Recently I took some time to get to know Chris Amberger, a jazz bassist whose passion shines apparent through his longevity, diversity and skill. A quiet tour de force, Amberger has been a rock in the jazz community for over 40 years.
Born in Waterbury, Conn. in the late 1940s, he distinctly remembers riding in the car when he was very young, hearing jazz on the radio and being instantly smitten. “I’ve been loving jazz my whole life,” Amberger says. When he was in junior high school, his widowed mother moved the family across the country to Oakland, at the peak of its jazz and blues renaissance.
Recalling how he began honing his bass skills as a teen, Amberger says, “In Oakland, my sister Anni was a folk guitar player. She would always open up for blues singers, and I would come along.” It paid off. “I graduated high school in 1967, and I started recording records in ’68.”
Amberger continued his musical studies at Oakland’s Merritt College from 1967 to 1969, studying with George Duke. He became involved with the Black Arts Music Society, a nonprofit providing education and a forum for aspiring, young jazz musicians, and while there, he was nominated as best jazz bassist. He also started playing for the groundbreaking group Now Creative Arts Jazz Ensemble, whose October 1968 debut album, Now, marked Amberger’s debut recording.
The great drummer Smiley Winters headed the project, and Amberger would go on to work with him as well as many other jazz greats on future albums. Quickly able to pull what he refers to as “living wage gigs,” Amberger says, “I was lucky … I just played my way in … and started making money right away.”
During this musically rich time, Amberger was also involved in the Upper Haight music scene rehearsing with Janis Joplin and the like. He frequently played with T. Bone Walker at a Haight Street bar and performed gigs and recordings throughout the City. He even did commercial work in the studios of the historic Sentinel Building back when it was the Kingston Trio-owned Columbus Towers, recording jingles for Butternut Bread, PSA airlines, and American Express. “I did a lot of commercials there back in the day,” he says.
Next Amberger went on to attend Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music from 1969 to 1973. “I got a full four-year scholarship from DownBeat magazine,” he says, even though he couldn’t read music. “I was used to learning by ear. I’ll tell you, it took me about six months to learn so I could get with the better musicians.” And get with the better musicians he did. He studied with Gary Burton, Major Holly and Ron McClure, just to name a few. He also had professional gigs touring with Tom Dorsey, Hasty Pudding Theatre and the Ritchie Havens Show.
While at Berklee, Amberger also became a part of Boston’s vibrant avant-garde jazz scene, playing with Donald Burt, Kenny Dorham, Billy Epstein, Al Martino, Jerry Vale, Allen Bawson, and many others, including reed genius Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Vibration Society. “Rahsaan was amazing,” Amberger says. “He would get going so fast. I remember one night playing with him down at the Black Avant Garde … I was playing my old bass, Bertha, [and] we kept getting faster and faster, and my fingerboard just fell right off. I had to just keep on playing. I’ve never had that happen before. Man, those shows were crazy.”
After receiving his music performance degree from Berklee, Amberger did as many college grads do and set off to travel. What made his experience unique was he traveled the world with a plethora of world-class musicians: Tunisia, Libya, France, and the Netherlands with the Latin-funk fusion group, Bombolè; Latin America with Cal Tjader and Rosemary Clooney; Western Europe with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (their performance at the June 1976 Ljubljana Jazz Festival in Slovenia was recorded and produced); and the United States and Canada with the George Shearing Quintet.
A stop in Tabarka, Tunisia was the most memorable: “The town where we were performing was high up on this mountaintop near the Algerian border … Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Kenny Clark were all there. It was surreal and the crowd was wild, like a riot.”
Between tours, Amberger was the house bassist at the legendary North Beach jazz spot, Keystone Korner, where he played and recorded with countless jazz luminaries, among them Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, Gabor Szabo, Red Garland, Sam Rivers, Ted Curson, Bobby Hutcherson, and Eddie Henderson. He also worked with Sammy Davis Jr., Bobby McFerrin, Odetta, and Dionne Warwick.
Throughout the years, he has ceaselessly continued to create, play and record music. He has his own group, Chris Amberger and the Hot Dogs featuring the Young Brats, and he is also working on a solo project. “I write my own stuff. You know, I’ve been writing for 30, 40 years, so I have a lot of songs,” he says. “I’m currently looking for a singer.”
And if all that’s not enough, Amberger is currently involved in making an independent film by director Marlon Gonzales, “The Gone World,” which focuses on the lives of three jazz musicians, one of whom is Amberger. Although he lives in Petaluma, that doesn’t deter Amberger from covering a lot of ground playing venues across the country and perpetually collaborating on live and recorded projects. He plays regularly throughout Northern California, including monthly appearances at Café Van Kleef in Oakland, Ledford House in Albion (Mendocino County), and the Healdsburg Hotel in Healdsburg (Sonoma County).
Another place Amberger is fond of is Café Divine on Washington Square in North Beach, where he plays with a Rolodex of talented musicians every week. “I’ve been coming to Café Divine for about three years, and I love it here.” Quipping interesting jazz facts between numbers and taking sips of red wine, he has a genuine smile and connects easily with his audience.
Wherever he plays, Amberger has an underlying, steady energy; a rich presence that’s not loud or boisterous – much like the musical presence of the bass. He works up and down the instrument seamlessly, plucking the strings casually but exactingly. He often closes his eyes and purses his mouth while playing, really feeling the music.
“There will always be real people, making real music; pouring their heart and love into it. And that’s what matters.”
Amberger is certainly one of these people.
Chris Amberger: Café Divine, 1600 Stockton Street (near Union), Tuesdays 7 p.m., 415-986-3414, www.cafedivinesf.com
View a video of Chris Amberger playing bass or the trailer from his film in progress,