The Truth About Tony Grey
World-renowned Bassist and Berklee Grad Talks Erie, the NYC Music Scene, and the Accident That Forever Changed His Life
Locked away in a dorm room, the reluctant student toiled. He was scared, alone, and more than a little intimidated; he was a stranger in a strange land who had first picked up a bass guitar just a few months earlier, and here he was, surrounded by some of the world's most promising and proficient students of music at one of the world's most prestigious and paramount institutions of musical instruction. What's more, his enrollment there was the result of guidance given him by his uncle – one of the most important musical figures of our time.
Newcastle, England native Tony Grey remained hidden away, woodshedding in his dorm room, trying desperately to play catch up; he must've been a marked man at the Berklee College of Music once it became known that his immediate family included a legendary guitarist, composer, and bandleader. Tony's fellow students must've thought he was a prodigy, coddled from birth by the renowned musician and brought up in the family business as the privileged protégé of a performer positioned to promote his progress.
They must've thought a lot of things about that bright English kid practicing 12 hours a day in that dark room; but there are three things that cannot long remain hidden – the sun, the moon, and the truth.
"It's kind of a working-class town," said Grey of his birthplace. Although it was a warmish, sun-shiny early fall day, we sequestered ourselves in a tiny black room with pasty-white egg cartons scattered about the walls on the second floor of a non-descript building in Erie. "The closest I can compare it to is probably Pittsburgh. Steel, shipbuilding, coal – all that. "
Photographer Ryan Smith flitted about that tiny black room – a photography studio equipped with a desk, a few chairs, no windows, blazing lights, a moonlike white backdrop, and no ventilation – clicking furiously. "My mother's a piano player – not professionally – and my grandmother's a piano teacher, so there was a lot of music in the family," Grey said.
Shooting Grey from near, far, high, and low – above his head, below his knees, and beside his face – Smith orbited the tallish, slim, greying Grey. I stood in the back, out of the way, and slung questions at the soft-spoken 38-year old. Grey had just gotten over the flu and looked rather serene, perched on that small stool under the soft yet hot glowing rectangles. But that's how he always looks. He is the commander of calm. Contemplative. Composed. Cool.
"Where I'm from, it's all about football," he said, not talking about the brain-bashing bulky brutes of American football, but rather the cerebral cardiovascular kickers of the soccer ball. "It's the religion of the town and community, so everything's based around that – who you support, the games, playing in the street. That's your life, basically. There's no music scene. Not at all."
Accordingly, Grey didn't really focus on music while growing up, but like nearly everyone else in the world in the mid-1980s, he admits to being "obsessed" with Michael Jackson; his first job was going door-to-door washing cars to earn money for MJ paraphernalia.
But it wouldn't be long before Grey found his way into performing. "I was never really thinking [about attending] college," said Grey. "And I got into DJing, because that was really popular – the nightclubs and the rave scene in England. If you're not going to be a soccer player, the next best thing to do is try to be a DJ. So I got into that, and I started getting a lot of gigs in nightclubs from a very young age. It was kind of a wild scene.
"And you know all the pitfalls that come with that scene – I don't want to get too deep into it," he said, sheepishly, of the up-all-night, sleep-all-day lifestyle. "But I kind of got led astray a little bit, and it was that point where I was really not sure where my life was going, so what I wanted to do first of all is clean myself up and get healthy, so I decided to enlist."
Seemingly seeking structure, Grey sought to straighten up by joining the highly-respected Corps of Royal Engineers, a component of the British Army with almost a millennium of allegiance to the Crown.
"I had just finished my basic training, and I went away for a little holiday. And on the way to that holiday," Grey said, staring at the snakepit of cords and cables strewn about the floor, "that's when I broke my back."
The heat from the lights began to radiate from the walls of the tiny black room as Smith and I listened to Grey tell us how cruelly his quest for self-improvement was slapped aside by the uncaring hand of fate. On a rainy, windy day, Grey had just stepped off a train and into his girlfriend's car, which, after failing to negotiate a curve, flipped and rolled down a 30-foot embankment.
Grey and his companion ended up in the hospital for months. "I had to learn how to walk again and get a big plate put in my back. And then I was at home, in body plaster, like an American footballer," he says, gesturing to his upper body, elbows askance, almost robotic. "And I was just laying around the house, pretty depressed. Didn't want to see any friends, didn't want to do anything except just lie in my pity."
One miserable day, Grey's stepfather brought him a bass guitar.
