The Columnist Music
Miles and his cousin, Laurence, playing a duet Bass interlude between writing


TRAVELS WITH A DOUBLE BASS

            I have seen Some Like It Hot more often than any other film made, but it wasn’t till the tenth time round that I spotted something about the double bass played by Jack Lemmon which no critic has ever spotted. It changes size the whole time. When Lemmon is playing the bass, it is nearly six inches taller than him, but when he is carrying it it only comes up to his chin. The instrument varies in length by over a foot, which is a lot of variation for something made out of solid wood.
            The answer I worked out to this conundrum showed some ingenuity on the part of the director. Lemmon plays a full-size bass but carries a three-quarter size one around. As he spends most of the film running away from people trying to kill him, this is probably wise – certainly, there is one shot of him running through Chicago holding the bass in one hand, which could only be done with a three-quarter size bass.
            I wish I had thought of that. I’ve been playing the double bass since 1960, which means I’ve been lugging it around for 25 years, and if only I’d had the sense to play a big one but carry a small one. The weight itself isn’t too bad – about 2½ stone – it’s the distribution of the weight that’s all wrong, because the shape is the shape of Charles Laughton after rigor mortis has set in, and carrying this thing in front of me is the closest I shall ever get to knowing what it’s like to be pregnant.
            The first bass I bought came form an old session musician in Barnes called Cecil Cooper. He played with Mantovani most of the time, but his house was full of basses, which he bought and sold on the side. “Cash only, if you don’t mind, Mr Kington,” he said. ”Don’t want to go paying taxes, do we?” It cost me £35, which is what you’d pay for a double bass cover now. “And what kind of music are we going to be playing?”
            “Jazz.”
            “Jazz, eh? Not my kind of stuff. But I did play a bit in the 1940s with a funny gipsy bloke from France. Django something.”
            I had just gone to Oxford, playing the trombone and hoping to become the best trombonist, if not in the world, at least in Oxford. Even this mild ambition was ruined by the simultaneous arrival of a young man called Peter Hartley, whose father ran the brass band at Lydney, Forest of Dean, and who played ten brass instruments better than I would ever play one. But one day I heard someone bemoaning the lack of bass players, and I had the sense to go out and buy one. It’s the only original economic decision I have ever taken. Six months later I was playing in the Oxford University Jazz Band, and I can honestly say that I have played several blues for Oxford.
            The first big trip I ever took with the bass was to Spain. Three of us from Oxford had been hired to play in a tiny night-club in the Bay of Algerciras, for the summer vacation of 1962. I put the bass in the aeroplane hold – I didn’t know then that, like Julian Lloyd-Webber, you’re meant to buy a seat for it – and it came out the other end none the worse for wear. When we crossed from Gibraltar into Spain, the Spanish Customs officials were very impressed by my bass. They even wrote in my passport: “Entra con un contrabjo” – Is coming in with a double bass.
            “Why is it necessary to put this information in my passport?” I asked.
            “Ah, senor, because you might sell the instrument in Spain and attempt to leave without paying tax on the sale. It is just a precaution.”
            It was a precaution they took every time I went back into Spain from Gibraltar, where we sometimes went to play at parties.  ‘Is coming in with a double bass’, they would write. But when I left the country, they would never write: ‘Is going out with a double bass’. Eventually, to look at my passport, you would think I was somewhere in Spain with half a dozen double basses like some mad travelling salesman.
            That summer was about the best three months I ever spent. We got mixed up with the shooting of a film called “The Running Man’, with Laurence Harvey and Lee Remick. We went to bull-fights in La Linea, where I saw El Cordobes in his prime. We learnt to speak Spanish in a thick Andalucian accent. One morning Nigel (the pianist) and I got talking to a lone woman on the beach, who said her name was Lady Listowel but that in earlier days she had been a jazz singer – had even sung with Count Basie – so we dragged her along to the club to sing for us that night. It wasn’t the night that Enoch Powell was in the club, but he came one night and scowled the whole time he was there. I also half- fell in love with a girl called Elaine Webster from Dundee, where her father was a doctor, but I never got round to telling her.
            And it was there my double bass started to fall to bits. I left it out in the sun one day, and the bridge got a bit warped. It fell over one night and a bit fell off, which I glued back on. It developed a rattle, so I stuffed glue in the crevices and the rattle stopped. Someone spilt gazpacho over it, and it smelt of garlic for three weeks.
            My bass has been falling to bits ever since, and I have been mending it ever since, with the result that it now probably contains more Araldite than wood. It is covered with Sellotape (I prefer to call it Cellotape) and masking tape; it has several screws in it that were never meant to be in it; match-sticks stuffed into split seams; and one or two weak points held together only by prayer. It looks a total mess, anathema to all musicians. It also sounds just as good as it always did.
            It has been in railway guard’s van, caught in revolving doors, stuck in taxis (“How do you get it under you chin, guv?”), kicked by yobbos, and even tied to a luggage rack in a downpour in the Lake District - I stood with an umbrella over it for quarter of an hour. It has candle grease down the back, from a midnight cabaret at Windsor. There are dark stains on the finger-board, from the early days when my uncalloused fingers tended to bleed before the end of the evening.
            That bass and I have been through a lot together, as if in a stormy marriage. There is in fact something sexual about one’s relations with a bass –when you play it, its back tends to nestle up against your body and you can feel its vibrations coming up through your legs and loins. The American bass virtuoso Gary Karr once told me that he had taught two deaf people to play the bass – well enough to join symphony orchestras – because they could hear the notes through their bodies, and I can well believe it. There’s a sort of warmth that comes through, an intimacy from the reverberating strings, deep and dark… Well, to put it another way, it’s something a flautist will never know and when I wrap myself round the bass of an evening I thank heaven that I am not as other men are.
PS. I have just seen Some Like It Hot for the fifteenth time. I was wrong. Jack Lemmon plays and carries a three-quarter size bass – when he plays it, it is on a spike about fourteen inches off the floor. This is noticeable in the shot where Marilyn Monroe drops her whisky flask down by her feet. On the previous fourteen occasions I had watched Monroe’s legs. This time I noticed the spike on the bass behind her legs. Shame on you, Jack.
 1986
                       

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Travels with a Double Bass