Astoria Characters: The Musician Who Covers All His Basses

“The bass is cool,” declares Jeff Dingler. “In any style of music, it’s always a countermelody happening in the background in between the melodic instruments and the drums.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jeff plays the electric bass and the upright bass.

Want to hear a little Gershwin?

Jeff takes off his shoes at the door, slides his feet into slippers and sits down in his living room. 

When he plays, he loses himself in the sound.

He was only going to play one short piece, but how about some jazz?

He switches to his upright bass.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jeff is a performing musician, music teacher and composer.

“Playing the bass is like being the goalkeeper in soccer,” he says. “It’s not a star, but it always gets a spot on the team.”

The bass may not be the sexiest instrument in the band – Paul McCartney famously admitted that he volunteered to play it out of necessity only after the other Beatles refused – but if Jeff’s career is any indication, it does indeed get the gigs.

Jeff, a tall, slim racehorse who carries himself with an air of unaffected elegance, was born in Manhattan and raised in Sayreville, New Jersey.

He doesn’t come from a musical family.

At least he doesn’t think so.

Adopted shortly after birth, Jeff doesn’t really know much about his biological parents.

Although his adoptive parents didn’t play musical instruments, they are fans of Broadway musicals and movie musicals and took Jeff, their only child, to see the outdoor productions at Plays-In-The-Parks in Edison, New Jersey.

“I was fascinated by the orchestra,” he says. “I liked ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ especially the cat melody, and I started playing the clarinet when I was 8 or 9.”

By the time Jeff was in high school, he wanted to play in rock and roll garage bands, but “there was no call for a clarinet,” he says and laughs. “I chose the bass because my two friends who were already in the band played guitar.”

Jeff also played the upright bass in the school’s string orchestra.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jeff grew up in New Jersey.

“Playing both the bass and upright bass is like being a switch hitter in baseball,” he says, adding that he prefers the fretless electric bass, an instrument that requires precision playing to produce its silky smooth sound.

Although Jeff envisioned a career as a musician, he was realistic, figuring that if he didn’t pass the auditions at the conservatories where he wanted to study, he would major in math instead.

After earning a degree in jazz performance from Rutgers University, Jeff started getting gigs  immediately.

“I got to do a lot of classical music, too, and I wanted to perform, and you get a lot of work as a bass player,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He spent three years in Ethiopia.

To fill in the financial gaps, he did stints as a substitute teacher and gave private piano and guitar lessons.

In 2012, he moved from New Jersey to Astoria to attend New York University, where he earned a master’s degree in music in the hopes of someday becoming a college professor.

He and his basses continued to get steady work, but Jeff would soon be headed out of the country.

His girlfriend, then a student at Columbia University and now his wife, took a job in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, and Jeff and his instruments followed her.

It was, he says, a profound experience.

Between teaching and gigging and hosting a radio program about jazz, “I really was busy, and I was playing Ethiopian music as well as jazz.”

After three years abroad and releasing an album, Jeff returned to Astoria in 2019.

He set up a music room in his apartment’s second bedroom – “I’m very careful about the hours I practice so I don’t disturb my neighbors” — and has been working constantly ever since.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jeff teaches at the New York Jazz Academy.

In addition to performing, composing and giving private lessons, he teaches at the New York Jazz Academy.

“It’s better than it’s ever been,” he says, “because I’ve had steady work, and the quality of the work is better. I love working with great artists, especially those who are older and better than I am.”

Jeff hopes at some point to go on tour again.

“Now, I’m hustling as a sideman, but I’m also writing music for a hollow-body fretless bass,” he says. “It’s a unique instrument that has a singing quality. It’s the dream instrument I had in my head.”

Copyright 2023 by Nancy A. Ruhling