Former Bee Gee bassist teaching a new generation of musicians

Becca Griesmer of South Florida News Service
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Every now and then, Matt Bonelli tells his students about the 12 years he spent touring with the Bee Gees.

Playing for audiences of 70,000 fans for the popular pop-and-disco band was a culture shock for Bonelli, who had gone from playing local hotels to concerts around the world. One of Bonelli's favorite Bee Gees memories is from a concert at a racetrack in Ireland, where he imagined the crowd would be sitting on lounge chairs and blankets, just like in South Florida.

“When I came on the stage, there were 40,000 Irish people standing shoulder to shoulder, and they sang every word of every song for two hours,” said Bonelli, now the jazz coordinator at Miami Dade College. “It was completely amazing.”

Bonelli said his musical education continues through many of his students. “In order for me to teach people how to play music, I still need to be playing music,” said Bonelli, 56. “I still learn every time I play the bass line.”

Bonelli, who teaches classes, oversees ensembles and directs jazz and combo bands, said his young musicians' natural talents often surprise him.

Derek Frank, 37, studied with Bonelli when he was teaching at the University in Miami in the mid-1990s. Today, he plays bass full time in Los Angeles, has toured with the Dancing with the Stars band and recently released his debut solo album.

“There are some things that teachers taught me that I don't really use now,” Frank said. “The things that I worked on with Matt are what I'm using in situations to make a living playing.”

Bonelli's other famed alumni include Brian Yale from Matchbox Twenty and Ed Toth, a drummer for the Doobie Brothers, who graduated from the University of Miami in 1994.

Bonelli received his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Miami in jazz performance and has taught at UM, Miami Dade College and Florida International University. He credits his bass education to his early days. In 1972-73, he played in the Fontainebleau basement during burlesque reviews. The next year, he was playing at the neighboring Eden Roc alongside Carmen Lundy, now an acclaimed jazz musician.

“I remember laughing a lot and having a great time on tour,” Lundy said. “He's just one of those nice guys who is a pleasure to work with.”

The Bee Gees and Bonelli were unexpectedly connected in 1993, when the three brothers — Maurice, his twin brother Robin, and Barry Gibb — were auditioning for a temporary bassist. Bonelli landed the job after auditioning in the former Middle Ear Studios in Miami Beach.

Bonelli joked that being with the band gave him “maybe 16” minutes of fame.

“If there were Bee Gees fans around that had seen my face on the Internet, they would maybe recognize me, but I could pretty much walk around unnoticed,” Bonelli said. “The Bee Gees]were not able to do that.”

The touring ended after Maurice Gibb died in January 2003 at age 53 after complications from a twisted intestine. The brothers stopped touring as the Bee Gees in honor of Maurice Gibb's memory, but Bonelli performed off and on for Barry and Robin Gibb in the studio and at local venues until 2005, when teaching became his main focus.

He played bass on the Bee Gees live album, One Night Only, and on the final Bee Gees album, This Is Where I Came In, in 2001.

Bonelli said his students would find out about his band days with the Bee Gees through the Internet and word of mouth —and start questioning him about it.

“To me, it was just one of many things that I did,” said Bonelli, who would fly to concerts and make it back on campus in time for class. “Sometimes I was more tired than others, but it wasn't like I was doing it because I had to,” Bonelli said. “I was doing it because I wanted to.”

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