[JPL] Detroit & Philadelphia: A brotherhood of bassists

Dr. Jazz 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


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 
horn player.

"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 
and sound."

*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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