On Metaphors of Jazz Walking Bass

by Jim Kalbach

A metaphor is a literary device that allows us to express one thing in terms of another. Through analogy, metaphors convey a relationship between the two objects or concepts. Consider this famous example by Shakespeare from his play “As You Like It” (2/7):

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances

Shakespeare makes a comparison: life is a like a play, and people are the actors in the show entering and existing the stage of life. This not only helps us understand our own human behavior, it’s stylistically pleasing to the ear.

But metaphors are than just rhetorical flourishes to make poetry sound better. On the contrary: linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson show in their book Metaphors We Live By that metaphors are pervasive in our daily lives. They content that we ostensibly view the world through the lenses of metaphor. They write:

Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. (p. 3)

Lakoff and Johnson offer many examples to illustrate their point. As an example, they point out our conceptual understanding of “arguments” and “arguing” is metaphorically similar to “war.” People frequently say things such as:

  • Your claims are indefensible.
  • He attacked my weak points.
  • Her criticisms were on target.

In another example, “time” as a concept is commonly described metaphorically in terms of “money”:

  • I spent hours explaining my idea to him.
  • The computer crash cost her hours.
  • They’re living on borrowed time.
  • Don’t waste my time.
  • You’ll save a few minutes by taking that route.

Or, consider the metaphors with computers: desktop, windows, folders, memory, viruses, crashes, web pages, and surfing, to name just a few. By naming these objects metaphorically, it helps understand how to use a computer.

We can take just about any domain and find a wealth of metaphors used to describe the objects and concepts therein. Doing this helps better understand the field.

In this light, this article is a brief analysis of commonly-heard metaphors of jazz bass. This provides insight into how we understand jazz bass in general. From this, bassists can better embrace their role in jazz groups.

The metaphors of jazz bass discussed below are grouped into themes:

  1. Biological metaphors
  2. Architectural metaphors
  3. Geological metaphors
  4. Journey metaphors
  5. Communication metaphors
  6. Unsung hero

Examples for each are given below and discussed individually.

1. Biological Metaphors

When describing jazz bass, comparisons are sometimes made to the human body and its functions. Consider the following metaphors:

  • The bass is heartbeat of the music.
  • The pulse of jazz music comes from the bass.
  • His bass playing is the backbone of the band.

Bassist William Parker is quoted as saying, “the bass keeps moving like blood flowing,” recalling both the heartbeat and pulse metaphors noted above. (Ouellette, 2008, p. 392)

Jazz bass has also been compared to tendons and ligaments. Writing in the liner notes of “How Low Can You Go? Anthology of the String Bass,” Eddie Dean writes:

Twixt the jass backbeat and the power riff, the string bass was the connecting tissue of that flex-muscle pulse that begat rock-n-roll. (Dean, 2006, p. 5)

And of course, the term walking bass itself is a metaphor — one that suggests the steady tempo akin to the alternation of the feet while walking. It’s more colorful and descriptive way to describe a sequence of unsyncopated notes of equal value that outlines the harmony of piece.

2. Architectural Metaphors

The role of jazz bass is often compared to elements of buildings and architecture, reflected in the following statements:

  • The bass is the foundation upon with the music is built.
  • The bass gives structural support.
  • It’s important to form a framework for the other players.
  • The bass provides the harmonic floor of the song.

For instance, bass legend Milt Hinton said in a video interview,

The word bass means bottom. Architecturally it’s the lowest part of a building…it is supporting… it should be strong, like architecturally, if the base isn’t strong the building won’t stand.

There is something fundamental about its role. Extending this category of metaphor, consider this quote:

Though it is at the fulcrum of the music, the tall, four-string instrument too often gets short schrift. Figuratively and literally, the bass resides in the back of the band. (Ouellette, 2009, p. 10)

Similar to the both the biological and geological metaphors, these types of comparisons suggest an important, but less-seen role. The foundation of a building is barely seen — if at all — after a building is constructed. Yet, it’s crucial to the stability and longevity of the construction. If you’ve ever had problems with the foundation of your house, you’d understand this first hand.

3. Geological Metaphors

You’ve may have also heard metaphors like these to describe the role of the bass in jazz music:

  • Her walking bass is like a rock.
  • The bass provides a center of gravity.
  • As a bass player, you’re the ground for the band.

Todd Coolman, bassist and Professor of Jazz Studies at SUNY Purchase, describes Ron Carter’s playing:

He is the bedrock — probably the greatest bassist of all time within a rhythm section. He always uses the greatest choice of notes and rhythmic variants; he has a rock-solid time feel, a definitive sound, and big, big ears.” (quoted in Golsby, 2002, p.17)

In describing Ray Brown’s influence on jazz, Catherine Schmidt-Jones writes:

The string bass, for example, as the bass voice in the rhythm section, has a crucial function in laying the groundwork for both the rhythm and the harmony of a jazz ensemble.

Reference to these geological features reflects the stability jazz bass provides to the band and to the music. The bass serves as the basis upon which the music can be built.

4. Locomotion Metaphors

Jazz bass seems to create an overarching forward motion for the music, reflected in these phrases:

  • A good bass line drives the whole band forward
  • His playing propels the music
  • The bass provides direction for the band
  • Other musicians can orient themselves to the bass

Bill Crow describes Ray Brown’s playing as follows:

He knew how to project his tone, and he pulled the strings percussively, making the bass line powerfully propel the rhythm section and the band. (Lees, 2003, p. 72)

John Goldsby (2002) describes good bass lines as having buoyancy. This suggests jazz bass has a certain “floating” quality that rises to the surface of the music. Implies here is that the walking bass keeps the band afloat.

