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Saturday, October 17, 2009

When drums stop - big trouble!

Most jazz musicians probably know this joke -- the one about the guy on Safari, who when travelling through the jungle hears some incredible drumming coming from a distance. The following conversation ensues with his local guide:

Guy: Wow! That's amazing -- let's see if we find it!
Guide: No! We must go now -- when drums stop, big trouble!
Guy: But the drumming sounds amazing, I really want to check it out
Guide: No -- we must go, when drums stop, big trouble!
Guy: But this is the kind of thing I came here to experience! I really want to hear it!
Guide: No! We must go before drums stop!
Guy: But why? What happens when the drums stop?
Guide: Bass solo!!

Like all good jokes, there's an element of truth to it -- there are indeed people who fear and dread bass solos! This post is prompted by a little throwaway remark by the excellent Patrick Jarenwattananon from NPR, who in reviewing a concert by the bassist Linda Oh said: "Oh did a rare thing: play a non-boring bass solo". He later clarified this in response to a comment I left on his blog, explaining that it was meant in a light-hearted way. Even so, I find that to be an interesting remark because as a bassist, I of course have had to think about the whole soloing issue, and there's also no doubt that bass solos elicit a wide range of responses from listeners (and musicians), ranging from groans to (sometimes undeservedly) huge accolades.

The bass' primary function is of course that of accompaniment, and we spend more than 90% of our time in that role. If you don't enjoy the accompaniment role above all else, then you definitely shouldn't be a bassist. Having said that, there is a long and proud history of bassists who have expanded the role of the instrument and taken it into the realms of the soloist - starting with Jimmy Blanton and then onwards into the bebop era -- Ray Brown (left), Oscar Pettiford, Mingus etc -- and then into the 1950s with people like Paul Chambers and George Duvivier. And then around 1960 comes the quantum leap forward in technique and speed pioneered by Scott LaFaro with Evans. This represented a seismic shift in how the bass was treated both technically and functionally. But it is also the point in which jazz bass playing takes two different directions -- one which continued the tradition of bassists such as Blanton and Ray Brown, and another which followed the pioneering work of LaFaro (pictured below).

These are very different ways of playing the instrument -- one, (the LaFaro stream), uses quite a low action and features the player using the complete range of the instrument from very low to very high. The other uses quite high action and the player tends to concentrate his playing in the more traditional lower register of the bass. The low action of the LaFaro-ites allowed for a greater rapidity of movement, but it did affect the sound too - a softer less prominent sound than that of the high-action bassists who in pre-amplifier days were used to driving large bands and forceful soloists forward, and for whom sound projection was very important.

So by the mid-60s there were two distinct strains of bass playing extant in jazz, both of which featured very strong soloists. Since electric bass was still relatively unknown in jazz, most of the bassists at this time were playing acoustic bass. The advent of an amplification in the early 70s made the physical challenge of playing the instrument more manageable, and many bassists gratefully accepted the help of electronics in making their life physically easier. But some of the sounds of those early amplified basses were pretty awful. A case in point would be Ron Carter's classic playing on Joe Henderson's "Tetragon". His walking bass line on "Invitation", is one of the greatest in recorded history in my opinion, but also features a pretty horrible bass sound. Thanks to the pickup, Carter went from having one of the most rich and full bass sounds in jazz to having one of the most metallic. But this loss of natural sound didn't deter the bassists of that time, they took to the pickups in droves.

Fast forward to the 1980s and something interesting happens -- a new jazz orthodoxy appears from the south and decrees bass amplification to be an abomination. An insistence on a return to pre-amplification days becomes de rigueur with the Marsalis clan in particular, and bassists working in their orbit were required to raise their action again and just use a microphone stuck in front of the bass for amplification. Reintroducing such physical difficulties in playing the instrument immediately caused problems for soloists whose speed and fluency took a step backwards. In the new orthodoxy LaFaro's tradition became anathema and devotees of the style were denounced and ridiculed. Stanley Crouch even went as far as to say that LaFaro played the bass in the way it would be played if jazz had been created in Europe! On top of this the Marsalis clan also put the following notice on the cover of their albums 'This recording was made without usage of the dreaded bass direct'.

