On the untimely passing of Rob Amster

Here are some random thoughts on bassist Rob Amster, who passed away last week. It was far too soon. I’m not an expert on addiction, alcoholism or mental illness, nor did I have a lot of dealings with Rob in those areas, so I’m going to try and reflect on the guy that I want to remember.

Somber Rat. That was Rob’s email address. It was a long time before I realized that Somber Rat is an anagram of Rob Amster. That was embarrassing, because I’m into anagrams; take it from a Jerky He-Man.

In thinking ahead, much of what I write may give the impression that I thought Rob was an asshole. Nothing could be further from the truth; I was extremely fond of him. He just never had much of an edit button, so he could come off as a bit abrasive at times. He was the wrong guy to be around if you weren’t prepared to hear the truth. And, although I liked Rob a lot, we never really hung out socially. But that’s not a reflection on him; there are very few musicians that I consider to be my friends. And that’s kind of a weird thing: the bond created between musicians can be as strong as any bond I can think of. You share the same goals, you  have each other’s back and there’s a lot of humor flying around despite the seriousness of the endeavor. For me, that’s plenty. The fact that I don’t generally hang out with musicians outside the workplace doesn’t mean that I don’t love them dearly. And I loved Rob Amster dearly.

Not that he made it easy. As I recall, our very first encounter was on a corporate gig shortly after I moved to Chicago in 1993. Never one to keep up with the latest gear, I dutifully began setting up my trusty electric keyboard. Rob took one look at it and burst out with that laugh of his that came all the way from his toes. “Dude! A DX-7! That is such an Eighties instrument!” I responded in kind with some playful banter, but deep down was thinking, “Okay, you’re kind of a dick, huh?”

About a year later, after we’d worked together a fair amount, we found ourselves on a wedding gig together. I’ve never claimed to be the greatest rock and roll piano player, and I was having trouble hearing a particular chord on a Rolling Stones tune, so Rob was able to help me out with it halfway through. On the break (wedding gigs had breaks in those days), Rob walked up to me, his knees buckling from his laughter (he was the funniest guy he knew), and said “Dude! You can hear all this super heavy shit, and you couldn’t hear the chord on that tune? It was the FOUR chord! The fucking FOUR chord!” This was followed by more convulsive laughter. I responded with (yes) some playful banter, but deep down was thinking, “Okay, at least you couched it into a left-handed  compliment, but I still think you’re kind of a dick.”

During the fifteen (or thereabouts) years that we worked together, Rob and I would encounter each other on jazz gigs, recordings, concerts, bar mitvahs….you name it. And I came to realize that he was a PHENOMENAL bass player. He seemed to have no technical weaknesses on his instrument, and I’m still blown away by some of his stuff on the recordings we made. And he was a PHENOMENAL musician, too. He had a deep understanding of rhythm, harmony and melody, and always made well-informed choices. Musically speaking, there should never have been a reason why I wouldn’t call him for a gig. But sometimes I’d call someone else because I didn’t want to worry about Rob showing up under-dressed or that he’d get into an argument with the staff.

There’s a third quality about Rob (aside from his technical prowess and musical intelligence) that may have proven to be a double-edged sword: He cared so deeply about the music that he set the bar extremely high, and could get dark if things didn’t meet his standards. I hate to say it, but, as much as I loved playing with him, I would occasionally let insecurity get the best of me and I’d play so as not to screw up (to avoid disappointing Rob), as opposed to just letting it fly, trusting that everyone will adjust to any potential road bumps. Rob wasn’t big on adjusting. But he gave each gig everything he could muster.

I felt like playing with Rob made me a better musician each and every time we went at it, and I was honored that he indicated similar sentiments to me. We had a great run at Andy’s, playing in Mike Smith’s band with Eric Montzka and Tito Carrillo (later with Ron Friedman). Despite (or perhaps because of) this profusion of strong personalities and opinions, the music was inspiring to be a part of, all the more so because we had the chance to do it every week, where I happily got my ass kicked each time. And I also came to realize that, despite Rob’s prowess, he understood the power of simple (yet urgent) quarter notes in the hands of a jazz bass player.

For my own selfish reasons, I’m sorry that Rob won’t be around because I was hoping to make music with him until we became a couple of drooling, shriveled-up, pitiful old farts.

Some people care too much; others, not enough. It’s tough to find the sweet spot.

21 thoughts on “On the untimely passing of Rob Amster”

  1. Jeremy, thanks for your thoughts about Rob…..from the heart.

    I’d like to think he’s in a better place now, at least I hope so.


  2. Really appreciate these thoughts, Jeremy. I remember several gigs at Green Dolphin Street with you & Rob that were so much fun. You got some of his idiosyncrasies just right. So sorry he had such a rough time.Hope he’s at peace and his spitit is ready to move on to the next adventure.

  3. Wow, Jeremy you said it well. He was aggravating, lovable, and a totally committed player. I wish he was still here…

  4. Jeremy,
    You are always very eloquent and I think this is a great remembrance of a talented musician who died way too soon, regardless of his social challenges. I only subbed a few times for him years ago, in the late-90s, having just moved to town, but his name came up recently on a gig, oddly enough. May his jazz loving soul rest in peace.

