Ace Of Base
story: Jim Dyar photos: KaraStewartPhotography
BRUCE CALIN, LOCAL BASS GO-TO GUY
If you’ve attended a high-end North State jazz concert over the past several years, you may have noticed the same guy continually behind a well-worn standup bass. And those paying really close attention may have also noticed this fellow performing with the North State and Shasta symphonies, and in orchestra pits for a variety of musicals.
Since moving to the eastern Shasta County community of Oak Run in 2002, Bruce Calin has become the go-to guy for all manner of musical gigs demanding a pro on bass.
The genre of music doesn’t really matter – the Minnesota native has covered it all. A former member of the house band for Garrison Keillor’s nationally syndicated radio program “A Prairie Home Companion,” Calin, 62, has made a career with his bass since age 16.
“He’s just the all-around consummate professional, no matter if he’s playing symphonic music, jazz or just jamming on some blues or bluegrass,” said jazz guitarist Charles Valona, who regularly performs with Calin. “I’ve been very fortunate to have played with him as much as I have. It’s been an absolute honor. Plus, he’s made me work my tail off. You play with someone of his caliber and you want to make sure you’re prepared.” Last year, when the 101-year-old renowned Hawaiian jazz ukulele player Bill Tapia toured in the region, he learned of Calin and nabbed him to perform in shows in Redding, Ashland, Ore., and Eureka.
“I like the variety,” Calin says. “I like playing with different people and in different styles of music. That’s what’s most interesting to me.”
It would be hard to calculate (or comprehend) how many different musicians Calin has performed with, and venues he’s performed in, during his career. He’s spent a good portion of his life performing in supper clubs, theaters and dozens of other venues around the Minneapolis area. In the mid- to late-1960s, he played five to six nights a week all around the city. “At that time, it was possible to make a living playing in clubs and some people worked their whole careers in them,” he says. “I was working as many nights as I could. I remember my pay for five nights a week was $108.50, which was decent money back then.”
Calin was born in the small mining town of Hibbing, Minn., in 1947 and lived there until age 11. He befriended a fellow named Dave Zimmerman and loosely knew his older brother, Robert. Most people know Robert by his more common name – Bob Dylan.
It was in high school that Calin picked up his now 100-year-old German Diechsel upright bass that he continues to perform with. It belonged to a friend’s dad, who gave it to him because it had large cracks in the body. It cost Calin $200 (a huge sum in 1964) to repair the bass, but the instrument’s warm tone made it a great lifetime investment. In subsequent years, Calin has replaced the fingerboard and the bridge (rear support piece for the strings) a couple of times.
Calin studied language at Macalester College in St. Paul, and in 1970, was drafted into the Army during the end of the Vietnam War. He served domestically for about a year, and after being discharged, realized the only language he wanted to focus on was music.
That same year he moved to Omaha, Neb., and began performing with the Bob Jenkins Orchestra, which toured the country and played large state and county fairs. The band backed a variety of well-known performers including stars like Glen Campbell, Bob Hope, Engelbert Humperdink, Jim Nabors and many others.
“For awhile there I was doing a lot of traveling,” Calin says. “Some years I was gone a good third to half the year.”
After about five years on the road, Calin began working at the Chanhassen Dinner Theater (suburb of Minneapolis), performing in the pit orchestra for Broadway musicals. He did eight shows a week for about five years until 1980.
After that, he went full time as a freelance musician, which he continues today. He met his wife, Chris Paaske, while working at a resort in Park Rapids in northern Minnesota. Calin has two stepdaughters: Heidi Seiler and Carly Thomas.
In 1987, he picked up the gig with Garrison Keillor and “A Prairie Home Companion.” Each Saturday, he shared the stage of the national radio show with intriguing writers, poets and musicians. Off the top of his head, he remembers people like Taj Majal, the Everly Brothers, Albert Lee and Roger Miller as interesting artists to collaborate with.
“(The show) was very fast,” Calin remembers. “Everything was done in a tight time period. There were some really interesting people on there. Some who I’d never heard of before and haven’t heard from since. To see the thing come together on the fly was amazing.”
About 10 years ago, Calin returned to St. Paul for a club gig and Keillor showed up in the audience. After the show, the two caught up and chatted warmly about the old days.
Being called for all kinds of shows in the North State has been a pleasant way for Calin to spend his semi-retirement. He also teaches private bass lessons at Bernie’s Guitar in Redding, a shop that welcomed him to town and helped him link up with other players.
“There are some really excellent players here and some very good people, so that’s been fun,” Calin says. “One thing about having been a full-time professional player is I feel like I can give back some stuff. It’s been fun to play and share a little bit of what I know. I didn’t know what to expect coming out here. But it’s been a really positive experience.”