The sheer arrogance of this stance is breathtaking - a saxophonist, a trombone player, a trumpet player and a failed drummer-turned journalist telling bassists how THEY should play their instruments! I wonder how Wynton, Delfeayo or Branford would feel if a bassist told them how they should play their horns? Also incorporated into this philosophy of how a bass should sound was a philosophy of what a bass should do - little soloing, or ideally not solo at all. The result of this intervention into the natural evolution of the bass was a production line of bassists who were like dray horses - chugging away, Suppliers of Quarter Notes by Royal Appointment to the self-styled horn playing aristocracy of jazz - or as a bassist friend of mine puts it - 'beboppers labourers'. All the earlier work and research and invention of all those bassists over the years dismissed at the stroke of a revisionist pen, so to speak. The whole neo-classical movement of the 80s set the cause of bass soloing back by about 10 years. Of all the Wynton bass acolytes, Bob Hurst (above left) was the only one who really found a way to combine the demands of the Marsalis crew for the bass to be a one-trick pony yet also develop as a really strong soloist. Unfortunately he ran away to join the Tonight Show circus before he could really make an impact.

But eventually the wholesale dismissal of great bassists because they didn't conform to a narrow ideal of what bassists should do receded, and a new generation of players appeared in the 90s who took freely from both traditions of bass playing and took the instrument into new realms of possibility as far as soloing was concerned.

But despite this, there is still a divided view on bass solos - one being that they are boring and dull, the other that they are always worthy of applause. Both views are equally unwarranted - bass solos can be wonderful interesting creative constructs, and they can be dull and boring - like any instrument, it depends on the soloist as to which qualities of dullness or invention they exhibit. The branding of bass solos as being automatically boring is grossly unfair to the many great soloists who have appeared on the instrument since the music's inception, and grossly unfair to the many great soloists who are performing now.

But equally unjust is the wild applause that sometimes greets dull pedestrian soloing on the bass - this is especially true of double bass. Again it's a bit like the 'talking dog syndrome'' which I referred to in an earlier post - it's not so much what the dog says that's amazing, it's the fact that the dog can talk at all. Some audiences see a bassist playing this huge instrument and are amazed at the fact that the bassist can coax anything out of it apart from a dull thud, and so they greet anything other than a dull thud with thunderous applause. There's a very funny piece called 'bass players offences and fines' which did the rounds a few years ago and included a fine of $25 for 'excessive sweating' - this is very observant since a sweating bassist thudding out basic arpeggios in lieu of a solo is often enough to elicit huge applause from many audiences.

This simple arpeggiation of the changes to a tune often comes under the heading of a 'bass solo' but really this kind of thing just amounts to a speeded up bass line rather than a solo proper, in my opinion. A very good indicator of whether a bass solo stands up to any kind of critical scrutiny - at least over changes - can be determined by imagining the solo played on another instrument - or being sung. If the solo were sung or played on a saxophone, would it still sound good? If not, then the likelihood is that the solo is probably not very good. A good bass solo should have the same qualities of phrasing, logic and construction as a solo on any other pitched instrument. Of course there are exceptions - particularly in the area of more open playing, where the qualities of the bass are used to their fullest extent, and the solo would just not be as effective on another instrument - Dave Holland's Emerald Tears recording would be a classic case in point. But in general I think the 'how would it sound on another instrument?' question is a good litmus test of the qualities inherent in a given bass solo.

There are so many examples of truly great bassists playing truly great solos - many of them up on Youtube - which act as an illustration of how misguided the idea of all bass solos being boring is. From the fully developed post LaFaro virtuosity of Eddie Gomez with Bill Evans, to the post Paul Chambers virtuosity of Peter Washington with Tommy Flanagan. From the effortless swinging suppleness of George Mraz - again with Flanagan - to the complete command of both open arco playing and lyrical soloing over changes of the great Anders Jormin (pictured above left). From the effortless lyricism of Steve Swallow's electric bass in duo with Carla Bley, to the rhythmic power of Dave Holland and his solo rendition of Coltrane's 'Mr. PC'. And two contemporary American masters - the extraordinarily accomplished all rounder Drew Gress, and Scott Colley, whose ability to shape a phrase is the equal of any horn player.

