Buster Williams & Jay Leonhart Talk Touring With An Upright Bass

(originally published in JazzTimes)

“Is That a Cello?”
INSIDE THE PLIGHT OF THE TOURING ACOUSTIC BASS PLAYER

Acoustic bassists of a certain age will remember Rufus Reid’s step-by-step, photo-illustrated instructions on taking a double bass on a plane, included in his classic book The Evolving Bassist, originally published in 1974. In those days, a traveling bassist could opt to use a fiberglass trunk to transport the instrument in luggage, or simply purchase a half-fare ticket for it and place it in the cabin.

“When I first started traveling, we didn’t have bass cases, we just took the bass on the airplane and put it on a bulkhead seat and strapped it in,” says Buster Williams, 71. Williams, whose Something More group has U.S. and European dates in 2014, has played a prized, century-old Hawkes bass since 1963, when he bought it in London while on tour with Sarah Vaughan. “You never knew what to expect, as far as the flight attendant standing in the way or the captain refusing to allow the bass on the plane. But you always found a way to make it work.”

Later, airlines variously refused to let basses be transported in the cabin. Fast forward to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent heightened security: The upshot was a profusion of confusing size restrictions and additional charges that often varied from airline to airline. As several bassists have recounted, the answer to the gate-security question “Is that a cello?” was always, “Yes.”

Jay Leonhart addressed the traveling bassist’s woes humorously in “Bass Aboard a Plane,” a song from his one-man show, The Bass Lesson. “If you wanna ’cause a problem, if you wanna ’cause some pain,” he sings, “simply go down to your local airport, and try to put a bass aboard a plane. … The ticket lady looks at you in horror, she stares at you in disbelief.”

Not long ago, Leonhart, 73, decided to quit fighting with the airlines and stop flying with his primary bass, an Italian instrument made for the Gibson factory in 1939 and renovated by the Kolstein shop that was formerly owned by George Duvivier. “I’ve left too many basses in storage at airports in the last two years,” he says. “They don’t want your bass on the plane.”

Williams reached the same conclusion: “Up until about five years ago I traveled with my bass. But it became so stressful—the closest to impossible that you can get. If you did take a chance and take your bass on the road, the cost would sometimes outweigh the real practicality of it. And then you’d run into situations where they just refused to take the bass, for no other reason than they’d made a decision not to take basses or cellos.”

So what’s the solution? Some bassists, including Williams, Esperanza Spalding and Dave Holland, have used basses with detachable necks, including David Gage’s Czech-Ease Road Bass, which has an abbreviated body but boasts playing dimensions similar to a standard upright. Many have tried upright electric basses, with varying degrees of satisfaction. Leonhart says he’s been thinking about picking up the electric bass again, at least as a backup, after having played it in the ’70s with guitarist Jim Hall.

Williams and Leonhart, though, both prefer to rent or borrow a good upright for any gig requiring a flight. “I just jump on the plane and arrange it in advance,” Leonhart says. “That means keeping a nice page in your book about where you’re going to try to get a bass from, and who’s going to pay for it.”

Adds Williams, “I have a very stringent tech sheet that specifies an adjustable bridge, and the sort of pickup I want, and the type of bass it should be.”

Flying with a bass could get much easier soon, thanks to the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which was slated to go into effect by February. The American Federation of Musicians successfully lobbied for an addition allowing musical instruments to be checked as long as the linear dimensions do not exceed 150 inches and the weight does not exceed 165 pounds, far more lenient than before.

The International Society of Bassists is urging its members to carry a printed copy of the legislation when they travel. “We need the airlines’ support so that musicians can work,” says Madeleine Crouch, the ISB’s general manager. “Airlines could even promote themselves as job creators if they’d only be nice to us!”

Danton Boller in Bass Player

I recently spoke with Danton Boller, who has worked with trumpeter Roy Hargrove and others, for a short piece published in Bass Player. It’s now available online.

Click here to check out the story in Bass Player, or see the text of the feature below.

