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Bassist Fred Tinsley Comes Back To UConn To Receive Award

Owen McNally

April 25, 2010

Ever since he got hooked on music and sports as a kid growing up in Hartford's Bellevue Square, Fred Tinsley has been a striver and achiever, whether as an extremely gifted musician in grammar school or as a hard-charging varsity football player at Weaver High School and the University of Connecticut.

Tinsley, a longtime member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a double bassist skilled at classical and jazz, enjoys a rare homecoming Monday at the UConn campus at Storrs to receive an alumni award at a banquet at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts.

After scoring nearly off-the-charts on a musical aptitude test, Tinsley began studying cello in sixth grade at Arsenal grammar school.

As his talent and skills became more apparent, he started studying classical music at The Hartt School of Music (now The Hartt School), at its then-ramshackle digs on Broad Street.

While classical music became the focus of his studies, Tinsley also left his mark on both the then-booming Hartford and New Haven jazz scenes long before becoming a full-time member of the L.A. Philharmonic in 1974.

As a youth, he gigged with the likes of legendary Hartford pianist Norman Macklin and with the then-obscure, now-famous tenor saxophonist Houston Person.

As a jazz-struck kid of 11 or 12, Tinsley would sneak out of the house late at night to hang out within earshot of the Club Sundown, a Windsor Street venue that featured name performers from the Big Apple and rising young stars like Horace Silver.

"I'd listen outside the window at the Sundown. Later when I played at the Elks Club on Canton Street, Norman Macklin and other older musicians would have to get the owner's permission for me to play because I was under 21," Tinsley says from his California home.

"Jazz was all around me then. A lot of people in the project were into jazz, and the club scene was really active. Just imagine, you could even go into a restaurant and for a nickel on the jukebox, you could hear Miles Davis," he says.

With its rich tradition, Hartford, he recalls, had many older role models for young musicians like himself, including such now-venerable figures in the city's jazz history as Cliff Gunn, Moe Cloud and Ernie Wilson.

From the early '60s on, Tinsley backed such visiting notables as Jaki Byard, who performed for the then fledgling Hartford Jazz Society, which is now marking its 50th year.

When the great Rahsaan Roland Kirk came to town, he played with Tinsley, liked what he heard and took the young phenom on the road with him as his bassist.

Besides HJS sessions, Tinsley played at the non-profit group's annual Valentine's Day dance and aboard several of its early, rollicking jazz cruises on the Connecticut River, collaborating with the likes of pianist Gene Rogers. Tinsley played at such then-red-hot and now-revered city jazz spots as the Heublein Hotel and DeLisa's. Among those he backed there was the iconic saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and he jammed with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, guitarist Kenny Burrell, saxophonists Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath and Richie Kamuca and organist Johnny "Hammond" Smith.

While going to UConn (class of 1965), the industrious Tinsley played New Haven at jazz great Willie Ruff's renowned Playback and the Golden Gate. On one wintry night after a long, snowy, hazardous drive from Storrs to New Haven's Monterey, he jammed with a sensational, then-unknown teenage drummer, Tony Williams, not long before Williams skyrocketed to fame with Miles Davis.

At UConn, Tinsley, who had been team captain at Weaver, had a football scholarship, a financial necessity that helped him decide to go to Storrs rather than to Hartt. Tinsley, who was a rugged, 195-pound guard and linebacker for the Huskies, began college as a pre-med student before switching to music studies.

To help finance Tinsley's education, his mother, Mattie took a second job cleaning offices at a Hartford insurance company. He took jazz gigs wherever he could, even playing in Manhattan all night, then going back to Storrs for a 9 a.m. class.

Diligence and motivation were always strong personality traits, qualities that were noted and praised by Joe Beidler, his football coach at Weaver. Beidler praised Tinsley for his "stick-to-it-tiveness."

At Storrs, right after football practice at 5:30 p.m., Tinsley often would shed his helmet, pads, uniform and cleats, then shower, switch into a tux and hustle across campus to play cello in a student recital of classical music.

His extensive classical studies, which began at Hartt with Dorothy Fidlar, then as a cellist with the Hartford Symphony, proceeded through tutelage with heavyweight classical bassists and pedagogues, including Hartt's Bertram Turetsky, John Schaeffer of the New York Philharmonic and Bill Rhein of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

His professional career began as a classical bassist with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, where he played from 1969-1974, and as assistant principal bassist of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra from 1972-1974. Prior to joining the L.A. Philharmonic, he was a substitute musician for the New York Philharmonic.

Tinsley hasn't visited with his many old friends and family members in Hartford for three years.

Now in the middle of rehearsals for an upcoming tour, he'll take a red-eye Sunday night to Bradley, attend the awards dinner Monday evening at UConn and then, first thing the next morning, fly back to L.A.

Along with other honorees, he will receive the UConn School of Fine Arts 2010 Alumni Award. He was nominated by Gus Mozzacca, an art professor and printmaker who has taught at UConn's school of fine arts for 40 years and exhibited in museums in the United States, Europe and Japan.

When the two old gridiron buddies played ball in the Yankee Conference, neither thought much about the devastating damage a serious hand injury would do to their art careers.

"No, I never thought about that and just went out and played and had fun. I had little nicks and things on my knuckles, but was fortunate not to have any serious injuries," Tinsley says.

"It's ironic because less than a year after I signed on to the Philharmonic, I had a severe accident with a chain saw, and wasn't sure if I was ever going to play again. Musicians even those who have risked hand injuries playing football for years should never, never take up power tools."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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