"I never asked for it – I didn't show any interest in it, and he just said, 'There you go, stop being miserable, here's something for you to do,' kind of a harsh northerner from England, you know, like, 'There you go, keep yourself busy,' and the door closed."
However, Grey was reluctant to pick up the unexpected instrument at first, much in the way that someone in agony refuses aid because it implies weakness. Eventually, the former DJ surrendered, and began using those hands that once fingered vinyl for plucking the Yamaha's thick metal strings. It became, as he put it, an escape from reality.
"I was like a freak, where I would literally buy every bass instructional book I could find and plow my way through them.
"The more I got into it, my dad had mentioned that my uncle was a famous jazz guitarist, but I didn't really… I knew he was a guitarist, but I didn't really know anything about jazz or his career," said Grey, above the constant clicking of Smith's Canon Rebel. "So I gave him a call, and he said, 'Why don't you come on one of my tours, and you can sit on the bus and chat with me, and talk about music?' So I went up to Scotland to hang with him, then went down to London, and realized that he was a world-famous player."
Smith stopped shooting, stared at Grey, and put his camera down.
"What's his name?" I asked.
"John McLaughlin?" Grey said, almost posing it as a question, as in "Ever heard of John McLaughlin?"
"John McLaughlin is your uncle?!" I nearly shouted at him, as he gave us both a well-practiced ohboyherewegoagain look that he must've given to countless others by now.
John McLaughlin is an influential English-born jazz fusion guitarist active for more than 50 years. His playing is intense to the point of highly spiritualized violence despite the prevalence of free-form non-western themes, and procedural to the point of deeply hypnotic entrancement despite the frequent flurries of staccato hammer-ons and pull-offs. With heavy Indian influence inherent, McLaughlin's distinctive sensibilities led him from Tony Williams' pioneering fusion trio Lifetime to working with Miles Davis' band on such delicious brilliance as "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew." Not content to merely channel his spiritual essence into some of the most significant manifestations of human emotion ever preserved for posterity, McLaughlin took his double-necked Gibson – with eight more strings than he has fingers, of which he has 10 – and with it helmed the Mahavishnu Orchestra, while still finding time to birth a mind-blowing 1973 collaboration with Carlos Santana, aptly titled "Love, Devotion, Surrender." Since then, John McLaughlin's been busy, well, being John McLaughlin.
"I had no idea," Grey said, of his uncle's standing in the jazz community. "I was intimidated, because when I saw him play, I said, 'This is serious. He's not messing around.' And I thought he was just some relative who was just going to give me some tips on what to practice, but he's, like, the best in the world, you know? So I went down to Monte Carlo to live with him and study with him for a few weeks, and really got inside of what he was doing. I went to one of his recording sessions in Milan, just watching and observing, and he suggested that if I really wanted to do this seriously, I should come and live in America.
"I'd never been to America and I didn't know anything about American culture, but he suggested I go to Berklee, so I did an audition on a cassette, and then they invited me to an in-person audition, and then they offered me a scholarship, and literally within six or seven months of living in this situation, I moved to Boston."
Smith and I stood, stupefied, in that tiny black room.
Which brings us back to that lonely Boston dorm room. Tony Grey's heretofore moonlight night had only just begun to acquiesce to the unstoppable sol, and here he was, cranking away at something he wasn't even sure he wanted to do, just six months after the first time he'd ever begrudgingly done it.
Grey said that it was hard for him to accept his new life, especially because of his famous uncle. "It was a very difficult time, psychologically, because from being in the army to music school in America, it was quite a life change."
Everyone wanted to hang out with him, Grey said of his unexpected popularity at Berklee, "because they thought I must've been amazing if I was sent by [McLaughlin], and the truth was that I was actually just a beginner."
Grey admits to being the type whose unoccupied hands quickly become the devils workshop, which also means that he's highly productive when he has something to accomplish. John McLaughlin didn't get Tony Grey into Berklee; Tony Grey's ravenous appetite for books and lessons and practice and knowledge and desire to escape reality got Tony Grey into Berklee. But to Grey, his new reality was as unsettling as the old.
"I had a lot of pressure from myself and from other people, and it was really…I really didn't enjoy it for the first year, and I was doubting why I was here, what I was doing. Did I even want to be a musician? Did I even have a choice to be a musician?"
It sounds like a dream come true, he added, but being related to McLaughlin probably hurt as much as it helped initially. "And he's a hard guy, you know? He's like, 'I'm not going to help. Music's music; you are as good as you are right now, and you suck.' There was no, 'Hey, you've just begun, it's going to get better.' It was like 'You're shit. Practice. Sort it out.'
