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Why is the double bass "the sound of jazz?"

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by Peter McFerrin, Dec 2, 2002.

  1. I had an argument with a pianist friend last night who stated flat-out that bass guitar is a wholly inferior instrument to the double bass. When asked to explain his reasoning, he went off into some crap about "wood" and how bass guitar sounds "plastic-y," and that pitch is unimportant for a contrabass instrument anyway.

    I realize that this is one guy (he has also claimed that trombone is an "inferior" instrument, FWIW), and his biggest influences are Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, and Brad Mehldau--guys for whom take-no-prisoners eight-octave cadenzas, rampaging all the way down to A1, are a way of life--but I've gotten this from other pianists and a ton of horn players, albeit mostly in the straightahead/neotraditionalist vein.

    Why is it that so many straightahead pianists and horn players are willing to put up with DB players who use magnetic pickups and super-low action that make them sound more like stereotypical slabbers than the slabbers themselves, yet recoil instinctively at the thought of playing with a bass guitarist in an otherwise acoustic context? Obviously, guys like Michel Petrucciani, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, and Michel Camilo are/were exceptions, but they more or less prove the rule. One of Cornell's best BG players took up DB--and not very skillfully, at that--because he was told by Joshua Redman, "The double bass is the heartbeat of jazz, man."

    I remember hearing an interview with Marcus Miller in which he said, "What am I supposed to do if I want to play 'jazz' like [the neotraditionalists] want me to? Sell my electric bass, buy an upright, and put on a three-piece suit?" My friends keep bugging me to take up DB, and quite frankly I don't have the time to do that and achieve the level of skill I desire on SLAB. Am I forever doomed to be on the jazz periphery because I really have no desire to take up an instrument on which I will never be anything but piss-poor?
  2. godoze


    Oct 21, 2002
    well, I agree with what you say. I play Db but not nearly as well as BG. As far as the inferiority crap, that comes from people who seem to be a bit conflicted. Stanley Clarke told me (I had a chance to talk to him on a radio call in show)that the electric bass was a fairly limited instrument and that I should take up Db to be fulfilled for the rest of my life ! I thought that was ironic coming from someone whose reputation was made on the BG.

    My line has been to play whatever i want to play jazz wise - mostly free or straight ahead with those more open minded people, and to say the hell with those that are stuck in 80 yr old sound. The old "Change is Hard" adage works well here...
  3. Peter, I know exactly what you mean.

    What *really* gets me is when these players sit there and dis the electric bass, then they pull out their Roland electric piano to do the gig!!

    There are a few people around town that think thay way. My thoughts are, you think that way, you're kinda stuck in a time warp...the electric bass has been around for 50 years now. Please people. Give it some credit.

    Have you noticed that most of the people who dis the electric are straight-ahead jazzers? If jazz had not been 'invented' until this year, do you think the bassists would be playing upright or electric? My guess is electric.

    Now mind you, I like the upright, even bought one last year and am learning it, partly because of the aforementioned attitudes out there. I love jazz, but you're gonna have an awful time trying to get Real Book gigs on the electric.

    Back in '94, Bass Player had a cover story article - electric vs. acoustic, with Ron Carter and Anthony Jackson. If you can get your hands on it, read it. Very interesting.

    Now, I just re-read you post. What? Pitch doesn't matter!!?!? Then why not get Fieldy for your next Real Book gig?

    Inferior? Not even. Think about all the different types of electric basses, the players, the sounds, especially post-Alembic when the basses started getting REALLY good.

    You tell your piano playing 'friend' that if he can use the words 'inferior' and 'Jaco' in the same sentence, then MAYBE I'll listen.
    edit: but probably not.

    [climbs off soap box]

    BTW, I'm surprised Joshua would say something like that...wouldn't be surprised if it was that Wynton dude.
  4. Good subject, Peter. The first thing that comes to my mind is: The Club. I don't think an actual "Club" exists, but, that's how some upright bassists have come across to me.

