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Genius Guide to Jazz

Farce-inatin' Rhythm

By Published: August 29, 2004
In my opinion, the main era of influence for the jazz bass began largely after the big band era when jazz once again returned to being the domain of the small combo. Milt "The Judge" Hinton (who won his nickname in a rigged game of euchre from Judge Landis. Landis was then obligated to adopt Hinton's old nickname, Spud) was the precursor to modern jazz bassists, laying the foundations throughout the thirties and forties with relentless side work. Hinton was also one of the few jazz greats able to drink his own weight in maple syrup, but knowing this will not make you better off.

The seminal name among jazz bassists must be Charles Mingus, though. Known to his friends as Charles Mingus, the enigmatic and eclectic bassist-pianist-composer-hyphen-hog had perhaps the most indelible effect on the concept of the double bass as an instrument of jazz music. Mingus' bold, uncompromising style lifted the concept of the instrument to a higher degree of prominence. His socially- and politically-charged work also brought about a new awareness to jazz. No longer simply a music of pure escapism, or an intellectual exercise in one-upmanship, jazz now had a conscience to go with its rugged good looks and bad boy charm.

There were many great and underrated bassists from the bop, post-bop, and free jazz eras, too many to list here. I will, however, mention the supple, uncomplicated yet always compelling basslines of Charlie Haden. Born in Iowa to a family of musicians, his early years were spent performing country music (which can not be held against him now, as the statute of limitations is only 8 years). Soon, he was in Los Angeles, finding himself part of the burgeoning free jazz scene with a revolutionary saxophonist named Ornette Coleman. Haden had an innate understanding of the role of the bass as both timekeeper and harmonic anchor, as well as making a dandy substitute—minus strings, plus wheels—for those soap box derby cars that Boy Scouts seem to enjoy making.

Introducing the electric bass (Electric bass, reader. Reader, electric bass), we jolt forward into the seventies. And guess who we find there? Those of you who have been paying attention to the article so far know that it is Jaco Pastorius. Those of you who have not being paying attention to this article so far have probably already doubled back a few paragraphs for the bra joke. Anyway, besides having a name that is a hell of a lot of fun to say, Pastorius revolutionized jazz bass through his incredible work with Weather Report (Partly cloudy, with a high of 52, low of 23) and later as a solo artist and with various combination of musicians. Pastorius' sometimes erratic personality and staggering ability brought the jazz bass to the forefront for the first time since perhaps Mingus and left a rich legacy of lore after his untimely death in 1987, yet another tragic figure in the sometimes unfortunate history of our music.

I will make specific mention of one more bassist before we wrap up, and that is the great Victor Wooten. Both with Bela Fleck and as a solo artist, Wooten's astounding technical prowess, uncommon melodic sensibilities and energetic stage personality have done much to enhance the status of the bass in contemporary jazz. And with his generous donation ($7.48, cash money) to the AAJ Genius Fund, he has done much to enhance his own status in this article.

But seriously.

Now that we've gone around the bandstand and covered the principal instruments of jazz, we might be tempted to ignore some of the "lesser" instruments that have contributed to jazz over the past century. We (what's this we stuff all of a sudden?) may wish to simply overlook such instruments as the trombone, guitar, violin or flute. Or, we may make a cursory mention of several great musicians who had the misfortune of playing less popular instruments, such as: Jack Teagarden, J.C. Higgambotham, J.J. Johnson, and Slide Hampton on trombone; Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, George Benson, and Pat Metheny on guitar; Honus Wagner and Cal Ripken, Jr., at shortstop; Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli on violin; Hubert Laws on flute. Or, we may choose to simply wish everyone a happy and blessed Thanksgiving, and thank you for reading my little slabs of nonsense month after month. And so we will.

Till next month, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

* If this doesn't win "Sentence of the Year" at the AAJ Christmas Party, I'm going to suspect a fix.


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