Bassist Thomas Mitz is interviewed about the music that inspired him growing up, performing with Chicago blues men, working in the theater, and much more.
What are some of your earliest musical memories?
One event stands out in my memory. I was very young, pre-Kay, and I had been given a small, almost toy record player and some 78 RPM discs. They were kids songs except for one, a recording of Tchaikovsky‘s Nutcracker Suite. I was awestruck. Here was music that was magical, mysterious, that generated an array of emotions and took me to another world. It was, and effect, my first exposure to art. It is still today my feeling about art.
Actually most of the music I was exposed to in my early years was pretty insipid. The great stuff that was out there never reached my ears. That all changed when I was in the fourth grade; two events took place that changed my life. First I was given a box of oil paints and enroll in an adult art class, and second I got my own radio. My world was never the same.
Talk about studying at the American Conservatory of Music …
By the time I enrolled in music school I had been playing professionally for a while. I was in my early 20s and had returned from a year of playing with a band in England. I realized that if I was going to make this plan work, be a career painter and work as a bass player, I had to get my act together. I was basically an advanced ear player. I didn’t understand the inner workings of music. So I went to school and learned to read music, studied theory and upright bass. I wound up taking private lessons from my bass instructor.
In my last year’s in Chicago I played mostly double bass, blues, jazz and roots. I had a fun gig with a wedding band comprised of a rotating lineup of Chicago jazzers. The leader was always telling us to listen to bob radio which, since we were snobs, we never did. They would read the songs off the charts and play the shit out of them. Great players. As far as personal favorites everybody owes everything to James Jamerson, he invented the language of the electric bass. The bassist I love most of all whose lines I transcribed and learned is Paul Chambers. What he did with Miles Davis and John Coltrane is inspired perfection.
By the time I was 13 I was determined to make music in a band
Who are some of your musical influences?
I have to say my first musical influence was Chicago radio. My friends and I would spin the dial and what we heard was incredible. At that time there were two pop stations, WLS and WCFL and at night they would play “oldies” from two or three years earlier. The best music was on late at night and I would have to keep it quiet. Who cares if you have to get up early?. That was when I became a night owl.
I heard Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley and Little Richard. I could go on. Daddy-O Daylie and his Daddy-O’’s Jazz Patio was on WAIT. He introduced me to swing and jazz: Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Lester young and Ramsey Lewis. He had a rhyming style, a great sense of humor and a social conscience. Big Bill Hill was on WOPA with his Red Hot Blues Show. He played all the Chicago great, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, JB Hutto and the Hawks. WFMT was and is the best classical music station I know of. On Saturday night they had a show called the midnight special which opened up the world of folk music to me and where I first heard Dylan, Baez, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and many more.
By the time I was 13 I was determined to make music in a band. The Beatles showing up sealed the deal, the worlds greatest job! I saved up my money from after-school jobs and went to the local music store to get a guitar. The guy working there told me he would be with me in a minute and during that minute I went to the bulletin board with index cards that read available: guitar, guitar guitar; wanted: bass player. So instead of a guitar I got a bass. Turned out to be the right choice for me.
The store lessons were useless, so when I heard a band play at a local bowling alley I went to the bass player and asked him if he would teach me and he did. He gave me practical lessons in how to be a bass player in a band. I worked it hard. In a few months I was making a fool of myself and in a year I was a lot better and moving up in the local band scene. Because of a lack of voluntary bass players who could hold it together I was playing with Guys a few years older than me.
After my second year of high school they had graduated and turned pro and I found myself in the Chicago blues scene. Otis rush at a bass player named Ernest Johnson who was kind and generous to me. Gently told me I didn’t know a thing about the music I was trying to play and he coached me. During my last year of high school I got a call from a drummer I had worked with previously and he told me Chicago Slim needed a bass player. I auditioned and got the gig and I played with him off and on for 15 years.
How did you get into painting?
From my earliest memory I have always known that painting was what I was put on earth to do. I was born with the gift of being able to draw realistically from the goal. Just got the attention and a fourth grade teacher steered my parents into getting me proper training: Oil paints, watercolors, pastels, perspective, color theory, all this came quite naturally to me. But this never excluded the other arts.
Talk a bit about painting and the theater?
My three areas of artistic expression are painting, music and writing for the theater. They are all interconnected and directly influence each other. My main squeeze is painting. I first became involved with theater in New York when a woman came up to me at one of my exhibitions and asked if I would be interested in designing sets and costumes for modern dance. I said yes. I became stage struck; The hard work, the pressure, the camaraderie all appealed to me. The New York Times called and said they were sending a photographer and there was a combination of hope and terror. We opened without a dress rehearsal and the next day the Times gave us a great review. People were turned away from the remaining performances. There is no drug that can give you that kind of high. Perhaps if we had crashed and burned my life would have been different – that was to come later.
After that I had offers to design sets and paint backdrops which I loved to do. During this time I was tending bar to support my family and my painting have it. My fellow staffers were mostly actors and actresses. They always seemed to be griping about lack of monologues so I boldly offered to write one. Well painting I would rummage through memories of clubs and characters in Chicago and eventually a story fell in place. I told myself that if I get up from this easel and write this down things could change. I did and I gave it to my colleague. His first reaction was surprise that I had to follow through and his second was shock. “What’s this?” he asked me. I told him it was his monologue. “This is 13 single spaced pages. It will take an hour or more to read. I want three minutes!” Lesson one in writing for the theater. But they encouraged me. They belong to a theater group at playwrights horizons on W. 42nd St. And they were looking for original material, mostly for one-act festivals. So I turn that so-called monologue into a play and they all came to my studio and read it. It was the most humiliating experience of my life. I wanted to hide and never show my face again. When they finished and I begin to apologize they were lighthearted. It just needs to be cut they told me. It’s good. Eventually I got a 20 minute one act out of it. Eventually I picked myself up and tried again.
