Even as the shock of his passing wears off, it’s still hard to imagine a Sacramento music scene without the ubiquitous presence of Erik Kleven. He may not have been everywhere at once, but sometimes it seemed that way. As Ross Hammond, the jazz guitarist who hosts the Sunday-night free-jazz gig at Old Ironsides, where Kleven and his bass—or his sousaphone—were regulars, put it, “There are 40 bands in Sacramento that are out looking for a new bass player now.”
Kleven was a musician’s musician, and he was one who remained remarkably free of the kind of ego projection that, according to Hammond, plagues many jazz bassists. He’d just show up with his equipment, plug in and play. It’s rather telling that, on the Saturday he died in an auto accident, he was on his way to a gig in Ione, and from there, he’d reportedly planned to return to Sacramento to play tuba at the Music Circus that night. Few of us can live purely for music like that.
It’s also telling that Kleven preferred to be part of the rhythm section rather than the guy in the spotlight. As he told this writer in a 2003 interview, “You don’t want to be the complete center of attention, but you want to do something. And that’s kind of like a safer way than being the guy out in front, so it fits with certain personality types.”
What’s so remarkable was how many different styles of music he seemed conversant in. To musicians like Kleven, the boundaries that separate one genre from another are arbitrary impositions; when you come right down to it, it’s all just music, from the densely constructed Anglophile pop of Anton Barbeau to the free jazz of Hammond, Tony Passarell and the Sunday-night crew at Old Ironsides.
Kleven fell into playing the bass, the way many of us meander into relationships or jobs. He started trying out various instruments in school, including the violin, the French horn and the clarinet, before raising the white flag of surrender. Then, when his school band attempted to play a German waltz without a tuba, he heard the siren call of the bass clef. And later, after someone suggested that he could transfer his tuba skills to the bass guitar, he remembered the chicken skin he got from hearing James Jamerson’s bass part on the 1966 Motown classic “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” by the Four Tops, and he borrowed a bass and learned how to play it. “In particular, it was Motown stuff that made me want to play bass,” he said.
And now that bass has been silenced. Over time, many musicians in town will address his memory by doing what Kleven would want them to do—play music. Some have already done that: Hammond and crew dedicated their Sunday, July 16, show at Old Ironsides to his memory, which Hammond recorded for posterity. Other tributes are forthcoming: On Tuesday, August 1, a memorial concert will take place in Sacramento City College’s auditorium, beginning at 7 p.m., which should provide a nice framework to say goodbye and acknowledge one of our music scene’s true pillars.