All of these players make a great case for the tradition of bass soloing, and show that it needn't be dull or boring, that the instrument can speak in as powerfully expressive a way as a solo vehicle as any other, and that when the drums do eventually stop, we have something to look forward to rather than fear..............


  1. This is a fascinating post, Ronan. I had no idea about how the retrograde movement of the 80s impacted the technique of playing the bass. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

    Jason Crane
    The Jazz Session

    p.s. -- I will note, self-servingly, that The Jazz Session has played host to several fine bassists, including Eberhard Weber, Miroslav Vitous, John Patitucci, Joris Teepe, Christian McBride and more.

  2. Thanks Jason - just been looking at the Jazz Session archive - amazing amount of stuff there - looking forward to trawling through it!

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  5. Hello Ronan.

    I don't take issue with you waving the flag for quality bass solos, but your assessment of the 1980's era is not thought through, and is in the end not correct. Where do you get the idea that Wynton and Stanley Crouch dogmatically created an environment where bass technique actually went backwards? Christian McBride, Peter Washington (who you mention), Robert Hurst (who you incorrectly cite as having exited the scene before he could have an impact---most very young bass players I know totally revere him, so how was his impact lost?), Reginald Veal, and other stunning players emerged in this environment and the bass tradition was not harmed, it was expanded.

    Also, your article contains a contradiction, when in one paragraph you take Ron Carter and other bass players to task for jumping on the "pickup" bandwagon, and then in the following paragraph take Wynton and his "camp" to task for deciding to record their albums without the use of a pickup (or "bass direct"), a sound they dreaded, and that you admit in the previous paragraph can be metallic and thin.

    I think that you do a disservice to your argument by trying to lay blame on the 1980's musicians for what you perceive as a state in which bass soloing was set back "10 years." You also do a disservice to bass players when you say they were "chugging away" at quarter notes. Perhaps this way of playing was something that they themselves loved? When did playing "time" become a bad word, and how has it come to be seen by you as a kind of chore? I'll tell you that in my experience playing with these players, the love for playing time is TOTAL, and it is never looked upon by those players with anything but reverence and passion. As well, it is seen by them as a beautiful and fundamental aspect of the tradition of music that we are a part of, and doesn't exclude other approaches or ways of playing.

    Unfortunately, your lack of understanding of, and your quickness to blame, the music, the musicians, and the bass playing that was happening at that particular time limits your ability to address the issue you really want to talk about in a cogent manner.

    Thanks for listening,
    Anthony Wilson

  6. (my posts above were deleted for subsequent clarification and correction of punctuation)

  7. Hi Ronan,

    Thank you for writing this piece, which gives me much to think about.

    I think Ethan Iverson's discussion of bass sound/role before and after Wynton is very much worth reading. For those who don't know it:

  8. I'm going to answer Anthony's comment in 2 sections in order to circumvent the character limit imposed by Blogger.


    I think you misunderstand several points I'm making, or perhaps you read it too quickly - but anyway, to take some of the points you raised:

    Regarding Bob Hurst - he IS a great player, but I would question his influence on young bass players today. He is perhaps influential in LA, where he may occasionally play jazz in public from time to time, but he exited the international creative music scene over a decade ago and I'm sorry, much as you may wish it otherwise, internationally, among bassists, he is primarily remembered as being the bassist on 'Marsalis Standard Time Vol. 1', and is generally regarded as being the 'one who got away' rather than being an active influence. As far as contemporary bassists go, guys like Christian McBride and John Pattitucci would be much more influential - probably because they're still out there doing it, rather than remaining in one locale and playing on a TV show.

