[JPL] Detroit & Philadelphia: A brotherhood of bassists
drjazz at drjazz.com
Sun Aug 24 11:34:13 EDT 2008
Detroit International Jazz Festival
Detroit & Philadelphia: A brotherhood of bassists
What do many of the best in jazz history have in common? Ties to
Detroit and Philadelphia
BY MARK STRYKER . FREE PRESS MUSIC WRITER . August 24, 2008
f it weren't for Detroit and Philadelphia, the history of modern jazz
would be a lot shorter and a lot less hip. These two meccas are so
similar in substance, style and the sheer number of musicians that rose
from their streets to prominence that they could be twins separated at
But when you narrow the focus specifically to bass players, the
connections become even more striking. The roll call includes more gods
per capita than from any other city.
"It's not an accident that almost all of my favorite bass players are
from Detroit or Philadelphia," says Christian McBride, the
Philadelphia-born bassist who serves as artist-in-residence at the 29th
annual Detroit International Jazz Festival, which begins Friday and runs
through Labor Day. "You take away Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Percy
Heath, Jimmy Garrison, James Jamerson, Alphonso Johnson and the others
and you're left with a very short list."
Billed as "A Love Supreme: The Detroit-Philly Connection," this year's
festival features a gaggle of headliners with roots in one city or the
other. One of Detroit's signature cultural events, the festival --- held
on six stages that stretch from Hart Plaza up Woodward into the downtown
core --- showcases more than 100 national, local and school bands. It
remains the largest free jazz festival in North America.
McBride's position at the top of the bill --- he performs in five
different settings --- brings Detroit and Philadelphia's landmark
production of bass players into especially sharp relief. With that in
mind, the Free Press asked the 36-year-old jazz star to curate a survey
of the most important bassists produced by both cities.
McBride, who began traveling with some of the biggest names in jazz when
he was only 18, is an ideal guide: He's an obsessive student of jazz
history, knows the recordings and lore as intimately as his own phone
number and has a knack for breaking down a player's style and influence
in easy-to-understand language. He's also a peach --- a burly man with a
gregarious personality, hearty laugh and a voice as deep and resonant as
the lowest notes on his instrument.
Playing the bass is one of the most complicated tasks in modern jazz.
You have to delineate harmony with your walking lines. You have to
anchor the rhythmic pulse. You have to provide melodic counterpoint. You
have to form a strong bond with the rhythm section, but also negotiate,
on the fly, individual relationships with each member of the band. You
have to play with a singing tone, expert intonation and dogged stamina.
After all, when a saxophonist finishes a solo, he can sit at the bar;
the bassist has to play all the time.
The historically rich jazz traditions in both Detroit and Philadelphia
were the result of a complex weave of factors, including a vibrant black
middle class at midcentury, thriving nightlife and entertainment
industries, first-class music programs in the schools and the presence
of key mentors within the jazz community who took well-trained young
musicians and whipped them into shape on the bandstand.
The nourishing fee of formal and informal education paid especially big
dividends for bassists because a comprehensive grasp of technique,
harmony and structure is so essential.
"I think the most thoroughly trained musicians have come from Detroit
and Philly," McBride says. "Because of a bass player's role in jazz, we
need to know more than anyone else. We're the navigators of the ship,
like a catcher on the baseball diamond. We have to know what everybody
else is doing."
*/Bassists from Detroit and Philadelphia have influenced nearly every
stylistic development in jazz since the '50s, from hard bop through
post-bop, jazz-rock and today's mainstream.
Here are some of the primary movers and shakers, with insights and a CD
recommendation from McBride:/*
The Detroiters: Paul Chambers (1935-1969)
Born in Pittsburgh but raised in Detroit, Chambers roared out of Cass
Tech High School in the early '50s to quickly became the premiere
bassist of his era. He worked with Miles Davis from 1955-63 and appeared
on hundreds of LPs. His tone was a velvet purr, his technique was
unimpeachable, his walking lines struck a lethal groove and weaved
through the chords with the fluidity of a pianist. His solos --- plucked
or bowed --- revealed a melodic construction as sophisticated as any
"When you think about Paul Chambers, you have to think about what came
before him and how he was able to put all of that together," says
McBride. "He took the sound and ideas of Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown,
Percy Heath, Jimmy Blanton --- all of the great bassists who came before
him --- and created his own sound.
