How I ‘accidentally’ learned to play the bass. (With very special thanks to my dad and Ray Brown*)

Rodrigo Sáenz & Dad

When my father was young, he taught himself to play the bass. For a while he gigged with several dance orchestras around my hometown, San José, Costa Rica, but he quit playing when he and my mom married. Some years later he started getting together and playing with musicians with whom he had played during his youth.

At that time he didn’t own a bass, so once in a while he would borrow or rent one, just to jam or play an occasional gig. When he would bring a bass home, he would keep it for a few days. I recall, over time, developing a certain interest in the instrument, and, to his credit, he showed me the “meat-and-potatoes” of bass playing: time, pitch, and, foremost, to use the ears! Most importantly, he schooled me on something called “tumbao,” that “off-the-beat” style of bass playing which is the “essence,” or, “soul,” of Latin music. Anybody who has listened to “salsa” bands or “old school mambo” orchestras will understand what I’m talking about.

One “fine” evening, my father took two close friends of ours (Enrique and “Chino” Moreno), my brother Ricardo and me to a “girlie club” called “Maracas.” Back then there were just a few such clubs in San José, sort of miniature versions of the legendary Copacabana of 50s Havana, Cuba, but not strip joints; they were “cabarets,” and featured live music of some sort—usually a combination of Latin, or jazz, or Brazilian and other types—as well as female dancers, or “vedettes,” as they were known (this was icing on the cake), and, occasionally a comic. In those days, San José did not offer much of a choice as far as live music was concerned. We had become very interested in live music of all kinds and, therefore, welcomed any opportunity to listen to live bands.

The “house” band at this particular club included a guitar, piano, a couple of horns, maybe a vocalist, and a couple of percussion players—congas and timbales. There was also an upright bass. It was just there, almost like a prop, simply lying on the floor, with no bass player anywhere in sight. In those days, “good,” or should I say “real,” bass players were extremely scarce in my fair city. The ones that had the “cojones” to call themselves bass players, with a very few exceptions, had this crazy notion that playing bass consisted of just “randomly” pulling strings while—sort of—keeping time, “correct notes be damned.” And, these guys actually worked! Believe it or not, some of them even had steady gigs! Yeah, I know it sounds totally wacko, but that’s the way it was back then in good old San José .

My dad and the club owner, a dude nicknamed “Tuquio” (pronounced too-kee-oh), knew each other from the old days. While the four of us were digging the music and checking out the show and, naturally, the babes, my father inquired about the bass and found out from Tuquio that “it was a piece of garbage.” Dad took a chance and offered to take it off his hands, to which the owner agreed. They bargained, and agreed on a price of 150 colones (Costarrican currency), which was about U.S. $22 and change. A total steal!

When we brought the instrument home we noticed that, even though it had a little bit of a termite problem, my father deemed the issue easy to resolve. I remember that he and I stayed up late that night, addressed the matter, and corrected it by using a combination of insecticides and wood putty. Having overcome that part of the restoration project, my father then took over and “tinkered” with the instrument some more. Make that a lot more, my dad being one of the best tinkerers that ever was, somebody who could totally immerse himself in projects, especially those which dealt with the restoration of all types of musical instruments, and in particular those in the string family. He adjusted the sound post, re-stringed it, and set the bridge. The result? A fine, indeed terrific, musical instrument. Upon completion of the project, he, very unceremoniously, placed it in a corner of our living room, right next to the record player. Sixth sense…?

“This was a tempting—curiosity awakening—placement for the bass:” my dad owned several jazz records, including some by the legendary Oscar Peterson Trio and which I particularly enjoyed. Yeah, that powerhouse trio! The one with Ray on bass and Ed on drums—household last names. Just out of sheer curiosity, I started playing the bass along with this fabulously cohesive unit. My interest grew exponentially, to the point that I literally ingested every note, every nuance, every detail of every one of Ray’s bass lines, along with every tune of every one of this trio’s albums in my father’s record library. I probably wore out the vinyl, along with a few styli!

Naturally I wasn’t able to keep up with some of the barnburners, i.e. break-neck tempi these three geniuses routinely played, but I learned how to navigate the changes, to play lots of tunes in medium tempi, ballads, blues, “rhythm changes,” etcetera. All of this taught me form, harmonic flow and, most importantly, how to listen and follow along—two elements which are essential for playing jazz music.

By playing along with Ray, Ed’s superb feel for time and Oscar’s gorgeously intricate, yet masterfully precise and beautifully soulful solos, not to mention their terrific arrangements, harmonic concept and execution, slowly but surely it all came together for me. It was like going to the best “hands on” school on this or any other galaxy! I learned to “just play the changes, man!,” and to use the flashy, show-offy stuff only as seasoning. That’s what the best players, in any instrument and throughout the entire history of jazz, have always done, and always will.

Before long, maybe a couple of years, I was actually, really, playing bass! Not only that, I was starting to get “paying” gigs in nightclubs, as well as some recordings. To me this was amazing, not to mention fun. From there on, I just forced myself to learn as many standards as possible, in many different styles and keys. Putting modesty aside, I soon became the “go to” guy around San José whenever a bassist was needed.

I always like to say that I studied bass with my “alter ego,” Ray Brown, even though I met this fine gentleman only once, many years later. It was at the “Blue Note” in New York City in 1993, and he was playing with none other than Oscar! Can you say “time warp,” or, “star struck?” They sounded as great as ever. Ray and I chatted for a short while, and I was immensely proud to be able to tell him how much he had influenced me when I first started out. He was very pleased and moved, and gave me one of those trademark, toothy grins of his. I was ecstatic! Needless to say, when he left us some years ago, I felt as though a part of my life had been taken away from me. But we are very fortunate because of the immense musical legacy he left behind.

For my money Ray was the most “logical,” if you will, bass player who ever put his hands on the instrument. He was the possessor of flawless technique, great time, sound, power, and on and on. A total giant who never forgot, even for a second, the true lifetime mission of the bass player: to play bass!

I believe I became a good bass player because I “listen and listen good.” I’d like to stress the fact that the better you can train yourself to hear chord changes, musical form/structure, and such music related items “on the fly,” the better jazz musician you’re going to be. One has to be able to get away from the printed page,because music does not exist on paper. I didn’t say that, Don Sebesky did. In my most humble opinion, it is every musician’s professional duty to be able to play as many tunes, in as many styles, tempi, and keys as possible, without the benefit of the written page. This should be a lifetime mission for any serious jazz musician. Fortunately, this concept is being taught in jazz studies departments at colleges and universities throughout the United States and the world, which I think is fantastic. There can be nothing more personally and professionally rewarding for a performer, on any instrument, than to sit in at a jam session and be able to play any tune that gets called. When you are able to accomplish that, or at least get as close as possible to doing so, you shall have arrived, because you’ll then be in a position to function and truly “exist” in the world of jazz.


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