    As to your contention that this period (the 80s), was one in which the soloing possibilities of the bass expanded - I was a young musician myself when all this stuff was going on in the 80s, and I can tell you that in that neo-classical movement, for every Bob Hurst or Christian McBride there were a dozen bassists who were really poor soloists. Contrary to what you seem to believe, the 80's was very much MY era too - as a bassist I experienced it - I didn't read about it, I lived it.

    Regarding this: " When did playing "time" become a bad word, and how has it come to be seen by you as a kind of chore?"

    To make that statement inferring that I'm saying 'playing 'time' is a bad word' (sic), really demonstrates to me that you didn't read what I wrote carefully - close to the very beginning I said this:

    "The bass' primary function is of course that of accompaniment, and we spend more than 90% of our time in that role. If you don't enjoy the accompaniment role above all else, then you definitely shouldn't be a bassist."
    Maybe you missed that sentence? Anyway, be that as it may, this post was about the soloing role of the bass, not the accompaniment, so forgive me if I didn't talk about that at all - but I thought I had made myself clear on my opinion on the accompanists role.

  9. 2)

    Regarding the Marsalis/Crouch axis effect on bass playing - I respect the right of any bassist to choose not to use a pickup, or to choose not to solo at all (I know several bassists who don't want to solo, ever - cool). I also respect Wynton et al's right to not want to have bass players using pickups in their bands, or soloing - that's fine too. What I don't accept, is the extension of a preference for a way of playing into a dictat on how the instrument should be played, and the dismissal of all who play in a different way. As I said in the post, it is arrogance on the part of a horn player - or a guitar player for that matter - to tell a bassist how their instrument should be played. The influence and political clout that Marsalis and Crouch had at that time (now thankfully faded) meant that many bassists, in order to conform to the 'wisdom' handed down from on high, were browbeaten into making the instrument more physically difficult to play, and consequently limiting their soloing technique.

    Regarding pickups, I'm not sure where you get the idea that I took players who used pickups to task - I mentioned that they took to it in droves despite the poor sound quality - that was a statement of fact not a criticism of their decision. I mentioned Ron Carter as having a particularly poor amplified sound at that time - and he did, and it's generally agreed among bassists that he did. You may consider it a contradiction that I criticise Carter's sound, and criticise Wynton etc. for not wanting pickups on the bass. But a) I have no problem with Wynton choosing whatever kind of bassist he wants, but please don't have the arrogance to tell the rest of us what to do so explicitly by putting stupid slogans about the 'dreaded bass direct' on the record sleeves. And b) when talking about Ron Carter's sound I was explicitly talking about the 70's with the terrible Barcus Berry pickups that were then available. In the 80's (note the phrase in the blog 'Fast forward to the 1980s'), the technology had seriously improved and the available tone quality was of a much higher level. So the dismissal of amplification had much less justification than possibly 10 years earlier.

    This bass pickup technology is not something I would expect a guitarist to know about, but it might not be a bad idea to give a bassist some credit for knowing about the development of their own instrument before jumping in with the 'your lack of understanding' type of comments. I have no problem with a difference of opinion, but a guitarist needs to be a bit more careful about making sweeping statements about 'lack of understanding' when talking about bass to a bassist. People in glass houses etc. etc.

  10. Peter - thanks for your comment and suggestion - I look forward to checking out Ethan's writing on this

  11. Thanks for an interesting (mostly) read, and for stimulating thought and discussion on a topic near and dear to my heart [despite the tl;dr threat-factor being at least code orange].

    As a writer and a bassist, however, I gotta suss out a few concerns with your essay.

    1. You clearly intend to provoke, with your broad generalities and dogmatic pronouncements, and then in the comments you come off churlish and defensive when said provocation is met with a response. "You misread what I wrote," is no kind of a response, man! Consider: perhaps you didn't write, crystal-clear, exactly what you meant to say. Or perhaps what you meant to say was incomplete, flawed, not fully-formed. "Blame the Reader" is not a game grown-ups play. Contempt for your audience, and disrespect towards a brilliant guy like Anthony, will get you nowhere.

