In a world where Instagram, Facebook and YouTube are literally saturated with teenagers and young kids who have bass chops capable of scaring most adult bass players into an early grave, the prospects of becoming the next to achieve Jameson or Jaco level seem dark. Last week a friend sent me a video of a very young girl ripping through John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” solo while Coltrane played in the background. She sounded good, and Coltrane too! I too learned this solo in my late teens so I know first hand how hard it is to play in high gear but she did it with a smile and made it look easy.
When I started learning the instrument at 14 (I’m still learning), like most young people, I was drawn to shiny things. For me, that particular shiny thing was Level 42 Mark King’s uncanny ability to slap bass at what felt like the speed of light. Her amazing technique was indeed so brilliant that she was able to pull me from guitar to bass. I spent what felt like an eternity (probably a year as an adult) learning to slap really fast, and for my first two years as a bass player, slap was all I did. !
Photo by Dimitri Louis
Many years later, I learned something else that was difficult to grasp, and which becomes rarer every day: “The bass” is not only an instrument, a key or a staff (closer to the bottom of most scores), it is above all a role, or more exactly, a a function essential to almost all modern music. It’s the root of everything. The bass plays a role that forms a unique bridge between rhythm, harmony, melody and groove. The greatest bass players have all understood this fact in their own way, and many of these masters have never coveted and understood that they didn’t need a mastery of Paganini-style gymnastics in the lower hertz. Don’t get me wrong… I personally love and have even pursued technical mastery. Thus, I am a lover of big bass, sax and any other solo. But these two things – playing solo and becoming a technician – are not necessarily immediately related to the “bass function”.
As we go back in time to the root, the number of players who focused on function over flashy technique and support over soloing seems to be increasing. I quickly understood that the bass was not limited to the slap. (I also learned that slapping – though not quite at the speed of light – dated back decades before Mark King.) I had no idea of the bass’ long and storied history, and the way it fit into the African American musical canon, which included blues, jazz, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, funk, soul, disco, hip-hop, house, and a seemingly endless procession of sub- genres, i.e. most American music.
“The bass” is not just an instrument, a key or a staff (closer to the bottom of most scores), it is above all a role, or more precisely, a a function essential to almost all modern music.
Eventually, with the help of American mentors Rich Nichols and Steve Coleman, my quest to understand bass and music in general led me to Philadelphia (and, later, Harlem, NYC). Thanks to Rich, a Philadelphia native who was also a manager and patriarch of the Roots, I became part of the exciting mix of music that was happening in Philadelphia in the late 90s and 2000s. This formed the basis of my education in as a producer and provided me with opportunities to produce records for many well-known names in hip-hop, soul, funk, pop, etc. 70s and was responsible for creating the M-Base movement, which many consider to be the source of at least 50% of today’s New York jazz scene – I discovered the rich tradition of American jazz. Between decades of touring, listening to much older musicians, and the wealth of things Steve and others taught me firsthand, this formed the foundation of my musical education. It gave me the tools to start the Creative Music program, which has served as the foundation for many young creative musicians coming out of Philadelphia.
Philadelphia is home to some of America’s greatest bass legends, and it was once I moved to the city that I met Jymie Merritt, a relatively unsung hero of bass, but a legend if ever there was one. . Not only was Jymie a master of the upright piano, but he was also an early pioneer of the electric bass in jazz and a fantastic composer. I’ve met so many other great American bass players who, like me, carry on a tradition and a culture that dates back to the days of tubas, tubs, and brooms – a time somewhere between the abolition of the slavery and Louis Armstrong’s first encounter with the horn. These are players such as Henry Grimes, Stanley Clarke, Charles Fambrough, Victor Bailey, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Reggie Workman, Christian McBride, Gerald Veasley, Reggie Washington, Anthony Jackson, Matt Garrison, Rich Brown, Richard Bona and many more.
Stay tuned! I will surely focus on some of these topics and many more distant topics in future Root of It All columns.
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