A patriot of jazz and double bass — Aivars Zītars
A double bassist that was one of the brightest on the jazz scene of the sixties. Emigration to Canada and returning to Latvia
I first met Aivars Zītars (1938) in 2019 when I interviewed him and two of his musical colleague’s double bassists for the «JAZZin muzikālajās piezīmēs» show. A. Zītars’ input into Latvian jazz music’s life is enormous since he represents the generation of powerful sixties musicians. So I had invited him for a conversation once again, this time just the two of us, to find out more about his road to double bass and jazz music.
In the autumn of 1986, A. Zītars had emigrated to Toronto, and playing double bass became just a hobby, but since the summer of 2020, he has been once again residing in Latvia. He told me exciting stories about the first Latvian jazz festival and the Song Festival in Toronto during our conversation. He is a huge patriot of jazz, and playing double bass, he still relates to it strongly, though he hadn’t played the instrument for some time. For sixty years already, A. Zītars owned a double bass that belonged to his teacher. He is an exciting conversation buddy and impressed me with his remarkable ability to recall precise dates and events.
How did you start playing the double bass?
I had been interested in music since grade school. My teacher had noticed that I had some knowledge of notation and that I was a musically inclined child. Then I started playing in the school band, and I played a brass instrument that was called an alto; its function was mainly comping, mainly playing off beats. I got bored with it, I wanted to play melodies, so I started playing the trombone. In high school, I had played in a band that featured some accordions and some saxophones, I got interested in the saxophone because I used to listen to Glenn Miller’s orchestra, I was very into it. So that got me thinking of where to get a tenor saxophone. It was peculiar that no one would come forward and suggest teaching me, I found an instrument myself and started learning also myself, at home.
When I went to Riga to study, I didn’t go on the musical path initially. My mother wanted me to become an architect, but I was very interested in music, so a couple of friends and I formed a small orchestra that we used to play in a club, «Kaija». While playing one of the concerts where we performed some Latvian melodies, our current double bassist suggested I try playing in his place. My interest in the double bass sparked instantly, although I really enjoyed the saxophone. The problem with the saxophone was that you couldn’t study it anywhere, you had to learn to play the clarinet. So I went to study with one of the teachers in Jāzeps Mediņs Riga Music School — Mr. Ķipāns, but he said my level wasn’t enough to get into school, and I needed at least two more years of preparation in order to enroll. Then I was proposed to learn double bass because there was always a lack of those in the orchestras. I had little time to contemplate because I had to pass architectural exams in spring. I failed those because I had a concert at a graduation party the night before and didn’t study for the exams. I was given a chance to retake the exams in autumn, but I declined because music enticed me more.
I spent a night lying in bed, listening to music — the desire to study music was so intense that I decided to dedicate the summer to getting ready for the entry exams in double bass with the teacher Jēkabsons. By autumn, I was accepted to music school, but since I already had my GED, I had to study musical classes only. By my third year, Jēkabsons said not to waste my time anymore and try to enroll in the Academy of Music, skipping the fourth year of studies. I was lucky enough to get accepted, and I don’t even have a music school diploma.
How did you start playing jazz, and what ensembles have you played with?
It all started when I was still in Jāzeps Mediņš music school. I used to play in a Sailors club with Raimonds Raubiško, and we played mainly swing music. We played compositions that we could sheet music of and some tunes R. Raubiško had transcribed himself. Already then, he was a well-known musician.
I studied at the Academy of Music for four years, and that was where I met a pianist Ivars Vīgners and a trumpetist Aivars Krūmiņš. We have formed a quintet with I. Vīgners on the piano, A. Krūmiņš on the trompet, R. Raubiško on saxophone and Zigurds Rezevskis on drums. We played tunes that I. Vīgners transcribed from the tapes. We were like addicts, jazz fascinated us.
Around 1961 we decided to open the Riga Jazz Club. We had agreed that the president of the club should be Bruno Oja, an Estonian singer, and Juris Āķis would be the secretary. In 1962 we organized a jazz festival at the «A. Popov Riga Radio Factory clubhouse»; it lasted for two days with 16 orchestras taking part in it, and even Raimonds Pauls and his trio performed. We played with the Ivars Vīgners octet — I. Vīgners played the piano, A. Krūmiņš the trompet, R. Raubiško tenor saxophone, Ivars Birkāns baritone saxophone, Aldis Ermanbriks alto saxophone, Juris Kvelde trombone, Z. Rezevskis drums and I the double bass.
[Aditional information on the first Latvian jazz festival can be found in an article by Indriķis Veitners, «KIKOK — the first Latvian Jazz festival. Reconstruction.», JAZZin.lv]
Later on, we played at the Tallinn Jazz Festival. We rented a vehicle to get there because musicians then didn’t have cars of their own; I used to take the tram with my double bass in Riga.
Oh, also, when I finished my first year in Jāzeps Mediņš music school in 1960, R. Pauls had changed the lineup of his trio, and he had invited me to play double bass, Z. Rezevskis played drums. We played concerts in Moscow and Leningrad [St. Petersburg] with this ensemble.
So you learned jazz in the process of playing?
Yes, of course. Also, while listening to the «Voice of America» radio station. R. Raubiško, for example, listened to tapes at home. My other colleague, a pianist Viesturs Tērauds, in turn, had a vast collection of vinyl at home; I used to visit him and listen to the recordings — he knew more about jazz, was more educated in it.
In 1966 I began playing at the Latvian Radion and TV easy and popular (Estrada) music orchestra in Ogre, funded by Ringolds. Two converts at VEF culture palace were among our most significant accomplishments, we performed American jazz there. R. Ore promoted a saxophonist Vitālijs Dolgovs to be the second conductor, and he was the one who was responsible for the jazz programs. We even had group assignments during rehearsals, the time spent there was very productive, and the job was exciting.