To the untrained ear, he sounded like a genius and to the most
thoroughly trained ear he was confirmed as a genius.
"No one of his era or after had those kinds of arco (bowed) chops. I
also think he did for the bass what Miles Davis did for the trumpet.
Miles was able to take the real brassy trumpet sound of some of his
heroes like Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry and was able to mellow it,
cool it out and put a shine over it to make it more subtle. Paul
Chambers did that with the bass."
*On CD: *Miles Davis' "Someday My Prince Will Come."
*Listen to *Paul Chambers: "Tale of the Fingers," from the album "Whims
of Chambers" by the Paul Chambers Sextet (Blue Note, recorded 1956).
Ron Carter (b. 1937)
Born in Ferndale, Carter, a Cass Tech graduate, wanted to be a classical
musician until switching to jazz at the Eastman Conservatory. One of the
most recorded musicians in jazz history, his sound and style entered the
DNA of the music during his tenure with the innovative Miles Davis
Quintet from 1963-68. Carter built a bridge from swinging bebop to the
advanced harmonies, complex rhythms and elastic structures of the '60s.
"I don't think anyone has significantly added to the innovations that
Ron Carter made on his instrument harmonically as far as creating bass
lines," says McBride. "Ron was one of the first to be able to
reharmonize a song on the spot. As the new era came in, chords got more
complex, bigger and more impressionistic. ...and if you don't know much
about harmony, you'll stay close to home.
"But Ron knows what notes work with any chord and can break it all down
because he's so well-trained. A lot of bassists do it with a wing and
prayer and hope they land in the right spot. If they do hit the right
note, they'll try and trick you in to thinking they knew what they were
doing. Some players think in terms of texture, but he thought in terms
of theory and having it make sense.
"Ron thought in terms of theory, but you only think about that when the
record is off --- when you're listening to Ron, it's all about groove
*On CD: *Ron Carter, "Jazz, My Romance."
*Listen to *Ron Carter: "Gingerbread Boy," from the album "Miles Smiles"
by the Miles Davis Quintet (Columbia Legacy, recorded 1966).
James Jamerson (1938-83)
When jazz and rock began to fuse in the late '60s, bassists found a
model in the electric bass work of Jamerson, one of the original Funk
Brothers who anchored countless Motown hits. Jamerson moved to Detroit
from South Carolina as a teenager.
His bass lines for Motown were highly melodic, syncopated and sparked by
"James Jamerson was the first great genius of the electric bass," says
McBride. "He was a virtuoso. The way he got around his instrument on
those Motown records --- nobody had played like that before.
"I think it was the combination of genius and training, because
everybody knows he also played the acoustic bass and he could play jazz.
He put all of that together with these new funky rhythms that were
coming from gospel. When you look at any electric bass player and anyone
who is a little bit funky, it all starts with Jamerson."
*CD Pick:* Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On" (Deluxe Edition).
Bob Hurst (b. 1964)
Detroit-born Hurst was nurtured by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and later
studied at Indiana University. His big break came with Wynton Marsalis
in the mid-'80s. His huge sound, technique, strong pulse and command of
complex rhythm and harmony have had a big impact on younger bassists.
"To me, Bob is the Ron Carter of his generation --- he's so thoroughly
trained," says McBride. "He's easily one of my biggest influences.
There's a Wynton Marsalis record he played on called "Marsalis Standard
Time" and they play 'Autumn Leaves' really fast. Bob took this solo, and
I never heard anybody play that fast but still keep the sound full."
I've always tried to make that my hallmark --- to be able to play with
quickness and fluidity but not lose the sound.
*CD Pick: *Wynton Marsalis, "Marsalis Standard Time, Vol. 1."
*Listen to *Bob Hurst: "Incognegro," from the album "One For Namesake"
by Robert Hurst. (DIW/Columbia, recorded 1993).
