Bass Genius

(Thanks to Ben Street, Reid Anderson, and Larry Grenadier for talking with me about Wilbur Ware and Jimmy Garrison over the years — although none of them are to blame for this post!)

Recently Greg Thomas interviewed Mike LeDonne for the Daily News. It’s nice to see a mainstream paper shining light on one of the genres traditionally hardest to get press for: white cats that play resolutely straight-ahead jazz.

According to the article, some European (and undoubtedly also American) jazz students get upset about LeDonne’s mildly stern perspective and leave contrary responses on LeDonne’s Facebook page. I feel embarrassed for them. Since he was a teenager, LeDonne wanted to play with musicians like Benny Golson. Against strong odds, he was successful. Now the club Smoke regularly gives him a gig where he shines amongst a community of like-minded folk. Skeptics, let the man speak! You might learn something.

Speaking of Golson, he’s an example of a much older musician with clear ideas about what jazz is and isn’t. I suspect Golson left jazz because the early 70’s disheartened him; certainly, he is on record as crediting Wynton Marsalis and the return of acoustic values as the reason he began recording and touring again. Anyone sweating what LeDonne says should count their blessings that they don’t have Golson, Lou Donaldson, George Coleman, or Barry Harris pinning them to the wall with a glare and some firm talk.

If you wanted to argue that jazz is American Classical Music, Golson would be good person to bring to the table. Something like “Along Came Betty,” as played on the original Art Blakey recording with Golson as music director, is as detailed, precise, virtuosic, and distinctive as any European classical music. (Or Indian classical music, or African, or any other comparatively advanced genres.) I’m offended when I hear poor, Real Book-esque style performances of “Betty” today. There’s a lot to know about “Betty” that you can’t learn any way but in the school of hard listening. One time I was packing up and leaving Smalls when the jam session started. They called “Along Came Betty” and the piano player broke out his iPhone to read the changes off the iReal Book. Not impressive! I listened to him a little bit: I could tell he could play some piano but he sounded terrible on this tune. How could he not? You’re not going to even know what the main key centers of “Betty” are until you study it for a while. I hope that cat isn’t commenting snidely on LeDonne’s Facebook page…

For many, Ray Brown is the ultimate expression of classic jazz bass. Not for me, though. As great as he undeniably is, I can take or leave Ray Brown. On that first “Along Came Betty,” the bassist is that rogue madman Jymie Merritt. The way Merritt plays is correct within Classical Music, and part of that correctness is his gritty contrapuntal fire. Almost all of those bassists who I love best in Afro-American jazz have that kind of dark, at times downright unsettling flame.

Undoubtedly Ray Brown could have something of that dark tread — I can hear it best when he is on a studio record with Frank Sinatra or something equally arranged — but I find it far more in Percy Heath, Paul Chambers, and Ron Carter. Percy, Paul, Ron: presumably, there’s a list of three masters that I could agree on with just about anybody.

However, the highest expression of my cherished rogue sensibility is Wilbur Ware and Jimmy Garrison. Perhaps I’m wrong, but my firm impression is those that I think of as “conservative” New York jazz players don’t admire Ware or Garrison as much as they should. I should go up to Smoke more often, though, and find out for sure: maybe I’d get an earful about how Wilbur Ware was so much more of a badass than Ray Brown.

Wilbur has a new record out, Super Bass. At last! This 1968 session with Don Cherry, Clifford Jordan, and Ed Blackwell has been tantalizing in the discographies for a long time. I was beside myself when I heard that it was finally available.

LeDonne argues that anything called jazz must have the Afro-American sensibility in there somewhere. I hope he is right, although it is too late for redo the last 50 years, and some performers I admire are far, far, far away from that sensibility. Probably we do need some new genre names; perhaps defining “jazz” in stricter terms would be helpful to everybody. That’s not my first choice, but as I’ve written before, “If genre clarification does get pushed through, most of my own performing career will take place outside the word, “jazz.”  I won't fight it:  I have too much respect for a century of working-class black jazz musicians who paid unbelievably serious dues.”

