HOW MANY BASS PLAYERS DOES IT
take to change a lightbulb? You know the
answer: One, five, one, five! The reason bassists
can laugh at this stupid joke (as opposed
to detuning the offending joke teller’s guitar
when he’s not looking) is because it’s true.
Bassists earn reputations, feed families, and
get by in life partially through their ability
to outline a basic I–V–I chord progression
in a gazillion different ways. It’s the most
common harmonic movement in all genres
of Western music: I to V, and V to I. The progression
is a type of turnaround, a series of
chords that lead back to a harmonic starting point. Name any busy bassist, famous or
not, and I bet you’ll fi nd a player who can
really walk the dog—up, down, backward,
forward, and sideways—all around the tonic-
I was inspired to write about this turnaround
after listening to Sam Jones on
the Barry Harris album At the Jazz Workshop
[Riverside, 1960]. Jones had a wicked
hookup with drummer Louis Hayes; at the
time, they were a top rhythm section on the
jazz scene, known for their funky brand of
hard-driving bop with Cannonball Adderley.
Jones had a knack for playing simple
lines that nailed the harmony, but with a
personal tone and earthy groove. He wasn’t
one to flaunt chops, but his bass playing
had attitude—and we all know that attitude
trumps chops. Let’s look at ways to
walk and embellish the tonic-dominanttonic
progression, using some of Jones’
Example 1 shows a walking line beginning
on Bbmaj7 (the tonic, or I chord) to
F7 (the dominant, or V chord), and moving
back to Bbmaj7 (the tonic).
Once you have
the pattern down in Bb, play it through all
12 keys (Ex. 2).
Example 3 shows a line
that approaches the 5th (F) chromatically.
I think of this as the “Jumpin’ at the Woodside”
bass line, made famous by Walter Page
with the Count Basie Orchestra [Complete
Decca Recordings, 1938, GRP]. Sam Jones
also uses the line numerous times on the
Barry Harris album. The line is so perfect
that it belongs to the common vocabulary
of all bassists—from Walter Page to Sam
Jones, and beyond. Play through the line
in all 12 keys at various tempos. Want to
funk out on the turnaround? Play the 16thnote
version in Ex. 4 while channeling your
inner James Jamerson.
In Ex. 5, Jones adds a bit of blues to the Bbmaj7 chord by walking down from Ab
to F. This works, despite a slight harmonic
clash: The Bbmaj7 chord contains the note
A, not Ab as Jones plays in the line. The
chromatic movement leading to the F on
the downbeat is so strong that the listener
doesn’t perceive a clash—it just sounds funky.
In Ex. 3, the three chromatic half-steps lead
upward to the target note F, whereas in Ex.
5 the three chromatic notes also lead inevitably
downward to the F.
Examples 3, 4, and 5 show how you can
produce a strong bass line using three chromatic
leading tones. Example 6 uses two
half-steps to approach the F in bar 2. Chromatic
movement in a bass line is a strong
way to emphasize target notes, usually the
roots on the downbeats.
In Ex. 7, Jones suggests an added root
movement, augmenting the basic Bbmaj7
to F7 progression by playing notes in bar
2 that imply Cm7 to F7. We can think of
this as a substitution, a chord that is not in
the original progression. Bassists, pianists,
guitarists, and soloists often play or imply
substitutions. In this case, Jones implies a
Cm7 (the minor II chord in the key of Bb)
before moving to the F7. Adding a IIm
chord before a V chord is so common that
it is arguably not a substitution, but rather
just an embellishment of the basic harmony.
A bassist can imply the IIm chord almost
anytime a dominant V chord appears in a
Example 8 strays even further from
the basic Bbmaj7 to F7 progression. Jones
plays Bb, jumps to Db on beat three of bar
1, and proceeds down chromatically. The
Db clashes with the sound of the Bbmaj7
chord, but it works because of the strong
chromatic movement back to the tonic (Bb).
The line implies the substitutions Db7, Cm7,
B7 leading to Bbmaj7.
There are countless books outlining theoretically
correct ways to construct bass
lines—but as Sam Jones shows us here, it’s
often enough just to walk chromatically to
a target note. Experiment with Sam’s lines,
and next time we’ll dig deeper into the world