  5. Well said, Jeremy … you really captured some of Rob’s essence here.

    I’m really missing Rob a lot, and, frankly, have been for a few years now. There’s so much to say and so much to remember, but what keeps bubbling up to the surface is a phrase that we were both very fond of: “A sad Jew is a happy Jew.” It spoke to us on the deepest level, not only about the duality of Jewish nature, but about the bittersweet and ironic dichotomy of life itself … the dichotomy we all struggle, and sometimes fail, to bridge every day. Rob was a beautiful soul who lost that struggle.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful, insightful eulogy, Jeremy. Though we weren’t friends, over the years Rob and I were on several gigs (including a crazy road gig in St.Louis with the entire Alan Kaye Orchestra) together, and I enjoy hearing him perform with other artists. He seemed a bit arrogant, but not but of proportion to his achievements and talents. He was generally supportive onstage and friendly offstage, an d i was shocked to heasr of his passing. i had no idea that he had any health issues that would turn tragic. He appeared to be a man of many blessings;someone to admire and perhaps envy.

    But I admit that I don’t know what it’s like to be a career sideman as opposed to a featured vocalist who also plays. We measure our careers differently. I can’t imagine what it’s like to spend your entire career backing up other artists, and maybe getting do an obligatory solo once per night. I’ve often said I’d rather be an unsuccessful featured act than a really successful sideman. I like steering the bus, even if it’s going nowhere. Many accompanists must, from time to time, feel unsatisfied with their lot, even when ( or particularly) when they are backing up stars. I wonder if this frustration led to an abuse problem.

    Whatever the case may be,we lost a really fine player and a cool guy.Thank you for sharing your insights.

    • Wow, dude. that is pretty harsh. I knew Rob growing up, not the professional Rob; however, your comments are pretty harsh – and generally represent those of an insecure douche. What an asshole.

  7. So sad to hear the news. Thanks for this tribute, Jeremy.
    Rob was one of the first people I met at Berklee, and he was quite influential in my development. As a fellow, incoming freshman, he already had a lot together, which was a bit intimidating for me, but he was always friendly, jovial and helpful, showing me a lot. I envied his confidence and ability, and it seemed like he envied my work ethic which resulted in quick and drastic improvement. We managed to stay in touch over the years, and it’s been great to see his accolades outside of the Chicago music scene mostly through his association with Kurt. He deserved it. Such a shame that he won’t be around to share more of himself and music with us. His time came way too soon.

  8. I met Rob one time only, back in 1997 at a jam session at a loft-like club on Milwaukee Avenue. I liked his playing, and in speaking with him later I found him to be a pleasant enough guy. Apparently he was into drugs or alcohol or both. I’m sorry to hear that; the world needs as many good bass players (not to mention decent human beings) as it can generate.

    • Mick Archer and Doug Lalli are both dispicable scumbags !! Neither one knew Rob but feel the need to attach an alleged abuse/drug problem to a great soul that has passed away far too young. Rob was skillfull and talented and an all around great guy. The fact that these two (Mick and Doug) don’t have anything insightful or even polite to say shows how unsuccessful in life they really are. Don’t ever compare yourselves because when you two pass away nobody will say a word (except what untalented douche bags you both were).

  9. I was in constant contact with Rob in his last 8 months of life, we only knew each other as friends, not as musician and manufacturing guy. Rob was a great man and friend, and I really miss him alot. We hit it off right away with both of us being sarcastic and off the wall in our personalities. May he rest in peace.
    I love you Rob.

  10. I just found this while randomly surfing the net and am so sorry to hear about Rob’s passing. Rob and I played played many gigs together in the 80s and I loved the guy and loved playing with him.We were regulars in a wedding band led by a guy named Ralph Wilder and would do as many as 5 gigs on a weekend .That band always had some great players and singers. Fareed Haque, Suzanne Palmer, Ernie Denov and many others did those gigs.
    He did indeed begin pretty much every sentence with “Dude!” And I remember playing a gig on Halloween at which Rob showed up wearing his acoustic bass bag as a costume. He had cut a hole in it (the neck part)for his face and holes for his arms and legs. The bass mascot.Hilarious! He did get a bit overheated though as the night wore on…
    He also had a lot of funny stories from the time he spent playing with Buddy Rich.
    And I remember at that time he had a cat that he would speak to in an especially ridiculous voice and his own pet dialect.
    Anyway, I’m very sad that I won’t get to see him again. We hung out a little bit when he came through LA with Kurt Elling and had some laughs.
    I’ll miss him. He really was an excellent musician and very funny.
    I only heard a little about struggles with alcohol that came later, but I don’t remember as being abrasive in any way

    • Wow…THE Dave Derge? I had a list of musicians to call when I moved to Chicago in 1993. Your name was on it; probably courtesy of John Campbell. But am I correct in saying that our paths have never crossed? Perhaps someday…..

      Yeah, Rob Amster is missed around here. Gone way too soon.

      • Yes you’re correct. I moved to Los Angeles in 1989. Do miss Chicago though. Entertain thoughts of returning sometimes-miss a lot of my friends-although no doubt the scene no longer resembles that of the 80s. There was so much work in those days!
        Really enjoy your blog and website and maybe we’ll play some music one day!

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