For Wilbur Ware, music was a way to have a family and a community; an expression of his masters and of himself; a way to rise up out of oppression. Super Bass is about as Afro-centric as you can get. The session was originally for the Dolphy series on Strata-East, the first significant jazz label run by black musicians. All the musicians are basically untouched by any European classical ethos, instead incarnating what Ralph Peterson called the “Energy of the motherland and the fire and fury of what we’ve survived as people in the Middle Passage.” 

Wilbur doesn’t play anything that isn’t intimately bound up with oral tradition. Neither does Blackwell. What a pair! Intensely personal, tribal, indomitable patterns emanate in a circular and almost completely un-improvised fashion from the bass and drums. They swing hard, but they aren’t going to help anyone else swing. They are immovable forces. Fortunately, Cherry and Jordan never needed anybody’s help to sound great. It’s particularly exciting to hear the horns deal with some mid-tempo rhythm changes on “Wilbur’s Red Cross.” Jordan is Sonny Rollins on acid, Don is salutations, fragmentations, and flashes of pure melodic invention.

There are two terrific solo bass pieces. "Symphony for Jr" seems to reflect on past experiences and "By Myself" is mostly fabulous walking. Both are informed by a collection of canonical jazz quotes that Wilbur plays in his own way. They can’t be played better than they are here: Wilbur’s sound, phrasing and time are impeccable.

Two of the quartet pieces are also quotes: “Wilbur’s Red Cross” is indeed Bird’s “Red Cross” with a few note changes, “A Real Nice Lady” is a mildly avant turn on “Sophisticated Lady.” The last two works, “Mod House” and “For Frazier, Felicia, Veneida & Bernard” are simple but cleverly arranged riff pieces.  Ware is possibly thinking of the Ellington features for Blanton.

The music is extraordinary, divine, miraculous, but the mix is pretty weird. I wonder if there is a missing channel? Since very few people seem to know Super Bass is out yet, I would advocate pulling this issue and putting the master in the hands of a sonic professional before re-releasing in a cleaned up condition. It sounds like the Wilbur Ware Institute just put out what they had, probably with a superficial bass boost. The coarse balance is undoubtedly why one reviewer said Blackwell sounded “slightly tentative.”  Blackwell is not tentative — I can’t imagine a situation where Blackwell was ever tentative — but his presence is too small compared to the enormous bass.

My other caveat is the package: considering the historical importance of this impeccable music, it seems like there should be detailed notes explaining the provenance of the session, why it took so long to come out, and a history of this particular grouping. (The musicians on Super Bass are also heard, although not all together, on Jordan’s wonderful contemporaneous In This World, also on the Strata-East. What was the Dolphy series, anyway?)

Still, it is a thrill to have this record at last, and I advise everyone going over to the Wilbur Ware Institute and giving what they can. For their tiered donation awards, they misspell Scott LaFaro as Scott LeFaro. Talk about Afro-centric! I love it.

The bassist in the Bill Evans trio before LaFaro was Jimmy Garrison. Paul Motian told me he wanted Garrison to stay in the trio but Evans complained that everything Garrison played “Sounded like the blues.” Of course, Evans was right: Jimmy only played the blues, all the time, just like Wilbur Ware. But it is never that slick, Ray Brown-style blues. It is the dark, mysterious blues that concedes harmony just barely enough to stay on course.

Ware is underrated, but I think most people who love jazz know that the famous trio music with Elvin Jones and Sonny Rollins at the Vanguard could have been made with only only one bassist, Wilbur Ware. The case of Jimmy Garrison is more complicated. He gets lip service for "holding it down" with Coltrane but he doesn't have nearly the influence as the rest of the famous quartet. I think this is because Garrison didn’t really "hold it down." He was a free spirit, full of folkloric counterpoint delivered with subtle undertow.