    ~~ Now, to any upright gentlemen or ladies, this is NOT a flame, just my own experience and opinion.~~

    By "The Club," I mean that unless you have an upright or have studided on an upright you're not in the upright club. Let's face it, to get into playing upright takes a much more devoted attitude in all areas: Cost, lessons and transporting the darn thing. A few upright players I've talked to over the years at Jazz clubs suddenly gave me what I can only describe as a condescending look when they realized that I was talking about an electric bass guitar, and not even a fretless one at that when I said, "I play bass too." To a certain extent I guess they have a right to this attitude.

    Let me repeat myself to any upright player reading this: You play an instrument whose scale is longer and more formidable and whose strings fight you every step of the way; my hat's off to you all.

    However, I have met one or two doghouse players that thought that the electric bass guitar was simply a toy. Everyone's entitled to their opinions.

    Mike J.

    P.S. I don't know where that trombone thing came from. :confused:
  5. Josh Ryan

    Josh Ryan - that dog won't hunt, Monsignor. Supporting Member

    Mar 24, 2001
    Would your hat be off to me if I went swimming and only used one leg? :D ;) Apples to Oranges IMO.
  6. Christopher


    Apr 28, 2000
    New York, NY
    Traditionalists diss the instrument because they don't know how to play it.

    The woody sound and the arco stuff isn't there with the slab, but you can do pretty much anything else on bass guitar, and a lot more besides.

    Now what's this about the trombone being an "inferior" instrument?
  7. TBONE64

    TBONE64 Guest

    Feb 22, 2002
    Chesterfield, VA
    Good point by all. However, I do not feel there is a "Club". It takes a great deal of skill to play both instruments. Anthony Jackson is an excellent example of the skill required for electric. I dare anyone to tell him he is not playing jazz, because he is not on DB.

    I am a traditionalist at heart and feel that the bass guitar has no place in certain music, just as the double bass does not. Each having a particular sound, for certain music. For example I would not like to see the Dragonetti concerto performed on electric, just as I would not like to see Portrait of Tracy on a DB.

    I play both, traditional training on DB and but have played electric longer. Go figure? While I was in school I saw alot of amzing players on one of the two, but couldn't get around on the other.

    The key is to make yourself marketable as a player. If you can play both equally then in a studio situation you would be more likely to get the call, instead of 2 virtuoso players on single instruments. Unless, the producer wants Edgar Meyer or Anthony Jackson. Then you're out of luck. ;)

    No bashing to anybody. It should all be fun. When it is not, what is the purpose of doing it anymore?
  8. I dunno, man. Seeing him play his upright at the Key Club on Saturday...he looked very fulfilled when he was playing it. Besides, his reputation might have been made on electric, but before he ever even touched one, he was playing upright. Cello before that, violing before cello, and accordian before violin. If that means anything at all in the context of this thread.
  9. I'd really love to hear his arguments for why pitch is not important on contrabass instruments. Hell, I can already play a bunch of random notes; why should I learn theory now? Now, this applies more to when I play a horn in a brass ensemble, but I always listen down to the lowest voice.

    Some of the ideas expressed by these people are just their own opinion, so whatever. There's certainly instruments and music I don't like. Some of this nonsense is certainly excessive and uncalled for, however. I've realized over the past few years that the instrument itself or even what instrument is being played matters a whole lot less than the person playing it.

    As for the trombone being an inferior instrument, sure. I hate instruments where you can tune every note and have a more equal response throughout their range. (Honestly, yeah, it's harder to play fast on them, but what instrument would you rather took over the trombone range-- a freakin' euphonium?!)
    Need Gigs likes this.
  10. Flatwound

    Flatwound Supporting Member

    Sep 9, 2000
    San Diego
    I don't care much for gear snobs. Whether it's someone saying only pre-CBS Fenders are worth playing, or an URB-snob or whatever, I just have a low tolerance for it. Dave Holland went from guitar to electric bass to URB and found his sound (and it's a great sound). Jaco went from drums and other stuff to BG and found his sound. Many big-name bassists have been just fine with a plain-jane P or J. To me, it's all good. I love Dave Holland, and think he has magnificent sound and technique. Stanley Clarke's URB playing with Return to Forever just blew me away. OTOH, I'm also a fan of Jesse Murphy, Peter Cowling, John Deacon, Bunny Brunel, and Billy Sheehan.

