Eldred Schilder, at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, is a Schilder, a member of one of Cape Town and South Africa’s pre-eminent music families.
One would think that being a Schilder, Eldred would just be another Schilder pianist that has come off the production line of pianists the family has produced – brothers Richard, Tony, Chris (Ebrahim Khalil Shihab) and Tony’s son, Hilton.
But no, Eldred is a bassist, and a damn good one at that (goes without saying, he’s got the Schilder gift). Actually, he is more than just a bassist, Eldred is a double bassist, or in pure musical terms, a contrabassist which is a reference to the instrument’s low range.
To be fair, like all the other Schilders, Eldred plays other instruments.
“I was always drawn to music and started playing the guitar at six,” Eldred says. “I play the guitar, a bit of piano and drums, but I think the bass chose me
“The double bass is definitely my preference. I have been playing the fretless bass guitar for more than 30 years and I love the sound and expressiveness.”
For those unfamiliar with the double bass nomenclature, it also goes by the name of slap bass or upright bass. It stands 180cm (6ft) from the scroll at the top to the end on the floor. One plays it either by plucking (pizzacato) or with a bow (arco).
There aren’t too many double bass players around in Cape Town. It is normally an instrument played in an orchestra and doesn’t lend itself to a small stage in a jazz nightclub sharing the space with a guitarist, drummer and keyboardist.
That’s where Eldred does most of his work. Although he is comfortable playing most genres, it is jazz that is closest to his heart. Think jazz in Cape Town and you think Schilders.
Eldred couldn’t have hoped for a better musical grounding to fashion his career. His father is Richard Schilder, one of the top jazz pianists around Cape Town in the the ’60s and ’70s.
“My father always had his trios rehearsing in our home in Harfield Village near Claremont,” Eldred says. “I was always listening to serious music because my dad was a jazz pianist and jazz was played in the home all the time. [When I started playing], I shared the stage with my dad countless times.
“My dad was definitely an influence in my choice of music and my uncle Phillip in me being drawn to the bass.”
When Eldred talks about his Uncle Phillip, it is with a sense of awe. Philly, as he was known to most who saw him play in the ’60s and ’70s, was a gun bassist. Health issues brought a premature end to a career that was destined for stellar heights.
‘I eventually switched to the bass when I started spending more and more time with my Uncle Phillip. He was a genius. He didn’t say much but he could do wonderful things with that instrument.
“Sadly, Phillip’s music is largely unknown due to the fact that it was never recorded. I have never to this day heard a guitarist like Phillip. Any musician in Cape Town from my generation and older will attest to this. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and is now living in an old age home for mentally challenged seniors.
“For me the most talented Schilder is without a doubt Phillip.”
Eldred says he bought the contrabass in 2005 and was told by his father that it would take him three years to get the hang of it. “It took me longer than three and I’m learning new things all the time about the instrument.” He doesn’t use the bow much on stage, preferring to practise with it at home.
Eldred is 62 now and has been playing since his early teens, mostly with jazz groups. He has paid his dues many times over. Yet, when I researched material on Eldred Schilder for this profile, his Internet presence was almost zero, save for a cursory reference as being part of a band.
That may be about to change. Eldred is stepping out of the shadows, in a manner of speaking, and letting the world see just what he can do on the double bass.
On April 23, in a gig at Sharon’s Café in Sir Lowry Rd in Woodstock, Eldred will be performing his own compositions. It will include a tribute to his father, one to the Schilder family, called Schilder’s List, and some South African standards. He will be accompanied on piano by noted keyboardist George Werner.
“George and I have worked together on and off over many years. Coming from the same generation, we have similar musical influences,” Eldred says.
“Besides the many accolades George has accumulated over the years, he has a great understanding of South African music, and when it comes to my compositions, he interprets it beautifully.”
The Sharon’s Café gig will herald the start of regular events at the venue where musicians will be afforded the opportunity to showcase their talents.
“It is an opportunity to create a space for musicians to perform AND earn an income; not only for the musicians but also for the organisers. We all have been affected by the pandemic.
“I have literally had a handful of gigs since the start of the pandemic. My last gig was on October 30, last year.
“Prior to pandemic, I played mainly with my cousin, Hilton, and a few other one-off jazz gigs in hotels here at home and doing contracts abroad but found that kinda gig stifling creatively as you play the same thing every night. I did it for financial reasons but now playing my own music, I am happier.”
A quick look at Eldred’s Facebook page and one can see that, in the good times, he was certainly in demand. His name features with most of the leading musicians playing at the top venues. This time round, he gets top billing.
Playing as a “sideman” with all these artists, has given him a good perspective of the local scene. So what does he think of it?
“I think the young musicians coming out of university are incredible and the UCT College of music in Cape Town is doing an exemplary job educating both jazz and classical musicians.
“There are loads of excellent double bassists in Cape town, lots of them products of the jazz college.
“My favourite local bass player coming through is Clayton Norman Pretorius.
“You can earn a decent living as a musician these days if you are university educated. I definitely couldn’t live in retirement comfortably on my earnings as a musician. That does not mean that one cannot, if one earns a degree in music and teach for example.”
Eldred has been a professional musician most of his working life but he did have a back-up of sorts, given the uncertainty of regular gigs that is the bane of an artist’s life. “I did a learnership in refrigeration and did that until my wife gave me permission to do music full time.”
What annoys him most about the local music scene? “What really gets to me is the lack of musicians who play their own music.”
In his quiet moments, Eldred listens to classical music or the sounds of his favourite bassists, Jaco Pistorius and double bass player Stanley Clarke. And he loves Miles Davis, specially “when he is playing with, Herbie [Hancock], Tony Williams and Wayne [Shorter] – I haven’t felt a band swing to this day like they did”.
Eldred is confident about this latest venture with George Werner and will use it as a stepping stone to lift his profile at this stage of his career and leave behind something of a legacy.
It isn’t as if there isn’t recording evidence of his prodigious talent out there already. It’s just that it is listed as a session man for the likes of big names like Errol Dyers and cousin Hilton Schilder, and groups like Rootsprings, Tarabo and Manouche.
“The thing I want to achieve now in my musical career, is to get my music recorded. That’s the thing that is missing.”
Hopefully, that will be corrected soon.