Honesty. Clarity. Dignity. These are words that come to mind when you listen to the music of bassist and composer Avery Sharpe. In an age of ephemeral pop stars and flavor-of-the-month trends, Sharpe is a reminder of the lasting value of steadfast dedication and personal integrity. As the title of one of his tunes asserts, “Always Expect the Best of Yourself.”
Sharpe was born in Valdosta, Georgia and his first instrument was the piano. “I started playing when I was eight years old,” he recalls. “My mother is a piano player in the Church of God in Christ, and she gave lessons to every-body in the family. I’m the sixth of eight children, but it didn’t stick until it got to me.” He moved on to accordion and then switched to electric bass in high school.
Sharpe enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, where he studied economics and continued to play electric bass in gospel, funk, and rock groups. While at UMass, he met the jazz bassist Reggie Workman, who encouraged him to learn the acoustic bass. Sharpe adapted quickly to the big instrument, and within a few years he was performing with such notables as Archie Shepp and Art Blakey. In 1980, Sharpe auditioned with McCoy Tyner and won a spot in the pianist’s group. He worked with Tyner almost continuously for 20 years, playing hundreds of live gigs and appearing on more than 20 records.
Sharpe’s credits also include sideman stints with many other jazz greats, from Dizzy Gillespie to Pat Metheny, as well as leading his own groups. His first recording as a leader was the 1988 album Unspoken Words on Sunnyside Records, which was praised by critic Jim Roberts as “a diverse, challenging record that rewards repeated listening.” In 1994, he recorded Extended Family, the first CD of a trilogy that includes Extended Family II: Thoughts of My Ancestors (1995) and Extended Family III: Family Values (2001). recording Dragon Fly on JKNM Records was released 2005, features Winard Harper and Onaje Allan Gumbs, with special guest Jeri Brown and Chico Freeman. Legends and Mentors: the music of McCoy Tyner, Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef, released in 2008, features John Blake, Joe Ford, Winard Harper and Onaje Allan Gumbs. In 2009, Autumn Moonlight was released and in 2010, Avery Sharpe Trio Live was released. These recordings feature Avery’s working trio with Onaje Allan Gumbs and Winard Harper. Sharpe pays tribute to the ex-slave, woman suffrage advocate and abolitionist of the 19th century, Soujorner Truth, with his 2012 recording of Sojourner Truth- “Ain’t I a Woman”. 2015 saw Sharpe pay tribute to another hero. The God Mother of Rock n’ Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the recording is titled “Sharpe Meets Tharpe”
All of these recordings were released on Sharpe’s own label, JKNM Records. “The most important thing is depth,” he says. “You have to seek out what was happening before and try to understand it. In my music, I do things that are a little older as well as things that are contemporary. If I try to do just one type of music, that limits me. But the more bases I cover, the more experience I have in my life, the further I can go.” He is equally adept at songs and longer compositional forms. In 1989, he wrote and conducted the soundtrack for the movie An Unremarkable Life; a decade later, his six movement piece America’s Promise debuted in a concert hall performance that featured Sharpe’s quintet and a gospel choir backed by the Springfield (Mass.) Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. In the 1990s Sharpe was commissioned by the classical group Fideleo to write 3 extended works for them.
Sharpe composed music for a one actor musical portrait based on the Harlem Renaissance titled “Raisin’ Cane.” He was commissioned by Chamber Music Plus to write the music for this portrait. This musical portrait toured from 2008 until 2017 with the actress Jasmine Guy and the Avery Sharpe Trio, with Avery on bass, John Blake on violin(later with Diane Monroe on violin), and Kevin Sharpe on percussion. In 2007 Avery was commissioned by the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (Springfield, MA) to write a Jazz Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra. The performance premiered in the Spring of 2007. The trio featured Kevin Eubanks (from the Tonight Show- with Jay Leno) on acoustic guitar, Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums, and Avery on acoustic bass.
Sharpe has done several Holiday Pops series for the Springfield Symphony Orchestra as well. In 2012 Sharpe was approached by Bart Weisman Klezmer Swing Group and the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra to arrange traditional Hanukkah for Klezmer Group and Symphony Orchestra. The concert proved to be a one of a kind hit. 2018 has Sharpe teaming with the Springfield Symphony for another Holiday Pops concert.
Regardless of the setting, Avery Sharpe always brings both exceptional musical skill and unswerving honesty to the endeavor. “You can be sincere or you can be jive about what you do,” he says. “People might not be able to tell at first, but if you’re really sincere it will come through.”