A Remembrance of Percy Heath, Part 2-2

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AAJ: Your approach to the bass. Is it the sound, the rhythm, feel, notes?

PH: The choice of notes... well, George Mraz is downstairs. [Scheduled to play on the double bill with Hank Jones this particular evening] He was a violin player and he plays so much on the bass, facility-wise. I never concentrated too much on improvising that way. My concept was to create a line— because the bass itself replaced the tuba in the stage bands, jazz bands, as early back as the marching bands... the difference between when they had a stage band and a marching band was when they gave it that feeling of jazz, which was the Afro 6/8 feeling, as opposed to the strict eighth notes. It was syncopated. All those rhythms really came from Africa anyhow. But that rhythm that was given to the music, when they couldn't even play the drums because they feared some conspiracy or something. But if they picked up an instrument, anything they picked up they put that rhythm in it. On a minuet or whatever. It had that feeling that was born in them.

The way I felt about it was with the string bass replacing the tuba, the job was relegated to have pulse and notes. Harmony. But it being the ground bass, the lowest sound in the formation, I felt that it should be a line going along— which was part of what John [Lewis] taught me, contrapuntally. There were four lines going along there with the Modern Jazz Quartet, which harmonically phrases the composition.

My concentration and my concept of bass playing is to have a melody, which indicated the harmonic progressions of the composition and maintained the pulse. Not too much skipping around. There's a lot of boogety-boogety going on. It's OK. But you gotta know where "one" is. One, two, three, four. This music is 4/4 music.

Miles turned around one time. Me and Buhaina [Art Blakey] kind of scrambled the beat... We over-did something and came back smiling. I planned it. And Miles said [in perfect Miles imitation] "Where was 'one.' I couldn't find 'one.'" So you gotta know where "one" is.

I'm gonna give out my lesson, here. So read this and don't ask me.

[Counts off four beats, hand clapping on two and four] Two and four are accented in the feeling of the music. That's the swing. So on "one" you have to establish the tonality. "Two" is a strong beat... You can think of lesser notes in the triad [on two and four] to lead into the note on the weaker beat— the beat that's stronger, you don't need a strong note. In creating a line with that in mind, that this thing is going to swing, you can use a leading tone on the beats that are weak, and lead into the strong beat.

The first time I played the blues with Miles [Blue Haze, Prestige, 1954] Bob Weinstock put out the lights in the studio and said "play a slow blues." Dave [Schildkraut, saxophonist on the date] said "Percy, walk a couple of courses." Ol' Perce started playing the music. What did I use? I used an old blues line of [Count Basie bassist] Walter Page. And embellished it with other notes in between. This guy, I forget his name, printed in Downbeat magazine back there in '54 when I was the new star or something, wrote out the bass line and analyzed it. He said "Oh here Percy, you did so-and-so..." I said, "Oh shit, I did?" [Laughter] I did that? He analyzed it clinically. My whole concept was being there at the bottom for the improviser to know where it's going. I wouldn't come in on the third or the second of a chord as a first beat. What chord is that? You're establishing a new harmony.

That's my concept of bass. That's what I knew. Back then with Miles and those people, what they heard in Percy is that Baptist beat that I had. Had a good beat. I didn't know too many notes, but I was learning. I didn't play too many wrong notes because I didn't know but three notes in the chord to play in those early recordings. [Laughter]

AAJ: What about the sound?

PH: The sound, that's another thing on the bass. Everybody starts overplaying with the bass. Pulling, slapping, bam, bang. Strong. I got a picture of me with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and one string is pulled way back over on the other string. I'm pulling that hard. I used to get blisters. I did learn, in time, that the sound that was created, the richest sound, was the balance between the pressure in the left hand and the force that you use to reproduce that [with the right hand]. So it's a feeling between them. By doing that, you also have the liberty to accent. It's not just monotone like amplified guitar, that monotone. I hate those amplifiers, because it doesn't reproduce what you can do. You can hit one louder and whatnot, but it's only going to be what the amplifier reproduces.

But the contrabass moves the air in the room. You feel it! If you take your shoes off playing the bass, man, you feel it in the floor. That vibration. So the sound of the contrabass is very important. That's why electric bass doesn't sound good in a swing group. Bobby Cranshaw does very well with it, as far as emulating the bass. Some other people have these pre-amps and all that; sorta sounds as close to the bass as it can. They're easy to carry around [Laughter]. Kids ask me, "Mr. Heath, how many basses do you have." I say, "That's it." I cannot get that sound out of any other instrument. I've had that once since 1956. It's quite an instrument. I'm just lucky to have that.

When we used to play with symphony orchestras, all seven or eight bass players would come down after we'd taken a break... "What kind of bass is that you have?" I'd say "It's a Ruggeri, Giovani Ruggeri." They'd say, "I told you it was a Ruggeri." They'd start to analyze it because not too many jazz players had instruments like that. Cremona bass. It was over 250 years old when I got it in 1956 in Berlin. So it's about 300 years old now.

It's restored by Barry Goldstein. He loves it. His father was my bass repair man and he's taken over the business. It's prima.

And he had some strings made for me for the cello that wouldn't keep breaking by tuning up that low C to an E. They used to break all the time. So Barry has had some strings made for me. Don't tell too many people because he didn't make but so many.[Laughter]

Photo Credit
R.J. DeLuke, Herman Leonard, John Ballon, Jacqueline Marque, Tom Copi/Michael Ochs, Lee Friedlander, Bob Parent Archive, and Violaine Lenoir

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