Romancing the tone

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Paul Keller appears to be happiest when he’s playing the standup. Perched on a stool with the bass propped against his shoulder, and thumping strings like his fingers are made of velvet, you can see the joy in his eyes, in his movements. The standup bass is a formidable instrument, to be sure, but Keller handles it gracefully like a seasoned masseur oiling down a tense body. He believes that in the right set of hands the bass is a romantic instrument.

“I have always been caught in the whole romance of jazz, and I’m glad that I never really lost that because it is what keeps me going,” says the 41-year-old Ypsilanti resident. “It is a hard job, and a strange business to be in, but that is what I mean by the romance — that is, I get to do what I like to do, and what I always dreamt about doing.”

Romance or no, Keller’s versatility and skills as a composer have earned him notoriety. The bassist has played with many distinguished jazz players over the years, including pianist Barry Harris, bandleader Cab Calloway, pianist Jay McShann, saxophonist James Moody, trumpeter Doc Cheatham, and guitarist Russell Malone.

“There are a lot of great bass players around, but Paul is unique because he lives, thinks and breathes jazz music,” says pianist Bess Bonnier. She and Keller have worked together frequently since the ’80’s. “I don’t want to say that he is obsessed because that is not the right word.”

Keller toured with Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Diana Krall off and on for five years, and performed on All For You, the album that put her on the map. Keller says that though touring with Krall was lucrative, he quit her band 1997 to start a family with his wife Michelle. (In September, Keller reunited with Diana Krall for a seven-week tour). For Keller, touring as a hired gun didn’t allow him the opportunity to compose his own music. Leaving the gig (a decision he claims he doesn’t regret) was tough because the money was great. Still, the man has been able to survive and support a family on music.

“I think that I’m one of the fortunate few who has been able to make a living playing jazz,” he says.

Love of game

For Keller, jazz is his vocation and avocation. He doesn’t claim any hobbies outside of music and family. He keeps busy musically, he says, by writing new arrangements for his orchestra, listening to albums, playing shows and learning new tunes.

Keller already has a multitude of gigs scheduled for this year. He leads the Paul Keller Orchestra and the Paul Keller Ensemble every Monday and Wednesday night, respectively, at the Firefly Club in Ann Arbor. With his friend, pianist Rick Roe, Keller co-leads the Bop Culture quartet. Besides being a sideman and a bandleader, Keller teaches a jazz combo course at the University of Michigan, and runs BoPo, a record label he started in 1999. His Paul Keller Orchestra just celebrated its 15th anniversary.

If this schedule sounds daunting and tiresome, it isn’t.

“Even if I don’t have anything to do I will try to make up a project,” Keller says. “If I find myself with a little extra time I try to get into some mischief.”

An example of Keller’s brand of mischief is this: He’ll invite Roe over for an impromptu session whereby they invent new ways to play the music of Thelonious Monk. Keller insists that a bass player has got to be familiar with the different styles of music to play with any conviction.

And then there’s his family; in December, Keller and his wife Michelle welcomed their second child, Nathaniel, into the world. The couple also has a 3-year-old daughter, Leah.

A boy and his jazz

Keller was born in Tiffin, Ohio, and grew up in Grand Rapids. By the sixth grade he was playing the bass and taking classical music lessons. His father, a Methodist minister, introduced him to jazz. As a teenager, Keller spent hours listening to his father’s record collection. The youngster developed an enormous appetite for jazz.

In 1978, the Fox Head Inn was a popular jazz club in Grand Rapids. Though only a teen, Keller’s parents didn’t discourage him from going there.

“When I went to that place at 16, a light bulb went off inside my head,” Keller recalls.” I knew that this was where I wanted to be, and that I wanted to be this kind of person, a jazz musician.”

At the club, Keller impressed a septuagenarian Kansas City pianist named Harold “Popeye” Booker. Booker was a colorful character who had also done time with the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro League baseball team.

“I learned the jazz vocabulary from him. I got a real education from him on different subjects,” Keller says. “He told me lots of great stories about musicians and baseball players. I was really thankful that he took me in.”

Keller began playing weekends at Fox Head with Booker. He’d get a 20-spot for his efforts. “You know, it is funny I worked for that amount then and sometimes even now I work for twenty dollars.”

Keller also caught the attention of ivory-tickler Bennie Carew. Throughout the 1940s, Carew was a top draw in Michigan. At different times he had such musicians as pianists Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones and saxophonist Wardell Gray in his band.

Carew offered Keller a full-time gig but Keller’s parents balked at the idea; they wanted him to finish high school. Keller did and enrolled at the University of Michigan. But he dropped out during his junior year and returned to Grand Rapids to finally play with Carew, whose bass player had recently died. Like his work with Booker, the experience was educational. Keller says he learned more about music in Carew’s band than he had during his U-M stint.

“Playing with Bennie was like my college education. I was really learning how to be a bass player, and how a bass player was suppose to play in a trio.”

When Carew died, his drummer John Shea took over the band, and he became Keller’s mentor. Keller attributes his work ethic to Shea.

“John taught me that you get up in the morning and practice. Then when you are done practicing you put on some records and you transcribe some solos, then you practice some more, and the next day you do the same thing over.”

Keller worked with Shea from 1981 to 1987. Then he hooked up with pianist Eddie Russ, and the pair moved to Ann Arbor. Russ introduced Keller to the fertile Ann Arbor jazz scene. There, Keller met saxophonist Larry Nozero, vibist Cary Kocher, drummer Pete Siers, and bassist Ron Brooks, the owner of the Ann Arbor jazz club Bird of Paradise. Keller started playing at the Bird, performing duets with Kocher.

By 1989, Keller and his orchestra had residency at the club. It lasted 13 years. When that gig ended, Keller and company moved over to the Firefly Club.

The bassist also launched BoPo Records, and released assorted Paul Keller recordings, as well as work by other musicians and bands.

The orchestra is one of Keller’s signature accomplishments. In addition to its five releases (Hallelujah Train, Project X , Bingo!, Paris Blues, and A Tribute to Count Basie), Keller and company have performed with Cab Calloway and toured Europe twice.

All in the family

Keller says that he’s a family man foremost.

“The family comes first, so much so that I had to scale down. I’m a family guy and a homebody. My kids are very lucky because they have both their parents at home all the time,” Keller says.

Michelle has helped keep Keller’s career running smoothly, assisting with the business affairs such as scheduling and booking gigs. Keller says that Michelle has always been very supportive.

“You have to be a special women to be married to a jazz musician. I have the best wife. She knew what she was getting into when we got married, and she has stuck with me.”

Musically, Keller thinks of himself as simply a bass player dedicated to making quality music. And he’s established a balance between the music and his family life.

“I think that a certain part of doing jazz is for the love of it, and doing it for the love of playing and the love of practicing. That is what motivates me and the orchestra,” Keller says. “If I can keep my family fed, a little money in the bank and keep everybody warm and happy, and still get a chance to do what I love, then I can’t think of a better life for myself.”


Paul Keller will perform with pianist Larry Fuller on Friday, Feb. 20, at Kerrytown Concert House (415 N. Fourth, Ann Arbor). Call 734-769-2999. The Paul Keller Ensemble will perform Saturday, Feb. 21, at the Firefly Club (207 S. Ashley, Ann Arbor). Call 734-665-9090. The Paul Keller Orchestra Tribute to Count Basie will be held Sunday, Feb. 22, at the Capitol Theatre and Arts Centre (121 University Ave. W., Windsor). Call 519-253-7729.

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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