What's the question most often asked of a double bass player when he or she is toting the rather sizable instrument around in public?
"Gee, wouldn't you really rather play the flute?"
"When someone asks me why don't I play guitar, I laugh, because it's not what I expect," said Sarah O'Connor, 28, of New York City, one of more than 250 bassists attending the International Society of Bassists Convention at Schoenberg Hall, UCLA. The convention, a weeklong series of concerts--including one at Disneyland--seminars, workshops and exhibits, concludes tonight with a recital by Francois Rabbath (see accompanying story on Page 5).
Ironically, a good many of the bassists attending started out with another instrument.
"I was a violinist living in Chicago in the late '20s, and I couldn't get arrested with that violin--the advent of sound movies had all but put orchestras out of work," said 78-year-old Milt Hinton, the veteran jazz bassist. "My peers on other instruments were working in clubs, like Al Capone's Cotton Club, making $75 a week and I was making $9.20 a week delivering newspapers. So I changed instruments and here I am, 100 years later," he concluded with a laugh.
On the whole, bassists seem to be a cheery bunch, and the word competition isn't used with glee.
"Stupid competition," the 57-year-old Parisian Rabbath snarled during his seminar on "New Techniques." "The only way to progress is to be without competition, to be the best I can be, without jealousy, every day."
Hinton offered an amplification: "Bass players are a mutual admiration society. We always try to share, since we're the supporting instrument. We're the lowest voice in the orchestra, so we walk around feeling like Atlas . . . we're holding these dudes up, man."
Still, the double bass is still not as respected as a solo instrument, at least in classical fields, as its proponents would like. "We are an oppressed minority," said David Walter, who teaches at the Juilliard School in New York. Getting more exposure for the instrument and raising performance standards are the chief aims of the convention, said Jeff Bradetich, 31, executive director of the bass society. "If we can't go out on stage and play in tune, with a beautiful sound like a violinist, how can we expect the audience to respect what we're doing?"
Bassists ranging from 8 to 80 came from as far away as Australia and China; at least 25% were women. The growing ranks of female bassists pleased O'Connor. "Women seem to easily fall into the education side, rather than performing roles, but obviously that's going to change."
As is the age at which young players begin the instrument. "It used to be that you didn't start until you were 12 or 13," said David Young, 38, who teaches at the R. Colburn School of the Performing Arts in Los Angeles. "Now there's a great deal of interest in teaching younger children."
Tony Knutson, 10, of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, one of many youngsters performing in recital today at noon at Schoenberg Hall, had a good reason for picking up the bass three years ago. "My dad's in a bluegrass band and this way I can play with him," he said.
It's not so easy transporting a double bass, either on airplanes, where either an extra ticket is purchased or the bass is shipped as baggage, or around town. "Bassists have to be creative when it comes to cars," said Thomas Derthick, 28, principal bassist with the Sacramento Symphony. "I use a Toyota Corolla hatchback," "There's only room for the bass and me, and the hitchhikers put down their thumbs as soon as they get a good look." Jazzman John Clayton, 36, said he was "old fashioned. I have a Buick station wagon." Festival director Paul Zibits, 36, owns a Jeep Wrangler.
Andy Bastounes, 26, of Chicago, spoke for most bassists as the convention wound down: "This brings me back to why I play, which is for the love of the music, as opposed to making a living. This week it's no more music business, just music. I'm getting back inside myself."