Dave Holland is of a generation of bassists who, in the '60s and '70s, built upon the innovations of slightly older players like Scott LaFaro, Gary Peacock, and Barre Phillips, carrying the instrument to yet another new level of creativity. Along with contemporaries like Eddie Gómez, Miroslav Vitous, and Barry Guy, Holland helped refine and extend the melodic possibilities of the cumbersome double bass. In Holland's case, those refinements never lost touch with the core verities of straight-ahead jazz; Holland's sense of swing is unexcelled. Additionally, Holland is possibly the most accomplished pure jazz composer among bassists, after Charles Mingus. Holland's small groups in the '80s and '90s, while working firmly within the jazz idiom, presented a fresh alternative to the fusty re-creations of the neo-boppers.
Holland started playing ukulele at the age of four, switching to guitar at ten and bass guitar at 13. He took some piano lessons as a child, but was at first mostly self-taught, learning from pop music songbooks and by listening to the radio. He played in dance bands with friends. As a teenager he decided to try to make a living as a musician. Under the influence of such jazz bassists as Leroy Vinnegar and Ray Brown, Holland took up the double bass, learning primarily by playing along with records. He began playing professionally shortly thereafter. One of his first gigs was in a big band that toured behind the singer Johnny Ray. Holland studied with James E. Merritt, the principal bassist with the London Philharmonic, who recommended him to the degree program at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
At Guildhall, Holland gained experience in a variety of styles, from orchestral music to New Orleans jazz to bebop and beyond. In 1966, he began playing with many of the musicians with whom he would collaborate over the next two decades — musicians like trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, saxophonist John Surman, and pianist John Taylor who were well in tune with jazz innovations of the time. Holland acknowledges being influenced by Mingus, LaFaro, Jimmy Garrison, and Gary Peacock at this point in his career. Holland also became interested in many 20th century classical composers, especially Béla Bartók. Holland played London clubs with England's top jazz musicians, as well as visiting dignitaries like Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Joe Henderson. In July of 1968, Miles Davis heard him at Ronnie Scott's and asked him to join his band.