By Sabina L. Lilly
By way of Brookfield, Ohio, and calling Chicago home since the summer of 2006, bassist Christian Dillingham is the embodiment of the well-rounded performer. Equally formidable in orchestral and improvisational musical settings, he can be heard around town as a member of Chicago Sinfonietta and Chicago Philharmonic, locking in with world-class drummers in a variety of jazz contexts and venues, and playing unplugged with singer-songwriters in intimate settings. And the list goes on. . . .
With Chicago’s diverse summer musical offerings in full—ahem—swing, we think it’s a great time to learn more about this dynamic bassist.
CJM:Talk about your early exposure to music growing up in Brookfield, Ohio. Is your family musical?
I was introduced to a lot of music at an early age from the records my parents would listen to. They had a wide variety of jazz, funk, R&B, and rock records. It took me a long time to realize how great their taste in music was! I now own a lot of their records and I am still discovering great sides that I was not aware of. My dad sang in a doo-wop group when he was young, and my mom has always played piano. She was always playing Debussy, Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart pieces in the house. My sister also spent many years singing and taking vocal lessons.
CJM: How did you come to play acoustic bass?
My path to the double bass was kind of a roundabout way. I started on the trumpet when I was in fifth grade and traded it in for my first electric bass when I was about fifteen. At that time, I was really into hip-hop and rock music. My first bass teacher, Jeff Bremer, was always trying to introduce me to other genres and great bass players on recordings. He introduced me to Jaco Pastorius’ first record, which was extremely enlightening. After that I wanted to play in the jazz band in high school and the director suggested that I learn how to play the double bass that the school had. The sound of the instrument was so familiar from all the music I heard growing up.
CJM: So, you played electric bass as well acoustic bass as a teen. Was it a conscious decision to also play electric bass professionally, or were you asked by a particular bandleader to play electric, or how did that come about?
I think that most upright bass players are occasionally asked to play electric bass. I went many years choosing not to but more recently I’ve grown to miss playing it and have started playing it more frequently.
CJM:Was there a specific recording, performance, or moment that first ignited your interest in jazz?
I wish I could say there was one specific artist or album that was a changing point, but there were several. Jimi Hendrix music was very influential, especially the record Band of Gypsys. I remember when I was in high school my uncle gave me the album Coltrane Live at Birdlandwhich really blew my mind. I also remember really wearing out Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintetin those early years. I was starting to hear how a lot of the music I liked was related.
While in high school I also started going out to hear live music. There was a jam session at a place called Cedar’s Lounge in downtown Youngstown. My teacher (Jeff Bremer) was the house bass player so my parents would let me go and sit in on a school night! That was the first place I got to meet and play with professional musicians, one of which was [trumpeter] Sean Jones. Sean helped me so much. He would tell me recordings to check out, let me tag along to gigs, and always provided advice and insight.
CJM: You mention becoming serious in a music career while studying with bassist Tony Leonardi at Youngstown State University. How did that experience solidify things for you, and can you tell us about other significant teachers or mentors?
I was truly fortunate to have teachers that genuinely cared about me. I started studying with Tony Leonardi during my senior year of high school. He was an amazing teacher and could really swing. I wanted to get better at playing jazz, but he would rarely discuss it with me in my lessons. He insisted we use the lesson time for studying technique, which was exactly what I needed. Tony cared deeply for his students. He always felt like a grandfather to me. My other two main teachers were Micah Howard (Pittsburgh Symphony) and Jeff Turner (formerly principal bass of the Pittsburgh Symphony and now teaching at Indiana University). Tony insisted that I play in the orchestra when I started college. I had never played in an orchestra prior to that. I remember the first piece we played that year was Schubert 9 [The Great C Major Symphony]. I went to one rehearsal and was ready to quit! Thankfully Tony would not allow it because he knew it would make me a better bass player. I really grew to love it and Micah pushed me to pursue it even more. Jeff Turner is a miracle worker. He has a special way of explaining information and can really adapt to what each student needs. Jeff Grubbs (Pittsburgh Symphony) also served as a teacher and mentor. Jeff was the first bass player I heard that could play both jazz and symphonic music at the highest level. Micah and Jeff Grubbs also studied with Tony, so there is a bit of lineage going on there.
CJM: You have performed with and collaborated with many bands and organizations across the musical spectrum—from symphonic configurations to original bluegrass groups. Can you describe some of these groups as well as their music, so we get a fuller picture of the range of your playing?
Chicago has such a wide variety of music, which is a great place to be for a bass player. I have always been interested in playing a lot of different styles. I have been a member of the Chicago Sinfonietta since 2007 and I also play with the Chicago Philharmonic. Both orchestras program a wide range of music and have several different collaborations throughout the year. I play a lot with Fulcrum Point, which is a new music group that focuses on contemporary compositions and tends to cross several genres. I play with a great singer-songwriter named Jodee Lewis—mostly country music. I also play in several different jazz groups and projects throughout the city.
CJM: Can you talk about one or two jazz artists, as well as a specific experience, that helped define your playing?
I am usually thinking about bass, so I will pick two bass players. The first record I remember hearing Ray Brown on was Night Train—another one of my parents’ records—with the Oscar Peterson Trio. The sound and feeling he created have always hit me at my core. I have always thought of his playing as perfection. Perfection of sound, groove, accuracy, ideas—he had everything. Charlie Haden is another one for me. I fell in love with his sound immediately. The melodic nature of his solos has always resonated with me. He was remarkably diverse and a dynamic musician and has had a major impact on me.
CJM: Do you or have you done any teaching: as part of educational outreach through the symphonic groups, master classes, individual or classroom instruction, etc.?
I have done a lot of teaching during my time here in Chicago. For years I taught high school students in and around the city, I have coached sectionals at DePaul and Roosevelt University, and, more recently, spent one year teaching at Eastern Illinois University. I also used to teach though the Louis Armstrong Legacy Mentorship Program that was run by Wycliffe Gordon. These days, I am mainly doing outreach through the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Chicago Philharmonic. Sinfonietta has a great outreach program called Audience Matters that works with a lot of CPS schools. I go into several of the schools and do solo performances and master classes. The Chicago Philharmonic has a side-by-side program where I mentor students, coach sectionals, and perform with them. Both of these programs are very rewarding, and I really enjoy working with the students.
CJM: Do you or have you done any composing or arranging?
I write music sporadically, one day I hope to be more consistent with it. About two years ago I formed my quintet that consists of [saxophonist] Nick Mazzarella, [guitarist] Matt Gold, [pianist] Dan Pierson, and [drummer] Jeremy Cunningham. We play a mix of my own compositions and a few classical pieces that I have adapted for the instrumentation.
CJM: What performances, recordings, and/or projects are on your horizon?
I recently recorded with Tim Fitzgerald’s Full House band. Tim has devoted himself to studying Wes Montgomery and this band plays Wes tunes that Tim has arranged. I also just recorded with Christy Bennett’s Fumée Gypsy Project. This record features the music of Irene Higginbotham. She has some very well-known tunes but unfortunately never received her due as a songwriter. This record will include some of her lesser-known tunes. Next month I will be traveling to Shanghai to perform with Victor Goines for three weeks at a venue that is run by Jazz at Lincoln Center.
For the latest news, follow Christian on Facebook or Instagram, or visit www.christiandillingham.com.
Chicago Jazz Magazine content manager (and sometime-contributor) Sabina L. Lilly has been a professional musician for over three decades. Contact Sabina at email@example.com.