    OK, that doesn't have much to do with straightahead-type stuff, but if you put flats on your P and maybe stuff some foam in the pickup cover, you'd probably sound better than quite a few URB-ists in the same environment. Plus, you could play with "precision" :D .

    The idea that pitch isn't important is just plain stupid. Kinda like saying rhythm isn't important.
  11. FretNoMore

    FretNoMore * Cooking with GAS *

    Jan 25, 2002
    The frozen north
    I really dislike the snobbery too, but there is a real difference in sound between a bass guitar and a double bass. For some songs or styles the DB just simply sounds right. That doesn't mean an electric couldn't do as well, only differently. Perhaps this is just for historical or cultural reasons, but we do like to hear familiar sounds. As everything changes over time I think the pendulum will swing towards electric bass, but the overall sound of bands will then also change.
  12. "Sounds right" is a phrase that troubles me deeply. I suspect that for most people, "sounds familiar" is more appropriate.

    We slabbers know that our guitarist brethren are more hidebound than all five Marsalises (Marsales?) put together when it comes to certain parts of their equipment. With the exception of metalheads and Paul Reed Smith users, God forbid that they should use a guitar that wasn't designed in the Truman or Eisenhower administrations, or (unless they're jazzers) an amplifier that doesn't use vacuum tubes.

    I've asked a bunch of Les Paul users why they play that particular axe, and the invariable response is, "It's got the sound, man." When I ask them the definition of "the sound," oftentimes I hear, "it's the sound I grew up hearing on the radio." That is to say, generations of rockers have grown up hearing the Gibson sound on the radio and don't want to take the initiative to try to do their own thing sonically.

    This is analogous to the situation with the DB in jazz: the main reason the instrument sounds appropriate is because it was the only thing available when all the Great Masters (*cough*) made their classic recordings. I will concede KUNG FUQUA's point that the percussive nature of the double bass is more pleasant to the ear in conjunction with the standard approach to jazz harmonic rhythm, but too many pianists are unwilling to try something new given the different sonic properties of the bass guitar.

    FRENCHY'S BROTHER, you sure are right about the neo-swing thing. But, it's fitting, given that most neo-swingers are really pUnK r4wK k1dZ at heart and retain the studied laziness of contemporary "punk" aesthetics.
  13. Andrew Jones

    Andrew Jones Banned

    Feb 28, 2001
    Northampton Mass
    At some point somebody came along and played the B3 and that tone was accepted as " Jazz bass".Oh yah the theres the tuba.You think there was much resistance when they came up?

  14. Actually, the DB replaced the tuba because it was buttloads easier to amplify and record.
    aborgman likes this.
  15. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Define "traditionalist". I greatly prefer the sound of a DB to the sound of a BG, but I can and do play both. For me, the issue is that I like ACOUSTIC MUSIC, be it jazz, bluegrass, or whatever. I'd hire a DB player over a BG player for an acoustic gig every day of the week.
    Nic. and carl h. like this.
  16. Nick Gann

    Nick Gann Talkbass' Tubist in Residence

    Mar 24, 2002
    Silver Spring, MD
    What about "recording basses"? Those were tubas with a bell that faced forwards so a mic could pick them up and not have to worry about amping a DB...

    They were used to replace the DB because they were hard to record...

    Or am I wrong
  17. Andrew Jones

    Andrew Jones Banned

    Feb 28, 2001
    Northampton Mass

    well I didnt really say it but I meant do you think the first double bass players met resistance from the tuba guys?

  18. I'm sure they did, given that you can't march with a DB.
  19. Nick Gann

    Nick Gann Talkbass' Tubist in Residence

    Mar 24, 2002
    Silver Spring, MD
    I don't get what you mean.... The tuba guys couldn't have given resistance to the first double bass guys... The tuba has only been around for 150 years or so... Hasn't the DB been around for ages more?
  20. tomtom


    Jun 17, 2002
    Philthy, PA
    "Jazz isn't dead, it just smells funny"- Frank Zappa

    "Jazzsnobeat****" - a John Zorn composition

    these are a few of my favorite things...

    and I like jazz.

    what these guys like is the attack of the upright. It gives drummers with no time something they can grab onto easily.

    however....music is evolving beyond splangalanangs and 2-5-friggin-1s
    Nic. likes this.

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