Academic concert Jazz Music Publication

You see, double basses are boats, sort of

… that vast expanse of water between yesterday and tomorrow.—Black Atlantic artist Lubaina Himid

You see, double basses are boats, sort of. And so of course the bow is a bow. This is where Himid fits. Plucked or bowed, there is a deep (I want to write oceanic) sound from my old instrument, which always stands by my side when it makes it. Double. It speaks to me in both head and chest voice simultaneously. Double. One often talks of the ‘woodiness’ of the sound of one’s bass, which can be enhanced by raising the wooden bridge (across the water), or by adjusting the wooden soundpost (interior mast) inside the bass through the f-hole.

I feel I have been extremely slowly re-sounded by it, over the course of 35 years playing. But the process of my understanding of this re-sounding has accelerated and its quality deepened as the result of researching and writing these articles about jazz, the transatlantic slave trade, British heritage—I have been ‘thinking through [my] instrument’, in Eliot Bates’s intriguing phrase. It is a bassism that the bass really is the place: bass culture and bass cultural studies. Double.

In recent times I have developed tinnitus in my left ear, the one inescapably nearest the bass as I play, in the form of a low intermittent note round E-flat, with sonic swirls that I now, today, in my post-Gillow consciousness, know to be sea-sound. My consultant gave me a physiological reason for the tinnitus, but I knew better, that it was to do with the bass. (Now I strongly suspect I know better still, that it is to do with the history of the bass, the music’s past.) In making music my left hand embraces ebony, my right pernambuco. Double. The process is all touch, a contact zone, producing waves.

I did not fully know what I was doing in playing that music in that place in Lancaster but, in thinking of a heritage music (sort of) in a heritage building in a heritage city, I have written myself newly, or understood my sense of place, self and creativity more fully. Jazz and jazz studies have re-sounded me, resoundingly. Is this, has it possibly become, or how can we make it, as Christine Chivallon puts it, ‘a story that reconcile[s] irreconcilable things’, or is that impossibly utopian?  At the very least, perhaps it may be a little bit productive.

Extracted and developed from: McKay, G. 2022. ‘Further thoughts, and a ManiFESTo, on jazz (festivals) and the decolonisation of music.’ Jazz Research Journal 14(2): 215-223. Read the new article (open access), including the dedication below, and the ManiFESTo, in full here.