But at the same time, the bass provides orientation. William Parker has said: The bass player is definitely the navigator. (Ouellette, 2008, p. 392).

Sometimes a jazz group indeed gets off course, particularly in terms of the form. The bass player is often required to get the music back on track. In these situations, Paul Berliner notes that for bass players this is like “steadying a boat’s course on a rough sea by holding the mainsail taut against the wind.” (Berliner, 1994, p. 396). For any jazz bassist who’s been in such a situation, this vivid imagery certainly rings true.

5. Communication Metaphors

Not only does the bass provide a foundation that holds the music down, gives it motion, and provides orientation, the bassist must also react and respond to players and musical ideas all the same. Though many of the above metaphors clearly show the fundamental role of the bass in jazz music, jazz bass is musically very interactive. It is not at all static. Consider metaphors such as these:

  • The soloist and jazz bassist can have a dialog
  • The rhythm section engages in a discussion with rest of the band
  • The bassist has to engage musical conversation happening on stage.

In describing the role of the bass in jazz, noted jazz author Mark Gridley (1988) observes:

Some bassists fill in silences with musical remarks, almost as though they were talking with the rest of the group. (p. 17)

Of course, Scott LaFaro is frequently cited for having greatly expanded the level and type of musical discourse the bass can have with soloists. Bassist Gary Peacock describes the influence he had on the role of the bass in LaFaro’s posthumous biography Jade Visions:

He provided an example of something that was simply non-existent at the time: made a really major innovation, particularly in terms of dialogue. His ability to play in the context where while he was playing was actually intended to interact and have a dialogue with the soloist, without taking anything away from the soloist. (quoted in Helene LaFaro-Fernandez, 2009, p. 159)

Jazz bass is interactive, influencing and reacting to the surface of the music. Ron Carter, for one, encourages jazz bassists to embrace this role and treasure its impact on the other musicians:

I tell [students] that one of the greatest pleasure I have on bass is playing notes that will make the saxophonist play a line he wouldn’t have thought of if I hadn’t sent him in that direction. (Ouellette, 2009, p. 380)

6. Unsung Hero

Metaphorically speaking, the bassist is an unrecognized hero.

  • The bass plays steadily in the background of the band
  • He’s the workhorse of the band

“Stand up,” Carter advises, a call that is also reflected — perhaps even more dramatically — in a brief essay by Eddie Dean in the 3-CD box set “How Low Can You Go?”. Dean writes:

Now, who among ye will stand up for the man in the middle, the humble workman with bloodied hands and nary a nod from the crowd — out man on the doghouse bass? (Dean, 2006, p. 5)

Ron Carter describes the role of a jazz bassist as follows:

A bass player is used to milling around in the shadows until the spotlight hits him for a solo and then he plays more aggressively, with more energy. But the bass player can be active all the way through a song without even taking a solo and can even offer the opportunity for someone to play differently. You’ve got to stand up and be counted. You may not have your face on the cover of the magazine, but you can be there in the fine print. (Ouellette, 2009, p. 392).

Understanding Walking Jazz Bass

Considered together, these metaphors reflect how musicians and listeners alike conceive of jazz bass.

  • Jazz walking bass is the pulse, heartbeat, and backbone of jazz music, and it’s like walking.
  • Jazz walking bass is the foundation, support and framework for jazz.
  • Jazz walking bass is the bedrock and groundwork upon which the music unfolds.
  • Jazz walkingbass drives and propels music forward while navigating and orienting the band.
  • But walking jazz bass also engages in a dialogue and a conversation with the band
  • Jazz bassists are unsung heroes, workhorses, standing in the shadows of the bandstand

It’s clear that the bass plays a fundamental role jazz music. Although the bass isn’t in the spotlight on stage, off of the bandstand others have fully recognized the importance of the instrument. For instance, according to Wynton Marsalis,

The bass player is the key. He needs to keep a steady pulse, to provide the bottom and to hold the music together. (Berliner, 1994, p. 353).

Mark Gridley (1988) notes that:

Some soloists consider walking bass to be the single most essential sound in the rhythm section. They would play without drums or chording instrument before they would play without walking bass. (p. 16)

Perhaps are you’ve heard other metaphors not listed here. In doing so, you’ve internalized the role and meaning of the bass in jazz — whether you realize it or not. This essay exposed some of the hidden meanings in the common metaphors of jazz bass. Hopefully, it deepens your comprehension of walking jazz bass and its meaning to the music.

References

Berliner, Paul F. Thinking in Jazz. University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Crow, Bill in Lees, Gene. Friends Along the Way: A Journey through Jazz. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Dean, Eddie. “Ode to the original Low-Down.” How Low Can You Go? Atlanta: Dust-to-Digital, 2006. 5.

Goldsby, John. The Jazz Bass Book. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2002.

Gridley, Mark C. Jazz Styles (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988.

Hinton, Milt. “Jazz bass lesson” [video] Uploaded to YouTube, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFTqVHEJZ0A

LaFaro-Fernandez, Helene. Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2009.

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Ouellette, Dan. Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes. Artist Share, 2008

Schmidt-Jones, Catherine. “Ray Brown: An introduction to the influential bebop bassist.” 2006. http://cnx.org/content/m13536/latest/