Early evening in a Port Townsend wine bar, a jazz combo opens its set with the nuanced dissonance of a Jobim samba. The guitarist starts the rotation, picking out the melody on his sunburst Gibson, followed by the keyboarder and the sax.
Last up is the bassist, shadowed in the corner. His long fingers march artfully up and down the fingerboard. The room goes quiet, patrons leaning into the throaty melody wafting from the stage, then claps.
Dirk Anderson nods, then returns to his obligatory rhythmic dum-dum-da-dum. Bass players don’t showboat.
“I like to play the melody now and then, but the bass player’s job is rhythm,” he explains during his break. “Even if there is a drummer, it’s doo-doo-doo dum-dum. It’s much better to play the wrong note in the right rhythm.”
He excels at those bass clef solos. “I try to make the instrument more melodic and interesting,” he adds, “while still covering my rhythm responsibility.”
Playing in the background seems to come naturally to Anderson. In his previous life, he worked with fellow microbiologists at Immunex in Seattle, quietly tracing genetic codes linked to disease. Now retired, he’s traded in his electron microscope for an aging double bass.
He insists his professional resume is no big deal. Not in artsy Port Townsend, populated by sixty- or seventy-something boomers, most of whom are pursuing second lives as writers, poets, painters or musicians. In the span of a week, he will play with three different combos at three different bars. In each case, he will join a different group of accomplished musicians with similar professional histories.
Take, for example, Tony Petrillo, the lead singer and guitarist in Tony and the Roundabouts, which plays jazz standards at regular gigs around the peninsula. In his working life, Petrillo made his living as a much-in-demand marine engineer, working on waterfront projects from Oregon to Alaska.
Or Carla Main, who sang in her church choir and later in the Seattle Symphony Chorale while serving as a city planner at Seattle City Hall. In retirement, she’s a jazz singer with a local following.
Or Bob Francis, a PhD biologist who chaired the University of Washington Department of Fisheries before retiring to Port Townsend, where he took up his passion for jazz piano.
Or Al Bergstein, a Microsoft computer programmer who long ago began playing the mandolin, eventually gravitating toward Brazilian choro jazz. On retirement in Port Townsend, he helped found Centrum’s springtime choro festival that draws master musicians from around the world.
They know each other, play music with each other, sit in on each other’s gigs. But, in a sense, Dirk Anderson is the common denominator. When a local combo needs a bass player, he’s first on their list.
Anderson is a trim, cleanshaven 65-year-old with a mop of graying hair parted in the middle. Like most of his musical pals, he started young. His mother tried to teach him piano, but he opted for guitar, playing pop and Beatles numbers. He tried clarinet in high school, but his teacher offered him a chance to play double bass in the school jazz band. “I liked it,” he says. “Too many notes on the clarinet.”
“I bought an old plywood bass with a warped fingerboard for $200, got it fixed and played in a bluegrass band, and actually got paid for it!”
He went on to music camp in the Catskills, got some encouragement. But then turned his attention to college and biology.
He kept playing on the side through grad school—anything from bluegrass to classical. Meanwhile, he earned his masters, then his PhD, which took him to Immunex. “It was mostly lab work,” he says. “We were trying to find molecules that stimulate or inhibit immune responses.” Take, for example the 1993 paper he co-authored: “Molecular Cloning and Expression of the Type 1 and Type 2 Murine Receptors for Tumor Necrosis Factor.”
Outside the lab, he played guitar and piano with a group of immunologists, biologists.
Twenty years ago, he and his wife retired to Port Townsend, which had long since become a refuge for aspiring musicians, and especially jazz; a few years earlier, a jazz pianist had been elected as mayor.
Few, if any, of those musicians could make a living at it, but they were lured by the local arts vibe and the variety of venues ranging from bars to the more formal auditoriums managed by the nonprofit Centrum at Fort Worden State Park.
Anderson and his wife slipped out one evening to listen to a local jazz combo. “I was blown away. Amazing musicians. I didn’t think I’d ever be good enough to play with those guys.”
But he persisted, made connections, and got good at it. Carla Main, who migrated to Port Townsend a couple years later, recalls encountering Anderson and other local musicians at a Centrum workshop, where they lured her into the local jazz scene.
“I like jazz,” he says. “I like the improvisation, laying it out, trading off. You never play the piece the same way twice.”
He’s drawn to the people, the venues, and to the music theory. “The bass plays an important role. Without the bass, the pianist has to play the root notes with his left pinky. When I play that root, it frees the keyboard to do more with the chords. It’s a more interesting sound.”
And he likes the fact that occasionally he gets to show off with a throaty instrumental. “One good bass solo per set is enough.”
Most of his gigs pay. But it’s not about making a living. It’s about savoring the freedom of retirement, the root to a chord and the syncopated rhythm of a good life.