Best Instrument

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

It was a triumph for D.C.’s jazz scene when Ben Williams, then a 24-year-old bassist from Michigan Park, won the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition—but it wasn’t a surprise. Washington has a rich legacy of jazz bassists stretching back at least six decades.

But it’s never seen a bass boom like the current one. Williams is now tearing up the New York scene alongside several other young D.C. players (Corcoran Holt, Rashaan Carter, Ameen Saleem); back home, more than a dozen superlative bassists—including James King, Eric Wheeler, and Regan Brough—can be seen on local bandstands every night.

“I can’t remember the last time there was a group this large, this strong,” says Michael Bowie, a performer and educator who (along with King) is the dean of D.C. bass. “It’s really a golden era. It will probably be years before we have a group this strong again.”

Nobody can quite explain the current peak. For Bowie, the stars have simply aligned. Kris Funn, a Howard alum who just returned from a national tour with Christian Scott, gives credit to masters like Bowie. Still another teacher and performer, Herman Burney, yields to the fates. “With such a great history and tradition here, how could there not be this many wonderful bass players?” Burney asks.

But if no one is sure about the bumper crop, everyone agrees on the roots. The undisputed spiritual father of the D.C. bass tradition is the late Keter Betts, who spent 40 years backing vocalists Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald and played on Jazz Samba, the most important jazz album ever made in the District. Bowie and Burney, both former students of Betts, still refer to him affectionately as “Papa Keter.” Next on the totem pole is Butch Warren, the brilliant but troubled technician who played on many of the crucial recordings of the hard bop era—and still gigs around town.

What Betts and Warren brought to the city, says Bowie, is a distinctive sound that is wholly and uniquely Washingtonian. “I was recently subbing in Lewis Nash’s [New York-based] ensemble,” Bowie recalls. “I hadn’t gotten two bars into the first tune before someone else on stage looked up and said, ‘D.C. in the house.’

“There’s a certain attitude, a certain aggression, a certain forthrightness—I think it’s just the rhythm of the city. It makes you dance,” Bowie adds, before connecting it to the city’s other indigenous rhythm: “It’s almost a jazz go-go.”

More precisely, the style heard on Betts’ and Warren’s recordings, and subsequently those of their musical descendants, is swing, assertive and heavy-fingered with a special oomph on the two and four. Add virtuoso technique, along with signature touches from each player (Betts was known for his swing blues walk; Carter peppers his lines with tough double-stops), and you have the jazz sound of the District of Columbia. But the essential ingredient—the, ahem, spice in the half-smoke—is the aggression. The instrument should sound as if it’s trying to muscle its way to the front of the stage.

If that sound is central to D.C. jazz, it’s not universal. Quite a few local bassists are transplants from elsewhere, and so are their styles. Tarus Mateen is a native of Bakersfield, Calif., went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, and spent much of the ’90s in New York (where he still plays frequently in pianist Jason Moran’s trio); while he can play hard swing, he’s equally likely to lay down abstractions or draw from world music. Kevin Pace, a native of Elon, N.C., began his musical endeavors as a rock guitarist, and brings to the bass a guitarlike timbre and melodic sensibility. All the same, the purveyors of that deeper and more thrusting sound are an inspiration to him. “Oh, man,” Pace says. “James King and Herman Burney—right there are two of the reasons that I wanted to be here.”

Indeed, the diversity of approaches is as important to Burney as the hometown sound: He is the co-founder and leader of the D.C. Bass Choir, a three-piece ensemble that exhibits the instrument in all its roles in jazz. “Obviously that aggressive rhythmic role isn’t absent,” he says. “But the Bass Choir also shows other sides. Somebody might be playing melody or countermelody. Somebody might take a percussive attack. Somebody might be playing with a bow, might be strumming with their fingers. It’s all there.”

Which is, after all, the lesson when you have so rich a deposit of one instrument: It’s all there. The bass has a huge range of roles and possibilities within the jazz context, and in the District you can experience all of them.

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