Growing up in Chicago in the 1960s, Lynn Keller got to see an exemplary music career up close: Her father was a professional saxophonist and singer who doubled on flute and clarinet—and owned a company that did payroll for talent, as well as taxes for musicians. Over the past five decades, Keller has parlayed the family blend of musicality and professionalism into a juicy, multi-genre career, logging millions of miles with Diana Ross, the Fifth Dimension, Michelle Shocked, and Oleta Adams, doubling as musical director for Rita Coolidge, Nell Carter, and Jackie DeShannon, and playing in the orchestra pit for Broadway shows like Leap of Faith, Sister Act, Little Shop of Horrors, and Mask. Her current road gig, with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical School of Rock, introduces her bass playing to a new generation of fans who have no idea she was once a seventh-grade flute student.
How does being a flutist enhance your overall musicality?
It has taught me to play with emotion. Expressing myself—and the composer’s intent—is important to me, and that has transferred to my bass playing. Playing flute has given me a keen melodic sense, as well.
How did you begin playing bass?
In college, a friend asked me to play bass in her band; her boyfriend was a guitar and bass nut. At every rehearsal, she brought me a different bass, and I would just practice and work.
You studied composition, too.
I earned a degree in theory and composition, and my applied instrument was flute. In school, I was practicing flute like a maniac and then playing bass gigs at night.
You’ve worked with so many great singers. What’s the best way to learn how to play with vocalists?
Listen to how other bass players support vocalists. Pay attention to dynamics and the big picture within the song. I’m blessed to work with so many artists who are unique and special.
What do you think they see in you?
I’m excited about the music, and I want to make it the best it can be. I know how to make music speak, and I know how to make it speak from the bass up.
How did you transition into being a musical director?
I was always organized—I’d come to rehearsals more prepared than anyone else—and people ended up turning to me because I seemed to have a leader backbone. I hate being in situations where people are unprepared, and I know I can contribute in that way.
Does being extra-prepared help with preshow jitters?
That’s something I’ve always battled, but staying focused helps. I’ll tell you one of my favorite Diana Ross stories: In 1997, three years after I’d last played with Diana, I had already become the full-time bass player with Rita Coolidge, and we were in London for a month at the Green Room. On our next-to-last evening there, I got a call from Diana’s bass player asking if I could sub for him on the rest of the tour. Half an hour later, Diana’s manager called saying that they needed me to be in Vienna the next day. I couldn’t, though, because I had one more Saturday night with Rita. I arrived in Vienna on Sunday morning to see the music director standing outside with a Walkman and two thick books of charts. I looked at the books and realized some of the tunes had charts in two or three different keys. After I alphabetized them all, I asked for a set list for that night’s show, which just happened to be in a stadium. The set list wasn’t ready in time, so I ended up going onstage with two crew members sitting on the floor around me: As the MD called out the next tune, they handed me a chart in the right key. And you know what? I played flawlessly that night.
Talk about nerve-racking! You’ve musicdirected the Movieguide awards in L.A. since 2004. How crazy is it?
Again, it requires a lot of focus. I wear a headset as they’re calling the show and letting me know when we’re getting up to a cue, and then I conduct the orchestra as the award winners come to the stage.
What kind of music?
Movie themes I’ve transcribed and arranged into sections that can be played by just five musicians, along with my own original cues. We’re playing about 45 small pieces of music, and there’s a tremendous amount of preparation for that. When things happen during the show, we have to punt; I also have a microphone so I can guide the band. It’s pretty involved, but it’s rewarding to hear my original stuff being played alongside these movie themes. This year, we’re also doing the theme for Despicable Me, which is a blast.
The entire ensemble is five people?
Five people: me, two keyboard players, guitar, and drums. We can sound like a full orchestra.
When you’re playing a Broadway show every night, how do you stay excited about the music?
On a lot of the Broadway work I do, I get to be a little more creative than the average player, and the music directors I’ve worked for have been very supportive; they enjoy what I bring to the table. Also, it’s easier to do a show eight times a week if you really enjoy the music. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you take a show and don’t love the music.
How would you describe the bass tone most Broadway sound people want?
Most of them want a Fender or Sadowsky sound, but as they’ve gotten more comfortable with my MTD, they love it.
After owning several custom MTD basses, you now have a signature model.
These basses changed my life. They allow me to express myself without struggling with the instrument’s size, shape, weight, or balance—and with absolutely no compromise in tone on the low B. These basses sound larger than life.
When you’re playing in the pit, do you miss interacting with the audience?
I do. I’m a very animated bass player, and I’m the same way in the orchestra pit. When you’re onstage, you hope your presence brings something to the audience that makes them feel something. I hope I’m doing the same thing from the pit, even though they’re not seeing me.
What’s one of your favorite moments in School of Rock?
Getting up on the podium where the kids’ band is playing and seeing Theodora Silverman, the brilliant 11-year-old who’s my little female counterpart onstage. She’s fearless, and she’s up there night after night doing her thing. I don’t know if she’ll grow up to be a bass player, but man, she’s doing a beautiful job.
What would you tell a young person who wants the career you have?
Read music. Write charts. Read notes rather than tablature. Be responsible. Return calls and e-mails. Think about the people who have helped you out, and return the favor. Play every style of music. Play in every key. Learn to memorize songs. Learn the lyrics. Make sure your gear is always working. And always have a pencil with an eraser!
Basses MTD Lynn Keller Signature 532-24 5-string (fretted and fretless), KYDD Carry-On electric upright
Rig TecAmp Puma 900 head, XS112 Classic 1x12
Strings Thomastik-Infeld Jazz (.043–.118)
Other Comfort Strapp, Peak music stands