The Place of the Bass

In 1947,George Pal made a classic puppetoon called “Tubby the Tuba,”which was the story of a tuba that wanted to go beyond oom-pahing all night and get the front-line attention given to those horns that played the melody. Dismissed as foolish by a class conscious French horn,Tubby became despondent until a bullfrog gave him the confidence to believe in his register; the tale ended with him getting the lead after showing the conductor he could croon his stuff. It was another American fable about democratic values.

In the world of jazz, the Tubby issue has two sides: one good, one bad.

If Tubby was in New York and left after his orchestra gig to go hear Buster Williams at the Village Vanguard some months back when he opened a set with an unaccompanied feature on “Summertime,” the puppetoon hero would have wanted to trade in his brass for lacquered wood, a bridge and four heroic strings. Williams marvelously summed up everything that has happened on his instrument since Charles Mingus,beginning in the middle ’50s,almost single-handedly waged a war in which the bass eventually absorbed everything from blues guitar to Jimmy Blanton to Andrés Segovia to Charlie Parker to Art Tatum to double- and triplestops, as well as flamenco strumming and slurs and just about anything else that worked,whether on simple or complex harmony or some combination of both.

After his virtuoso feature,Williams,true master that he is,went on to swing a hole in the wall for the rest of the night,walking with that sublime fluidity in which the time is kept and the harmony is interpreted for a bass line that carries a melodic direction full of contrapuntal interplay delivered in quarter notes. Even Bach,who was the greatest musician in the history of Western music, would have been profoundly startled had he heard what jazz bass players have done with the bottom,not to mention how overwhelmed he would have been by what the rhythm section—itself a unique phenomenon in Western music—has achieved.

Like everything else in jazz, the development of the bass took place at a very high speed. The central reason that things moved so quickly that was any jazz musician, trained in theory or not,who could read or not, but was capable of meeting the groove and performing with musical logic was welcome. So contributions came from across the spectrum. A sophisticated genius like Coleman Hawkins could be on the bandstand with a genius like Billie Holiday, who had a small sound and a small range but, following Louis Armstrong, was as much a revolutionary as Hawkins himself. Consequently,the music’s development was truly democratic. The intellect was not more important than the ear. Someone who was sophisticated but couldn’t meet the groove was booted out, just as someone who was untrained but couldn’t make it through the forms had to go as well.

In a whirlwind of plucking, the bass replaced its predecessor, the tuba, by the middle ’30s, when Walter “Big Four”Page discovered the two-bar eight-beat cycle of rhythm (1 2-3-4-5-6-7-8, not 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4). That two-bar phrasing cycle centered “Kansas City 4/4”in the Count Basie rhythm section and remains the feeling,for all of its many reinterpretations,that those who truly swing use to this very day. That walking is something formidable. Nothing in European music ever made the kinds of physical demands on bass players that jazz does and there is no European music in which the bass player keeps the time,functions within the context of a song,interprets the harmony chorus to chorus and does all of this in relation to his fellow players and to the form of the piece.

In modern times,however,the bass can suffer from the worst version of the Tubby the Tuba complex,which results in overlong and boring bass solos on every tune and too much amplification. Bassists can rightly argue that everyone else plays too long as well and that they turn up so high because drummers can’t control their instruments and play far too loud (which is why we had a period about 25 years ago when bass players gleefully let everybody else know how it felt to be drowned out—or oppressed by volume).

Then there is the question of the Scott LaFaro influence, which is fine for features but conceives of rhythm-section counterpoint in the obvious way it would function had jazz been invented in Europe. That is not as profound, for this music, as what we hear from Paul Chambers on Miles Davis’ In Person: Friday and Saturday Night at the Blackhawk or Ray Brown with Oscar Peterson on West Side Story or Mingus at Antibes to cite just a few examples recorded in the same time period that LaFaro began getting attention.

The LaFaro approach also avoids swing, of which Buster Williams says, “That’s the hardest thing of all to do. It all adds up to that. Swinging. If you can make it happen with that, then you’re really playing something.”

So if Tubby the Tuba showed up right about now and had a revelation listening to Buster Williams at the Village Vanguard,he might understand that he could beef up the beat while walking with a melodic direction in recognition of the fact that it wouldn’t mean a thing if it didn’t have that swing.

Originally published in April 2002

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