"I got quite sick with that, to be fair," he admonished. "So what I did was just lock myself in a room. I didn't even go to class half the time. I just practiced 12 hours a day for months and months and months."
Yet he continued to struggle with the idea of it all. "I still didn't – I still don't – feel like it was a choice," he revealed. "I don't know if it's divine or whatever – I just never felt like I was in control of my journey, but I felt like, 'That's what you're going to do - there's no turning back now. I can't go back in the army. I don't really have the qualifications to do anything else. I don't have a desire to do anything else, so this is it,' you know?"
Smith, having shot sufficient stills, excused himself from the tiny black room. I switched off the bright glowing rectangles, while Grey's mood lightened considerably as he began to tell me about when things finally came together at Berklee.
"I teamed up with a Scottish guy [fellow student Alan Brown], a great drummer, and he dragged me along to an audition for a pop band," he said. "I did it not expecting to get the gig, but because we were buddies and I knew he could shine if he was around a familiar player. We ended up both getting the gig. I had to drop out of school, move up to New York, then Philadelphia, and we got signed by this big label [Tigerstar] that was run by [co-founder of Chrysalis Records] Terry Ellis. He did Billy Idol, Blondie, Jethro Tull, Huey Lewis, Pat Benatar. He's from that era. He kind of got quiet, but then got back into the business, and decided he wanted a new 'boy band' kind of thing, the difference being they could play music."
That band was called Bliss. Grey dropped out of Berklee, recorded with them, shot some videos with them, and even moved to Asia with them.
"It was so surreal," Grey said, almost laughing. "Being associated with John McLaughlin and him being my mentor and my reference point, I was into all the chops and playing fast and technique stuff and all the jazz theory and harmony, but I never actually learned to play bass bass. I never really knew the function of the instrument. So this pop band was interesting because it taught me how to be a bass player."
But Grey was not long for Bliss, so he returned to Berklee at the urging of uncle John, who wanted to see Grey challenge himself above and beyond his boy-band successes.
"And that's when I met [Japanese pianist] Hiromi [Uehara]. She was a prodigy from a young age; Yamaha picked her up when she was like 6, and she was playing in the Czech Philharmonic when she was 9. So they were just waiting for her to graduate and explode her into the scene." Grey and Hiromi clicked in class, and began practicing with each other, leading to a 7-year professional collaboration.
"And she became a superstar, immediately. We pretty much toured all over the world. "
The world is big. But it's also small.
"My wife [June Kim] is from here [the Erie area]. She was living in Pittsburgh, and she was visiting a friend who was in school in Boston. I met her at gig, and it kind of went from there."
Where it went from there was New York City – until the addition of a young son to Tony and June's world confirmed their next destination would, in fact, be Erie.
"I was touring so much at the time, and she really didn't enjoy being in New York, looking after a kid while I was gone for a few months at a time," said Grey. "Her family's all from here, so she wanted to be closer to them."
It's well-known that Erie is a great place to raise a family. Also, it was – and still is, to a certain extent – a place of steel, and shipbuilding, and coal like the Newcastle of Grey's youth; however, it was never – and still isn't – one of the world's cultural capitals, like New York City.
"I thought it would destroy my career," Grey said, of moving to Erie. "But in many regards it's enhanced it. It's given me an understanding of what America's all about, because your audience is middle America. It's not New York City and a lot of New York City musicians get stuck in a New York City mentality, where you're literally hustling for every gig. There's a good music scene here in Erie, but New York is like, times a thousand – there's world-class musicians on every block. You get caught up in the hustle of these $100 gigs, and you basically spend your life just surviving."
Grey's revealing comments about Erie – especially coming from an English cat who is as at home in Montreux or Milan or Monte Carlo as he is in Erie – exploded beyond the ceiling of that tiny black room, leaving a hole through which streaked the sun. Erie, Grey told me, became a place where he could escape the hustle, clear his head, and see the bigger picture while still supporting his family.
"At first when I moved away [from New York City], I lost a couple of local gigs. Why call somebody who you've got to spend $300 gas money for, and put them up in your living room when you could just call the guy next door?" he chuckled. "But for the bigger gigs, that really didn't change for me. If I'm needed in New York, I go to New York. If I'm needed in Japan, I go to Japan. I've been working with Bill Evans, the sax player who played with Miles; he called me for a tour and he was kind of irritated that I wasn't in New York, but he realized that I was up for the drive. If he wanted to rehearse, I would just drive to New York, take care of myself, didn't charge him for expenses; I was just there when he said be there. I made a conscious effort to not be a diva about it. It was my choice to move, so if I want to keep doing this, I've got to just carry on as normal."
