started feeling empathy for bass players many years ago when I realized that low-noters were replacing drummers in the
jokes that musicians like to tell. As a drummer, I was relieved when an old joke such as, "How do you
know when a stage is perfectly level? — the drummer is drooling from both corners of his
mouth," was changed to make bass players the objects of ridicule. But it also occurred to me that it was
a positive development for people to be thinking about bassists at all.
never has been a valid reason for bass players to feel less important than the other musicians in an orchestra or band,
yet growing up I always sensed that they struggled with feelings of inferiority. Bassists were the musical counterparts
to baseball catchers or football centers in that they played an essential role, but garnered much less attention that
the flashier position players.
naturally hogged the spotlight because they carried the message and the melody, and if their physical attributes,
wardrobe, movements, and onstage comportment were sufficiently provocative, they easily monopolized a situation. Those
wielding melody instruments (guitarists, violinists, saxophonists, flutists) enjoyed the advantage of being favorably
placed in the timbral pecking order, and they could draw additional attention to themselves by virtue of instrumental
prowess, especially if they soloed. Pianists/keyboardists could seduce listeners with the rapturous breadth of sounds
they conjured with their fingertips. Drummers directly connected with audiences by addressing the primal urges for
propulsion, rhythmic excitement, and functional security.
players...kinda stood there, off to the side, frequently in the recesses of the stage setup, playing notes that
you'd only notice if they weren't there. If a
jazz "combo" were portrayed in an animated cartoon of the ‘40s,
‘50s, and ‘60s, the figure on the upright bass might look a lot like Goofy, his mouth
hanging open to reveal a slack tongue, his long dog ears dancing wildly as he maniacally slapped at the strings. Bass
players were either invisible or silly. Ouch.
real world, jazz had its bass mavens — such players as Jimmy Blanton, Paul Chambers, Niels-Henning
Ørsted Pedersen, Ray Brown, Slam Stewart, Charlie Haden, and Scott LaFaro were sidemen by definition but artists
by predisposition. Yet even jazz, which tended to lionize individuals in a genre that emphasizes self-expression,
silently demanded that a bassist also be a composer and/or bandleader (e.g. Mingus) if he or she wished to experience a
full measure of critical and popular appreciation as an artist.
imagine a music timeline, it's hard not to conclude that the picture for bass players grew considerably
brighter with the advent of the electric bass, or "bass guitar." Whereas the upright double
bass, or contrabass, had been an orchestral fixture for centuries, it gained entry to jazz only when turn-of-the-century
New Orleans marching bands moved indoors and the upright bass became a practical substitute for the tuba or sousaphone.
It served the same function in other subgenres of popular music, including R&B, country, rockabilly, and early rock
surprisingly, Leo Fender provided the game changer in 1951 by producing the Precision Bass, the first commercially
viable electric bass. No longer anchored in place, bassists could prowl the footlights at the edge of the stage as
freely as guitarists, and the combination of amplification and the instrument's horizontal posture
allotted them a portion of the performance pie they long had been denied.
there were no bass "stars" in rock and pop until the Beatles' Paul
McCartney permanently shifted the paradigm. Probably because he was a guitarist in an early, guitar-crowded incarnation
of the Beatles, McCartney brought along a heightened melodic sense when he reluctantly switched to bass in 1961, to
replace the departed Stu Sutcliffe. By 1965's Rubber Soul
album, Paul was contributing colorative filigrees and high-neck turnarounds previously never heard from a pop or rock
bass player. I have a friend who once attended a conducting camp run by Leonard Bernstein, and he told me that at an
after-hours gabfest at a nearby restaurant, Bernstein held a table of students spellbound with his rhapsodizing about
McCartney's bass playing.
a decade later, Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius had similar effects on the jazz world. As one-fourth of the fusion
juggernaut, Return to Forever, Clarke didn't so much anchor the band's sound as ride
roughshod through it with his almost industrial tone, superhuman speed, and automatic-weapon bursts of notes.
meanwhile, introduced a singing, legato tone and a melodist's sense of economy and structure,
counterbalanced by guitar-like speed, almost single-handedly changing the fretless electric bass's
lexicon and its place in the musical mix. His work in Weather Report, with Joni Mitchell, and as a solo artist left an
imprint that's still felt 26 years after his tragic death. As Pat Metheny once pointed out, you hear
echoes and outright rips of Jaco's style everywhere these days — in TV commercials, in
the underscores of sitcoms, in the recordings of jazz and rock bands, in the solos of bassists of almost every genre. Of
course, it helped their respective profiles that both Clarke and Pastorius were composers and bandleaders.
2012, when I put together the first installment of a Jazz88.3 program I call "The Low Down: Bass Players
and Groups Led by Bassists", I wanted to showcase all facets of the bass-playing art. In addition to
airing tracks that featured technically proficient playing, I wanted to give exposure to various
bassists' compositional and leadership skills.
all-new installment, which airs Sunday, May 19, 2013 from 3-5 p.m., promises to be the best yet. Among the talents who
will make this a very special two hours are Washington, DC's Ben Williams, Canada's
Brandi Disterheft, legendary Ray Brown, John Patitucci, Brian Bromberg, Jeff Berlin, Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke,
Victor Bailey, Jack Bruce, Christian McBride, Esperanza Spalding, and Avishai Cohen.
I hope you
can join me live, but if not, Jazz88.3 archives each of my shows for a week. To listen to archived shows, you first must
sign up for the "Speakeasy" club. It's free — just go to:
...and provide an email
address and password (and don't worry — no one will bug you, send you emails, or share
your info anyone; Speakeasy simply is a special "Premium Content" section of the website
for interested listeners).
you're signed on and you land on the Speakeasy page, scroll down a bit and you'll see a list of
"Full Programs". My show, "Johnny D's Jazz Journal", is at the
top of the right column. Just click on it and you're listening to that week's show...