In the sixties, the level of big bands in Latvia was very high because mostly everyone copied American recordings. The only disagreements there were, were between the rhythm section and the horns, thus, the orchestra couldn’t achieve a perfect rhythmical interplay. The horn section thought they needed to play with a slight delay in tempo, but I think it’s completely unnecessary and wrong, the horns have to play as precisely as possible. The most excellent satisfaction from playing in the big band can be achieved, in my opinion, if you hear a precise, balanced sounding.
After the death of R. Ore, a violinist Alnis Zaķis took over the big band. He began writing his own music, and that’s when jazz music ended, and the pop music era began. I had worked with this orchestra up until 1972. One of the reasons I left the big band was that I got bored of playing that music. Secondly, the double bass began losing its popularity. Everyone wanted a bass guitar, but I was still obsessed with jazz and the double bass. My favorite was an American double bassist Ray Brown, he was my idol, and I tried copying his playing style. Pop music never interested me. Radio had bought a bass guitar, I learned to play it a little and had recorded some tunes, but I don’t practice it anymore.
What were you doing after you left the orchestra?
I started playing in a vocally instrumental ensemble, «Selga». By the way, R. Raubiško and A. Ermanbriks played saxophone there as well. In «Selga», I mainly played the bass; it was nothing complicated, the fingering is very similar to the double bass, and I used the same playing technique. I don’t even know how professional bass guitarists use their fingers in the second, third, and fourth positions. My double bass had spent ten years on top of the closed in my bedroom. Playing in «Selgā» was my job after I left the radio. And I used to teach Andrejs Lihtenbergs new songs since he couldn’t read music.
Do you also compose?
When you spend so much time playing in any ensemble, there surely comes a time when you want to compose something yourself and then listen to how it sounds. I had written a couple of songs during my time in the radio ensemble. One of my songs was highly rated in the «Mikrofona» top. It was one of the first songs that A. Lihtenbergs sang — «Vai tu nāksi vēlreiz?» with the text by Alfrēds Krūkļis. The song was written in the style of Tom Jons, with a strong swinging pulsation. Zigfrīds Račiņš had sung another of my tunes — «Septembra maigums» there was also a string instrument section taking part in the recording. I learned to arrange from other arrangements. I asked V. Dolgovs for advice on which chord voicings would sound better in the wind instrument section and which voices are better played in unison. In this period, I also wrote a tune called «Rīgas meitenes» — American-type orchestration and a vocal part performed by the Latvian Radio Vocal Ensemble.
I also want to pay my respect to R. Pauls — his music signified the birth of Latvian pop; he was very productive in the sixties; I was very touched by some of his songs with lyrics by A. Krūklis. He was very popular at the time, and his concerts were always sold out. So I think it’s safe to say that he’s the father of Latvian pop music.
You mentioned earlier that you were inspired by a double bassist Ray Brown and his playing style. What and how did you learn from him?
I tried transcribing R. Brown’s parts from the «Autumn Leaves» recording. I tried writing down what I heard while practicing my instrument when I lived in Canada. I’ve also learned the material from a couple of books, one of those had transcriptions of the bass lines R. Brown played in a couple of tunes. I tried learning his playing pattern without adding techniques from other styles to it. R. Brown had visited Toronto together with Oscar Peterson; I had been lucky enough to attend their concert.
What were the other double bassists that also played in Latvia in your time?
One of the most famous was Ivars Galenieks. Boriss Bannihs was also a very active musician, although he had played bass guitar more than the double bass. I guess he had learned it at home, as he saw fit. He was very musically gifted and had played for a long while in the «Modo» ensemble led by R. Pauls. And then, in the eighties, jazz music had experienced its renaissance. The Soviet regime wasn’t so negatively tuned towards it anymore.
What do you find fascinating in jazz music?
The freedom and improvisation. Also, the groove and another feeling that is too hard to put into words. It’s also worth mentioning the walking bass line in the swing-style compositions. In the beginning, the bass lines were mainly written in intervals with a few passing notes here and there, but then when I started listening to the «Voice of America» radio station, I realized that the bass line does form a melody of sorts. The first double bassist of R. Pauls’s trio, Aivars Timšs, was very skilled in musical technique, but he played the notes very briskly, as in a symphony orchestra, but when I listened to Ray Brown’s recordings, I realized that the bass sounds completely different. The notes were long, stretched out, with no breaks in between. That created that unique, specific feeling.
I enjoy the sounding of the big band a lot, but I also like small ensembles and combos. There is also a huge difference between listening to a recording and listening to a live performance. The live act draws you in instantly and excites you.
How did your time in Canada pass?
Connections are significant in Canada — it’s hard to get into the scene when nobody knows you. At first, it was tough. During my first years there, I regularly attended concerts and observed the leading bassists. I used to listen to them playing and copying some of their licks and tricks.
In the nineties, I had invited R. Raubiško to come to visit me and play in the Latvian Song festival organized there. The organizers contacted me and suggested I do a jazz concert with a small band on one of the evenings. I arranged three local musicians and R. Raubiško on the saxophone. After the show, both musicians and the listeners were very pleased with the performance. I still have the recordings from that night.
What, in your opinion, is the key to becoming a good jazz musician?
One of the most critical factors is education. During my first years in the music school, «Riga Estrada Orchestra» (REO) invited me to go on tour with them and to play concerts. They promised good money, but I declined, I wanted to finish my studies.
Secondly, you have to listen to a lot of music, really let it sink in. It isn’t a bad thing to copy someone’s playing technique in the beginning as well.
Playing your instrument is imperative, but I would strongly advise young musicians to play with someone experienced, to learn from them.