The Philadelphians: Percy Heath (1923-2005)
Born in Wilmington, N.C., but raised in Philadelphia, Heath was best
known for his four decades with the Modern Jazz Quartet, which married
an elegant formalism with a sturdy blues impulse. Heath was the oldest
of the three brothers that make up Philadelphia's first family of jazz.
Jimmy, a saxophonist, and Albert, a drummer nicknamed Tootie, will be
leading the Heath Brothers band at the festival.
"I think Percy's greatest legacy is his sound," says McBride. "From his
lowest note up to his highest note, every note resonates the same way.
One particular album that emphasizes this is the first MJQ album,
"Django." It almost sounds as if he's plugged in, but you know he's not
--- it's 1954.
"A sound that devastatingly clear is amazing. You don't hear a lot of
finger noise. You don't hear the string slapping against the
fingerboard, which can be a good sound every now and then --- it lets
you know you're playing a wooden instrument. But with Percy you always
heard the pure note."
*On CD:* Modern Jazz Quartet, "Django."
*Listen to *Percy Heath: "Django," from the album "Django" by the Modern
Jazz Quartet (Prestige, recorded 1954).
Jimmy Garrison (1934-76)
Saxophonist John Coltrane's groundbreaking quartet defined another front
of the cutting edge in the '60s. Garrison, born in Miami but raised in
Philadelphia, played with Coltrane's classic quartet from 1961-66. The
group was 75% Philly (the leader, Garrison and pianist McCoy Tyner) and
25% Detroit (drummer Elvin Jones).
Coltrane's quartet pioneered a freer approach to harmony and form,
anchored by impassioned interaction and incantatory improvisations.
Garrison played rhythms, notes and textures --- including using double
stops (two notes at once) and strumming his strings like a guitar ---
that paired with Jones' percussive thunder Coltrane's fondness for drones.
"Jimmy Garrision represents one of the first in the so-called
avant-garde that had serious training," says McBride. "I think
avant-garde to a certain extent --- and this is the one thing I can say
that's controversial --- stunted the growth of a lot of musicians.
Because when the avant-garde started getting hot, guys who didn't have
training came around and started honking and squealing.
"Jimmy was one of the first in that idiom who really understood what he
was doing from a historical standpoint. He made the abstract make sense.
A lot of what he played with Trane was not so much based on harmony as
on pure rhythm."
*CD Pick: *John Coltrane, "Live in Seattle."
*Listen to *Jimmy Garrison: "Ascent," from the album "Sun Ship" by the
John Coltrane Quartet (Impulse, recorded 1965).
Stanley Clarke (b. 1951)
A Philadelphia-born prodigy, Clarke had a big impact on the fusion
explosion of the '70s. He came to fame early in the decade with Chick
Corea's Return to Forever, playing acoustic bass at first and then, when
the music shifted toward rock, electric bass. Eventually, he became a
bona fide crossover star.
"Stanley Clarke's greatest legacy is that he was the first great
doubler," says McBride. "He was as virtuosic on the electric bass as he
was on the acoustic bass. He got all that language from bebop, rock,
Motown and all of the classical training and he ran away with it on both
"Pat Metheny came up with this great phrase. He said, 'Stanley created
comfort bass.' It's the prototypical sound of the amplified acoustic
bass, with low action, sitting down and anti-bebop. You don't play hard;
you play very light and let the amp do a lot of the work and you play a
lot of melodies."
*CD Pick: *Chick Corea, "Light as a Feather."
Alphonso Johnson (b. 1951)
Born in Philadelphia, Johnson was all-but-unknown when he joined the
jazz-rock super group Weather Report in 1974 to play electric bass.
"He's underrated," says McBride. "The few solos he would take and the
holes he would fill up were very hip. He grooves much harder than people
recognize. He only uses his chops for little flourishes, but it's
sitting right in the pocket. It's totally about groove."
*On CD: *Weather Report, "Black Market."
*Listen to *Alphonso Johnson: "Black Market," from the album "Black
Market" by Weather Report (Columbia Legacy, recorded 1975).
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