When people want to engage John Lamb in conversation, usually they’re interested in talking about the decade he spent playing bass in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Fair enough – those were heady times, jammed ear-to-ear with groundbreaking music, and one of the albums Lamb played on, Far East Suite, won a Grammy.
The thing is, that was a ten-year stretch, off and on, and John Lamb just turned 85. He’s lived half of his life now in St. Petersburg, and given so much to the bay area jazz community as a player, teacher and collaborator, and that’s why the Arts Alliance has named him its MUSE Performance Arts Award winner for 2019, and will honor him at a ceremony Feb. 8.
Even sooner, a group of his jazz buddies are throwing a birthday party/concert for him – this Sunday, Jan. 6, at the Palladium Theater.
After John and his wife Paula settled here, in the late 1970s, they both taught in public schools. Paula Lamb, who passed away in 2003, was also a principal and an area superintendent for 26 Pinellas County elementary schools.
He’s justifiably famous for that decade with Duke, but John Lamb was a music teacher, a band director and a substitute teacher – in everything from history to math – for 27 years.
“Regardless of what a person goes into, I think they do a certain amount of teaching,” Lamb explains. “Whether it’s in a school, or privately, somebody’s paying attention, somebody’s learning from them. They may be aware or they may not be aware.”
Just like he learned from his family, his church, his military experience and his musical influences.
The couple had relocated from Philadelphia, to raise their young sons in a less stressful environment. With his resume – he’d also sat in, or gigged with, many of the greats – Lamb knew he’d be welcomed into any local jazz society, anywhere.
“Teaching young kids in a school is like having an office in one part of town,” he says, “then you go over to the Junior College to teach young adults, there’s another office. Play a gig, that’s another office. That’s how I looked at it.”
Born in Vero Beach, Florida and raised a few miles down U.S. 1 in Fort Pierce, John Lamb wasn’t passionate about much of anything until he started playing tuba in his high school band (he had high hopes about getting into Florida A&M University – he was impressed by the snappy uniforms worn by the college’s famously great marching band – but his family couldn’t afford the tuition.).
Instead, he enlisted in the Air Force, and it was during those years – the early-to-mid ‘50s – that he realized the double bass was not only cooler than the tuba, he could transpose everything he’d learned about holding down the bottom end to this new instrument.
So he studied, and he learned. And once he left the service, he began to haunt the jazz clubs and the after-hours joints, in Philadelphia, Boston and New York. He backed Ella, he sat in with Basie. He jammed with Miles Davis. Billie Holiday’s Chihuahua snapped at him.
His hero was Ray Brown, who played bass with Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie and numerous others.
When Ellington’s son and aide-de-camp Mercer called to invite the young bassist to audition for the swinging Duke Ellington Orchestra, he was fully immersed in the world of bebop, a distinctly different and less linear form of jazz.
“Of course, I had played in big bands in the military,” Lamb recalls. “I listened to Stan Kenton, Les Brown, all the big bands back there. I listened to the older guys, and I listened to the juke box.”
For his audition, Lamb was thrown into the deep end. Ellington called the tune, “Stompin’ at the Savoy” in D flat, cleared his throat, waved his arms in a furious blur to count it off, and the band was moving.
Lamb had not been given a score. “So I said ‘Uh-oh, I’d better hop in.’ So I did. Fortunately, I had been playing along with the records of Oscar Peterson, and I had learned the tune. I remembered it!”
That’s often how it went with the mercurial bandleader. You had to be good – really good – to keep up with him. “Oftentimes, it wouldn’t be written,” Lamb says. “I had to use my experience … or watch the piano player, who was Duke.”
Lamb and his bass were always positioned behind, and to the side of, Ellington’s grand piano. So he could watch the master’s left hand to find and follow the root of each song.
This went on for three furious years – as part of the big band, and in smaller Ellington combos, Lamb went around the world several times. He was “on call” for seven more years – Mercer would ring up and say “Pops wants you to do so-and-so, are you available?” If he was, he’d go and play the date.
Ellington died in 1974, and four years later, with a freshly-earned teaching certificate in his back pocket, Lamb returned to his home state. Because she already had teaching experience, Paula got a job right away.
John sold insurance, he sold musical instruments, he took whatever job he had to, before Seminole High School brought him in as band director.
From the start, he was a formidable educator. “When the kids would misbehave, I’d pull the bass out in front of the room and play something for them. That got their attention.”
He still plays three gigs a week, and is a regular collaborator with guitarist Nate Najar, who considers Lamb a mentor.
At 85, he insists that he’s still learning. “I learn more about myself now than I do the instrument, because I have to produce the sounds,” he smiles. “I learn more about me, my thinking, my physical body, my mental body, my spiritual body, what I want to say musically. I think about all those levels. I just don’t think about learning scales. I don’t do that any more.
“For a bass player, there are only 12 notes. You learn your 12 notes, you know?”