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

by Regan Brough

Section 5 — Early Walking Bassists

The contributions and preferences of the following bassists (in chronological order by birth) will be discussed in an attempt to demonstrate the specific contributions and influences each had on the bass and eventually the emergence of walking bass lines.

William Manuel "Bill" Johnson (1872 - 1972) is likely the oldest prominent and influential jazz bassist, born nearly twenty years prior to Pops Foster. Bill even pre-dates Buddy Bolden (b. 1877) and W.C. Handy, (b. 1873) while Scott Joplin was only four years his senior. Born in Alabama, Johnson's musical career really took off in New Orleans. He founded the Original Creole Band/Orchestra and toured with them across the country in vaudeville shows from 1914–1918. He later moved to Chicago where he recorded with King Oliver in 1923. Inasmuch as electrical recording methods were not yet available, Bill played banjo on these records,15 although it is likely he played bass in other venues during this same period. He is well known for his outburst during the "Dippermouth Blues" recording with King Oliver, "Oh, play that thing!" If one hears a high-pitched shout or yell during a late 1920s recording, it is likely Bill Johnson's joyous spirit coming through! As one of the elder statesmen on the instrument, it is a pity that the earliest known recordings of Bill's bass playing come from 1928. "Saint Louis Main," recorded with the Dixie Four on June 11, 1928, is one of the first known recordings of Bill's bass playing. He demonstrates the various forms of accompaniment mentioned previously, by starting with the bow in two, but before long he is creating eighth note lines in response to the pianist's lines. After a few two-bar solo breaks, he begins alternating rather frequently between walking with the bow, and plucking in two and four with snaps and thus uses his accompaniment to help shape the tune. "Some Day You'll Know," recorded a month later with the State Street Ramblers, is important and foreshadowing because in the middle of the track Bill stops bowing in two and walks in four for over thirty seconds without the snap that was so common at the time. "My Four Reasons," recorded with banjoist Ikey Robinson in July 1929, shows off Bill's ability to walk at nearly 300 BPM for the majority of the song. Bill also takes a walking solo where he includes the snap midway through the take.

Bill's legacy is possibly not as well-known on account that there are no known recordings of him after 1929, a mere thirteen months since his first known recording. Spotswood surmises, "He seems to have traveled between Chicago and California in the 1920s, making his opportunities to record less frequent. Though blues record dates in Chicago after 1935 frequently include bass players, discographies often don't cite their names. Bill may have been present on occasions he hasn't been credited with."16 Perhaps he was not recorded as much as other bassists on account of his numerous vocal outbursts, which, in some cases, cover up and begin to dominate the performance at the expense of other musicians in the group. While pinpointing more Bill Johnson recordings might prove difficult in the years to follow, he nevertheless exerted great influence upon future bassists through his live performances.17

Steve Brown (1890 - 1965) was one of the earliest recorded and first slapping virtuosos of the bass. He is primarily known for his work with the Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman Orchestras. In Goldkette's band, Steve was given regular opportunities to be featured and in the words of Goldkette's saxophonist Doc Ryker, "In some ways he was the real star of that band. He'd get out in front and do a feature and everybody—all the dancers—would stop and watch."18 A perfect example of his employment of all the techniques listed in this article can be found in the January 1926 recording of "Dinah" with the Goldkette band. He starts in two using the bow and stays with it for most of the song. Immediately following the clarinet solo break, he starts walking and slapping in four through the duration of the solo. It's unclear if this is a bass or a clarinet solo! His virtuosic slap-bass technique was sufficiently influential to encourage tubists to want to switch back to the bass.19 Brown's playing a year later on the up tempo "My Pretty Girl" demonstrates his usage of the bow in two and four as well as his syncopated and energetic slapping. His style of playing would greatly influence Wellman Braud and Milt Hinton. After the Goldkette band disbanded, many of the members joined Paul Whiteman's Orchestra. Sadly, Brown was not given the same opportunities to stretch out as he had been given in Goldkette's band. In the 1928 recording of "Dardanella" with Whiteman, one can feel the increased drive and swing during Bix Beiderbecke's solo as Brown begins slapping, but it doesn't reach the emotional plane of earlier recordings,20 likely on account of the band leader's artistic decisions. Perhaps this frustration led, in part, to Brown's leaving Whiteman less than a year after he had joined the band. Unfortunately, at that point Brown's recording days were basically over, but his influence would continue through those that followed him.

