Bass and Bitter Rivals
Dear BigJazzNerd: Given the fact that there have been many publicized rivalries among musicians over the years, which do you consider to be the most bitter? Bob Peterson
Given the fact that there have been many publicized rivalries among musicians over the years, which do you consider to be the most bitter?
Try as they might, some musicians just don't get along. Pat Metheny and Kenny G don't exactly see eye-to-eye. Charles Mingus could be a royal pain in the ass to work with. The guys who played in Buddy Rich's band could tell you some stories. The press, one can argue, encouraged controversy among top musicians, promoting concert dates as musical prizefights. Lester Young vs. Coleman Hawkins for the "Tenor Saxophone Title. Ellington vs. Basie in the "Ultimate Battle of the Bands. And while competition and cutting contests have always had their place in jazz's evolution, pitting musician against musician was mostly journalistic hype. Hey, it sold tickets.
Nevertheless, some ugly musician rivalries are known to have existed, and perhaps the oldest and most bizarre occurred over 400 years ago. I'm referring, of course, to a notorious feud between two bull-headed virtuosi double-bass players: Domenico Dragonetti and Giovanni Bottesini.
Dragonetti was born in Venice in 1763. Until he came along the double-bass was a cumbersome instrument. It was full-sized, considerably larger than the ¾ size that is common today. It had three strings, and was virtually impossible to keep in tune. In fact no one, including Mozart, who complained about the instrument's capricious intonation, quite knew what to do with this cello-on-steroids tucked away in the back of the orchestra. Hardly any music was written for the double-bass until Dragonetti revolutionized the sound with his virtuoso performances. He composed for the instrument and actually got so good that he became a featured soloist and a crowd favorite. Legend has it that his dog Carlo even got into the act. During opera performances, Dragonetti's loyal canine slept under his master's chair in the orchestra pit and was known to howl during tenor solos.
The rivalry for the title of World's Best Double-bassist began when Bottesini came on the scene rather late in Dragonetti's career. Born in 1821 in the Lombardy region of Italy, Bottesini used a French bow (Dragonetti used the German-style bow) and played a bass designed with four strings instead of three. Written accounts of Bottesini's amazing musicianship are numerous. It seems almost everyone who heard him was knocked out by his virtuosity, including Giuseppe Verdi, who befriended the bassist. Everyone, that is, except diehard Dragonetti fans, who irked fellow concertgoers by chanting DRA-GO-NET-TI during Bottesini's solos. Certainly, it was a bitter rivalry, although, strangely enough, no evidence can be found confirming the two players ever met.
Strange, too, is the epilogue to their rivalry. After Dragonetti died in 1846, his cherished 14th century double-bass was tucked away in an upper room of San Marco with the strict instructions that no one should ever be allowed to touch it. This rule applied even to Bottesini who once asked to play the prized instrument and was turned away. His look of bitter disgust, it seems, followed him to his grave.