AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
Our city's jazz legacy is well-established. Today, being more specific, Richard Frushell honors players of the 'big wood' -- the keepers of the rhythm that Pittsburgh has produced in multitudes
Sunday, December 12, 2010 By Richard Frushell Stacy Innerst/Post-Gazette
Scotty Hood, an exceptional jazz bassist from Green Tree, died in October. His passing led me to think that the second generation of fine Pittsburgh jazz bassists is nearing its close. By "fine" I mean stellar, accomplished players in any setting: studio, lounge, club, concert stage, the works -- and not only locally, of course, as their credits show. My reader will know that ours is a cradle city worldwide in the history of this thoroughly American art form. And Pittsburgh has since the early 20th century been smiled upon in its many first-rate pianists, composers, reed and horn players, singers, drummers and upright bassists -- that is, those who play the "big wood," the double bass, the bass fiddle, the bass viol, the contrabasso or the cello cubed, whether amplified or acoustic. My admittedly personalized account doesn't much concern itself with chronology or the ranking of talent, but I should note that most of the careers I mention flourished at the mid-to-late-20th century. My selections reflect my experiences with bassists, either in the flesh or by reputation. Some readers may favor different artists or current players or wonder where the able electric bassists are. My response to the latter is that there is a unique beauty to the sound of the big wood, which can boast of a timbre not duplicable by any other sort of bass, a resonance that has a welcomed duration, a round and rich sound not produced by either the bass pedals of the organ or the guitarist's lower strings. The bassist himself knows these benefits but also has the additional rewards of controlling this mighty engine -- whether it be a three-quarter or full-size bass -- by angling it in his groin and snuggling up to it, by creating deep as well as surprisingly high notes and harmonic tonal colors on it, and by affecting and effecting an audience's reaction, which the player tries to shape to his own sense of the piece played. All this seems to be at work whether the bassist is playing rhythm(s) exclusively or adding his own solo (a "chorus" or "ride") within the piece. Perhaps the great Pittsburgh jazz bassists themselves would concur with these observations. ~ Ray Brown is surely on everyone's list, as he was on everyone's bookings when alive. He was the greatest small-combo and studio jazz bassist up to his day, which lasted for at least four decades. Classically trained, his international reputation -- earned with numerous groups and singers (Ella Fitzgerald was his wife for a time), most tellingly the Oscar Peterson Trio, which many still consider to be the greatest jazz trio ever -- was due to his unfailing intonation, limitless solo ideas and muscular line. Another Pittsburgher of very considerable talent and inventive blues chops was Bobby Boswell, a great player who is in part remembered for accompanying fine vocalists and instrumentalists nationally before he settled back into the Pittsburgh jazz scene. Included in this company, perhaps to a lesser degree of artistry, is my late friend Richie Munoz, a large, jovial fellow who gave the impression of surrounding the instrument. A thoroughgoing South Side guy, Richie was a converted trombonist who went to the bass because of his love of the sound along with the physical satisfactions of creating imaginative lines of ringing connected sound and spot-on intonation in service to piano and horn soloists; yet he also showed his own solo work to be musically worthy. Richie became exponentially good in a very short while. His reputation was citywide where he was progressively in demand until the 1980s, I believe it was, when he died suddenly. Another friend, Bob Kress, remains a wonderful jazz bassist. He's an example of the best attitudes and capabilities held by the great Pittsburgh artists. No one has loved this rather unforgiving instrument more than he or has respected and encouraged other players more than he. Bob's talent is seen best in his remarkable ability in transposing in all keys instantly and unerringly. His relative pitch is to be envied, as are his pithy solos and correctness in ever staying within a tune's structure. In these matters Bob reminds one of Scotty Hood and the widely and deeply able performer Dave Pellow. Also, a current Pittsburgh jazz luminary, Dwayne Dolphin, demonstrates these abilities and as well sports a hard-swinging bass line. With ease he executes interesting and varied solos, which are often as lyrical as those of a good alto saxophonist. Symphony musicians had a role in the classical training of Pittsburgh jazz players. Their pupils included Ray Brown and Jimmy Di Julio, both of them schooled musicians, masters of their instrument and impressive arco (bow) players, who also played jazz. Jimmy is properly thought of as a surpassingly talented bassist, seen and heard for years on television and popular in his studio playing, club dates and recordings. Perhaps he is the most complete bassist ever to come from Pittsburgh; to say that he has a national reputation on both coasts is to understate the matter. As impressive as that sort of training is, I suspect that the more usual bass education involved the young aspirant, who may or may not have owned a Kay or King "school" bass, who approached a seasoned player to ask the question: "Could you show me a few things?" I should guess that more rising bassists learned in this way how to walk a line, how to play within the circle of fifths, how to use "passing notes" with precision and taste, how to practice with