(When Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach based their sound on Coltrane they always had a drummer that knew Elvin — Jeff Williams, Al Foster, Billy Hart, Adam Nussbaum — but the bass chair was Frank Tusa, George Mraz, Eddie Gomez or Ron McClure, excellent musicians that related to Garrison far less tangibly. Later on, when Wynton and Branford (alone and together) started playing their aggressive acoustic swing music, their pianists and drummers had to know McCoy and Elvin but the bassist was not encouraged to be a rogue Garrison-type. It’s almost like some of these leaders wished that there had been a different bassist in the Coltrane quartet! Someone more obvious and compliant, probably…)

Recently a stunning bootleg of Jimmy Garrison surfaced on YouTube. “All The Things You Are” is in 1974 with Warren Chiasson and Beaver Harris. It’s very exciting to hear Garrison of this vintage: there is relatively little of him on record between Coltrane’s passing in 1967 and Garrison’s own death in 1976. The few dates with Archie Shepp from the early 70’s have a rather odd bass sound, so it is a relief to hear Garrison be just like Garrison at a restaurant gig in Long Island.

Tootie Heath told me he called Garrison to play a casual gig in the late 60’s, but that Garrison said something to the effect of, “I can’t, Tootie! I’d love to, but after all that time with John, I don’t remember any tunes.” Maybe. But apparently he played not just trio but duo with Chaission more than once, and that was certainly tunes like “All The Things You Are.” But the general idea, that Jimmy gave up on the jazz scene after Coltrane, seems borne out by how little Jimmy recorded after 1967. Honestly, I’m surprised to hear him sounding so wonderful two years before his death.

Warren Chiasson is an important vibist who I have enjoyed in other contexts. I’m sure he was just having a good time at a gig that was never intended to be a record, so it is especially terrible to drop the hammer on him like I’m going to now. But I’m in a position where I have to defend Jimmy’s honor.

Chiasson’s playing is far too indirect, especially for such a long solo. This is exactly the kind of frankly “white” playing that would become the vernacular in jazz schools everywhere: no riffing, no folklore, no blues: just fooling around in an overconfident fashion. I’m not sure who loses the form first, Chiasson or Garrison, but it doesn’t matter. Jimmy’s superb dark low counterpoint and incredibly deep feel trumps the other two members of the trio. Chiasson should have bent towards Jimmy from the beginning. Instead, he leaves the hero to find the music on his own.

I wouldn’t bring all this up if I hadn’t been informed of a long thread at Talk Bass that I am indirectly responsible for. Various members chase around the topic of Jimmy (or Chiasson?) getting lost without really addressing style or race. To me, all formal considerations are secondary: this "All the Things" is obviously a deep song swallowed up by pretentious wandering.

I admit that I’ve been guilty of plenty of pretentious wandering over the years myself, maybe especially on “All the Things You Are!” But I’m working on it, and certainly I could never have hung Jimmy Garrison out to dry like this, even when I was much younger.

At any rate, what made Jimmy Garrison who he was wasn’t “holding it down.” He was always at least a little bit in opposition. Probably he learned something of that style from Wilbur Ware. Coltrane talked about Ware in an interview with August Blume, and what he learned from Ware may have influenced him when settling on Garrison.

Coltrane: A bass player like Wilbur Ware, he’s so
inventive, man, you know he doesn’t always play the dominant notes.

Blume: But whatever he plays, it sort of suggests notes that gives you an
idea of which way the changes are going?

Coltrane: Yeah, it may be—and it might not be. Because Wilbur, he
plays the other way sometimes. He plays things that are foreign. If you
didn’t know the song, you wouldn’t be able to find it. Because he’s
superimposing things. He’s playing around, and under, and
over—building tension, so when he comes back to it you feel everything
sets in. But usually I know the tunes—I know the changes anyway. So
we manage to come out at the end together anyway.

Blume: Which always helps! (Both laugh.)

Coltrane: Yeah, we manage to finish on time. A lot of fun playing that
way though.

Of course, superimposing changes has become our common-practice jazz language, at least in my circles. (H’mm…again, I wonder what it is like up at Smoke?) But the key to Ware or Garrison’s genius wasn’t as simple as threading changes in an unexpected way. Indeed, it is almost the opposite of chordal complexity: they play counterpoint that never disconnects with primeval folklore. The sound they make with their two hands on the bass is all wood and fire.