With his crisp, round sound and firm rhythm, Richard Simon has become one of the most in-demand bassists in Southern California. He appears regularly with Buddy Collette's quintet and singer Ernie Andrews, and works Wednesday at Chadney's with the formidable guitarist Jon Pall Bjarnason.
"He's as good as you're going to find," Collette says.
Funny, then, that Simon, 46, picked up a bass for the first time about 16 years ago, when he was studying jazz at El Camino College in Torrance and the bassist in the jazz band didn't show up for rehearsal. Simon, originally a violinist and playing guitar at the time, says, "I fell in love. I just started playing it, and it spoke to me."
At the time, Simon, a native of Kansas City, Mo., was a substitute English instructor in Los Angeles-area community colleges. But he found time to study bass, eventually taking lessons from the late Red Callender, a renowned jazzman who had played with Art Tatum.
"Red became my first real mentor," says Simon, a relaxed, amiable fellow who lives in Palms. "Ours was the almost archetypal master-apprentice situation. He conveyed that music is an attitude. It's about being grateful to be a vessel working to learn the instrument, striving to be a supportive member of an ensemble."
Simon gave up teaching English in 1988 and has been a working jazz musician ever since.
"This has been my salvation," he says. "When I was teaching, I was utilizing my facility with language, but I didn't have a clue about who I was or what I was supposed to do with this life. It didn't answer the cry for meaning with a capital M, and that became jazz."
He becomes ebullient when he explains why he likes jazz.
"It's from the gut," he says. "It incorporates cerebral and visceral elements. You can dance to it, eat to it, make love to it, talk to it. It's every bit as expressive as verbal communication, and it knows no barriers of race, gender or ethnicity."
Simon took up violin while growing up in Kansas City and switched to guitar in high school. He received his bachelor's degree in 1971 at Ohio State University and his master's at State University of New York at Stonybrook in 1973.
He discovered jazz while working as a maintenance man in the mid-'70s, near Boston. "I heard a recording by violinist Stephane Grappelli that really had an effect on me," he explains. He moved to California around 1977, he says.
Recently, Simon has come back to teaching, taking part in an after-school program at LeConte Middle School in Los Angeles where he, Collette, reed man Jackie Kelso and others offer students instruction in everything from theory to ensemble playing.
"Being a teacher-peer of the likes of Buddy and Jackie makes me realize I have been accepted, that I have carved out my own identity," he says.
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WHERE AND WHEN
What: Richard Simon with guitarist Jon Pall Bjarnason.
Location: Chadney's, 3000 W. Olive St., Burbank.
Hours: 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesday.
Price: No cover, no minimum.
Call: (818) 843-5333.