    2. Your conceit attempts to frame your essay as a compendium, a definitive analysis. What it really does is present a very narrow scope of trends and influences that you offer up as "the whole story". Phrases like "..there were two distinct strains of bass playing," and "a good bass solo should have..." become little more than biased filler that ultimately don't enrich your prose at all. Avoid this, especially when talking about something so esoteric, and fiercely individualistic, as jazz.

    Do you really mean to say that of all the hundreds and thousands of guys holding down the low-end over the years, that only two distinct approaches are in evidence during a certain period or another? Are there cats that do both? Neither? Is there a third, or fourth option? The answer of course, is yes, yes, and yes again. And you lose credibility when you ignore the alternatives.

    And, as for bass solos being good, bad, or just another "talking dog", arpeggio-driven snooze-fest? Perhaps it's fitting that I appreciate your earnest gusto, and deplore the technical limitations in much the same way as audiences have responded to the bass solo: writing about bass solos is about as novel as a bass solo itself, so good on'ya.

    You tread a lot of thin lines, and ultimately, I'm going to come down on the side of "raises good questions; provides few or incomplete answers".

  12. Hi Ronan,

    Wasn't trying to throw stones.

    But I do feel that it misrepresents the era of the 1980's to say that Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch were trying to dictate the way all bassists should play. And I always thought the "dreaded bass direct" thing was simply a statement of personal preference, not a directive. It was not an arrogant way of telling bassists how to play, but a statement about how Wynton and his "camp" wanted their records to sound. And it was kind of a funny line.

    I will have to agree to disagree with you that the atmosphere of that period (1980's) created "a production line of bassists who were like dray horses - chugging away, Suppliers of Quarter Notes by Royal Appointment to the self-styled horn playing aristocracy of jazz - or as a bassist friend of mine puts it - 'beboppers labourers'." It's simply a statement that doesn't ring true to my experience of the music of that time.

    Finally, Robert Hurst rarely plays in Los Angeles and does not live there anymore. It's been at least 10 years, maybe more, since he was on the Tonight Show. I'm sure he'd be surprised to know that he's not "still out there doing it" when he finds himself out on the road with folks like Charles Lloyd or Geri Allen, recording with Robert Glasper, or judging the Thelonious Monk Competition.

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  14. Quick question. Why are you attributing this movement to Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch?

  15. To everyone who has responded so far, thanks for that.

    First of all I'm surprised by the level of interest it's sparked - didn't think bass soloing was such a hot topic!

    Secondly there's a level of personalisation about some of the comments that I'd rather not get into - I'm completely open to alternate viewpoints, but let's keep it civil guys.

    Thirdly I'm particularly surprised by the depth of feeling evoked around the Marsalis/Crouch, Young Lions kind of thing - my own particular interest in this post mainly revolved around the notion of bass soloing and I only got into the historical thing (or my opinion on the historical thing) as a kind of backdrop to that. But this seems to have been the thing that most people are excised about. Which I think is interesting, and surprising to me.

    Anthony, thanks for the clarification re: Bob Hurst's current activities - but I genuinely am surprised to learn that he's out there touring, I really haven't seen his name here in Europe for a long time, Maybe he's mostly working in the States.

    Ben - the reason I mention Wynton and Stanley Crouch in relation to the bass issue is because I read SO much stuff from the two of them in relation to their opinions on what did or did not constitute REAL bass playing - including Crouch's assertion of LaFaro's playing not really being 'American' - and Anthony, this could maybe also be a response to what you say about the 'bass direct' thing being only a personal preference - at no time did anyone at the forefront of that movement suggest anything other than the idea that what they were saying about the way the bass should be played and recorded was optional - they were very explicit about the fact that their way was the correct way and anything else was wrong.

    Thanks again for the interest and comments - anyone like to venture anything on the actual soloing issue rather than the historical one?

  16. I must confess that I actually like some of the direct bass sounds on recordings from the 70's - Ron Carter's on the live VSOP's in particular. I also own up to digging the thudding virtousity of Jimmie Blanton and the unfairly forgotten Eddie Safransky, the stunning facility of Eddie Gomez and John Pattitucci, the all around completeness of Dave Holland, the killing swing of Sam Jones, Ray Brown and Paul Chambers and even the dedication of cats like Percy Heath who rarely soloed at all. What's so great about our music is that we don't have to be dogmatic, we can appreciate it all while preferring one thing or another.

