Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why I Am a Jazz Bassist

Dave Holland, one of my heroes

I am what they call a “classically trained” bassist. I have a degree in double bass performance (aka a Bachelor of Music) from DePaul University. I studied with the late Warren Benfield, an eminent instructor and a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 40+ years. I have played in orchestras, chamber groups and in many theatre situations. I have played a couple of solo “classical” recitals.

But what I really like to do is to play bass in a jazz ensemble. Let me say it straight - I don’t enjoy orchestral playing. I love to listen to concert hall music (for lack of a better name). But playing in a bass section rubs me the wrong way and I am not good at it.

Playing in a section, to me, is like having a factory job. Five or eight or ten players all attempting to execute the same music precisely at the same time, using the same bowings and articulations is my version of Dante’s Inferno. It is authoritarian; the principal player dictates all the bowings. It’s hierarchical; one must obey the conductor, obey the principal, everybody has their assigned seat and stand. And it is so impersonal; individuals do not have the opportunity to be expressive. It is all about execution, and that is that part of music that interests me the least. I guess I have way too big an ego to be a good section player. I know I have problems with authority, too, which makes the situation even worse.

Sure, there’s power in all those strings vibrating together, especially on some double forte note low on the E string. I’ll grant you that. But it is not enough. What if I don’t feel like playing that particular passage the “correct” way? What if I want to play the “C” up an octave so I can actively support the second flute part? Nope, sorry. Not in the contract. Do it the “right” way and do it that same way every time or you’re out on your buttinski.

What I enjoy is being able to intimately influence the tempo, dynamics, texture, harmony, and articulation at any given point in the music. Sure, the chord changes and melody are a “given”, but I can interpret that information any way I see fit in the moment. So what if my job consists mainly of playing a steady stream of quarter notes with the occasional solo chorus or two? It feels really good to lock into the groove with the other members of the band, especially drums and piano or guitar. I like the feeling of being the glue that holds the key (no pun intended) to both the harmonic and rhythmic underpinning of the song. People stay out of my sonic way, too, as a general rule. I am the sole inhabitant of the lower couple of octaves – they are mine to handle as I wish.

I also like being able to hear myself, something that I was never able to do playing in a section. I find it demoralizing to have spent years working on playing in tune, getting a good sound, and so on, and then going to work and not being able to even hear if I’m accomplishing those goals.

I’ll leave the section playing to my arco-wielding brethren. Give me a good swinging rhythm section and I am good to go.

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