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

by Regan Brough


The approach to modern jazz bass playing has been fairly standardized for decades as bass pioneers carved out the role of the bass in small and large jazz ensembles. Rarely in the spotlight, the bass takes its place in the shadows as a supporter to others on the bandstand; nevertheless, its power to influence the feel and harmony has often led to it being called the heartbeat of the band. The action the bassist performs, which is most akin to the heartbeat is the walking bass line, wherein the bassist plays consecutive quarter notes on each beat providing a solid rhythmic and harmonic foundation. In traditional jazz contexts, bassists spend the majority of their time walking bass lines; therefore bassists should be encouraged to acquaint themselves with how and why the practice emerged.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz singles out Walter Page as the "first master" and "creator" of walking bass lines.1 As a result, Page's fame in this regard has continued to be promulgated by other jazz historians while the contributions of other bassists have in effect been marginalized.2 While not wishing to diminish the greatness and contributions of Walter Page, it seems only fitting that all who contributed to this practice receive the recognition they deserve. Not solely the innovation of a single musician, the walking bass line in jazz emerged from diverse accompaniment styles in the 1920s practiced by various bassists such as Bill Johnson, Pops Foster, Steve Brown, Wellman Braud, John Lindsay, Walter Page, and Milt Hinton.

Due to the inability of engineers to record the bass prior to 1925, there is difficulty pinpointing when walking bass lines originated. The bass had long been the instrument of choice, particularly in New Orleans, which boasted a wealth of bass players in the early 20th century.3 In the early 1920s the traditional New Orleans front line of clarinet, cornet and trombone faded as horn sections were doubled and the overall band size increased. The larger horn sections made it difficult for the string bass to compete with the volume, and this led many bassists to start doubling on tuba.4 The two-beat feel consistently played by the tuba (on strong beats—one and three) influenced players' approach to the bass, which can be heard on various early recordings.

When electric recording methods were developed in 1925, the bass started to be recorded. With time, the tuba lost favor as the bass offered subtleties and techniques the tuba could not provide. Even simple space constraints, as in small nightclubs, led to the selection of the bass over the tuba.5 More musical reasons also led to the switch as the bass blended better with the ensemble.6 Most importantly, a bassist could sustain a walking bass line for far greater periods of time than a tubist, intensifying the "hot" nature of the music. This distinction is critical because as walking bass lines became standard practice, the tuba disappeared from major jazz ensembles.

Selecting an exact date when walking bass lines originated is further complicated because early bassists used diverse techniques of accompanying, which eventually led to the development of walking bass lines as we know them today. The three most common forms of accompaniment at the time which will be discussed here are: (1) Arco (with the bow) two-feel, (2) Plucked two-feel (at times interspersed with four notes per bar), and (3) Slap-bass technique.