    I have always felt that as bassists we are soloing all the time, anyway. Transcribe any Ron Carter bass line under anyone at all and you'll see what I mean.

    But I can't resist: What are the three most useless things on earth? The Pope's balls and a bass solo.

    peace and love

  17. Lindsey hits the nail on the head with two comments: there is no need to be dogmatic, and the bass is virtually soloing all the time.

    Truly great bass playing seamlessly integrates itself into all the other cats' blowing. A fine and challenging art indeed.

    And, as for the actual bass *solo*, I want to hear something that simultaneously epitomizes the glory of the bass as a unique instrument, and incorporates the ideas and fundamental principles that would make a good solo on any instrument. It doesn't have to be one or the other, [as I feel Ronan sort of states, and then hedges or backtracks].

  18. Some examples I would like to share of the most influential bass playing which actualizes the ideas I mention above: Larry Grenadier on anything with Brad Mehldau, Christian MacBride on Josh Redman's albums, and The Judge on Branford Marsalis' Trio Jeepy album (1989). Then of course, I can never escape the influence of everything Mingus ever did, and Charlie Haden's work with Ornette. See also: Avishai Cohen, both on his own and with Chick, and the most significant and quintessential modern rhythm section bass playing in my book is Ron Carter's work on Miles Smiles.

    All these examples are cases where the bassist doesn't necessarily solo much, but the overall approach and sensibility, I think, is as close to perfection as it gets.

  19. Ronan,

    Looks like Robert Hurst is currently at the U. of Michigan School of Music. (I found this at his website,

  20. Once again, with regard to Hurst, his presence on Mulgrew's magnificent "From Day to Day" trio record with Kenny Washington, an hugely discussed and revered record, has guaranteed his impact ("now that IS the record!"), as have his own sterling records as a leader: how many bass players would cite "One For Namesake" with Elvin and Kenny Kirkland in expansive trio-land as an oracle in bass playing? (Highly rhetorical question). He's an essential cat with an huge fingerprint on today's bass landscape, often very active in New York City (which is where the music that matters is made, and shall continue to be).
    And with Charles Lloyd he's very prominent on the European circuit (including, eh hem, Dublin).
    Bob Hurst is the cat (and isn't it significant, if you think of the history of the instrument, that he hails from Detroit, and was educated in Cass Tech?).

  21. Also, Charnette Moffatt isn't the only other bassist you omit from a potential list of other superior bass soloists associated with Marsalis bands, when you make your assertions, above.
    Moreover, Albert Stinson, surely, is the apogee and next step in the developmental chain, don't ya' think?
    And, with regard to the dreaded bass direct, and then Ron Carter's submission to same (which is pretty much what you describe on the Joe Hen' record), you know, in that era even Duvivier and Sam Jones were subject to that. Even Duvivier!

  22. I really don't get the joke in Ronan's article. I think in general drums-solos are much more boring than bass-solos (please note: I said "in general") ... & I honestly don't think that one should try to compare bass-solos with other instrumental solos, a bass is a bass after all - even if I admire LaFaro I think that players like Chambers, Wilbur Ware or Haden are nearer to the essence of the bass, I mean: the real power of the bass lies in those resonant deep tones and not in the upper register, that's why players like Gomez sound a little bit funny and "out" to me (a guitar-line played on a bass just doesn't sound as good as played on a guitar ...)

  23. Thanks again to everyone who responded – I appreciate the enthusiasm and interest shown in the subject by everyone. I was actually surprised and pleased by the amount of interest it generated - who knew bass solos would be such a hot topic!

