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Larry Bartley on the Double Bass

(Larry appeared at Concert Jazz Gig 18 with Jo Caleb on 13/12/06)

Picture of the head of a double bassThe double bass lying on its side

The double bass is the largest and lowest-sounding instrument of the string family. It doesn’t have a huge amount of solo repertory but it plays a very important role in both jazz bands and classical orchestras.
How is it played?
The double bass is so large that players have to stand up or sit on a high stool to play it. Like all stringed instruments in an orchestra, the bass can be played with a bow or plucked with the fingers.
Larry Bartley introduces some of the techniques that bass players use in jazz

Sometimes the determination to play an instrument can become almost an obsession. Larry Bartley explains how the double bass turned his life around

Larry Bartley playing double bass

WHEN IT COMES to choosing what musical instrument to take up, the double bass doesn't come high on most people's lists.  Plenty of school music departments don't even own a double bass – or if they do it's quite likely to be in poor shape. School musicians rarely play them because they're expensive to buy, hard to hire, awkward for small fingers to play, and in the bigger sizes need a willing parent with a big car to do the ferrying around.  On top of all that, it's hard to be a star on the double bass, which is often hard to hear in a loud band or orchestra. But there are a lot more bass stars in jazz – which encourages bass improvisation – than in classical music, where there are few solo roles given to the bass.  But when you get to listen to it properly, the bass makes a wonderful, rich sound, adds a vital depth to music, and has a character all of its own. Thankfully, plenty of young musicians still get bitten by the bug to play an instrument that has no wires or buttons, and looks like a piece of antique furniture.  Most young bassists didn't play the bass to start with – classical players often started on the cello first, and most other kinds of musicians started on electric bass guitar.

LARRY BARTLEY was an experienced electric bassist in his mid-20s when a change in his life started to happen. He was about to do something that didn't seem to make much sense if he was trying to make a go of life as a musician.  But the double bass became more and more of an obsession. He loved the look of it, and he loved the noise it made. But whereas a decent electric bass will cost a few hundred pounds, a good acoustic bass can set you back a few thousand.  The day of reckoning finally came for Larry Bartley. He decided to ditch all his regular electric bass gigs, took up all the odd jobs he could find, got some help from a supportive girlfriend, and started saving up for his first double bass.
I stayed home from February to December. I just practised every single day... I thought, I’m going to learn to play this thing

WHEN YOU PLAY a guitar, at least the instrument is showing you where the notes are - the frets mark out the divisions between tones. On any of the violin family – and the double bass is just a big violin stood on end – you don't get that kind of help, and you have to get used to where the notes are by touch and practice.
That means the fingering has to be as precise as if you had invisible frets on the instrument. As with violinists, viola-players and cellists, the basic position in which you shape your hand from which to start fingering the notes is very important.  If your fingers are flat, it's harder to plant the finger-ends squarely on precisely the right position to get the correct intonation – and the flatter they are, the more likely your fingers are to touch the wrong string on their way across to the right one.

When do you stop practising and start playing 'for real'? For Larry Bartley it was a momentous bridge to cross…

Larry Bartley playing Double BassLARRY BARTLEY felt so confident once he owned his first double bass, he would tell everyone he met that he was going to be the world's greatest bass-player. At the time, he could hardly hold the instrument, and had little idea how it was played. But his obsession with the instrument spurred him on. 
He practised constantly. And he got good at it. Hardly anybody except his girlfriend heard him play because he hardly ever took the bass out of his house. But somehow the word got around. One day Larry got a call from someone telling him that Gary Crosby – a fine British bassist who had worked with Courtney Pine and all-black British big band the Jazz Warriors – couldn't make a recording session. Could Larry do it?

Larry recalls: 'I said, "I've only been playing the double bass for eight months," and they were like, "No – come down, you’ll be great."' And so he went, having no idea who was going to be on the session – until he arrived at the studio and saw Clifford Jarvis, a famous American jazz drummer who had moved to London. 

I was terrible. A lot of it was nerves... I just couldn’t play anythingClose Quote

How do you become an experienced live performer? You get on the stage and play...

