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CHAPTER 14 THE BASS
The role of the bass in jazz has been constantly undervalued and misunderstood. To the layman, or the economy-conscious night club proprietor, it seems incredible that this instrument, so seldom heard in solo flights and even then so hard to hear, can possibly be a necessity in every group from trio to symphony.
The jazz unit can no more dispense with a bass than a house with its foundation or a ship with its hull. Since the motivating element in both written and improvised jazz is the harmonic structure by the composition, it devolves upon the bass to provide a constant guide to this structure, most often by playing the root of the incumbent chord, or its fifth, and by linking these notes together with other notes of the chord or with passing notes. At the same time, through the depth and penetration of its tonal quality, the bass provides the fundamental rhythmic beat. The pianist and guitarist may "comp" (fill in with rhythmic punctuations and syncopation); the drummer may invest in a variety of complex counter-rhythms, but through it all the bass provides the deep, rich four-to-the-bar sine qua non that gives the band, literally, its lowest common denominator.
Brass bass instruments, such as the tuba or sousaphone, alternated with string basses in the early years of jazz. During the past decade the tuba has made a tentative return, though usually supplementing rather than replacing the string bass and functioning as much melodically as rhythmically. The string bass (also known as bass fiddle, bass violin, etc.) gradually ousted the brass bass from jazz orchestras during the 1920s, though until