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Bass-Less Accusations

Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. Another bolt of conventional wisdom holds that wherever three or more jazz musicians are gathered, a bass player shall be among them. Put those credos together and you might come to this conclusion: Any jazz group bold enough to venture into the world without a bassist is bound to realize, all the more clearly, a bassist’s crucial role in the music. There have surely been countless jam sessions, and even a few dispiriting gigs, where such a truth hit home.

Yet every rule has its exceptions. And it’s worth remembering that the string bass was adopted into the standard jazz rhythm section rather than born to it. There were no bass players on Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, or in most other contemporaneous recordings. Nor was there a bassist in the Benny Goodman Quartet a decade later. By that point, the mid-1930s, the bass had largely edged out the tuba in jazz, thanks to stylistic shifts as well as advances in recording technology. It would take the quantum leap of bebop, though, before bassists were de rigueur: When the pianist is dancing over bar lines and the drummer is dropping bombs, it helps to have a steady voice in play.

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