One issue in this jazz business that continues to assert itself is that of drummers and bassists who aspire to be leaders. It's not enough when a jazz musician, after acquiring years of experience of playing as a sideman moves to become the leader; that's a challenge in itself. Try adding to the mix a traditional role as sideman/rhythmic support to the equation compounded by an instrument that is acoustic-physically the softest member of the band. And of course, we won't mention that "muddy bass region", that netherworld ruled by woofers and subwoofers. From John Kirby to Oscar Pettiford to Charles Mingus the dynamic of bassist-composer-leader presents a continuing challenge to all those who dare to address this issue. It also is food for further thought.
I think that the desire to be a leader has quite a bit to do with having some kind of artistic vision and the will to pull it off, especially with regard to organizing other musicians to fulfill that dream. Additionally, that artist is driven, no, rather compelled to contribute to the chosen medium (i.e. music, literature, dance, painting, sculpture, etc.). The hope is that the leader/artist will add something to the extant body of tradition and knowledge and in so doing may inspire others along the way. I've always described this creative process as opening a door to allow the river of the Muse to flow through unimpeded. Could it be possible to add something to that river as it continues on its endless journey? And even considering the old maxim that there really isn't anything new under the sun, don't the possibilities of further development of jazz music seem equally infinite?
When I was in graduate school in California, all the music that I heard, live or recorded, convinced me of one thing; i.e. I didn't hear anybody playing the bass the way I kept hearing it. To play melodies in the middle and lower registers of the bass that were as clear and as lyrical as any other horn was an important part of that idea. Another equally important accompanying concept was to have the bass sing as the human voice would. After all, as jazz is based on an oral tradition, use of the human voice has been one of its most vital components. For the bass, I kept hearing a way of playing that included using various contrapuntal melodies behind soloists which I heard other bassists play in bits and pieces. I always had the impression that I was listening to others playing around the edges of what I was hearing in my head. The same was true for solo playing, perhaps here even more so. For me, the bass solo presented the greatest opportunity for self-expression. It also created the most difficult challenge for artistic development. Wasn't the whole object of this creative process to tell a story through jazz music,i.e. to "sing your little songs, Pres"? So I moved east young man to New York, hopefully to deepen my voice and develop that music I kept hearing in my head.
Needless to say, these issues haven't changed a bit. I still hear that same music, though I'd like to think I'm better able today to play what I hear than yesterday, or perhaps more accurately, the music goes through me less dammed up today than yesterday. Pops Foster, Jimmy Blanton, Red Mitchell, Paul Chambers, and Scott LaFaro are all examples of a rich deep tradition of melodic bass playing. Every generation of bassists have aspired to these high standards. Nothing less should be accepted for the continued development of the bass fiddle voice in jazz.
If someone had told me twenty years ago that there would be such an entity as a generic bass sound I'd have laughed so hard I'd be thought to be daft. Today I'm definitely not laughing. Consider this: Why do some bassists, mostly young, who eschew any amplification, and who only play in front of microphones in concert or on recordings, all sound alike, but most of the "older" guys, including yours truly, have our own instantly identifiable personal sound whether we use microphones, electronic pick-ups, amplifiers, direct-boxes or any combination thereof. I mean, come on, if one hears Ron Carter or Cecil McBee or George Mraz or Rufus Reid or Buster Williams or ........(I think you now know what I mean here!) in a blind test one can identify the bass player in two, maybe three notes, huh? The development and growth of an artist's vision in whatever medium is the foundation for the birth and subsequent evolution of that art form. Central to that idea, of course is the notion that the dancer, the writer, the musician, the painter attempts to illuminate his/her corner of reality. In this process of creation an artist is busy being "used by the Muse" to the medium's ends; i.e. creative impulses in the medium are realized by singularly individual contributions to that art form. The so-called styles of literature, music, painting, dance, sculpture, etc. are merely manifestations and collections of these illuminations of "reality" left to inspire and enlighten humankind, if you catch my drift. The artist, hopefully, stays true to his/her personal vision as further insights and illuminations are developed during that artist's lifetime. The key here I think, is that it is imperative that an artist create and nurture a personal voice to add to the many other voices that are the history of any of the Arts. And in that spirit I say: Bassists (and everybody else) go get your own sound!!! Definitely food for further thought, methinks.
Curious isn't it how one tenet of the conventional wisdom in today's jazz world seems to be to de-emphasize one of the strongest and most enduringly timeless qualities of this music; the unique personal voice of each jazz artist. It has never mattered whether one was a leader or a sideperson as an issue of development of any artist's personality. It was a given that any jazz musician was not only trying to be the best that he/she could be, but understood right from jump street that one had to find and develop "your own sound." At least that's what the "old timers" used to tell us young bloods. They would tell us to go "Straight ahead and strive for tone" for that very reason. For saxophonists, trumpeters, pianists, bassists, drummers, vocalists, for everybody, one major component, if fact, for more than a few, the major component of an artist's game was his/her sound. I mean, can you imagine Miles or Trane or Bird or Sassy or Lady Day playing the same notes that we've all come to know and love without their own personal sound? How many times have we all been able to know almost instantly (usually within a couple of notes) who artists were on a recording. Not so easy when you listen to most of the current batch of newly recorded product, huh? Definitely food for further thought, me thinks.
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