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American Culture and the Bass Player

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I have long held the view–although quietly for fear of being mugged–that one of the earliest signs of America’s cultural collapse was the introduction of the disco drum machine. I was, to be sure, a drummer at the time, so the opinion may have been a bit premature and biased. Nonetheless, since then popular music has become increasingly stripped of melody, chord range, internal variety and surprise, and dynamics. With the arrival of rap, music itself became virtually irrelevant.

These are not matters of taste, but observable phenomenon. For example, the history of western music, until fairly recently, was in part the story of expanding the number of acceptable chords, something that can be readily seen in comparing, say, a traditional folk song to the works of Thelonious Monk. This does not mean that the folk song was bad, only that the later work was far more venturesome at the least, and more creative at best. Growing cultures keep breaking ground. Declining ones just wear it out and break it up. Retrenchment and regression replaces exploration and adventure.

Anyone who grew up with jazz grew up with this sense of adventure, sometimes found in a single tune. It has been described by one music teacher as being in part the interplay between repetition and surprise. Just when we think we know what is coming thanks to previous reiteration, the music surprises us. Further, as far back as Jelly Roll Morton, jazz musicians borrowed from different musical traditions, blending them in new and unusual ways.

There have been two anchors in all of this: the drums and the bass. And even though I was once a drummer, after I switched to piano I found myself increasingly of the opinion that the bass was the sina qua non of jazz. In fact, in my own mainstream group – blessed by a superb bassist – I did away with drums entirely, leaving room for two horns in just a quartet.

Bassists are remarkable people, all the more so because most pay them so little mind. I have, in fact, never met a mean or nasty bass player. They tend to be musicians of good humor, extraordinary patience, and a sense of modesty that can be lacking in the front of the band.

I fear America’s growing passion for power without the balance of community and cooperation, and without the magnificent gift of individuals who are always quietly there doing exactly the right thing at the right time and, in the process, making everyone else sound good as well. Which is what bass players are about…

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Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review.

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