Warning: bass-phobics, don’t read this post.
On the endless list of hassles facing the double bassist, transportation is about as prominent as it gets. More often than not, fumbling your way through a packed crowd of half baffled half pissed-off subway riders is a critical test on your loyalty to this bulky back-breaking pain in the ass. If you don’t own a car and live in Paris, there’s no other way but to walk the damn thing – actually carry and wheel it along. And don’t even try to swing it onto your back as the straps on your bass case would have you believe is possible, you’d likely hurt someone or worse. A good day on the subway feels like a thrilling day at the zoo. Except you are the freakish animal, the bull in the china shop of world-weary commuters, simultaneously threatening and vulnerable. Gut reactions from subway users are fairly extensive, ranging from compassionate amusement to puzzlement, fear, condescending humor (“doesn’t that thing belong in the museum?” I was once told), plain indifference or frustration (ostensibly annoyed sighs). In my experience, standing with the bass and waiting on the platform for the train to come in requires certain observation skills. I usually try to anticipate and keep my eyes peeled for the least crowded car. When I get tired of letting the fourth overcrowded train slip by, I go ahead and push my way onto the car in almost acrobatic fashion. Over the years, I’ve developed a strategy where I wedge myself and my bass in between the poles in the center section of the car and lean back – kind of a rest position, the bass conveniently acting as an unlikely book stand. But that works when the train is not too packed. Oftentimes, I’m the middle layer in the four-tiered sandwich of subway rider-bass-myself-subway rider. And then there is the problem of carrying it up and down countless flights of stairs and heaving it over turnstiles, resulting in some uncalled-for physical exertion before I even get to a gig. On the bright side, at least I get a workout and my fingers are ready to pluck away.
Also, most bassists I’ve noticed on the subway take the endpin out – the adjustable steel rod at the bottom of the bass – and put a wheel in for easier transportation. That’s what I do. Or did. I mean, at least until I can scrape the money together to buy this pretty neat buggie that seems to remedy these transportation hurdles. You see, you’re not supposed to use a wheel at all – the bass is not specifically designed for it as a luthier recently told me. I’ll spare you the specifics of bass design but basically the wheel warps the grooves inside the instrument and you can’t screw the endpin tight afterward. So what? Well, you’re playing at a gig or rehearsal and, low and behold, the endpin falls out and your bass literally drops down a solid 5 inches or so, messing up your sense of the instrument as you stoop even lower to stay in tune. I’ve been there. Twice. Horrible. It made me want to hack my bass to pieces and pick up the triangle the next day. To add insult to injury, the same luthier I talked to told me that my wheel is a hospital cart wheel and therefore it’s unsuited for safe bass transportation. Jesus! For years I’ve hauled and wheeled a big black corpse around the city like a morgue attendant rushing to beat terrible traffic. Really, why do I go to that much trouble for such an unforgiving juggernaut?
Well, the upright bass has redeeming qualities. As many bass players will tell you, there is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you hit an open E string on a decent well-tuned upright bass and listen to the sustain. For a few seconds, it does feel like a chip from the inner core of the earth has broken apart and shot up to your ears and through your body. That massive growl from the low end really tickles the bassist’s sense of gravity and weight. It is this elemental power of wood and steel vibrating through the air that keeps fascinating. Not all basses fare equally on that front. I will never get my 8-year-old Chinese-born bass to sound like a resonant 19th century German gem but I make do. There is something gallingly paradoxical about the upright bass. Its large size is often inversely proportional to its audibility. You play alone at home and the windows in the living room rattle. You play in a noisy bar with poor acoustics and a full band breaking loose and your blistered fingers struggle to get the sound out. And don’t even get me started on the issue of amplification, which often doesn’t do justice to the naturally woody nature of the instrument. Still, there is a profound beauty to the bass that more than makes up for its inconveniences, a deeply buried treasure that doesn’t take sound for granted. You have to pull sound from the instrument and if you apply yourself to it diligently and lovingly, it will love you back. This is an ultimate cliché but there is definitely something sensual about the way the human body moves around the bass. Consider the four-octave range from low to high and the tricky fingering and body positioning required to play those pitches in tune. You really have to love that big wide-hipped baby. Some notes will take years to be reached and heard to their full potential. But that’s the point, the bass coaxes you into its inner secrets, testing your patience and dedication, often frustratingly so. It wants you to love it but that love is conditional on hard work and an acceptance of failure, that convenient Beckettian “fail better” quote that seems to apply to all meaningful art.
Bassists of all stripes owe a lot to jazz for making the bass the full-fledged instrument that it is today. The combined efforts of seasoned luthiers and generations of groundbreaking players have pushed to the bass to the forefront. No serious musician today would deny its importance in jazz and beyond.
Yes, there is much to deter bass players. But it is really really worth the trouble and the sweat. At the end of the day, it’s amazing that four strings can end a two-month blog hiatus, here at wellyouneedit.
That’s how deep the bass is.
Patrick Süskind, The Double Bass