THE CALLS started to come in for Larry Bartley. He was finding, as many inexperienced jazz musicians do, that you can learn some things a lot faster in the heat of the moment – trying to keep up with skilled jazz improvisers on a gig or a recording – than you can from hours spent studying a book. Drummer Clifford Jarvis introduced Larry to one of his first live-gig situations. Jarvis was playing with trumpeter Roy Burrowes, an American who had worked with the legendary Duke Ellington.
Larry got his first lessons in handling the trickier personal aspects of being a professional. Jarvis and Burrowes had known each other for years and were very close – but they argued like an old married couple, and on the day of Larry's first gig with them they were barely speaking to each other. Or, for that matter, to the other musicians either.
I remember sitting backstage and saying, "Wow, is this it? Is this what it is to play with Clifford Jarvis, guys of that calibre?"

Jason and Larry talkingLarry Bartley: with a little help from my friends
Larry Bartley with Jason Yarde

All musicians need inspiration. For Larry Bartley, it came in the form of fellow bass-player Gary Crosby
LIKE MANY MUSICIANS, Larry Bartley is as likely to mention personal friends as he is legendary figures or international stars when you ask him who turned him on to playing. People you play with, people you can put the most obvious technical question to without feeling embarrassed, people who live down the road or you can reach with a phone call – they can all be a more powerful force in your musical evolution than some distant godlike figure you only hear on a disc.  For Larry Bartley – as for many hopeful young jazz musicians in the UK – a huge influence was the bassist Gary Crosby, one of the founders of the Jazz Warriors band at the end of the 1980s and bassist with the reggae-jazz band Jazz Jamaica.

It's bulky and cumbersome, yet it's highly fragile and expensive. Larry Bartley explains why the pleasures of playing the acoustic bass far outweigh the difficulties

IF YOU ASK Larry Bartley why he got interested in the double bass, he has to scratch his head and cast his mind back a long way. He recalls seeing old Elvis Presley movies on the TV as a kid, and those rock 'n' roll bands of Elvis's early years – before the Fender bass guitar had ever become popular – used acoustic bass-players.  Something about the instrument got to him. When anybody mentioned the word 'bass', an old wooden upright was what he saw in his mind, not an electric bass guitar. But an electric bass was affordable, and an acoustic bass wasn't.  There are double basses that cost more than houses... it’s antique furniture, so they make you pay for it  When he finally got around to realising his dream, Larry also discovered that a whole new life went with it. It was a bit like taking care of a giant baby. For a start, acoustic bassists get used to taking more care than anyone playing an electric guitar – or even a violin or a cello in a tough, reinforced case.  If something heavy hits the bridge – the raised section the strings stretch over, close to where the bassist plucks them – the impact can split the wooden body, or even drive the soundpost into the instrument and out through the back of the box.  But Larry Bartley has got used to these anxieties now. 

The secret of effective double bass-playing is all in the fingers.

WHEN YOU HEAR a good jazz bass player and then one who isn't so good, part of the difference can be to do with projection and precision. The good one may make a bigger sound, but it isn't just about volume – it's as if each note is sharpened to a point, so it seems to have more of a cutting edge, and its pitch is clear and true. This is essential to give the bass a strong rhythmic role, but also in order that its lower notes don't lose definition and sound muddy and blurred – a big problem with plucked, or pizzicato, playing on the instrument.  Larry Bartley uses a fingering technique that adds a rhythmic emphasis to the way he sounds a note. It's particularly useful in situations where he's playing in a duet with a soloist, without the help of a drummer's rhythmic punch.
Whether made from gut or metal, the material of the strings can make the world of difference
When I first put the gut strings on I was like, 'Yeah, right, I’m ready to go. I am Charles Mingus'
LARRY BARTLEY now enjoys a big reputation on the British jazz scene, and he appears in many different bands. Some bassists are more spectacular or obviously technical, but Larry does what's most important to an ensemble – keeps the beat steady, and provides a soft but secure harmonic 'cushion' for the soloists.  He likes using gut strings rather than metal ones, even though metal strings make a louder noise with less effort and are capable of cutting through the sound of a band. His original reason was admiration for Charles Mingus, one of the great jazz bass-players of all time, who used gut strings and made a massive sound with them. Nowadays, Larry finds that gut or metal strings can make the bass a completely different instrument.

Bassist panic -

A kid starts turning the machine head keys on an abandoned Bass on stage out of curiosity - he is suddenly seized by the collar by the angry bassist -

"Don't hit me Mr - he implores"

Bassist - "I wont hurt you kid - as long as you tell me which keys you turned in which direction and how far"

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Last modified: 18/02/2012