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Two or Four????

Discussion in 'Jazz Technique [DB]' started by turf3, Dec 21, 2016.

  1. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    So I've been playing some trad-jazz (actually, a lot of it). Usually I've been playing in two, except the occasional chorus in four, or maybe just the bridge in four, or the last 8 in four, or a shout chorus in four. But mostly in two.

    I have recently found two videos that from the production values I guess were filmed in the 50s or early 60s. One of Eddie Condon and one of Bobby Hackett. They are playing trad standards with a typical trad front line (clarinet, cornet/trumpet, trombone), piano, drums, bass. Now the surprise to me:

    The bass is playing in four pretty much all the way through, constantly.

    Can anyone comment? did the trad guys move to walking in four in the 1940s-50s like everyone else? Was playing in four a Chicago thing and the N.O. guys stayed in two? What am I missing? I don't even know the questions to ask!
    Steve Boisen likes this.
  2. I wish I knew the answer from a proper historical perspective. My answer is that it depends who I'm working with. I've played traditional jazz with some folks, including a 90 year old clarinetist (who is still killing BTW), that pretty much want four to the bar all the time. I've also worked with a drummer that wants everything in two for some situations (dancers). The Django guys I play with don't mind either way. All I know for sure is that playing in four is definitely a thing in this style of music IMHO. Much more than I thought when I first got involved in it...
    Jason Hollar and Tom Lane like this.
  3. Jeff Bonny

    Jeff Bonny Supporting Member

    Nov 20, 2000
    Vancouver, BC
    @John Goldsby in The Jazz Bass Book talks about how before the 30's it was common for guys to double on bass and tuba. Most of those tuba parts were 2/4...you hear people doing it now but it's hard to play fast 4/4 walking lines on the tuba. He also points out that how people played jazz bass evolved along with the evolution of people's approach to playing other instruments in jazz which makes me think it's valuable to be looking at the history of the music as a whole to better understand the changing role of the bass.

    While I'm the first to admit there are some big gaps in my understanding of the history I'd go so far as to say it's impossible to understand the role of your instrument in any genre without some historical sense of its functional evolution. When I listen back through the evolution of jazz Bill Johnson on recordings in the early-mid 1920's is the first player I can really hear well. He's slapping his ass off and there was a distinct 2 feel but you do hear some quarter note walking. Pops Foster and Wellman Braud by the mid-late 1920's are bassists I hear really transitioning from a 2 feel to walking in 4. By 1930 those guys (and a lot of other players) were walking hard in 4. I think a lot of it moved along with drummers and the evolution of the modern sit down trap kit from 1920's on and how that changed the feel of the music.
    Jason Hollar and Tom Lane like this.
  4. Sean Riddle

    Sean Riddle Supporting Member

    Aug 11, 2013
    Ventura, California

    This recording of Jelly Roll Morton's band has several points where the bass player spends a lot of time walking in four, but is pretty alternating between 2 and 4. I do think it is likely walking lines were employed in some of the New Orleans styles of playing, but didn't get popularized and subsequently become the norm until the 1930s.
  5. Steve Boisen

    Steve Boisen Your first second choice™ Supporting Member

    Dec 3, 2003
    Tampa Bay, FL
    I play in a vintage jazz group regularly and I touched on this topic on this thread.

    Generally speaking, I play in two during the head and switch to four during the solos. On some of the older New Orleans style numbers I'll even play in two with the bow to emulate a tuba, but at some point I switch to playing pizzicato in four.

    People often talk about tubas and the kinds of lines they played, but a lot of what we call trad jazz or Dixieland is actually a New Orleans front line over a swing rhythm section. I'm not surprised that most of the recordings you listened to featured a string bass playing in four. Listen to the earliest jazz records that included a string bass you'll hear them playing in four from time to time. By the time the swing era came about it's what bass players did on uptempo tunes, even when playing traditional repertoire.

    - Steve
    Last edited: Dec 22, 2016
    Scott Lynch, Tom Lane and robgrow like this.
  6. Roger Davis

    Roger Davis

    May 24, 2006
    I think Steve has said it all, really. I get a certain satisfaction from playing twos, making sure every note tells. As a drummer once said to me once, a minim (half note) is a long note to play wrong. Then fours into the first solo gives a good energy boost to the tune. One example of the bass player making a significant contribution to the feel of the number.

    And twos are not solely confined to the 'trad' genre. Just listen to Sam Jones playing twos behind Nat Adderley in Soon.
  7. Steve Boisen

    Steve Boisen Your first second choice™ Supporting Member

    Dec 3, 2003
    Tampa Bay, FL
    I'll also add that when playing trad jazz, I approach walking bass lines differently in terms of note choices. I play a lot of repeated foot-five patterns and triads, and when I do play scalar patterns I keep it relatively simple i.e. walking up to the third or fifth degree of the scale and back down again.

