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Steve Brown: Atlas Slapped

Steve Brown: Atlas Slapped
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The word bass means bottom. It means support. That's the prime requisite of a bassist, support. Architecturally, it has to be the lowest part of the building, and it has to be strong, or the building will not stand. Musically, it is the lowest human voice. It is the lowest musical voice in the orchestra. It's identifying. If it's a B-flat-major chord, I have to play B-flat, or you won't know it's a B-flat-major chord. We are like Atlas, standing in support.
class="f-right s-img">—Milt Hinton, interview with Gene Lees from You Can't Steal A Gift (Yale University, 2001)



The "bull fiddle" has come a long way since playing roots and fifths, developing into a mature solo vehicle as well as an active voice in the rhythm section. Yet before Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
or Jimmy Blanton
Jimmy Blanton
Jimmy Blanton
1918 - 1942
bass, acoustic
, Steve Brown
Steve Brown
Steve Brown
b.1890
was moving the bass out from the background. While jazz histories focus on the leading jazzmen he played next to, his skill, creativity and drive on the string bass made him far more than a supporting player in his time.

Bassist and tubaist "Steve" Brown was born Theodore Brown in New Orleans in 1890, acquiring the moniker "Steve" for a carefree attitude that reminded friends of bridge-jumper Steve Brodie. Despite having little musical training, Steve and his trombonist brother, Tom, supplemented their income as tinsmiths playing local gigs and apprenticing in brass bands organized by New Orleans legend "Papa Jack" Laine. Tom left New Orleans in 1915 for Chicago, where "Brown's Band from Dixieland" inspired an exodus of New Orleans musicians to the Windy City. Five years later, and after a hiatus from music, Steve packed up his bass to join his brother.

Brown's big sound and firm, flexible beat earned him a solid reputation, further cemented after joining fellow Crescent City expatriates in the house band at the Friars' Inn. The Friars Society Orchestra (later known as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings
New Orleans Rhythm Kings

band/orchestra
) was greatly admired by musicians and younger players, such as cornetist Bix Beiderbecke
Bix Beiderbecke
Bix Beiderbecke
1903 - 1931
cornet
, clarinetist Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
1909 - 1986
clarinet
and saxophonist Bud Freeman
Bud Freeman
Bud Freeman
1906 - 1991
sax, tenor
. Brown's bass on the Friars' acoustic records is felt but not heard, and recordings led by pianist Elmer Schoebel include Brown's functional efforts on tuba, which he doubled out of practicality rather than preference.

Records by the Jean Goldkette Orchestra (which Brown joined in 1924) provide the most vivid examples of Brown on his favored instrument. The Goldkette band is largely forgotten today, but witnesses describe it as one of the hottest, most technically assured bands of the twenties. Goldkette hired topnotch jazz talent including Beiderbecke, saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer
Frankie Trumbauer
Frankie Trumbauer
1901 - 1956
saxophone
, violinist Joe Venuti
Joe Venuti
Joe Venuti
1903 - 1978
violin
, guitarist Eddie Lang
Eddie Lang
Eddie Lang
1902 - 1933
guitar
and reedman Jimmy Dorsey
Jimmy Dorsey
Jimmy Dorsey
1904 - 1957
composer/conductor
. In a 1926 battle of the bands at New York's Roseland Ballroom, Goldkette's boys trounced none other than the famous Fletcher Henderson
Fletcher Henderson
Fletcher Henderson
1897 - 1952
arranger
Orchestra, a veritable jazz conservatory of the twenties and early thirties. Henderson cornetist Rex Stewart
Rex Stewart
Rex Stewart
1907 - 1967
trumpet
confessed, "We simply could not compete with [Goldkette's band]. Their arrangements were too imaginative and their rhythm too strong, what with Steve Brown slapping the hell out of that bass."

Brown told interviewer J. Lee Anderson that his time with Goldkette was the best musical experience of his life. Those sentiments can be heard in the lift Brown brings to pop ditties such as "I'm Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover," or his double-time gallop on "Slow River." On the flowing "Clementine," he adds a steady four behind soloists that prefigures the smoother rhythms of the swing era. Brown's opening bass lines are buoyant yet dutiful during the more reserved "Hoosier Sweetheart," but his skipping punctuations behind a sexless vocal create a subtle act of rhythmic subterfuge. When the Beiderbecke-led brass section struts in, Brown unveils his slap technique, the sound that made him an icon of the string bass during jazz's early days.

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