The Late Jack Bruce: "I Don't Feel I Have Anything to Prove Anymore"

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares observations, insights, and updates relating to South Florida's musical environs. This week, a final interview with the late and legendary Jack Bruce.

The passing of Jack Bruce, who died Friday at age 71, is a loss that didn't resonate only with those who marveled at his early work with British blues greats Graham Bond, John Mayall, and Alexis Korner; his groundbreaking climb to superstardom with Cream; and later, his genre-defying efforts on his own and in the company of others. It also hit hard with a newer generation of fans who witnessed his continuing efforts to shatter stereotypes and forge his own ever-evolving style and circumstance.

Bruce's last album, Silver Rails, released just this past April, demonstrated that the innovation and exploration that's marked Bruce's extraordinarily prolific career was in no danger of slowing down. The composer of one of rock's most enduring riffs -- the signature bass line that defined "Sunshine of Your Love" -- he boasted a career that's veered from blues and jazz to pop, prog rock and heavy metal, even as his role in redefining the function of bass guitar all but assured his lingering legacy.

I had an opportunity to connect with Bruce via email this past May, and while I feared his curmudgeonly reputation might be a bit intimidating for yours truly, it was anything but. Here is part of the transcript from that exchange:

New Times: Your new album, like your other solo work, manages to tie together your more progressive tendencies with wonderfully melodic and accessible songs. What is your MO? How do you maintain that balance? Is that a deliberate strategy on your part?

Jack Bruce: I always plan my albums meticulously but try to leave space for the unexpected, the spontaneous.


Over the course of your 50-year career, which of your efforts have been most satisfying for you? Which do you point to as most significant?

Most satisfying for me artistically have been my 14 solo albums. Most significant, I guess the work I did with Cream and my contribution to the development of the bass guitar.

Let's talk a little about Cream. Were you at all surprised by the hoopla surrounding the band? Did the high bar that the press set for you ever seem impossible to overcome? What were the internal pressures like? Looking back on that experience now, how would you sum it up? Was it satisfying at the time?

It was the band members that set the high bar. Cream was tremendously hard work at the time but ultimately very satisfying, for me, at least. The internal pressures were significant, but I think this applies to all extremely successful bands. Most of the problems were caused by extremely poor management. Our manager, Robert Stigwood, was very greedy to say the very least, and his short-sighted vision of the band helped its early demise.

You wrote one of the most enduring riffs in rock. Are there any anecdotes about how you came up with that riff? Did it suddenly come to you? Did you play around with it for while?  

One night I was working with my lyricist and friend, Pete Brown, and we had been working through the night but to no avail. We had come up with nothing good. Suddenly, I picked up my double bass and played the "Sunshine of Your Love" riff. Pete looked out the window at the glow in the sky and wrote, "It's getting near dawn..." I took the riff, melody, and lyrics to a band rehearsal, and Eric wrote the "turn around" chords, and Pete added the final words, "I've been waiting so long... etc."

We had a song. It was Atlantic engineer Tom Dowd's idea to reverse the drum beat. He said to Ginger, "Play the drums like in one of those Western movies when the Indians appear and the drums go, BOOM boom boom boom BOOM boom boom boom..."


What inspires your songs? Where do you find your muse?

I can find my inspiration anywhere, but quite often it's just simply a musical interval or a rhythmic phrase.


Your love/hate relationship with Ginger Baker is the stuff of legend. How do you two get along these days? After the turbulent time you had in Cream, why did you opt to reunite with him on so many subsequent occasions?

I always believed I could work with Ginger and that he would mellow out a little. It was not to be, I'm afraid.

You first met Eric with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, no? What was your impression of him then? Were there thoughts that someday the two of you would play together in a project of your own?

I thought Eric was streets ahead of any other guitarist on the scene when I heard and played with him in the Bluesbreakers, and I do think we both thought we'd play together at some point.


What of your solo work are you most proud of? Which albums in your lengthy canon stand out?

I'm probably most proud of Songs for a Tailor and Silver Rails.

Your career has been remarkable for any number of reasons, but what is most striking to me is the way you go back and forth between genres, specifically the hard rock of the work you did with Leslie West, Gary Moore, Robin Trower, etc., and then the jazzier and more ambitious things you've done with Carla Bley and McLaughlan. So what guides your muse? What drives you between the two extremes? Which of these styles do you find most satisfying?

I am inspired and love the challenge of walking the tightrope of playing and attempting to master many different musical styles and techniques. I am very comfortable playing blues rock with Robin Trower or my late, great friend Gary Moore. But I also love the edgier music of say Carla Bley or Tony Williams or the band with Vernon Reid, John Medeski, and Cindy Blackman Santana called Spectrum Road. In many ways, Kip Hanrahan discovered the essence of me in his fabulous albums like Desire Develops an Edge. Music has no walls no barriers for me. It just is.


You've also been heralded as one of the best bassists of the past 50 years. I'm curious how you developed your style. How did you develop your bass into a lead instrument as opposed to the traditional rhythm instrument as it had been used previously? When did you develop your style, and with which bands did you first employ that technique?

I simply took the jazz and classical techniques I grew up with and applied them to rock bass guitar. The EB3 I played with Cream and beyond was deliberately chosen because it was so compact and easy to play. Most importantly, I could bend the strings like a blues guitarist. However, I didn't always play "lead bass" -- only when the music called out for it.


What do you think of all these accolades that have been heaped upon you? Is it intimidating having to maintain that high bar?

I don't feel I have anything to prove anymore. I am simply still in love with the act of making music whether I am singing, playing bass, or piano. I just adore music.


Did you ever share techniques with bass-playing contemporaries like Entwistle and McCartney? Is there some kind of bass players "club"?

I'm afraid we don't all live in the same house. Probably quite lucky from the neighbors' point of view!


Likewise, you have such a unique vocal as well. Where did you develop your singing style? How have you managed to maintain your vocal range and durability after all these years?

I can only put the fact that I still have the same vocal range as before (more or less) down to my early studies of the Bel Canto approach, which teaches you to use the right muscles and use your diaphragm.


Who are you listening to these days?

Om and Earth and Prokofiev.


Is there anything you've never been asked before?

What's the capital of Bolivia?


Anything remaining on your bucket list?

Must buy more buckets.


Anything you'd like to add?

By George, I think you've got it.

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Lee Zimmerman