    Just a couple of things I want to say in response to some comments – my final words on this for now:

    I never denied that Robert Hurst is a great bassist – I’ve always thought he was, but I’m sorry, I don’t think that he’s the universal influence on the instrument that some of the commentators seem to think he is – I think he was just off the scene for too long to make the impact he should have made given all his qualities. It’s not my experience that young bassists namecheck him when talking about who are the important contemporary bassists. And for the record ‘Anonymous’ (I do wish you’d put a name to your comments.........) the last time Charles Lloyd played in Dublin, Reuben Rogers was playing bass with him, not Bob Hurst – I was there..........

    Albert Stinson – a great player, but dead too soon to make a long lasting impact

    Tom G – I don’t think it really strengthens the case for bass soloing by pointing out that in your opinion drum solos are in general even more boring..... And while I think you make a good point about Chambers/Haden/Ware’s affinity with the lower register representing the essence of the bass – this is a viewpoint I agree with in talking about the totality of the bass – I think when it comes to soloing then I personally don’t think you can fault anyone for exploiting any and all aspects of the instrument in the service of their self expression. Whether you think it’s a good idea to play in the upper register or not, the fact is that those notes DO exist on the bass and I can see no reason to prohibit anyone from, or censure anyone for playing them. And I also don’t think that the upper register of the bass sounds like a guitar – to my ears the timbre is much different, doesn’t sound ‘funny’ at all, and is certainly different enough to warrant exploration by such great players as Lafaro, Gomez etc.

    Thanks again for everyone’s input

  24. I know Ronan has voted to table discussion on this topic for now, but I've been thinking about it more than I thought I would and just want to add a word or two.

    I knew Milt Hinton quite well, he was something of a mentor to me as well as many young bassists and musicians. Through him, I met guys like Percy Heath, Arvell Shaw, George Duvivier and others - the guys who basically invented jazz bass playing. To a man, they were all for pickups, amps and steel strings and were glad to see the end of the days when a bassist had to "pull the gut strings off his bass in order just to be heard over all the noise" (a direct quote from the Judge).

    I also heard all the players of the "new generation" many times through the 80's and 90's and I am of the opinion that the decision to forego amplification entirely, works much better in a small venue. I've seen guys like Hurst, McBride et al in large settings and what they were playing was often either inaudible or an indistinct low rumble which served neither themsleves nor the music they were playing.

    I'm also of the opinion that the decision to play in this way also gave rise to a heavy-handed, mono-dynamic style of play that this was especially noticeable when it came time to solo. Nobody would ever accuse these guys of not playing strong, but having a "big"sound does not a complete bassist make. It would be like saying that just because a guy is 6 foot 10, he must be a good basketball player. There's a lot more to it than that.

  25. I liked Mr. Horner's previous comment.
    Perhaps that is the whole "vintage" equipment, or old technique=tradition vs. new stuff arguement.

    To the old guys, they developed their style of playing around the type of equipment or technology (or lack there of, in the case of the double bass) to do what they needed to do in the music.

    It was a practical thing & mostly functional & not about making a BOLD artistic statement.

    If the old guys lived long enough to see the new technology or developments/innovations of their gear, if they could use it for what music they were playing, they embraced it.

    The young guys, looking back & listening to the old records, kinda idealize the old technique or equipment/technology (or in this case, no-amp, high-string) as a SOUND they what & turn it into a "THING" or "statement" that defines them, artistically. (something it originally, wasn't)

    Then it gives them a chance to stand-out & hate on those "other guys" that do the new way & vice-versa.

    If you look at it this way...perhaps there is no "TRADITION" in capital letters, but just a way to play to get the sound you want.

    We give it all this extra baggage with all these labels & divisions.
    Humans like to be divided & of the "us & them", I suppose---in that case, go Yankees!! :)

  26. I've been reading this article and the comments it raised with great interest, since I've been dealing with these problems for sixty years now.
    There is one gap in your history that I'd like to mention... In between the Blanton (and Pettiford) soloing styles that were so influential in the 1940s and 50s and new new age that was marked by LaFaro's playing was Red Mitchell. Red was the first bassist I heard that used a lower action, pressed rather than pulled the strings, and used some left-handed plucking articulation. It cut his in-person volume down a lot, but was phenomenal on recordings. And his solo lines were melodic, horn-like, and very original. He opened up the ears of a lot of us to other possibilities of the instrument. I think he may have given Scotty some ideas. And this was all pre-amplification. When Red finally started using pickups, the result was beautifully audible soloing at the highest level. By the way, I use a David Gage Realist pickup, and it makes my old French bass sound gorgeous, when properly adjusted.