Carrying on as normal probably left Grey wishing for a bullet train from Erie to New York. He spent, and continues to spend, countless hours – highly productive hours, he admits – driving back and forth, alone with his thoughts and his music. Thinking. Listening. Driving. Striving towards that rising sun, blasting out a few sets with jazz royalty in some legendary venue, then turning right around, returning to his thoughts and his music, and his home, guided by the lonely moonlight.
Erie life sure beats New York City life. I know, that's not something one hears often, but Tony Grey's career path suggests that New Yorkers may want to pay us a visit, stay in one of our Bayfront hotels, and make an appointment with a realtor. Erie is, after all, the clear-headed alternative, and we are, after all, connected by cable with New York, regular old York, and all points in between, making it easy to focus one's passions into a fibrous web and dispatch them across the very face of the Earth.
"I'm passionate about practicing because I always felt the pressure of having to catch up," said Grey. "I'm very meticulous about it, very analytical – like in a diary. And I was actually showing some of my students one of my workbooks one day, and they said, 'Hey, you should write a book,' so I did – I wrote a book, and it got published by Yamaha. Then I wrote another book that just got published by [instructional music publishing company] Hal Leonard, and I was doing Skype lessons. But when I was on tour, I was finding a lot of my students would actually be reaching out to study with me before and after the gig. I was doing that all over the world, and I realized it was very time-consuming and when I'm on the road, the last thing I want is three students hanging outside my hotel room. And if you teach per hour, there's a ceiling on how many students you can teach per day, a ceiling on how much money you can make a day. So I'm like, 'Okay, let's find a way.'"
Grey spent nearly a year in Erie creating and producing instructional videos, an effort that became the Tony Grey Bass Academy – his way of overcoming the limitations of time and space. "I would have never in a million years been able to realize that living in New York," Grey said, referring to the time it took to plan and execute the 300-something lessons available to students on the Internet for just a few dollars a month.
The virtual success of Grey's teaching business has allowed him more time to concentrate on writing, producing, and recording his own music. Although he's been known mostly as a sideman or a session performer – most recently with rapper/actor Ice-T – Grey's released four albums of his own, including 2004's "Moving," 2008's "Chasing Shadows," 2010's "Unknown Angels," and the Sept. 2013 release "Elevation," which features contributions by his old pal Hiromi, Herbie Hancock, Zakir Hussain, Steve Lukather, Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Mike Stern and, yes, uncle John.
Grey's unique take on the bass manifests itself in all four of his solo albums. His sound is rich, textured, and emanates from the soul. I can only equate it to a plate of orange Jell-O – it's flexible, almost quivering in its vibration and it easily takes the shape of the container into which it is poured, yet it is more than solid enough to hold up on its own and support layer upon layer of crunchy celery bits and little colored marshmallows. It's bright and clear and you can see those layers, but it also projects enough warm color and cool flavor to please the senses of young and old alike.
And, as the old saying goes, there's always room for Jell-O.
As we wrapped up the hectic hour in which Grey was prodded, poked, and photographed, it became clear that fate can be just as much of a cruel bitch-mistress as it can be a wholesome, loving mother figure. Grey's unlikely – and at times unwelcome – journey from the dark days of his accident and his self-doubt in that Berklee dorm room to the sunny Spanish tours and speedy trans-pacific flights took him places he'd never been and places he'd never wanted to be, but places he'd better for being, both physically and spiritually.
We closed the door to the tiny black room with the moonlike white backdrop and the pasty-white egg carton walls and stepped back out into the brilliant fall sunshine. Grey was on his way to a gig in Orlando, Fla. Because of a combination of determination, effort, and the cruel loving bitch mother fate, Grey's now positioned as one of the rising stars in the jazz world, even as he still wonders whether he has any choice in the matter.
He's been searching for that answer for years now, like there's some sort of eternal arbiter of what is true and what is not, of what is wrong and what is right, what is black and what is white, and what is simply Grey. But today, for Tony Grey – and the students who learn from him, and the players who share the stage with him, and the global audiences who hear his soaring melodies – the truth is no longer hidden.
Cory Vaillancourt can be contacted at cVaillancourt@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @VLNCRT.