Pops Foster (1892 - 1969) was an integral part of the New Orleans jazz scene in the early 20th century. He claims to have spotted Louis Armstrong on a street corner after Kid Ory had sent their drunken trumpet player home, and essentially got Armstrong his first gig with a real band.21 Pops utilized all of the methods of accompaniment described earlier in this article. Pops spent a few years on riverboats floating up through the Midwest starting around 1919 with Fate Marable's band (which subsequently served as a venue for Al Morgan and Jimmy Blanton to gain vital performing experience) and began doubling on tuba in 1921 as the music began to change. It wasn't until he moved to New York and joined the Luis Russell Orchestra that he was able to make the permanent switch back to bass. In the introduction to his autobiography, bass pedagogue Bertram Turetzky declares, "We can . . . authoritatively credit Pops for popularizing this [slapping] technique. Tony Parenti, who first met Pops in 1918 wrote: 'Pops was one of the first original New Orleans bass players that made the slapping bass popular in New York City.'"22 While it might not have become popular until Pops arrived in New York, he did not arrive there until February of 1929, a few years after which, recorded evidence of Wellman Braud existed with him utilizing this technique in New York. However, Braud and Foster do deserve the credit for being the figurative pieces of straw needed to break the tuba's back, bringing the bass out of obscurity in New York.23 Turetzky further claims, "In the 1920s many New Orleans bassists played a two-beat style. Pops was playing a four-beat style, then 'when I went to New York playing that way, everybody wanted to do it too. Right after that . . . about 1929 or 1930 . . . they started writing arrangements that way, with a four-to-the-bar bass part.' . . . The Foster sound and approach most definitely led to the bass-dominated rhythm section that jazz history usually tells us that Count Basie, Walter Page, and Jo Jones brought out of Kansas City in the 1930s."24 The 1930 Luis Russell recording with Pops of "Panama" demonstrates that Pops was indeed a big proponent of walking in four (with the snap). Pops clearly had an influence on the switch from tuba to bass, the emergence of walking bass lines, and the accompaniment styles employed by the bass.

John Lindsay (1894 - 1950) played both trombone and bass and also hailed from New Orleans. While his playing on "Black Bottom Stomp" was analyzed previously, two other elements require attention. First, Lindsay does not employ the Bartok-esque pizzicato at the beginning of this track, but from the tone on record, he apparently plucks much in the fashion done today. His sound is round and full and there is much more attack as opposed to when using the bow. This is one of the earliest recordings where such a pure and modern pizzicato tone is so clear. Second, Lindsay's choice of accompaniment changes perfectly with the form of Morton's arrangement and helps generate the overall shape of this track. He plucks in two and catches the hits of the arrangement, and when the front-line blowing section begins nearly a minute into the take he adds the Bartok-esque string snap to further increase the intensity. He alternates plucking in two and four, and then during the clarinet solo he lowers the intensity by plucking in two, but this time keeping the snap so commonly heard during this period. During the banjo solo, Lindsay ratchets up the intensity again and walks extensively, only to return back to two, (without the snap) to allow the tune to build up to a final climax where he largely walks with the snap to the end. The musical ride Lindsay takes us on this track is very compelling. Such musicianship and sensitivity to shape would have great influence upon the composition, improvisation and approach to jazz by many musicians, not just bassists.

