IN 1996, Norman Crampton, a self-styled judge of America’s best small towns, ranked Ukiah, the county seat of Mendocino County, the “No. 1 best small town to live in California and the sixth-best place to live in the United States.” In addition to its claim for many award-winning wines, Ukiah also gave the world singer/songwriter Holly Near, the Charles Ford band—including the now well-known blues guitarist Robben Ford—and bass player Stan Poplin, who says of Near and the Ford brothers, “We all went to high school together.”
The word ‘poplin’ originates from the French papelaine, a fabric made at Avignon in the 15th century and named for the papal residence there. ‘Papel linen’ was typically made from silk woven with cotton or wool.
Poplin arrived in Santa Cruz in 1975. He joined the Monterey Symphony the following year and is now the longest-tenured member of the orchestra. The Symphony’s website personnel profile reads, “Stan studied double bass at the University of California, Santa Cruz, while working as a freelance jazz musician throughout the San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas. He is also an active member of Santa Cruz’s New Music Works, a contemporary music ensemble. Stan took a leave of absence from the local music scene to study at the Norwegian State Academy of Music. While in Norway, he toured widely and recorded with many international musicians. In 1995, Stan became a member of the Parallèle Ensemble directed by Nicole Paiement, which focuses on recording and performing contemporary music. Stan began teaching at University of California Santa Cruz in 2002 and in 2003 became the Director of Small Jazz Ensembles.”
When Poplin joined the Symphony, Haymo Taeuber was its music director and conductor. Since then he has played under Clark Suttle, Kate Tamarkin, Max Bragado and occasional guest conductors. According to his contract he must play three concert programs each season. He often plays more but accepts other gigs and dates which are offered him. “Max doesn’t communicate very well with the orchestra,” Poplin says. “That leaves some of us guessing what he wants. It’s frustrating.”
In 1970, just out of high school, Poplin was invited to join the Ford brothers, who had played with Charlie Musselwhite, to form their own Charles Ford blues band. By then they were playing gigs in San Jose. Two years later, while playing in Southern California, Poplin went through several court appearances on a charge of draft evasion. (’73 was the last year of military conscription.) “Growing up in a small town gave me the belief that this was a free country.” His draft notice came during Richard Nixon’s second term. He registered as a Conscientious Objector and wound up doing his “duty to my country” at the Stanford Children’s Hospital. Then, in 1975, he got a presidential pardon from Gerald Ford, left the hospital and settled in Ben Lomond.
In those early years Poplin was studying at San Jose State and at Cabrillo College. He gives credit to Ron Yanes, then principal bass in Monterey, Bob Manning at SJ State, Mel Graves at UCSC, and Stephen Tramontozzi at the San Francisco Conservatory.
In the same year he began playing with the Monterey orchestra, he joined the Santa Cruz Symphony. “George Barati was an excellent conductor, very astute,” he says, but having come from the Honolulu Symphony, “it was a step down for him.” The musicians in what then was a community orchestra felt the sarcastic sting of an embittered old-school Hungarian maestro’s reduced circumstances. “I really had a good relationship with George. I highly respected him, and then he liked me.” Poplin played for the SC Symphony for 17 years.
He was also there at the start of Tim Jackson’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center, playing as much jazz and blues as classical. He played with the Cabrillo Festival under Dennis Russell Davies at Cabrillo College in the mid ‘80s. Back in 1967 he acquired a Fender Precision bass. “Today it’s quite valuable, but I don’t play it very often.” The French double bass he uses in the Symphony is about 100 years old.
When asked to recall a favorite memory he responded with a highly specific anecdote. “Probably when I first started going to UCSC, I did a Direct-to-Disc recording in San Francisco with [violist] Heiichirō Ōyama and Linda Burman-Hall from UCSC of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” The group also included UCSC students and the then-unknown 16-year-old Yo-Yo Ma.
In 1989 Poplin took leave of California in favor of Norway. “I’d reached a point of living in Santa Cruz that it was the same thing over and over again.” With his history of blues and the Ford brothers, he had planned to move to San Francisco. “I was offered a tour for a month to Europe. I met a gal in Oslo and was invited to stay there. Oslo was exciting.” He auditioned for and was accepted by bassist Knut Gutler of the Norwegian State Academy of Music where he studied for one year. After that, performing and recording opportunities opened up. In that time he played mostly Norwegian folk music and some jazz with other musicians touring the cities around the Baltic Sea. “I spent a lot of time cooped up in a cabin in the snow, practicing all the time. It was a great cultural experience.” He returned to Santa Cruz during summers for recording projects and to visit friends.
From Norway he visited London and then went to Spain. “I felt really frustrated by the political environment in the US.” He took a train ride from Barcelona along the Mediterranean coast, feeling tempted to settle there. It reminded him of Santa Cruz, plus the thought of starting all over from scratch somehow didn’t make a lot of sense. So his five-year European odyssey finally came to an end.
In 2003 Poplin was invited to apply for a teaching position at UC Santa Cruz, and was accepted. He maintained a teaching studio just off campus. In 2007, Poplin and Myna Bushman were married, “now going on nine happy years.” Before that, he was relatively footloose, never married and with no children. “I had met her long before, in 1971, but we were both in other relationships.”
If you ask Poplin how many recordings he has made he’d probably say ‘I have no idea.’ But he will likely cite his recordings of Lou Harrison’s music and with Nicole Paiement. Today family matters most. After Myna became a grandmother, Stan became a doting grandpa. Like many in their generation, they also have health issues to deal with. His time had been divided into thirds: teaching/coaching, jazz and classical. “I don’t play as much jazz now,” he says, but spends more time playing classical and in Paiement’s Parallèle Ensemble. And he also takes much pleasure in teaching students, “sharing what I’ve learned and experienced.”
Top photo by Myna Bushman; lower photo by Shmuel Thaler