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Talk a bit more about about your love of plays and being a playwright …
I read play after play, I studied them. I learned the rudiments of dramatic structure by doing it and by being willing to fail, to learn to rewrite and try again. There came a night when a play I wrote opened at the Samuel Beckett theater and 42nd St. to a house full of strangers. Sitting in the theater I would rather have been in combat. It started. After what seemed and eternity there was a left and then another and I could see them following the story. The actors nailed it. Another whiff of that heady dramatic drug. I was invited to become a member of their group and eventually had nine plays produced there. One of my customers at the bar I worked in was a literary agent for sports writers. He told me he didn’t handle playwrights. I told him he could rep me or go drink someplace else. He had me bring in a stack of plays. Soon after that he told me he had sold a play to the Nederlander’s for television, General Motors Playwrights Theater on A&E. I asked him which one. “The one on top”, he answered.
I have always been interested in musicals. My parents belong to the Columbia record club and along with the Sinatra and Arthur Rubinstein some Broadway cast recordings showed up, My Fair Lady, The Music Man and others. I loved those. So it was natural ones I was writing please I would want to expand into musicals. It was a steep learning curve. I was lucky in my composers but they were, thankfully, very demanding. Lyric writing for the theater is the most demanding discipline I know. The words must rhyme, scan, be singable, sound conversational, be free of clichés, move the action forward and be able to make the listener feel emotion. Oh boy. After a few false starts I wrote the libretto for The Last Supper, a musical enactment about Leonardo da Vinci painting his famous mural. Gary William Friedman was the composer. It went on to be published and recorded and it was a production of this play first brought me to Savannah.
How does music influences your writing or painting?
Music has affected my writing by making me a lyricist. But music has had a profound influence on my painting as well. The music I most respond to is polyphonic, two or more musical statements that are different but played simultaneously. Bach is the obvious example but it can also be the interplay between the bass and the guitar or any combination of instruments and voices. When I was in my 20’s I had a memory pop expiration when I realized I could have several visual compositions superimposed on each other and create a sort of visual polyphony. The possibilities are in exhaustible and this is kept me busy ever since.
Savannah reminds me of Chicago with Great musicians and lots of bars with bands
How did you get your start in the Savannah music scene?
I first came to Savannah and her late 2015 for a production of The Last Supper. I brought my bass with me. I had been attending gyms in New York and thought there might be something here. I was directed to the Bayou and sat in with Eric Culberson. I came with no expectations and was blown away by the quality of the musicians here. I fell in love with Savannah, went back, gave up my apartment in New York and moved here. I kept going to the Bayou jams and within a few weeks I was offered a gig.
Talk a bit about some of the Savannah artists you’ve collaborated with over the years …
The musicians I’ve had the honor of working with and Savannah are some of the finest anywhere. Hitman, Willie Jackson, Eric Culberson, Kyle Yardley, are all top bluesmen and virtuosos. Ace and Anders Thompson absolutely kill it. Ace has that Chicago harp down an Anders is the best roadhouse guitar slinger around. Ray Lundy is in a class by himself playing old-time blues and pulling out surprises from his repertoire. I dipped my toe in the cover band scene with At Sundown. They are great players. Kailey Roberts is one of my favorite singers.
What are some of your favorite Savannah venues to perform in?
Savannah reminds me of Chicago with Great musicians and lots of bars with bands. New York is different, a union town with strict cabaret laws. A lot of bands to 45 minute showcases and don’t get paid. Not for me. I think I have played most of the venues here and I like them all for different reasons. Bayou is small and intimate and high energy. A lot of regulars who live the music. The Tuesday jam is a clearinghouse for musicians. The best players often show up. The Warehouse is a throwback, people coming and going and smelling of food and booze. The Wormhole is a dive with a great sound system that makes the band sound their best. An art crowd, no tourists. I like Jazz’d, upscale and quieter than most places. You can focus on the music. And there’s Tybee where you play party music for party people.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the Savannah music scene?
We should never take the Savannah music scene for granted. We have a lot of things here the other places don’t. Bands work, people listen. We have a constant stream of tourists who love to hear music. The city is full of great players and cool venues. You can ply your trade here.
Any upcoming projects?
Yes! I am in the middle of something very exciting. The Last Supper was produced in Rincon a year ago and we had some real firepower in the cast. Kim Palote and Laiken Williams as soloists and Abdiel Iriarte as pianist. I have been looking for a composer to collaborate with and I found Abdiel, a true creative talent. We have written our first songs together and Laiken will be recording them. I can’t say enough about her. She is an amazing singer with a great range of styles. She has pipes, is soulful and can put a lyric across. That has everything you could ask for.
Since COVID-19 I have mostly avoided playing in public and concentrated on painting and teaching. I have started a new series of classes, Painting with Thomas Mitz. Information about that can be found by looking me up on Facebook.