Steve Brown: Atlas Slapped

Andrew J. Sammut By

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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.

By plucking a string and immediately slapping it back against the fingerboard with the palm (sometimes twice or even three times in rapid succession), bassists can produce a percussive "slap" similar to a drummer's backbeat. Brown in turn had a highly individual approach to this technique. He explained to historian William Russell that he used heavier gut strings than his peers "on account of the body, to produce all that heavy instrumentation we had." Bandleader, historian and contemporary Brown- inspired bassist Vince Giordano further illuminates this unique method: "it's pretty hard to do; even the way he grabbed the strings is not really used anymore...he would grab [the string] with a couple of fingers, maybe pointer and middle, and pull it in a very hard way. The way he would then pull and slap, pull and slap, this is something that outside of Milt Hinton and maybe a little bit of Major Holley, not too many people really did anything with after Steve Brown." Giordano also points to the rhythmic complexity of Brown's syncopations and across-the-bar accents, and bass legend Milt Hinton described Brown "doing things, cross-rhythms and stuff, that [he'd] never yet heard anyone else do."

Brown himself claimed to have invented slapping when a drummer failed to appear at a gig, while Bill Johnson claims he introduced the idea after his bow broke in the middle of a performance. Regardless of who originated the technique, Brownian slap bass was a formidable force for booting large ensembles. Brown establishes a solid harmonic ground while kicking cross accents behind Venuti on "I'm Gonna' Meet My Sweetie Now," and his triple-slapping with clarinet on "Dinah" is more like a polyphonic duet than horn solo with bass accompaniment.

Yet Brown's magnum opus is captured on "My Pretty Girl," easily the hottest number recorded by the Goldkette band (and perhaps one of the hottest sides of the era). A defiant call and response and stomping melody start things off with a roar, but Brown's scorching counterpoint alongside the brass steals the show. He even gets the spotlight in the final chorus, his booming tone out front as the ensemble sticks to riffing underneath the bass. From start to finish, Brown asserts himself beyond mere accompaniment while never overpowering the whole. The invention, agility and power of Brown's bass are beautifully recorded, but it remains a teasing shred of what contemporaries enjoyed night after night.
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