Category Archives: Great Music

Big Band Bass

Cats Swing Band

Cats Swing Band

I am now practicing regularly with the Cats Swing Band of Los Gatos, California.  The band is an adult education project, for older people who have retrieved their trombones, trumpets and saxophones from the Attic, dusted them off, and started to play again.  One of my best friends, Don Calvello, informed me of the band and I joined.  I play bass.

I play both bass guitar and standup, or string bass.  The latter is my principal instrument.  I love “American Songbook” tunes, great old American standards like those  you hear sung by Michael Buble, Frank Sinatra and others.

I’ve been with the band for a year now.  In that time period I have learned to read notes and my ear for jazz, swing and blues has improved considerably.  The band has improved steadily, too.

Our band leader is a young man, a senior at San Jose State and a music major, one Faris Jarah.  Faris has done a remarkable job whipping this cacophonous collection of cats into a credible band.

Currently, we have three trombone players, three trumpet players, two saxophone players (one alto, the other tenor), a piano player, two guitar players, a drummer and me on bass.  We could use a baritone sax player and another alto sax.

Currently we are practicing the following songs:  All of Me, L-O-V-E, Corcovado, All Right, Okay You Win, Embraceable You, and others.  I may publish links to some of our practice sessions later on.

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Great Jazz in the San Francisco Bay Area (as Told by a Budding Bass Player)

vince_guaraldiI love jazz and will be writing a lot about great jazz groups and their music in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I will also be recording my personal trek from useless couch potato to cool and mysterious jazz bass player.   I will, of course, need to buy a beret and some shades, and grow a goatee.  But those flourishes can wait.  First I actually have to learn to play my upright string bass.  Priorities, you know.

I made good use of the four day weekend over the New Year holiday.  I cleaned out a bedroom upstairs that had been used as a storage room, carting boxes downstairs to the garage and dragging, by brute force, a bookshelf up from the garage.  I then neatly organized and arranged my many books, music CD’s and videos on playing  bass.

In the room I found an old boom box that belonged to my son in his teenage years.  I tried it out.  It had a lot of static and cut out a lot, but after I cleaned the CD player with alcohol swabs and blew the dust out of the circuits with canned air, it worked perfectly.  The speakers are great and allow me to clearly hear the bass in my music CD’s.  It’s perfect for practice.  Finally, I cleaned off and organized my desk, putting my laptop on it for playing instructional videos or listening to music videos.  Today I watched Roy Orbison’s last videotaped performance from 1999 and played along with the music.

I spent quite a bit of time over the holidays learning tunes from my Jamey Aebersold CD, “Maiden Voyage.”  Aebersold CD’s are for teaching you to play jazz, no matter what your intrument.  Each CD comes with a book of sheet music.  The sheet music provides you with the chord changes as you play along with the CD.  It really develops your ear and your ability to read chord symbols.  I am finding these CD’s invaluable in getting up to speed as a musician.

Since playing a string bass is physically demanding, I need a lot of practice just to get into shape.  I have put in the practice time and the muscles in my arms and fingers are sore.  I seem to be building up quickly as I can play for a longer period without getting tired.  I feel encouraged by my progress.   The bass neck no longer seems so daunting.

The San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, has a lot of great jazz groups and musicians.  I obtained a CD from one of them, a group called “Round Midnight.”  Their CD “We’ll Be Right Back” can be purchased from their website.  I’ve never heard the group in person but their CD is magnificent.  Fantastic jazz!  I will make it a point to go hear them in person soon.  The bass player is very impressive too.  If feeling joyous and energetic is your thing, you may want to buy their CD.

One of my major inspirations and personal heroes is Vince Guaraldi.  He was a San Francisco jazz piano player and the head of the Vince Guaraldi Trio, consisting of piano, drums and string bass.  The VGT provided the jazzy themes for Charles Schulz’s comic characters, “Peanuts,” e.g. Charley Brown, Snoopy, Linus and Lucy.  I love listening to CD’s of Guaraldi’s music.  Right now I am listening to “A Boy Named Charley Brown.”

Vince Guaraldi died on February 4, 1976 while relaxing between sets at Butterfield’s Nightclub in Menlo Park, California.  He was resting in a room at the Red Cottage Inn and died of a sudden heart attack.  He was only 47 years old.

On one of my days off I plan to pay homage to Vince Guaraldi by driving to Menlo Park and seeing where he died.  I don’t think Butterfield’s Nightclub is still in operation — I can’t find it in the directory.  The Red Cottage Inn is still in operation, however; I will see if the building where Butterfield’s was is still in operation.   Then I will drive to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California and visit his grave and take pictures.  I will write about this journey and share it with my readers.

Vince Guaraldi’s son David is keeping his father’s legacy alive and apparently has a music store in Stockton.  I’d love to interview David sometime.  We’ll see.

Playing String Bass (for Jazz)

p1000296edited1One of the loves of my life is the string bass.  Also called the upright bass, the double bass or the contra bass, it’s that giant fiddle thing you see in orchestras, jazz bands and other musical groups.  I’ve wanted to become proficient at playing the bass for years, but it was always a secondary priority to getting an education and then establishing a career.  

