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Bassist Dwayne Dolphin adds personal punch to wide range of music

| Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012
Bassist Dwayne Dolphin performs with drummer Roger Humphriesand saxophonist Lou Stellute at CJ's in the Strip. Also performing that night were pianist Max Leake and trumpeter James Moore.
Bassist Dwayne Dolphin performs with drummer Roger Humphriesand saxophonist Lou Stellute at CJ's in the Strip. Also performing that night were pianist Max Leake and trumpeter James Moore.

Bassist Dwayne Dolphin considers himself "the last dinosaur."

But others are far more complimentary.

Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, with whom Dolphin performed for about a year, says the bassist has "impeccable musicianship, a beautiful attitude and a workman-like disposition that is essential to great bass playing."

Trumpeter James Moore, who performs with him in Roger Humphries' quintet, calls Dolphin "the X factor in jazz. If he is in a gig, he will take the music places other people won't."

Mike Tomaro, the head of jazz studies at Duquesne University, says Dolphin is "the go-to person if you are looking for a bassist around here."

Dolphin, 48, has performed with stars ranging from soul saxophonist Maceo Parker to hard bopper Stanley Turrentine. He also is well known for his funky Piccolo Bass Band and has done work with category-defying singer SoCalled.

He recently toured Switzerland and Italy with inventive pianist Geri Allen in a trio that included a tap dancer performing as a rhythmic part of the band.

"I don't want to get stale," he says about the variety of his work.

Yet, he applies the prehistoric label to himself because his musical past is rooted in learning on the job rather than years in the conservatory.

He also has a conservative look at his lifestyle. The father of three would rather stay with his wife, Robin, at their home in Franklin Park than live in New York City or some other entertainment mecca.

Nathan Davis, director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh, came across Dolphin when the bassist was a teenager and has been impressed with his playing since.

"He can play acoustic or electric bass at any setting," he says. "He is a first-class bassist, no doubt about that."

On-the-job learning

Dolphin says his musical career goes back to when he was 10, and his brother, Fred, bought a guitar. Dolphin took it from under Fred's bed and played it.

"He said 'How'd you like it?' and I said the tone was so high it hurt my ears," Dolphin remembers.

His father bought him a bass, which was "the change" in his life. He started working hard at it, listening to players such as Paul Chambers and Charles Mingus.

The Hill District youth played in bands at Schenley High School and started gigging around town with players such as trumpeter Pete Henderson, who was a demanding boss, but set the stage for the challenges that shaped Dolphin's career.

He met Davis at that time and went with him on a trip to Martinique, his first journey out of the country.

"I was amazed when I found out he was only 16," Davis says with a laugh. "Man, I could have gotten in a lot of trouble taking a kid like that with me in a band."

By the time he was 19, Dolphin had joined Marsalis at a time when the trumpeter was a major news figure. Marsalis was a leading figure in a jazz revival, fronting a band that dressed in suits and ties on stage in an effort to appear professional.

"It was a great education," he says. "Those guys were way ahead of me musically and forced me to constantly try to catch up."

Dolphin believes he won the spot with Marsalis through the intervention of Jeff "Tain" Watts, the trumpeter's drummer who grew up with Dolphin.

As good as that education was, he says the "best experience of my life" was three years in the early '80s he spent with saxophonist Hank Crawford, who guided him musically -- and taught him a great deal about the business of music.

"He taught me the power of music," he says about passionate reactions to Crawford's playing.

One of the biggest moments was when a Crawford fan came up to the band and gave each member except Dolphin hearty congratulation about their playing. The bassist says that encounter upset him so much he worked furiously at his bass "with no outside activity."

The following year, the same fan saw the band again and admitted Dolphin was a large part of the band's success.

The bassist no longer was upset, but knew the best way to improve at that demanding level was even more practice.

It was a career-shaping stretch, Dolphin says.

"We both kind of agreed it was time to go," he says. "I had to get on with my life. But, man, Hank was my teacher."

Serious about work

Dolphin decided to concentrate on his work here, but still spent much time on the road. Throughout the '90s, he was in the band of Pittsburgh native Turrentine, who died in 2000.

"When Stanley called me, it was the biggest confirmation of my career," he says.

The breadth of Dolphin's work is what has developed his power as a musician, colleagues say.

"The pocket Dwayne creates in his music is incredible," Duquesne's Tomaro says. He says that ability to craft a rhythmic and contrapuntal home for bandmates comes from Dolphin's "street training," which has developed "a different sensibility" for the music.

Humphries says he respects Dolphin's education in the "school of hard knocks." Humphries says he looks at Dolphin as "a brother and a son," but points out the bassist functioned as the producer of the drummer's current album, "Keep the Faith."

Trumpeter Moore says he is consistently shocked at the depth of attention Dolphin gives to his work. The bassist passes out compliments rarely, Moore says, but when he does, he will offer detailed reasons why he is offering those positive words.

Dolphin laughs when he hears that, then gets serious and, with a frown, says he tries to avoid the "musical lies" some fellow professionals offer "when they really don't mean it."

That type of honesty goes along with the quality and range of his work to earn him constant respect.

"He is always swinging," Marsalis says. "He's my brother, and I love him."

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