives in, so that wouldn’t be unusual for him. I sure felt deflated! I quickly steered the conversation toward his iconic guitar, built by him and his father, which he called “his baby.” Makes for a good laugh now.
The night of the show was unlike anything I’d experienced before, with special guests like Nuno Bettencourt, Carmine Appice, Steve Vai, (all members of Local 47) and more. What a blast, and an honor!
IM: What are some of your upcoming projects?
KD: I’m currently playing shows in the San Diego area, both at the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse, and at the Civic Theatre when national tours come to town and need a bassist. Other than that, I freelance around Southern California, sometimes elsewhere, playing with original projects, corporate bands, and everything in between. I’m happiest when I’m doing a variety of things.