…a brief history of the Bass in Jazz.

Talk to any jazz musician and they will almost certainly reference the pivotal role of the bass. While not always so obvious to the listener in live performances the bass provides the rhythmic and harmonic pulse that is the glue of so many jazz performances. Watch a jazz performance and you will almost certainly become aware of the intense focus and concentration linking the bass and drums, the two instruments that together provide the shifting landscape against which the whole performance is anchored.

One of the features of live performances these days, including small venue gigs is the tendency to over amplify the bass. That was not true in the early decades of modern jazz when the string bass player would provide a secret code of accompaniment most keenly heard, understood and felt by other band members. Once jazz entered the environment of the high-quality recording studios, and I am particularly thinking about Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary studio in New Jersey where most of the historic Blue Note catalogue was recorded, the listener could begin to share the musicians’ appreciation of and dependence on the sound of the bass. It was in the recording studio that the bass could stand out from the crowd and emerge as an equal partner in the production of jazz.

Historically, the string bass came relatively late to the jazz party. The New Orleans marching bands and the earliest jazz recordings had the tuba providing the fairly basic 2 or 4 beats in the bar pulse behind the front-line musicians, an important background presence while never straying into improvisational territory.

In this blog I would like to briefly describe the evolution of the bass in modern jazz through reference to five bass virtuosi who individually had and have had a radical impact on the music’s development. 

Jimmy Blanton; 1918 – 1942, a brief shooting star in the universe of Duke Ellington.

I am indebted to Gunther Schuller’s definitive book The Swing Era for the following summation of Jimmy Blanton,

“Blanton had the most systematic and dramatic impact, not only on the Ellington band but on bass-playing and jazz rhythm sections in general. Blanton added another dimension: the bass as a solo instrument, improvising like a “horn” in moving eighth or sixteenth note passages, both bowed and pizzicato.

His tone was astonishingly full, a bigness caused not by sheer amplitude but by purity of timbre, and an uncanny ability to centre each tone. The new mobility, firm pitch control and rock-like swing Blanton brought to his playing acted as an irresistible rhythmic catalyst on the Ellington band.

Like Scott LaFaro Jimmy Blanton died very young, in his case at 24 of tuberculosis. The playlist features two tracks from a 1940 duo recording with Duke and a classic recording of Ellington’s signature Cottontail which features Blanton and Ben Webster, at the height of his powers on tenor sax.

Oscar Pettiford; 1922 – 1960, from Blanton through to bebop.

Oscar Pettiford had an unusual and distinctive lineage, born on an “Indian reservation” in Okmulgee Oklahoma, both his parents were native Americans. Already a prodigious bass and cello performer in his teens, Pettiford moved to New York in 1942 and played intensively with both the early bop pioneers, Parker, Gillespie, Roach, Kenny Clarke and Monk and with the leaders of the earlier generation, Hawkins, Roy Eldridge., Earl Hines and Ben Webster From 1945-8 he held the bass chair in Duke Ellington’s orchestra, following his idol, Jimmy Blanton. Pettiford was a bridge between the mainstream generation inspired by Jimmy Blanton and the bop and post-bop bassists of the 40’s and 50’ss.

Throughout his brief life which ended in Copenhagen in 1960 Pettiford crossed the jazz genres. Oscar had a very short temper and drank prodigious quantities of liquor, falling out and back in with colleagues. Whatever the setting Oscar’s clear and sonorous sound and rock-solid beat made him an in-demand bass player as both sideman and leader.

Here’s a quote on Oscar’s irascibility from Dizzy Gillespie, his regular employer,

“Oscar Pettiford was really bull-headed. He used to quit all the time. I called him a prima donna He said “I quit”, and I said “Let the doorknob hit you on the back of the head, baby” He said “I quit my  father’s band when he called me a prima donna” I said “ Prima donna, prima donna, prima donna”!

And here’s Oscar in his own words telling it like it is,

“When I finish the bass will be right down front, where it belongs”

Both quotes from Jazz Masters of the Forties, Ira Gitler.

Oscar Pettiford; Standing next to Coleman Hawkins taken from Great Day in Harlem picture

Paul Chambers; 1935 – 1969, go-to bass player in the 50’s and early 60’s.

Paul Chambers was probably the pre-eminent bass player of the 1950’s , a mainstay of Miles Davis’s first classic quintet  between 1955 and 63 and appeared on a number of Coltrane’s early albums and on scores appeared on scores of recordings  through  the ten years when he was most active before heroin and alcohol addictions took their toll. Chambers had a particular affinity with the great Philly Joe Jones on drums, forming the bedrock of Miles Davis’s early quartets and quintets. To this Chambers’ short life epitomized the experience that so many jazz musicians of this period had with narcotics addiction. By the time of his death at 34 Chambers had almost disappeared from the jazz scene. His peerless sound and technique his comfort in a variety of settings and his short and distinctive improvisations explained his omni-presence on many of the greatest modern jazz albums of his era.

Scott LaFaro; 1936 – 1961 a co-equal partner in the music of Bill Evans and beyond.

Scott LaFaro achieved more in his tragically short life, he was killed in car crash in upstate New York at age 25, than almost any jazz musician of his generation. He left an indelible mark on the art and possibilities of bass playing and, ultimately with Bill Evans in their intensive collaboration in the early 1960’s, established the model and platform for all the piano trios that were to come.

LaFaro’s astonishing technique was the result of intensive personal study. In his short career he was fortunate in collaborating with musicians who were happy to showcase Scott LaFaro as a master improviser, not a background bass player

According to Paul Motian, the death of LaFaro left Bill Evans “numb with grief”, “in a state of shock”, and “like a ghost». Obsessively he played “I Loves You Porgy“, a song that had become synonymous with him and LaFaro. Evans stopped performing for several months

The LaFaro sections of the playlist indicate his creative range from his early involvement with London’s own Victor Feldman, through to the full throated, blues-drenched free jazz of Ornette Coleman to has sadly final work with Stan Getz. The apogee must be the sides recorded with Bill Evans and Paul Motian at the Village Vanguard.

Scott LaFaro; Sitting left with Bill Evans and Paul Motian at Village Vanguard NYC 1961

Ron Carter; born 1937 – the most recorded bass player of all time.

Ron Carter’s 2008 autobiography is entitled Finding the Right Notes, he has been practicing that philosophy at the very pinnacle of jazz performance for over 60 years. Born in Michigan, Ron moved to New York at 18 to study music at the Manhattan school obtaining an MA in 1961, before which he had already joined Chico Hamilton’s band. Next month he will appear as part of the London jazz festival with his quintet to mark his 85th birthday. Carter shows no sign of slowing down.

What characterizes Carter’s career is the stupendous range of musicians that he has accompanied as a leader, band member and studio musician from Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin through to a roster of great and more obscure jazz figures from his start in the late 50’s through to the present day.  Carter is a serious, highly professional and creative presence in any studio or band stand. He combines playing with teaching and mentoring several generations of aspiring musicians and maintains an active digital presence His tracks on my playlist represent a tiny fraction of his recorded output.

I am going to leave it to Russell Hall, one of the leading bass players of the younger generation to testify to Ron Carter’s significance to jazz and to Russell himself as a mentor.

On reflection of these five bass virtuosi, Jimmy Blanton and Scott LaFaro were both revolutionary in their lasting impacts on bass playing and the place of the bass within the jazz firmament, more remarkable given the extreme brevity of their careers. Oscar Pettiford and Paul Chambers became reference points among bass players and Ron Carter continues to expand the boundaries of bass playing as he approaches his seventh decade as a jazz musician.