Wellman Braud (1899 - 1966) is yet another bassist and tubist to hail from New Orleans. He is best known for his work with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, where he made the permanent switch from tuba to bass in 1927. The recording equipment used to capture Braud's sound in New York was of high quality, so his sound is full and clear in comparison with others of the time. For the 1927 recording of "Black and Tan Fantasy" with Ellington's band, Braud uses the bow in two for most of the track as he is backing up the superb trumpet playing of Bubber Miley. Following the piano solo, Miley leaves some space, which Braud is quick to fill (2:15-2:18) in response with his fingers. Ellington is known for writing music to feature the strengths of his musicians, and the 1927 recording of "Washington Wobble" is no exception as Braud is given a chance to shine. He begins with the bow in two, after which he's walking clearly in four with the snap. After a brief solo break, he's back in two with the bow and for the closing half-minute, Braud plucks in two with the snap alternating with syncopated rhythms. The Grove Online article says of Braud, "The main characteristic of Braud's double-bass playing was his swinging beat, but he also thought of his instrument in harmonic terms, and he claimed to have developed the concept of the walking bass."25 No other bassist aside from Walter Page is identified as having anything to do with the development of walking bass lines in this definitive source, and even then, it's only a "claim" and it appears to be an afterthought. After leaving Ellington in the mid-1930s, Braud pursued other professional ventures and played occasionally with various musical groups.

Walter Page (1900 – 1957) is one of the few bassists discussed here who has no New Orleans affiliation! He grew up in Kansas City and was a renowned territorial bandleader. There are only two tracks ever recorded by this group (The Blue Devils), "Blue Devil Blues" and "Squabblin,'" both recorded in 1929. On "Blue Devil Blues," Page plays the tuba throughout, even walking a simple root-fifth line for approximately the last thirty seconds. On "Squabblin,'" Page plays the introduction on bass (he plays baritone sax on this track as well—notice how the interludes give him time to switch back and forth both times and the piano takes over the bass role) with a clear walking line without the snap. When the melody starts, Page provides a syncopated snapping bass line. During the alto sax solo, Page elects to pluck in two in the modern fashion, without the snap and garners a large tone. He then chooses to add the snap during the collective rhythm section chorus, clearly heard on his two-bar solo break. At the arrival of the clarinet solo, Page kicks it into gear and walks in the modern fashion.

One of Walter Page's biggest idols was Wellman Braud, who he heard come through Kansas City in the mid-1920s.26 He was most impressed with the huge sound Braud could get the bass to produce and this is likely the single greatest impact he had upon Page's approach to the instrument. Page was an integral part of the Count Basie rhythm section in the 1930s and 1940s and that collective group's innovations are well documented.27

Interestingly enough, Gunther Schuller (one of the Grove article28 writers giving Page the credit for being the "first master" of the walking bass line) in his 1968 work Early Jazz: Its Origins and Early Development, states that "In Washington Wobble Braud goes one step further and creates a "walking" bass line, the discovery of which is often loosely credited to Walter Page, despite the fact that Page admits his great indebtedness to Braud."29 Why is there this discrepancy? It likely boils down to classification and perception. Schuller's subsequent study of the Swing Era compelled him to change his tune about who was really responsible for developing walking bass lines. He states:

. . . the next rhythm instrument to gain emancipation was the string bass, first when it replaced the tuba and then within a short time after that, when the bass acquired a quasi-melodic capacity that freed it from providing merely the most rudimentary harmonic and rhythmic functions in the form of root positions and a regular 4/4 or 2/2 beat. The player who more than any other developed the "walking bass" line so endemic to jazz of the thirties and forties was none other than Walter Page, for years the anchor of the Basie rhythm section. As early as 1929 in his recordings with his band known as the Blue Devils—in which Basie was for a while the pianist—we can hear Page's wide-ranging, beautifully balanced bass lines beginning to function on three levels: rhythmic, harmonic, and now melodic. Such bass lines also provided a new contrapuntal element, not in the old New Orleans collective improvisation sense but as a more purely linear counterpart, heard with, under, and against the melodic elements in the middle or upper register.30

There are a few keys to understanding how encyclopedic conclusions have been made from this paragraph, which have subsequently influenced many jazz history textbooks. First, the author states that Page was the bassist who most "developed" (not necessarily "created") the walking bass line in jazz. Second, Page is given credit for the "development" of walking bass lines specifically in the decades of the thirties and forties as the author is seeking to show how jazz developed during that time period. As has been clearly demonstrated, many bassists were walking bass lines prior to the thirties and forties. Were their walking lines somehow not as sophisticated harmonically, rhythmically or melodically as Page's? Were their walking lines any less of a linear counterpoint?

