Preview to the Vail Jazz Party: Turning tuba into bass
Ryan Summerlin August 17, 2012
Musicians playing in New Orleans-style brass bands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were very important in the development of jazz. Their bands traditionally featured trumpets, trombones, saxophones, tubas, percussion and in many cases, sousaphones or small tubas. The music they played was a “gumbo” of African folk and European military marching bands. Most famously, they played at a slow tempo as they accompanied a funeral procession on its way to the graveyard and then switched to “jazzy” music on the return journey, encouraging the mourners to dance and sing in order to rejoice and celebrate the life of the deceased.
As jazz began its century-long transformation, it moved indoors and the very loud tuba was replaced by the upright bass (also known as the string bass, double bass and acoustic bass) and it was no longer the drummer who was timekeeper for the ensemble, but it was the bass player who took over this role by playing a note on every beat.
To some, the bass is the most beautiful of all instruments. John Clayton, Grammy Award-winning composer, arranger, educator and jazz master tells the story of how he originally came to play the bass. As a middle school music novice, Clayton approached his band director for admission to the school band. The gentleman noticed that Clayton was big for his age and directed him to the tuba saying, the “big shiny” instrument would be perfect for him. Excited at the prospect of joining the band, Clayton was leaving the band room with a tuba, when he suddenly noticed an upright bass leaning again the wall. Considerably lighter than a tuba and with a beautiful, sexy looking shape, he asked permission to switch to bass. Clayton never looked back and the rest, as they say, is history.
Mentored by the great bassist Ray Brown, John Clayton has built a career as one of the preeminent jazz musicians of his time. For the past 17 years, Clayton has performed in Vail over the Labor Day Weekend as part of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. He has also directed the Vail Jazz Workshop, one of the nation’s most prestigious jazz education programs for 12 gifted high school musicians from throughout North America.
On Sept. 2 this year, Clayton will present a multimedia tribute to his mentor, Ray Brown using classic video, narrative and a swinging jazz trio led by Clayton on Ray Brown’s bass that he now plays as his own. While Brown is no longer with us, his spirit and music lives on in Clayton and the many musicians that both of these great artists have taught and inspired, not to mention their audiences.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Now in its 18th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music. The Festival culminates with the Labor Day Weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more.