The Face of the Bass
The great Milt Hinton often said that the bass is the “Atlas of jazz” because its role in the jazz band is to carry the other instruments on its shoulders.
The bass provides a steady beat and the root notes of the chords of the tunes upon which the soloists construct their inventions, melding together rhythm and harmony in one function. “Bass” is often misspelled as “base” but the meaning is very similar in music, that of “foundation.”
In early jazz bands, bassists played the bass fiddle, the tuba, or the bass saxophone. The typical bassist of the 1920s, if he played tuba or bass sax, was expected to “double” on the bass fiddle as well. The wind instruments provided a louder, more directional sound that was able to cut through the noisy, boisterous crowds in large dance halls and night clubs where jazz was first played. The problem of bass projection was “solved” in the 1950s by amplifying bass fiddles and then with specially-built electronic basses, culminating in guitar-like solid-body instruments manufactured by Fender, Gibson, and other guitar makers.
I am amazed by the skills of contemporary electric bass players (since I no longer own an electric bass, I can’t be considered one of them). “Tapping and slapping” has grown into a whole new art form for the instrument. I first heard the thumb-slap electric style as developed by Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone. I have been told by electric bassists steeped in this style that the wrist action involved goes much further back to the traditional Gospel tambourine technique.
I remember that when I first started in the 1970s experimenting with this on electric bass guitar, it seemed so natural for the instrument.
Like so many other aspects of American music and jazz, the roots of this style go back to early 20th century New Orleans.
There was a New Orleans bass style, by which I mean that there seems to have been a collection of bass players born before 1910 in New Orleans who went forth into the rest of the country acting as little spark plugs in the developing jazz bands in which they found themselves. All of them played in a manner very similar to one another.
The first to appear nationally was Bill Johnson (1872-1972), considered the father of jazz bass. He led one of the first jazz bands (The Original Creole Orchestra) out of New Orleans to tour the country on the Orpheum circuit around 1914. Bill used a syncopated single-stroke hook. This means “hooking” the right index finger under the string and letting it snap against the fingerboard (sound familiar to electric players?). Since he did not use the return-stroke slap, I call it a single-stroke style punctuated by notes syncopated in the ragtime manner. Other later New Orleans bass players who used the single-stroke were Pops Foster (played with Louis Armstrong and others), John Lindsey (with Jelly Roll Morton, 1926), and Wellman Braud (of the Ellington band in the ’20s-’30s).
The hallmark of this sound on the bass is its percussive quality. The audible “snap” of the string against the fingerboard allows the bass to function in fact as another drum in the rhythm section of the band. Like my experience with the electric bass, when I started in the ’90s with the hook-slap style on the bass fiddle, it seemed a very natural, relaxed, and swinging way to play time, because the power of the entire right arm and wrist is involved.
Other early New Orleans players such as Steve Brown (with Jean Goldkette, Paul Whiteman) and Al Morgan (Cab Calloway) used a double- and triple-stroke slap style. In this, the player slaps one, two, or three percussion notes after the initial hook pull, yielding a lot of possible rhythmic combinations, some of the same ones used by today’s electric thumb-slapping maniacs.
The finest exponent of the New Orleans style in the modern era was Milt Hinton. Born in Mississippi in 1910, he knew and befriended Bill Johnson in Chicago in the late ’20s. Milt says that Bill taught him the hook style as the only way of getting a big sound out of the bass to be heard above the band. Milt replaced Al Morgan in the Cab Calloway band in ’37 and developed the multiple-slap style to new heights. He told me that the way he thought of what he did on bass was similar rhythmically to what a tap dancer does with his feet.
Hooking and slapping was considered passé by the late ’40s and most bass players abandoned it in favor of the warmer, “sideways-pull” sound of Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, and Israel Crosby (and later, spectacularly by Ray Brown). Milt himself continued to use both styles. As the single most-recorded jazz musician in history, Milt found himself in almost every conceivable kind of recording session and band, including many “hi-fi” “Dixieland” albums that were made during that period to cash in on the new popularity of the Dukes of Dixieland and the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. You can hear Milt on these records slapping away during his solos, but on other recordings of the era such as the famous ones he did with Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole, he is using the more modern side-pull technique that is dominant today among the vast majority of bass fiddle players.
On the Riverwalk Jazz radio series, you can sometimes catch a reprise performance of Milt’s 1991 solo version of “Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho,” a truly awe-inspiring tour-de-force of double and triple slapping.
In late 1990, when I first considered joining the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, I had a revealing phone conversation with Bob Haggart, the bassist and composer who was the guiding light behind the Bob Crosby Bobcats and the World’s Greatest Jazzband. Bob had been filling in at the Landing and on the road for bassist Jack Wyatt, who was ailing. As one of the only bands left that still performs Haggart classics like “Dog Town Blues” and “Smoky Mary,” Bob always felt very strongly about the importance of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band’s role in preserving classic jazz.
On the phone, Bob suggested to me that if I were to go to work for Jim, who preferred the old-school acoustic way of playing the bass, I should consider re-stringing my bass with gut strings and high action. “That’s what I would do if I were going to take the job,” he said. It was the way the vast majority of bassists set up their instruments before the advent of amplifiers and pickups, because it afforded the biggest possible sound to cut through even a big band swinging at full tilt.
I decided to follow that path and have never once looked back.