All ‘Bout that Bass

Today’s post is a celebration of the double bass — the instrumental backbone of jazz! Read on to learn how significant the double bass is in our upcoming Coastal Jazz musical programming, and learn how the instrument has developed throughout history…

Before we launch into an explosive spiel about how excited we are for our upcoming bass acts, we thought it would be fun to touch on some general double bass jazz facts… are you in the mood to nerd out a little? Let’s get historical!


Any newcomers to the scene? Feeling a little shy? If you’re reading this, chances are you are already a jazz expert… but if you fall into the music-newbie camp and have no clue what distinguishes a double bass from perhaps one of those other large violin thingies, I am here to help. Let’s start with the basics:

The double bass is the largest and lowest-pitched string instrument. The double bass is huge!! – about six feet tall from scroll to end-pin. It has a resonant, deep tone when played with a horse hair stringed bow, or plucked by the player. The double bass is very much the backbone of an instrumental ensemble due to its low sonic range. It has a wonderful way of rooting the harmonic bass line of a musical ensemble.


OK folks, I bet you have always secretly wondered why the instrument insists on its lengthy name. Why the ‘double’!? We know that double bassists are the grand-daddies of the string instrument family, so they deserve a little respect, but come on..isn’t “bass” enough? Apparently the name has some historical reference, so let’s all just take a deep breath and continue to do as we’re told. Here’s why:

The name dates back to the baroque era (1650s) when the double bass was designed to “double” the bass line/basso continuo of a baroque musical ensemble. During the baroque era, the cello (the ‘viola da gamba’ in baroque-language), played the bass line to provide a strong footing for the higher pitched solo instruments of the ensemble. In some circumstances, the viola da gamba (the cello!) needed a little more volume and support at which point Mr. Double Bass would step in. The double bass would literally double the viola da gamba’s bass line one octave lower in range and give an extra helping hand to the baroque ensemble. Here’s an example!


Yes, this is a jazz blog, so let’s get back to the root of the matter (ha ha .. root.. ) AHEM.. so, how did the double bass get its footing in the jazz world?

Back in the late 1800s, African-American communities in early New Orleans formed jazz ensembles that played tons of marches, ragtime, and dixieland music for outdoor events. These groups were essentially marching bands that occasionally used small, transportable instruments like the bass saxophone for their bass lines. Pretty soon these jazz bands moved from the streets and to the bars and brothels (gasp!). The players were no longer on-the-go, so at this point the musicians could start inviting the heavier-set instruments to join their rank (Hi Mr. Double Bass!).

In the 1920s the double bass was yanked out of the symphony hall and put into the clubs. In this new setting, bassists would double the brass bass lines (they would copy the bass trombone), or sometimes the bassists would create their own lines. It was at this time when the term “walking” bass line was coined… bass lines that jazzers would improvise to move in stepwise motion, somewhat like a scale. These walking bass lines were hugely popular, and even today discern jazz music from other genres.


OK settle down. Back in the day, early jazzer-bassists didn’t use amplification like we can today. Despite being the lowest sounding instrument on the team, the double bass was sadly the quietest. Many players of the ’20s and ’30s started using a “slap style” which was when they’d slap and pull the strings of their instruments in order to get the strongest volume possible. The strings would make a rhythmic “slap” on the bassist’s fingerboard, which would add a catchy percussive addition to the group’s sound.


Some of the earliest double bass jazz cats on the scene helped establish the undeniably cool style that bass players exude today. Jimmy Blanton of Duke Ellington’s ensemble set the norm for jazz-bass swing styles. Oscar Pettiford pioneered the bass’s soloistic presence in Bebop, a role previously unheard of for the bass. Paul Chambers (who worked with Miles Davis on the famous Kind of Blue album) achieved fame for being one of the first bassists to play Bebop solos in arco (bowed) styles. Of course that’s merely a small handful of the many fantastic bassists who have influenced jazz bass over history, but it’s thanks to those original dudes that the jazz-bass established itself with such strength and charisma in the early days.


Today we have all kinds of technology, so why do we need another old hollow hunk of wood to stare at? Isn’t the double bass ancient history? Why would we bother keeping around an instrument that was designed for 1650 baroque ensembles when we have such advances like the Fender P Bass today? I guess it all goes back to taste and style my friends. Nothing beats the beautiful deep resonance and woody tone that a double bass creates. It is incomparably distinct from the sound of a fretted, electric bass guitar. The double bass produces its tone primarily from the acoustic resonance of its hollow centre. An electric bass’s sound is amplified electronically from the vibration of its strings. Both sounds are unique, but jazz is all about style as I’m sure you know. Sometimes it’s cooler to be old school… (can someone pour me an Old Fashioned!)


Good news… we have lots of great bass jazz coming up. First we have Katie Thiroux who will be playing some fantastic music with her trio tonight, Friday March 3rd and tomorrow, Saturday March 4th at Frankie’s Jazz Club. Next up we have Ben Allison who will be performing a solo set at The Western Front on Friday March 10. Mark your calendars! Details below…


Friday March 3 and Saturday March 4, Frankie’s Jazz Club, 8pm. $20

A triple threat talent, Katie Thiroux has garnered considerable attention for her bravura bass playing, assured singing and compelling compositions. With the release of her debut album, Introducing Katie Thiroux, her substantial gifts as a bandleader and recording artist are now also on view. Audiences and critics agree as this release received many awards including “Debut Record of the Year” from the Huffington Post, All About Jazz, Jazz Journalists Association and “Top 5 Debut Records of the Year” from NPR Jazz Critics Poll. Lending contemporary flair to mainstream stylings, Thiroux carries on the hard swinging tradition of such bass masters as Ray Brown and John Clayton, while channeling the buoyant vocal finesse of iconic singers including Anita O’Day, Chet Baker, and Ella Fitzgerald. Thiroux offers in-the-moment jazz that draws upon the rich history of the music, from swing to bebop and beyond. Katie is joined by New York based pianist Glenn Zaleski and drummer Matt Witek.

Make your reservation to see Katie perform at Frankie’s Jazz Club this Friday March 3 and Saturday March 4 here.


Friday March 10, The Western Front , 8pm. $20

Bassist, bandleader, and composer Ben Allison is known for his inspired arrangements, inventive grooves, and memorable melodies. Since 1991 he has recorded 40+ albums, 11 as a leader and seven of which reached number one on the US jazz charts. JazzTimes calls him, “a visionary composer, adventurous improviser, and strong organizational force on the New York City jazz scene.” With Steve Cardenas, guitar, Allan Mednard, drums, and Kirk Knuffke, trumpet.

Presented with Cap Jazz Series in association with the Western Front.

We hope you can join us and relish the beautiful sounds of the grand daddy of the string family! Katie and Ben we can’t wait for your shows. Have a wonderful weekend jazz fans!