Slam Stewart and other bowed bassists


Occasional Writings

I enjoyed John Goldsby’s article very much. The section on Slam Stewart reminded me of the time in 1964 when I played opposite him at the Carlton Cabaret Club in Chesterfield. I was bassist in the house band and he was the bassist with pianist/singer Rose Murphy – known as the “chee chee girl” whose most famous number was Busy Line (used as a telephone advert in several countries). I would play at the club from around 9 PM to 2 AM and Slam would arrive with Rose at around 10. As they walked in, to my intense embarrassment and to Slam’s amusement, the bandleader would pull out all his arrangements with bowed bass solos for me to play, which Slam would greet with a big grin and a thumbs up.

As John Goldsby says, Slam Stewart sang along with his bowed solos in a light baritone voice an octave above pitch. But there was also the astonishing Major “Mule” Holley, a sound player who worked with many fine bands including Duke Ellington, but who sang along with his bowed solos at pitch! He sang with a strange nasal sound, usually employing the syllable “zum” for each note (his playing of Angel Eyes went “Zum; Zum-Zum: Zum Za-Yum Za-Yum; Zum”….). There are a number of recordings of Major Holley and Slam Stewart playing together – one very funny one with pianist Dick Hyman has Major Holley inserting the words “Shut Yo’ Mouth” in place of “Close Your Eyes” in the song of that name (Shut Yo’ Mouth is the name of the album, released shortly after Major Holley’s death). The recording even has Slam Stewart in one stereo channel with Major Holley in the other though there can be no confusion, as to which is which…

John Goldsby also mentions in passing David Izenzon, whom I also met around the same time as I knew Slam Stewart. The elegance of his classically-trained bowing in improvisations with Ornette Coleman was dramatically enhanced by the fact that Ornette often played, at that time in addition to alto sax, a wildly untutored left handed violin. There were also occasions when Ornette had Charlie Haden as a second bass player alongside Izenzon, a contrast not quite as stark as that between Slam Stewart and Major Holley, but striking nevertheless. There is a stunning solo bass recording by John Lindberg, from the 1990’s, called Luminosity which is a homage to Izenzon and includes two of his pieces, one of which has Lindberg doubling his solo line with a kind of Sprechstimme.

This leads me to the one omission from John Goldsby’s fine article, Scott LaFaro, probably the greatest jazz bassist. On the album Free Jazz Ornette has a double quartet, one with Charlie Haden on bass, the other with Scott LaFaro and at one point there is an extraordinary bowed solo by LaFaro that is much closer in sensibility to the classical avant-garde bass than to jazz and underlines even more the extent the tragedy of his early death.

Gavin Bryars
Billesdon, June 2009

Gavin Bryars