Jazz bassist Ben Wells wasn’t always a four-string fanatic or even a jazz fan. In fact, he originally wanted to grow up to be a drummer.
“My mom taught me to play piano and I took lessons as far back as I can remember,” Wells says. “I learned the clarinet when I was young, too, but I really wanted to play drums more than anything.”
And play he did, joining the Riverside High School marching band in Greer, S.C., where he was part of the drumline. “I was really into rock music back then — heavy rock and R&B,” says Wells. “I’ve always had phases of obsession with different genres — from bluegrass to electronic to death metal. Seriously, I’ve seen Slayer in concert a couple of times.”
Jazz didn’t come until later. Watching a school band colleague pluck, pop, and slap funk riffs on an electric bass hooked him in. “I never took notice of the bass until that moment,” Wells says. “I wanted one immediately.”
Suddenly smitten with the stringed instrument, Wells saved up and bought a low-priced, black-finish Dean bass and signed up for lessons. He spent evenings in his room learning his favorite rock tunes by ear and quickly moved on to other styles. Eventually, he ended up in the Fine Arts Center’s program in Greenville, S.C., which offered applied jazz guitar and jazz guitar theory classes.
“That’s when I really started to love jazz and the idea of improvising,” Wells says. “The first jazz album I got into was a compilation by the Tonight Show Band. Then my bass teacher got me into Ray Brown, Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, and others. Checking out some of those jazz and funk greats was so eye-opening. I was amazed to hear bass as a lead instrument and what you could do with it.”
When it came time for him to go to college, Wells wanted to study jazz. “I didn’t think ahead, as far as what I was going to do with it, but I knew I wanted to do it,” he says. “At school, you either play jazz or classical. I wanted to improvise, so I picked jazz.”
Wells’ parents encouraged his musical aspirations. He felt prepared and supported as he entered his freshman year at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. However, he found himself reluctantly playing formal settings. A few like-minded friends encouraged Wells to check out the College of Charleston’s music program and the local jazz/rock scene. He transferred in 2004.
Frank Duvall, a veteran pianist and a longtime acoustic and electric bass jazz instructor, was one of the first mentors from the CofC music program to guide Wells toward jazz.
“Frank taught me just about everything I know,” says Wells, who adopted the look of a modern-day beatnik with a chin-curtain beard and closely cropped haircut. “He’s the one who convinced me to buy an upright, which was one of the best decisions I ever made. I was reluctant to play upright at first, but now I can’t imagine not playing it. I love the sound and the feel of it.”
Wells continues to work with Duvall in quartet and trio settings at weekly gigs at Mercato, High Cotton, and Tristan.
“My first steady local gig was a Tuesday night at the Charleston Grill with Frank and [saxophonist] Robert Lewis. I got my butt kicked every week, but it made me so much better. It was a weekly schooling from the best. I learned so much. The best way to learn is to dive right in and go for it.”
While he claims that his personal style on bass is still a work in progress, he’s a musician with a phraseology of contradictions — both soft and tough. His adaptability comes from constant collaboration.
“With jazz, it’s best to play with others often and learn from every gig you play,” Wells says. “You can only learn so much practicing by yourself. Playing gigs and learning how to interact with others is the best practice.”