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Rick Willoughby: Deep Bass Roots for Jazz Journeyman

It all started four decades ago in the same town that gave birth to Pat Metheny. Veteran Kansas City bassist Rick Willoughby found his calling on the bass in his hometown of Lee’s Summit, Missouri.

The violin was his first foray into music at age 3, the string bass at 11, and It all culminated when Rick picked up the electric bass at the age of 13.

“I really don’t feel like I’m old enough to do anything for 40 years. I didn’t start reading music until I got into the school system. Ironically, when I got into the 4th grade and started school orchestra, my mom was my teacher,” Rick said. “She was in the Lee’s Summit School District at the elementary level for 30 years. She taught me in 4th through 6th grades. She is a fine cello player, still playing in the symphony all over town.”

His mother gave Rick private lessons at their house and he was able to actually see an upright someone brought to the house. Once in school, he was the only bass player and was immediately picked to play regularly. That gave Rick a prowess on the instrument to lead him to play in the high school bands while he was still in junior high. This was during a time when Lee’s Summit high school did not actually have a jazz program.

“At that age as an improviser, I felt like if I could wrap my head around the fact that I could play basically anything whether it was pop, folk, jazz .. really anything,” Rick noted. “I have always been interested in all kinds of music.”

Rick Willoughby attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music. There, Rick learned from some of the legendary Kansas City musicians. Artists like bassist Gerald Spaits, pianist & bassist Bram Wijnands, and the program’s director at the time, Bobby Watson. 

Bobby Watson ultimately gave Rick the opportunity to perform all over the country. “Everyone knew and loved Bobby. For all that he has done here in Kansas City, I still don't think people realize what kind of celebrity he really is,” Rick said. “He is an International Superstar that just happens to live down the street. We are more than fortunate to have him here.”

His piano teacher was Bram Wijnands. Even though Rick hasn’t achieved proficiency at the instrument, there was a spark the teacher noted in Mrs. Willoughby’s son. 

“Bram was telling me all these amazing things, and I might as well have been wearing boxing gloves and punching the keys! He saw something in me that I don't even think I saw in myself,” said Rick. “I appreciated his nurturing. That has led to what I do now.” A relationship has grown and persisted until the current day. For the last 5 years, Rick and Bram have co-hosted a jam session the second Tuesday of each month at KC Bier Company, in Waldo. 

Back to Lee’s Summit, his very first live jazz show was attending a Pat Metheny Group concert at the Uptown Theater back in 1996.

“Pat had the full 10 piece outfit with Lyle Mays on keyboards, and it was unreal .. mind blowing,” Rick noted. “I had no idea how those humans were doing it.”

Over the years, Rick’s been quite active and prolific on the local scene. Doing quality time with Quixotic, Victor & Penny’s Loose Change Orchestra, being a founding member of The Snow Globes, being an integral part of the Grateful Dead acoustic tribute band Shakedown Strings, and playing bass with Hot Club KC.

With all of this activity, the pandemic was still a shock to Rick’s system. “I’m an ensemble player. I love performing with other people. That’s why the shutdown was so mind blowing. I didn’t know if live music was going to happen again,” said Rick, “then, it dawned on me how much of my identity is tied to being a musician. I have always considered myself a conservationist, loving the outdoors and as a political activist. I thought those things were my identity. When music was straight up not happening, it dawned on me that I’m a musician that really missed playing!”

Overall, Rick’s a huge fan of the Kansas City scene and fits well into the overall energy and vibe of the movement. 

“The evolution of the KC scene is incredible. It keeps evolving and I keep meeting new people. Growing up in the area, I never knew that this was possible,” Rick said.

Lately people are moving here to play music. “I never thought that was going to be a thing. You moved somewhere else to play music,” exclaimed Rick, “You didn’t move to Kansas City!”

“I think it's fascinating how big the jazz genre is, and how, so much of it was pop music. Then, it was improvised over. I love the pedagogy of it,” Rick noted. “The best players are saying something and stories are happening. They are not just ripping licks. They are truly saying something.”

Essentially, Rick loves the history and lineage of jazz. He’s fascinated by jazz and how the essence of that improvisational communication comes forth.

Now, Rick Willoughby travels quite a bit. He has found out exactly how Kansas City stacks up, in relationship to the larger cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Chicago.

“I tell foks when I travel that Kansas City has all of the scene and none of the industry. There are more commercial opportunities in KC. There is more session work,” Rick noted. “It’s all based on the internet. Where you are still matters, yet it doesn’t quite matter as much as it used to. If you put yourself out there, you are going to get found. It is that simple, now.”  

At the end of the day, Mrs. Willoughby’s son is simply a guy that loves music. He has designed this life specifically to play and celebrate an artform he has grown to love.

“I have many things that I do, but ultimately it's to protect my gift. My gift that I get to share, that is a blessing to me and hopefully for others,” Rick said. “I just like playing the bass.”

by Joe Dimino   

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