LAST WEEKEND, I was able to take a brief break from deadline writing and listen-in on a decades-old ritual called “The L.A. Bass Club” at Local 47 on Vine Street in Hollywood, the home of the Professional Musicians Union Hall.
Hosted by classical bassist, Tony Grasso, the “club” is a free clinic for bass players of all genres, and provides an hands-on forum for local musicians to not just hone their craft but to network in world where, more and more, everything is virtual. The weekend’s featured bassist was Jennifer Leitham, whom I wrote about a few years back for the L.A. Times. Her presentation was part memoir, part-troubleshooting lessons and she tackled questions about improvising, the state of jazz and even spirituality — with patience, humor and grace.
Grasso convened the session with a request, “Can someone play the changes of “Moon River” for me? A piano player in the audience rose and took his seat at the grand piano and they launched in, impromptu, getting us in the mood. Someone in the audience who hadn’t quite finished a conversation with a friend apologized for stepping on the notes: “That’s OK, You guys can talk,” the piano player said with a wink, “We’re not soloing yet.”
I’m not a player. But as an avid listener, I’m always curious about process, and the showcase was a rare and interesting window onto what happens among musicians when they are playing together and the vibe is just right. That “leap” that jazz musicians take when they improvise — together — Leightam explained — is for her one of the best reasons for being on the planet. “When I was a kid started on a clarinet but they took the clarinet away from me because when I played a tune, like say, “Sidewalks of New York,” I wanted to improvise. I just couldn’t play it all the way through…”
Years later, after settling on the bass (“I love the vibration; it’s primal”), she found the leap of improvisation was something entirely different:
“You want to think when you practicing. To master things. To correct things. But not when you’re playing. You don’t want to get in the way of what’s happening.
I don’t want to think when I play. I want it to be abstract. I want shades and colors. It’s when you feel like you don’t have a body. You are the instrument. You have to become the notes. And when you’re improvising with other musicians and you all feel time the same way it’s the highest form of art. You have to lift off the ground.”
In a bit, I’ll post some other photos of local 47 & its environs.