Volume 4, November 2012
Walk That Dog: The Emergence of Walking Bass Lines In Jazz

by Regan Brough

Section 1 — Arco Two-Feel

Evidence suggests that early bassists (1900-1915) heavily used the bow in a variety of ways, but most commonly in a two-feel. Many of the earliest known recordings of the string bass showcase this as demonstrated in the January 1926 recording of "Dinah" played by Steve Brown with Jean Goldkette's band. Johnny Mueller played a variation on this when he walked a bass line in four with the bow in a 1928 recording of "China Boy" with Charles Pierce and His Orchestra.7 Pops Foster was very active in the New Orleans jazz scene during the early 20th century (1906-1919), and his interactions with older musicians are telling of the preferences held by those who were active during this time. Pops's boyhood idol was New Orleans bassist Henry Kimball and his recollection of Kimball offers insights into what was common practice before picking became the predominant form of accompaniment.

"I first learned to bow the bass, then I started doing a lot of picking. Pretty soon everybody else was picking too, so then I went back to bowing. Before long everybody would be bowing again. It seems like I've been switching like that all my life. I always thought Henry Kimball was the greatest bass player around New Orleans, and he never picked."8

It is telling that Pops first learned to play the bass in what must have been the predominant method of the time, and that the bassist whom he idolized didn't pluck the bass at all. Later in recounting his time with Jack Carey's band from 1914-1915, Pops speaks of an older, salty trumpet player named Willie Humphrey with whom he did not get along. "Old man Humphrey . . . didn't like the way I picked the bass—he wanted me to bow it."9 This evidence suggests that bowing was the method preferred by the older generation. As Pops indicates, plucking was an important part of his playing style and it influenced other bassists around him, even though the bow still held an important role throughout his career.