INDIANA NATIVE DANTON BOLLER played electric bass in teenage rock    bands  in Southern California, but a switch to upright under the tutelage of Dave Brubeck Quartet bassist Eugene Wright sent him in entirely new directions. Boller has since applied lessons from Wright and California State University Long Beach instructor Chris Kollgaard to high-profile gigs with Roy Hargrove, Seamus Blake, Robert Glasper, and Anthony Wilson. A New Yorker since 1997, Boller has focused lately on his own recordings, a forthcoming duo release with Wright, and a new piano trio project. He also works with drummer Ari Hoenig and singer Kat Edmondson.

Is there a particular New York jazz bass sound you’ve gravitated toward?
When I first moved here, a lot of the guys I was watching were heavily influenced by Paul Chambers. I was too … and still am. But then I started checking out guys like Richard Davis, Doug Watkins, Jimmy Merritt, Eddie Jones, Buster Williams—styles that I wasn’t hearing so much from younger guys.

What lessons did you learn from Eugene Wright?
He wouldn’t necessarily say, “play these lines,” or “play these notes,” but there’s one thing that has stuck with me: I asked him why he played what he did on Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” He said, “I just picked something that would be easy for everyone to latch onto.” That’s kind of the way I approach playing. I try to think of what’s going to enable everyone to play their best.

What was it like recording duos with Wright?
Playing in the correct range so the melody would sit well over another bass is something I never had to think about before in a recording situation. It was incredibly fun to shift gears, and to get the opportunity to play over Eugene’s undeniable groove. “Theme For My Ladies” [a three-movement composition by Wright] captures a lot of different moods. We got into trading solo phrases where I was playing arco and he was playing pizz. That is one of my personal highlights, because it sounds so conversational.

How do you approach soloing?
I try to tell a story with a good melody, and let it develop naturally. I’ve never considered myself to be a great soloist—I want to be a really good rhythm-section player first. Soloing is the icing on the cake.

Early Christmas Present: New Orleans Jazz Fest Lineup Coming Tuesday

Christmas will come early for Jazz Fest fans — the full lineup  for next year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival will be announced this Tuesday, Dec. 16, according to a report published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

The roster for the 40th annual edition of the festival, April 24-26 and April 30-May 3, will be announced during a press conference scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. (Central).

The announcement of the full lineup typically comes in January or February. Why so early this year?

Blame it on the economy.

“With the general economic downturn likely to affect leisure travel and ticket sales, the early announcement also allows for extra time to market the festival,” according to Keith Spera’s story in the Times-Picayune.

Expectations are that the 40th anniversary lineup will be as impressive a lineup as ever. On the list of artists confirmed to play, or expected to do so:

4/24 – Wynton Marsalis, Jazz Tent; Ellis Marsalis; Amanda Shaw

Wynton Marsalis4/25 – Wynton Marsalis (pictured, right), Congo Square

4/26 – Paul Sanchez

Solomon Burke4/30 – Solomon Burke (pictured, below); George Wein 4oth anniversary band with Jimmy Cobb, Esperanza Spalding, and Anat Cohen; Anders Osborne

First weekend (unspecified date) – Don Vappie

5/1 – Esperanza Spalding; Washboard Chaz Blues Trio; Dr. John;

5/2 – O’Jays; New Orleans/Helsinki Connection

5/3 – Jimmy Cobb’s “So What” band (celebrating the classic Miles album) with Wallace Roney, Javon Jackson, Vincent Herring, Larry Willis and Buster Williams; Juke Joint duo (Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm); Radiators; Dash Rip Rock; John Boutte; Voice of the Wetlands

(Know of other confirmations or solid rumors? Updates? Corrections? Send ’em my way)

Here’s my pitch (hope) for the Jazz Stage: Why not tap Sonny Rollins, (IMO) the greatest living jazz giant?

Also promised for the 40th edition of the fest is “a new ticket package option.” Some fans have expressed hopes that that means something along the lines of a multi-day discount, or perhaps steep discounts for locals and/or kids. Others have suggested that the new “option” could mean another type of V.I.P. package.