Dennis Irwin was born on November 28, 1951 in Birmingham, Alabama but grew up in Atlanta and Knoxville. Early in life he discovered musicinspired by older brothers who coached him in jazz early onand began playing clarinet. As a teenager, his family moved to Houston, where he played in R&B bands playing alto sax and handling lead vocals. He attended North Texas State University studying classical music focusing on his clarinet. Two friends in the program, drummer John Riley and bassist Marc Johnson turned him on to the upright bass at the age of 19: he thus found his true calling and joined the school’s acclaimed Two O’Clock Big Band.
In nearby Dallas, he worked as a sub with pianist Red Garland, who suggested Irwin move to New York. In August of 1974, Irwin headed north to New York when an old friend from high school offered him a place to stay and a job in a Greenwich Village record store. In no time he was gigging with Charles Brackeen, finally landing his first steady gig in trumpeter Ted Curson’s group in 1975. He quickly became the bassist of choice with such vocalists as Jackie Paris, Betty Carter, Annie Ross, Ann Hampton Callaway, Tania Maria and Mose Allison. “It’s challenging to work with a vocalist,” Irwin explains, “because you have to listen for exactly what a singer needs. Sometimes it’s about just getting out of the way, you can’t play too hip, otherwise you draw attention to yourself. But that’s true of playing behind any soloist. Playing the bass is about instinct and calculation.” He looks back upon the years he spent with Allison as “fun, because of Mose’s knack for human and social commentary.”