Photo credit: Julia Goldsby
John Goldsby is many things: bass player, jazz writer, educator, and teacher. He has written a definitive book on jazz bass, The Jazz Bass Book: Technique and Tradition. In this second part of Sebastian Maniura’s profile for LondonJazz News, he looks at his John’s teaching and writing.
“We have to imitate but by imitating we develop our own sound”
– John Goldsby
John Goldsby’s credo as a teacher, writer and player is firmly rooted in his own experience as a bassist. He believes that the past connects to the present and creates the future. By studying and imitating the great players of the past, a young player will gradually discover their own sound and forge their own personal musical identity.
In 1990, John released his first book, Jazz Bowing Techniques for the Improvising Bassist, aiming to demonstrate how to play with the bow in a similar manner to the great ambassadors of that style, such as Paul Chambers. The editor of Bass Player Magazine gave the book a favourable review and asked him to write an article for the next month’s magazine. John still writes articles for the magazine: “I just write articles about what I’m interested in at the moment, fortunately they keep accepting the articles.”
His writing, in both article and book form, is grounded in historical research and personal experience.
The best example of this is his book Jazz Bass: Technique and Tradition, inspired by his interest in different styles of music and how they relate to one another.
He “fell into” the traditional scene in New York, playing with greats such as Bob Wilber. Through playing with people mindful of the music’s history, John began to listen and learn from the jazz that had gone before him. From his articles for Bass Player Magazine John had built up an extensive collection of jazz bass profiles which he used as a starting point to compile a chronological history of jazz bass and its techniques.
Talking to John, it is clear he feels there needs to be a thread, a story, throughout a book, even a technical manual. Having never attended university he has always enjoyed collecting books by fellow jazz musicians as he feels a book reveals a lot about the author and how they played. It shows what the author wants to say and what is important enough to them to put in a book, “for instance, the Ray Brown book, on one hand is not very interesting but on the other hand you see specific things that you can hear in his records. To me that’s worth the price of a book”.
John is currently planning the release of a six-book series, the idea is to introduce jazz bass to non-bass players and beginners. It answers the question, “if you were starting from scratch, what would you need to play jazz bass?” It’ll include scale patterns and exercises, gradually moving to “hip” passages. The series will offer in depth profiles of seminal jazz bassists that were important to John. The way that he structures his books, and how he writes, tells John’s own story and aims to inspire people to practise, listen and imitate bassists they admire. In his mind, that’s how one really learns to play and avoids the many pitfalls that lie ahead for today’s aspiring bassists.
The damaging effect the YouTube viral video can have on how musician’s approach playing is one that John is well aware of, saying it can lead to young musicians playing flashy impressive sounding music that doesn’t have any real musicality or grounding in the music’s history. An obsession with equipment can also lead nowhere: “just because you have the same bass and strings as Marcus Miller doesn’t mean you can play like that”.
However, the internet has also opened up the world scene, making a huge range of music and some great teaching widely available. In some ways, says John, the internet has “set the bar even higher and higher for players”. He thinks of it as a melting pot where everyone is being influenced by everyone else, meaning it’s even harder to stand out. But, the function of the bass hasn’t changed, “the bass is the anchor of the band”. The challenge is to fulfil that role within the music currently being played. John’s argument is that “Wellman Braud’s playing is performing much the same job as Marcus Miller’s”, the context has changed but the bass is still the beating heart of the band.
Today, John is in an almost unique position, having had a successful career in the States and Europe and currently holding the bass chair of one of the great radio big bands. In terms of the future of radio big bands, such as the WDR, he believes their unique selling point is that they can offer, and budget for, super high-quality productions and arrangements whilst working with some of the best jazz musicians in the world. They don’t compete with the YouTube sensation, they offer something more professional, “we really have to stay on our game and produce high quality projects”.
Talking to John Goldsby, his love for and enormous knowledge of the bass constantly shines through. It’s no surprise that he’s such an inspiring teacher and writer. Sure, he sees the current scene as challenging and a “survival of the fittest” situation but with his historian’s perspective you sense he knows that, in many ways, it’s always been like that. His way of spring-boarding from the greats of the past to help develop future players’ sounds and styles is a pretty positive response.