a metronome. Many a beginner gathered in such hard-earned tips from generous players-teachers in place of going the classical route or schlepping oneself through Simandl method books or studying chord changes in fake books. An early Pittsburgh light was Eddie Safranski, for years the rhythmic pulse of the Stan Kenton Big Band, wherein he displayed a mastery of the mechanics of the bass while playing smokingly quick passages better than anyone before him -- and made musical sense while doing so. Another local bassist was Paul Chambers, who won an international reputation largely due, I believe, to the prestigious recordings of the bebop artists he played with around the midcentury. In truth, he was a freestyle bassist who had considerable talent that way; yet I understand little about his work, whose style was beyond me in its conception and execution. This is my limitation and not Paul Chambers', I know. I shut down the job on freewheeling bass playing after it reached its zenith, I believe, in Bill Evans' spectacular bassist Scott LaFaro, who died in his 20s many years ago. ~ Many of the artists I treat have passed away, but two seminal Pittsburgh artists are still quick with life, albeit now in Ohio and Toronto respectively, Johnny Vance and Danny Mastri. These two men have singular gifts as bassists. I often enjoyed their playing as they made magic at the recently razed Point View Hotel in Brentwood. Both played there mostly but not exclusively with the popular trombonist Tommy Turk, for many years the leader of a quartet at that modest but buzzing South Hills jazz spot. I would go there when I was 16, sit to the back-right of their tiny bandstand (with its very good acoustics), have a ham barbecue and a Coke, and be dazzled. Johnny Vance was the most finished player one could imagine and a great teacher to boot. I can testify to that with all confidence and no small passion. I studied with him as an adult, after many years of playing bass -- often poorly methinks. Lessons were all arco (pizzicato, plucking, was seldom invited) and mostly centered on scales and exercises from the method book. Notes were bowed slowly with utmost attention to intonation, pressing the fingerboard, finger positioning, bow control and even how best to "hold" the bass -- John had two quite good German basses in the living room; I was impressed. He was always generous in answering my several questions about playing. An indelible bit: The mark of a good player was in how he plays ballads, knowing the best note to play and playing it just right. He didn't seem to be concerned much about teaching uptempo playing. Perhaps he believed that if the fundamentals were attended to, flashy quick-tempo playing would be doable, and more correctly so. I suspect that John Vance was the only bassist among the superlative and successful musicians mentioned here to whom other bass players would often go to see and hear his flawless fingering, his tone, meter, note choice, whether in ballad or swift playing. He was money. Danny Mastri, "the fox," was the opposite of Johnny Vance in stature and fingering. There was no fingering really, but rather a wadding of fingers flying up and down the fingerboard, albeit accurately and hitting good notes, and at quite quick tempos, too. He was legendary as a player who also bowed jazz solos in the manner of the older Slam Stewart. Yes, he was very colorful to watch as he negotiated his full-size bass. While many bassists went to marvel at Johnny's perfect stance, fingering and flawless intonation, others went to Danny Mastri to hear similarly great bass playing while pondering how in the world he could do all he did while being so unconventional. ~ At the last, now, I'm pleased to imagine a two-tune jazz concert of Pittsburgh bassists. The pieces are first a Bobby Timmons composition of a medium tempo minor blues called "Moanin." Next is a gorgeous ballad, whose title is a tad unpromising: "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most." For each I have one piano accompanist: for "Moanin," the late and extraordinary ; and for "Spring," a splendid artist with perfect pitch, Ron Bickel. I hear for the blues tune all the bassists playing the melody in unison, pizzicato thank you, with no bass line whatsoever save for Bobby's left-hand single notes. Since "Moanin" has a short call and response opening, the bassists divide themselves -- extempore, of course -- between rhythm playing and soloing. All of them play; and the logistics of who does what and when is easy for them. For "Spring" I see the arco players doing the tune's affecting melody in unison, bowed, and straight through the piece. Then I hear each player soloing, whether arco or pizzicato or bits of both. They instinctively know the firing order of playing and they know all about entrances and how and when cleanly to conclude. I'm hearing 20 minutes of the blues and 35 of the ballad. I'm happy. I'm even happier that the third generation of bassists is already here and playing, that more are on the way through the efforts of the bass and guitar institute at Duquesne, the jazz program at Pitt and the music department at Carnegie Mellon. I'm expecting at least a handful of other great bassists from non-university players of talent (men and women) who are keen to ask the question of their musical betters: "Could you show me a few things?" This is truly an upright city whose hills are in fact alive with the sound of music, and not only in the treble clef.
Richard Frushell lives in Brentwood (email@example.com). A professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at Penn State, he played bass with the DiLernia Brothers, the Hershey Cohen Big Band, the Troy Campbell Quartet and others in the 1950s and '60s.
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