My number one New Year’s resolution is to finally become proficient enough on bass to join a small jazz group.  I’m not getting any younger:  it’s now or never.  I have a string bass, but it’s made of laminated wood.  Laminated wood basses are strong and resist cracking, but they don’t sound as good as a bass carved out of a solid blocks of wood (they use different pieces for the front, back and sides).  These are called “carved” basses for obvious reasons.  They have a warmer tone than laminated basses and are much more expensive.  You could easily pay $8,000 to $12,000 for a fine carved bass, and if you were part of the San Francisco Orchestra you probably should.  Alas, neither my checkbook nor my musical abilities have attained that stature.

Another resolution is to buy a carved bass in 2009.  I want one and by gum, I will have one.  However, it will probably be more in the $2,000 price range.  Countries like China, Rumania and South Korea are now making fully carved basses and orchestra musicians are using them more and more.  My own music supplier uses a South Korean carved bass in the San Matero Peninsula Orchestra; it’s a Hans Kroger bass.  I will either buy one of those or a similar brand.

So far I am living up to my resolution.  I have been practicing my bass steadily for the past week or so.  Playing a big stand-up bass is physically demanding, so right now I am concentrating on building up my shoulders, arms, hands and fingers.  All are a bit sore right now.  My plucking fingers on my right hand are calloused.  My endurance will grow.  When I have the strength to play a gig, that is playing  job of about four hours, I will consider myself sufficiently in shape.

I love the twangy resonance of a string bass.  I love the clicking sound of the strings on the fingerboard.  Listen to some Vince Guaraldi records or some recordings of the American Songbook, e.g. what they call “standards,” generally dance music and ballads.  I especially recommend Rod Stewart’s American Songbook collection — the orchestral bass player is excellent and the warm bass tones are amazing.

Turn up the bass tone and listen to the string bass.   You can hear it “walking” up and down the scale and the deep rhythms attune themselves with my soul.

My approach to finally becoming a bass player include the following:

1.  Practice playing my bass daily — start with half an hour and build up to an hour once my hands and fingers strengthen.

2. Listen to jazz and standards at every opportunity.  To play great music you must listen to great music.

3. Study music theory.  Practice arpeggios, scales and following chord symbols on sheet music.  I have some play-along CD’s by Jamey Aebersold Jazz for this purpose.  You can order them from Amazon.com.

4.  Eventually, find a group of other musicians to practice and play gigs with.

If there are any aspiring musicians in the South Bay area who might want a bass player, give me a shout.

Skeeter Davis’s Letters to God

Skeeter DavisBack in 1963 I was in love with a pretty little blonde named Joe Anne Wade.  Joe Anne was a student at Wilcox High School in Santa Clara, California.  I was a freshman in college.  We loved a song by a singer named Skeeter Davis (pictured at right) who was big that year.  Skeeter sang a song called “The End of the World.”  It was about how someone feels when the one they love has departed their life.   When Joe Anne’s previous boyfriend got out of the army, she decided she liked him better than me.  Soon Skeeter’s song was more to me than pretty music:  it described exactly how I felt about losing Joe Anne.

The years have passed and I forgot about Skeeter Davis until tonight.  My wife and I were at the “Jazz Bash by the Bay,” a meeting of jazz bands  in Monterey, California.  In the last performance of the evening, the drummer of one group told a touching story.  His name is Danny Coots and he lives and records in Nashville. 

Danny said his wife had been a fan of Skeeter Davis.  Skeeter lived in Nashville and died there of breast cancer in 2004.   Mrs. Coots went to Skeeter’s estate sale and bought a bunch of things, including boxes.  Inside one of the boxes Danny found some letters that Skeeter had written to God in 1962 and 1963.  The letters were handwritten on hotel stationery and were written while Skeeter was touring.  They were her personal conversation with God, asking him why things had to happen the way they do, why she had to suffer the loss of someone’s love.  She spoke of touring as a popular singer and how lonely it was on the road.

Danny said that, in reading these letters, he felt that he was intruding on Skeeter’s privacy.  It was obvious that when she was pouring her heart out to God, she never intended that her writings would be read by anyone else.  Danny said that the content of Skeeter’s letters could best be summarized by the words to one of her most popular songs – “The End of the World.”

The Monterey jazz group ended their performance by playing and singing this song and by dedicating it to Skeeter Davis.  It was a touching thing to do.   The audience responded with a standing ovation.  Thank you, Danny Coots, for sharing this with all of us.

Following are two things:  the words to “The End of the World” and then a Youtube video of Skeeter singing the song.  Enjoy – then say a prayer for Skeeter Davis. 

THE END OF THE WORLD

Why does the sun go on shining
Why does the sea rush to shore
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world
‘Cause you don’t love me any more

Why do the birds go on singing
Why do the stars glow above
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world
It ended when I lost your love

I wake up in the morning and I wonder
Why everything’s the same as it was
I can’t understand, no, I can’t understand
How life goes on the way it does

Why does my heart go on beating
Why do these eyes of mine cry
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world
It ended when you said goodbye

Why does my heart go on beating
Why do these eyes of mine cry
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world
It ended when you said goodbye