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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">—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 or Jimmy Blanton, Steve Brown 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) was greatly admired by musicians and younger players, such as cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, clarinetist Benny Goodman and saxophonist Bud Freeman. 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, violinist Joe Venuti, guitarist Eddie Lang and reedman Jimmy Dorsey. In a 1926 battle of the bands at New York's Roseland Ballroom, Goldkette's boys trounced none other than the famous Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, a veritable jazz conservatory of the twenties and early thirties. Henderson cornetist Rex Stewart 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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