When Kris Day plays music, he’s not out in front of the band. He’s off to the side, or in the back, or both. Sometimes, he’s almost invisible. He plays bass.
“People don’t even notice you’re there half the time,” said Day.
But that’s OK with him.
“I very much enjoy being the side man, the bass player,” he said. “I love playing the instrument and I love its whole function and just the whole thing about it — except carrying it around.”
Day usually plays an acoustic, upright bass. It’s a bulging, hollow instrument, taller than himself. It’s basically a man-sized violin.
He plays while standing next to it, in a kind of one-armed hug. It balances on a single, spindly leg, so he can never let it go. His left hand grips the neck, fingers splayed, while his right hand plucks the rope-like strings down below with hooked fingers. He can make it groan and slither or thump, pop and gallop. It sets the rhythm and plays the harmony all at once.
“There’s so much that you can do on that instrument,” he said. “I feel a real draw to it. I always have.”
In the past decade, he’s quietly become the busiest and most reliable invisible man in the city, playing in a half-dozen bands at any given time. Two or three nights a week in the winter, and every night come summer, you can find quietly making everyone sound better.
Frequent collaborator and jazz band leader Tom Whitehead said Day doesn’t need to be flashy to make his mark.
“The best players are the ones that you don’t necessarily notice during the gig,” said Whitehead, “but when they’re not there, you really miss them.”
Day is from around here.
“I’m from right in Portland,” he said.
A 1989 Deering High School graduate, he’s also lived in Seattle and Dallas. He used to have a tech job in Boston, but when the company went belly-up he decided to play music full time.
He toured nationally with rockabilly pioneers Link Wray, Ronnie Dawson and Dale Hawkins. He’s played shows as far away as England, but eventually found his way back home to the Forest City.
“I came back here 10 years ago,” he said, “and I’ve been here ever since.”
That’s when he started teaching at Buckdancer’s Choice Music Co., — where he currently has around 20 students — and set about cornering the market on bass gigs in these parts.
Day’s appetite to play and his ability to juggle multiple performances is legendary among Portland musicians.
“I think there was one stretch where he had like 30 days and 42 gigs,” said Tim Emery, co-owner of Buckdancer’s.
That may, or may not, be just an urban legend. But it may may be why some people call him “King” Day. When asked how he pulled off that musical feat, he just grins and shrugs.
“I’ve been very lucky in the way things have worked out,” he said. “I can’t say it’s any more than luck.”
Don’t believe it. He’s the best at what he does and he’s versatile to boot.
“He seems to be able to play anything and everything,” said Matthew Robbins who has played in the rockabilly band King Memphis with Day for over 20 years.
It’s not hard to prowl the peninsula streets of Portland at night and find him playing cajun, gypsy jazz, big band, rockabilly, jump blues, country or bluegrass music. An un-exhaustive list of the bands he plays with these days, besides King Memphis, would include Jerks of Grass, Tom Whitehead Quartet, the Cajun Aces and King Day and His New Imperials.
“I think everyone sort of by now probably bases their schedule around his,” said Emery. “Good luck getting him. He’s probably booked.”
So, the next time you’re out in Portland, listening to a great Americana or roots music band, look to the side or in the back. Notice the guy with the big instrument and mellow disposition. Close your eyes, listen and try to imagine the sound without the steady, musical thump at the base of it all. You’d miss it if it weren’t there.
For now, though, you can only imagine because Kris Day doesn’t plan to stop bringing the bottom to the top anytime soon.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else, actually,” he said. “I just keep going. We’ll see how that works out.”