As the 1930s took off, many changes began to take place in the way bassists accompanied. The bow fell out of favor as an accompaniment tool and plucking became the norm. While plucking, the snap gradually gave way to producing a large, round tone and what was once "hot" was not the case any longer. Walking for the duration of a piece became more normal as well. Are these changes the developments Schuller ascribes to Page? If so, it should be noted that other bassists such as John Lindsay and Bill Johnson did these same things on "Black Bottom Stomp" and "Some Day You'll Know" respectively, both of which were recorded prior to any known recordings we have of Walter Page. While it might be a matter of semantics, one has to decide if a walking bass line is only a true one if there is no snap. Page undoubtedly played a role in shaping how the bass was approached as the Basie band itself was largely influential, but to assume Page single-handedly "created," "developed," and was the "first master" is contrary to analysis of recorded and written history.

Milt Hinton (1910 – 2000) was born into a musical family in Vicksburg Mississippi. His musical training started on violin, then moved to bass saxophone, tuba, and eventually the bass. His family moved to Chicago in 1919, and Milt recalls hearing bass greats Bill Johnson and Wellman Braud as a youth in-person.31 Having observed these early masters of the slap-bass technique, he gravitated towards it and became one of the greatest virtuosos of that technique. He youthfully admits to wanting " . . . to outdo them" as they were all older than him.32 A fine example of this can be heard on the 1939 recording of "Pluckin' the Bass" made with Cab Calloway's band for whom he played from 1935 to 1951. Clearly a feature for the bassist, it begins with an incredible slap-bass solo, complete with double and triple slaps and he's given plenty of room to display his prowess throughout the take. However when accompanying, the snap is not present and the modern round pizzicato (played in two and four) is the norm.

Hinton provides some interesting historical perspective on the development of walking bass lines:

Walking bass hadn't come in yet [the date is not listed; later in this quote he says that 'a couple of years later' he joined Cab which we know happened in 1935]. In fact, bass playing seemed to evolve pretty slowly. In my opinion, some of it was because the bass players around had switched from tuba and didn't know much about the techniques of playing string instruments. So at first the bass was given a percussive role, the same way tuba was used. Musically, it was kept simple. Everyone played the major note in a chord, period. Most things, including stock arrangements, were played in two-beat. So, for example, if you had an F chord you'd play two F's to the bar. But sometimes on the last chorus the band might get hot and then you'd play four beats of the same note. I'd taken harmony courses at Crane [College] so I knew something about chord structures, but nobody had taught me anything about using music theory in a practical way. Just like all the others, I had to learn how to play on a chord by experimenting myself. At some point during this time I began playing the one and five notes in a chord. So if I had an F chord I'd play F and C instead of all F's. Then a little later I began using other notes in the chord too. It was all trial and error and I got more daring as I went. I figured out that my instrument had to identify a chord, so I'd always play the tonic as the first note. But I also realized that after the tonic I could play a lot of other notes in the chord. So for example, if I had an F chord I'd play an F first, and follow it with an A and a C, and then maybe go to a D and put in the sixth. From a harmonic standpoint there are many acceptable notes, but I began to get a feeling for what combination sounded best, especially when I made the transition from one chord to the next. I was walking, but it took a long time before things flowed naturally. In fact, when I joined Cab a couple of years later, Ben Webster really taught me about connecting chords. There were a lot of other bass players experimenting during this time. I'm not saying I was the originator, but I know I was one of the contributors.33

Hinton's evolution in the harmonic approach of bass lines is likely similar to the experiences of other early bassists. He was also sufficiently humble to recognize that he was a contributor and not a sole originator of walking bass lines.

In conclusion, one individual did not invent walking bass lines. The practice grew out of various accompaniment techniques being used in the late 1920s and really took off as the bass replaced the tuba around 1930. At first, walking bass lines were largely executed with the snap by various bassists. In time, the accompaniment style and technique to produce it changed and bass lines became smooth as they are heard today. Unanswered questions exist, which could be addressed in further research: 1) Were Walter Page's lines more sophisticated rhythmically, harmonically and melodically in comparison with the other bassists of the time period? 2) Are Page's lines more indicative of linear counterpoint than his contemporaries? No matter the answers to these questions, the bass world is indebted to each of these and other bassists for their dedication and efforts that contributed to the emergence of walking bass lines in jazz.