Talkin' Blues with the Groovemaster, Jerry Jemmott
AAJ: Getting ready for this interview I've gone back and listened to Push Push a couple of times, and I've got to say, after 40 years it still holds up really well. As I listened to it, it made me think of the notion that bass players seem to kind of tap into the vibe of the human heart beat. It was cool, often, even within a nice groove, that seemed to be going on. Is that a conscious thing with bass players?
JJ: For me, a lot of my playing is coming out of being a dancer and my experience of playing a lot of dance music. So when you hear me playing, it's me imagining people dancing or moving. That's very important to me. So that's what I'm tapping into, but if it comes out as a heartbeat, that's great.
AAJ: That dance analogy is really apt, and that makes me think of something Jaco Pastious said during your interview. He said he thought bass was the most important instrument in the band because it's connected to rhythm and to harmony, so in a way, simultaneously you're in a rhythmic dance with the drummer, and in a dance of harmony with the soloist. That makes it a tricky instrument in a way, and maybe the general public doesn't think of that, but musicians certainly appreciate that.
JJ: Bass can be in-your-face, but there is also a kind of subliminal approach that I favor. You know like that heartbeat things, that's what struck me, you know Paul Chambers, he was always there. Of course the bass wasn't recorded that well then, so you couldn't hear him that well to begin with.
So when I started and listened to music, I often had to kind of imagine what the bassist was playing. So working as a dance partner evolved out of that. So it is tricky being a dance partner with the rhythm and doing a duet with the melody.
There are different approaches. Some players stick to the realm of the accompaniment, and some explore more interplay with the soloist or the melody. My style involves a lot of interplay and improvisation. So it's like a level of tiers, where the melody is first, the drums and rhythm is second, and then comes everything else.
The other instruments are often sweetening the sound, and if I'm listening to them, I can play less. Usually, the more instruments there are, the less I have to play. So it depends, but actually I'm playing everything in my head, so what I'm doing is subtracting things.
AAJ: It's been interesting for me as I prepared for this interview, as I've listened to music lately I've had my "bass" ears on. I was listening to Bob Marley's album Natty Dread (Island, 1974) and it really struck me how he framed his music completely around the bass. I imagine Bob Marley's music is a very satisfying for bass players.
JJ: For sure. Aston Barrett, known as Family Man, was often playing a very sophisticated sub-melody and at the same time maintaining rhythmic posts. It's an incredible style of music and I love playing it, it's a lot of fun. And with that sub-melody, you're carrying a lot, and along with the melody, it's really pronounced.
AAJ: It seems like bass players often have real melodic gifts, and it also seems like lots of them are accidental bass players, like Jaco, Mingus, Paul McCartney, Sting, and Brian Wilson.
JJ: I encourage my students to research the influences of players who inspire them. For me it was Paul Chambers, and I discovered he came to bass from the saxophone. So that would explain his soloing, but what captivated me about him was his rhythmic playing, his walking bass, that's the function of the bass that appeals to me, and my specialty.
I grew up around music, my grandfather even had a bass, but I don't recall him playing it. I went to young people concerts at Carnegie Hall and knew all the instruments, but I had no inclination to play an instrument at all. But that all changed when I heard Paul Chambers play, I thought, "I want to do that!" His walking style, it was melodic and rhythmic. After that I never wanted to play anything but the bass.
So I never had the desire to play anything else, but I like to listen to singers and saxophone players who were my mentors. I never liked to listen to bass players because I didn't want to copy anybody.
AAJ: In all your studio work, did you ever happen to work with Burt Bacharach?
JJ: Yes, I did a session with Dionne Warwick once, and Paul Griffin was on piano. It was all chart reading and I guess I did my thing.
AAJ: A recent interview with him caught my attention, he said: " 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' by Diana Ross could easily be the greatest record ever made. You listen to the bass line on there by James Jamerson. That Motown house band, that rhythm section. Wow." I thought that was telling, when he talked about the record he thought was perhaps the greatest, he made special mention of the bass.
JJ: That's especially interesting because his records aren't very bass-oriented.
Lost Friends and Legends
AAJ: Last month we lost a couple of legendary figures in R&B, Johnny Otis and Etta James.
JJ: I feel deep appreciation and gratitude for what they've done and accomplished. I didn't have the good fortune to work with them, but they left an imprint on the world. Johnny Otis had quite a life story, I just read it for the first time. It's amazing, when people are given the opportunity, and this a something distinguishes us from the animalsthe ability to change and morph into a new being by adapting to another culture. We can follow our hearts, but animals are stuck in their environment, they change and adapt, but we do it with intent. We go for it; we'll build that tree-house, and do it right now.
AAJ: Now we've just lost Whitney Houston, and as I thought about her it struck me that you probably knew her through Cissy Houston, before she was even an adult?
JJ: Exactly. I got a call from someone who said to me, "You remember little Whitney, Cissy brought her along to the studio when we recorded 'Think.'" She was probably a little five year-old, you wouldn't notice her.
But I'd see her from that time on, and then I'd start hearing about her. I did have close contact with her because I worked at a club where her mother was doing a show. Whitney and her brother Gary were singing backup for their mother, and they each had solo spots.
This would have probably been around 1983 before she had broken out. I remember Clive Davis coming to the club Sweet Waters. You know you hear about people in the industry, but I had never met Clive before that.
She was a sweet kid, and she was around her parents and behaving accordingly, but I sensed there was some wild energy under there. When she married Bobby Brown, you know it struck the people in the community who knew and observed her over the years as kind of strange. But I believe in my heart she just had an inner urge to kind of like let it all hang out, and feel comfortable about what she was doing. Of course a lot of times when you're doing something like that, you're really running away from something, you're escaping.
The thing about Mike Bloomfield, Jaco, and Duane Allman is that they excelled on their instruments, but they also excelled in crossing cultural boundaries in terms of the music styles they incorporated. That was a part of their brilliance and kind of gave them a song to sing with their own voice. And all of them heard music, and I can say that about Whitney Houston too. Her instrument was such that she could sing anything, and not in a stereotypical fashion as a black vocalist moving around. She just stood and delivered, almost like a jazz singer in the pop medium.
AAJ: I can only tell you of a few people I remember seeing for the first time, and Whitney Houston was one of them. I'd heard her before, but hadn't seen her. It was on German television, when they carried the 1987 Grammy Awards, and she sang "The Greatest Love." She walked down these stairs and she was like a living doll, just perfect. A beautiful figure and angelic good looks, and that voice, it could give you goose bumps that didn't go away.
This always stuck with me, and you can watch it on YouTube, when she finished, the camera panned to the audience, and the very first person to get to his feet for a standing ovation was B.B. King!
JJ: That's B.B., he'd give it up! He's a true gentleman, and he shows his love.