The Columnist
Stuart Harley
  Isabel Maynard
  Gill Coleridge 2
  Alan Hart
  Harold Evans
  Andre Previn
  Michael Langan
  Alasdair Riley
  Marilyn Lloyd
  Paul Brett
  Gerald Long
  Joanna Lumley(2)
  Terry Jones
  Gill Coleridge
  Jonathen Miller
  Ronald Biggs






August 8 1979

Dear Stuart Harley,

Well a strange letter to receive and no mistake, but strange letters are always more fun to answer than routine ones (a good lesson in life, that) so here goes.

I took up the bass because I wanted to play jazz. From the age of eight I had played the piano; not bad not well, but had got so used to reading music that I reckoned I would never be able to improvise on the piano. (I can just about now.) So I took up the trombone and learned to improvise, but then found that the trombone was about the hardest instrument I could have chosen. In addition, when I got to Oxford, I found that an extremely fine trombonist had arrived at the same time as me (his father was a brass band or silver band master from the Forest of Dean so he knew most brass instruments backwards) and I realised there wouldn’t be room for two of us, so I looked round for another instrument. I spotted a shortage of bass players, bought one and taught myself out of a book.

I had actually always been attracted to the bass, because of the way it moved under a jazz group, like the sea under a ship, essential but unnoticed. Very soon I found that there is a great pleasure (for me, anyway) in improvising behind other people, on the chords, without ever having to take a solo. I had never much been taken by the sound of the bowed bass, much preferring the plucked thing, so when, a week after I bought my instrument, I accidentally sat on the bow and broke it, I wasn’t much bothered. I still cannot bow it, and am still not bothered, as I never play classical music on the bass. (Most of it is Rhubarb, Rhubarb.) I once had to take part in a Brandenburg Concerto, and plucked the bass the whole way through. It sounded great.

I like the bass because although in classical music it is sometimes considered as a slightly elephantine and comic thing, in jazz it has had complete independence for thirty years and attained a state of free play it never has on classical music. That’s listening to other people more, I suppose; for myself I enjoy playing the bass because you’re always in action without being the star; it’s like being a wicket keeper in cricket or the straight man in a good double act. You can also, if you are good, make a heavy and ponderous piece of furniture move lightly and delicately.

I have called the bass it, but really it’s more a sort of her.

You have to be sort of in love with the bass to understand why people play them. Beat them and they go sullen; flirt with them and they respond. At the best times you feel part of the bass and vice versa.

If you are seriously interested in the double bass, you ought to talk or write to bass players who have gone over to the electric bass guitar and fond out what they’ve gained, and lost. I could put you in touch with a couple, if you like.

I don’t suppose this is quite what you wanted, but if you can make any use of it, you’re welcome. If you want any more technical stuff, let me know. I might even be able to help you.

yours sincerely


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