    One pattern that works well is a major scale with an extra chromatic note in between the 5th and 6th degrees. Whether you play it ascending or descending you'll land on the fifth for the second measure followed by the root on the third measure, making for a strong functional bass line. When you play it descending, you can also add the chromatic note after the third degree of the scale to land on the II chord. These are really swing era patterns, but I find they work well on older tunes where you have fewer chord changes.

    - Steve
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  8. Seanto


    Dec 29, 2005
    I play in a couple trad jazz groups with no drummer, just me and a guitar strummer holding down the rhythm. I had started off playing mainly 2 feel in these groups because i thought it was stylistically correct, but get asked to walk pretty often now. Like Steve above, i keep the walking pretty straight forward with note choice...lots of chord tones a diatonic stuff.
  9. John Goldsby

    John Goldsby Supporting Member

    Mar 4, 2003
    Bassist @ WDR Big Band Cologne, Columnist — BassMagazine.com, Conservatorium Maastricht, NL
    Jeff Bonny: Thanks for mentioning "the book." :) Here are a few links to early bassists:

    Steve Brown "Dinah" (Note the bowing in "2" then mad-slapping!)

    Wellman Braud w/Ellington

    Pops Foster "Beale Street Blues" slap bass

    Walter Page w/Count Basie

    turf3: I don't really know the exact question you are posing, but I'll throw this out there:
    Early tuba players usually played in 2. The early bassists also played in two, but had a few more devices: using the bow, slapping the strings, or playing in 4. The bass had more rhythmic drive and more options for changing the feeling of the groove than the tuba. Listen to some early Ellington with Wellman Braud, and you'll hear a lot of 2 and also a lot of 4. It depends on the vibe, and how much Braud (a New Orleans bassist) wanted to push the band depending on the arrangement.
  10. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    Well, boiled down completely it comes out like:

    "what should I do, and when?"

    A lot of the time it sounds and feels better to me in 2, and I had understood that this was kind of the standard beat for "pre-swing-period" jazz. But often it sounds and feels better to me in 4, and I don't know whether that is because I am playing in the 2010s after a lifetime of listening to walking bass (never mind rock and roll eighths) - and I don't know whether if I ever get to play with some really great trad musicians, will they throw stuff at me if I play in 4?
  11. Steve Boisen

    Steve Boisen Your first second choice™ Supporting Member

    Dec 3, 2003
    Tampa Bay, FL
    Playing the head in two and walking in four during the solos and shout chorus is a reliable formula. You can always stay in two longer if it feels right.

    I highly doubt it. Most string bass players in trad jazz bands play in both two and four. I would do some more listening and trust your instincts when your on the bandstand. It's still jazz and about how you interpret the music.

    - Steve
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  12. John Goldsby

    John Goldsby Supporting Member

    Mar 4, 2003
    Bassist @ WDR Big Band Cologne, Columnist — BassMagazine.com, Conservatorium Maastricht, NL
    turf3: You hit the nail on the head, and Steve Bassman reaffirmed that: Do what feels the best. It always depends on the situation and what the other rhythm section players are doing. If the guitar/banjo player is playing a steady 4/4, you can stay in 2 (almost forever), and it will feel great. When you finally go into 4/4, then it will feel like the train is finally leaving the station . . . very powerful. Same thing with the piano—if she is playing left-hand half-notes or implying stride, then you can stay in 2. Drummer: if the drummer plays a strong 2 & 4 backbeat, e.g. on a choked ride cymbal or choked hi-hat, then you can stay in 2. If he is playing more driving 4/4 in a swing or (time warp) beboppish style, then you probably should go into 4/4 also. What *does not* feel great is when you play in a strict swing 2 feel, and the others are playing bebop-style 4/4.

    When you play in 2 in these situations, you should put a rest on beats 2 and 4, making space for the others who are playing on those beats. It might sound clunky, but if you place your notes well, then you have that locomotive sound that the early bands had . . . Jimmie Lunceford (John Kirby), Duke Ellington (Wellman Braud), and Count Basie (Walter Page). If you play gut strings with no amp, the decay happens naturally on beats 2 and 4, but if you use steel strings then you need to think about cutting the notes off on 2 and 4 and making space for whoever is playing the 2 and 4 beats (i.e. the drummer's choked cymbal and the guitar/banjo playing all four quarter notes).

    I'd say if you spent a few hours listening and analyzing some recordings from the era, it would start to make sense. I like what Steve said about staying in 2. It's a great tension builder—to stay in 2 as long as possible, then finally go to 4 when there is no other choice.

    Last edited: Dec 29, 2016
    Steve Boisen and marcox like this.

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