This is the first of several posts charting history, impact and musical style of double bass.
The work of a double bassist has always been a balance of rooting the music, giving it a good foundation with the occasional musical foray into percussive embellishments. Milt’s take on it can be can be summed in one of his famous quotes:
“The bass is a service instrument….The word base means you support, foundation. If you put up a building, the foundation must be steady and strong. I must identify a chord for everyone, and only after that can I play the other notes. You learn to have a lot of humility. You must be content with the background, knowing you are holding everything together.”
(New York Times Obituary 2020, Quoting Milt Hinton)
The double bass is not primarily a solo instrument, so it is not surprising that double bassists have sought ways the add a more percussive element to their playing style. The technique broadly requires the player to pluck and slap the strings in percussive slapping motion which gives the bass sound its rhythmical pizzicato slapping sound. The strings are pulled back under tension then slapped back, a technique which requires a level of strength in the hand and arm action.
One of the early masters of the slap bass was Milt Hinton. Whilst others such as Pops Foster had become notable slap double bassists, it was Hinton who refined the technique. Hinton turned to the double bass in 1929 as a route into joining a jazz band. Whilst he previously had studied the violin, opportunities were lacking as a black musician and he felt he would have more success as a jazz bassist.
It was in the late 20s early 30s time that the double bass emerged in favor over that of the Tuba, which had previously taken the role of the ‘bass foundation’ instrument in jazz music.
Milt Hinton’s Technique
What laid Hinton apart from his predecessors was that his background in playing the violin gave him a level of dexterity in his playing; instead of using his forearm to percussively hit the fingerboard he used his hand.
Cab Calloway’s Band
In 1936 Hinton joined Cab Calloway’s band where he stayed for 15 years, he considered him his “musical father.” A few years later in ’39 Milt Hinton was featured on Calloway’s ‘Pluckin the Bass’ and later in 1941 ‘Ebony Silhouette.’ These are some of the first recordings where a double bassist is featured as a solo instrument. The other notable for solo bass at the time was Jimmy Blanton of Duke Ellington’s orchestra.
New York Sessions
His long-term friend Jackie Gleason (comedian, writer, musician and conductor) helped secure a recording session for Hinton in New York. Thus, Milt become one of the first artists to record in the New York recording studios. Back in the 50s music studios and companies were still considerably anxious presenting black recording artists alongside white musicians. The concern was how the recording would be received by record buyers predominantly in the southern states.
Hinton’s break through helped establish the recording path for other black musicians such as Clark Terry, Snooky Young, Jerome Richardson, Hank Jones and others. Radio and TV recording swiftly came and radio and TV producers gained confidence and Hinton’s talents become more widely known.
As new forms of electronic music and style emerged many studio musicians lost their work, Hinton however showed his tenacity and skill as a musician by adapting to these new trends.
Milt Hilton in Conversation with Joe Williams, Hamilton College Music Dept. 1995
Resources and References
New York Times Obituary Thursday 21st December, 2000