    Bill Crow

  27. Bill, thanks very much for writing - it's really a pleasure to have someone of your eminence, with such a connection with the history and development of the music, contributing. I was just listening to that great walking bass line of yours on Mulligan's 'Walking Shoes' on the Youtube clip posted by Doug Ramsey on Rifftides.

    That's a very interesting point you made about Red Mitchell being a possible missing link in the development of the Lafaro inspired stream of players, and it makes sense when I think about it. I've long been an admirer of Red's soloing but had never made the connection before. So thanks for that - and thanks for the info on the pickup.

    And thanks too to Lindsey and others who continue to make such good points in what's turned out to be such an interesting discussion!

  28. And nary a mention of the great Henry Grimes? Go back to sleep, guys.

  29. I want put some fire here.
    I endorsed music during all my life, i play doublebass, most of you are forgetting the roots of the music giving misunderstanding.
    1) There is ONE music in the planet, THE music and "Jazz" it is simply a word.
    2) Everyone deserve his music, as per any human have his voice, also if is using the same words and language grammar (musical codes)
    3) Sound become first of music, before there is the sound and after there is the music, remember, here you are mostly describing "styles" but "styles" and techniques are a non influent part if you made a paragon with the sound, especially the sound of the doublebass that is near to the ground, to the roots, it is the baseline of melody and harmony and a big part of the rythm.
    4) Music have no time, when you heard a sound the sound is immediately part of the past, the sound have no shape and no material except air vibration and disappear immediately after your neurons have recognized. There is no chance to describe deeper the music as you try with your approach, you can describe and analyze recordings, so only the past, recordings are not live music, are dead music, remember that since 3 millions of years music was not recorded, and you are making the bigger mistake also because you formerly would speak about "istant improvised music" (you call "jazz") not written music.
    5) It is this attitude and especially this approach that (especially in schools) is generating "transparent player", people who play bass without personality and personal sound, playng like the heroes that you are creating, playng bad but with fashioned patterns-tools and infinite technique.
    6) Double bass is one of the most "phisical" (except to our body) instruments that the human have never realized, if a player try to copy some styles and approach working well for other human body destroy the link between the human body (his) and his instruments putting a filter in between that alter the real music flow from inside your heart.
    7) Scott LaFaro was simply him with his way of using the instrument, very personal, you can say that you like or not but when you (criticist, musicologist, experts, journalist, audio technicians, listening expert, etc) go over with words you are creating false player and thats cannot kill music but can stop the "style evolution", changing and the personality exiting from someone who want simply play in his only unique way, i repeat everyone deserve his music, when you "freeze" the music with recordings, writings (notes or words) you stop changes and new fresh things cannot come out.
    8) Last you forgett that any player play for himself only, not for the audience or for anybody who post-analyze his creativity (dead at that time). Improvised music is instant creation and can have rigid rules and codes but when the music finish you must remember that is finisced and there is nothing to do, any new music to be new must be new otherwise if copied from the past is like a dead man walking (i think you like a lot the dead man walking).

    Sorry for my poor english language.

  30. I began learning to play string bass in 1952 and consequently have listened to a lot of bass playing. I agree with virtually all that you've written here. I also listen to a lot of youtube videos and some of the so-called bass playing isn't musical at all. The wonderful instrument we call a bass should have a deep resonance with every note, it should have a rich sound, and it should be played in tune, with proper rhythm and harmony. I can't listen to poorly shaped notes, even my own.

  31. I was a bit surprised by the total lack of even a mention of the Tuba (Brass Bass, Sousaphone, Helicon, etc.) that was so vital in the development of Jazz and is still in use for many different forms of improvised music around the world. Yes, the Double Bass was used in the early days of the music as well, but it was difficult to record before electric microphones were invented.