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


Rodrigo Sáenz & Dad

As a young man, and growing up during the mid-late ‘30s and early ‘40s in our home town of San José, Costa Rica, my father taught himself how to play the upright bass (also known as the double-bass). For a while he worked with several of the dance orchestras that existed back then in this idyllic city. However, he stopped playing when he and my mom got married and changed his modus vivendi. Some years later, with music having been a major presence throughout his life, he started getting together  with musicians with whom he had associated himself during his younger years.

Since he didn’t own a bass then,  once in a while he would borrow or rent one just to reminisce, have some fun or even play an occasional gig. Sometimes he would bring a bass home and keep it for a few days. I recall gradually developing a certain interest in the instrument, and, to his credit, he showed me the basics,  “meat-and-potatoes” of good, solid bass playing: time, pitch, swing, and, most importantly, to always use the ears! He also, and very capably, showed me a very particular style of playing this beautiful instrument, something called “tumbao” (Cuban slang), which is an “off-the-beat” style, and is the “essence,” or “soul,” of Latin music. Anybody who has listened and/or danced to “salsa” bands or “old school” mambo orchestras will understand immediately what I’m talking about. Without even listening, you can always feel the bass.

On one occasion, my father took two close friends of ours, my brother Ricardo and me to a “girlie club” called “Maracas,” one of the “hot spots,” or “cabarets,” located in the center of the city. Back then there were several such spots in San José. They were not strip joints, but more like miniature versions of the legendary Copacabana of ‘50s Havana, Cuba. They all featured a variety of live music, usually a combination of Latin,  Jazz,  Brazilian, Caribbean, et al, as well as female dancers, or “vedettes,” as they were known (for us young punks this was just the icing on the cake!). Back then, our town did not offer much of a choice in the live music department. We had become very interested in all kinds of such music and therefore welcomed any opportunity that became available to check out bands during live performances.

The “house” band at this particular club included a guitar, piano, a couple of horns,  a vocalist, and two or three percussion players. There was also an upright bass. It was just there, almost like a prop, simply lying on the floor, in the general area of the bandstand, with no one “manning” it. From time to time some dude would pass by it, pick it up, pluck a few notes and set it back down. In those days, “real,” (or even somewhat adequate) bass players (with a few exceptions) were extremely rare. The ones that had the “guts” to call themselves bass players had this crazy notion that playing the bass consisted of just “randomly” pulling strings while (sort of) keeping time, “correct notes be damned.” And, these guys actually worked! And some of them stayed very busy! I know it sounds totally nuts, but that’s the way it was back then in good ol’, early ‘60s San José.

My dad and the club owner, a dude nicknamed “Tuquio” (pronounced too-kee-oh), knew each other from the old days. While our friends, my brother and I were digging the music and checking out the show and (naturally) the babes, my father inquired about the instrument in question, and found out from Tuquio that “it was a piece of trash.” Pops offered to take it off his hands, to which the owner was amenable. They bargained for a few moments, and agreed on a price of 150 colones (Costarrican currency), or the equivalent of U.S. $22 and change. At that time it was a significant amount of money and, granted, the instrument needed a substantial amount of work (more on that later). But still, it was indeed an absolute, total “steal!”

When we brought it home, the presence of termites was immediately noticed. My father deemed the problem as an easy one to resolve. We stayed up late, addressed the issue and corrected it by using a combination of insecticides and wood putty. Having overcome that initial part of the job, my father took over the venture and began the lengthy, delicate and intricate restoration process. He was a world class “tinkerer,” somebody who could totally immerse himself in a variety of different enterprises, especially those which dealt with the restoration of musical instruments, especially those in the string family. He then proceeded to adjust the sound post, put new strings, and re-set the bridge. The end result was a fine, indeed superb bass! Upon completion of the task, he, very unceremoniously, placed it in a corner of our living room, right next to our record player. It’s like he had a sixth sense. Or something . . .

This was a tempting—curiosity awakening—placement for the bass; my dad owned a substantial collection of jazz records, specifically several by the legendary Oscar Peterson Trio of the ‘60s, and which I thoroughly enjoyed. Yeah, that powerhouse trio! The one with Ray  Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums—household names to our music loving friends, my siblings, and me. 

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 and digested just about every note, every nuance, every detail of most of Ray’s bass lines, along with every tune of every one of this trio’s delightful albums which proudly existed in our household. These three prodigious gentlemen quickly became my musical friends or “sidekicks.” We spent many wonderful hours together. . .

Naturally I wasn’t able to keep up with some of the “barnburners,” or up tempo numbers these three geniuses routinely played. What was most important was that I learned how to navigate the changes (chords in the music), which truly opened my ears and allowed me to play lots of different tunes in medium tempi, ballads, blues, “rhythm changes,”* etcetera. As a result, I learned form, harmonic flow and, most importantly, how to listen and follow along—two elements which are essential for playing jazz music at a respectable level.

Playing along with Ray’s bass lines and emulating his overall approach, Ed’s superb feel for time and Oscar’s gorgeously intricate, yet masterfully precise, beautiful, solos, not to mention their terrific arrangements, harmonic concept, execution, and absolute cohesiveness as a unit, slowly but surely made it all come together for me. It was like going to the best “hands on” school on this or any other galaxy! I learned to “just swing, flow, and navigate the changes,” which is what the best jazz players, in any instrument and throughout this music’s entire history have always done, and will continue to do. There were several other bassists whom I started listening to and who influenced me tremendously, namely Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, Israel Crosby and Scott LaFaro. But overall, Ray was the one who really “opened the door to the bass” for me.

Before long, maybe a couple of years later, I was actually playing bass and starting to get “paying” gigs around town. I became somebody who was “in demand,” which to me was amazing, not to mention fun! From there on, I just forced myself to learn as many standard songs as possible, from composers such as Gershwin, Cole Porter,  Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis just to name a few, in as many different styles and keys as possible. Putting modesty aside, I soon became the “go to guy around town” whenever a qualified bassist was needed.

I will always say that I learned how to play the bass by “studying” with my “alter ego,” Mr. Ray Brown. Even though it happened decades ago, I did it the way it has always been done: by listening and repetition. I was very fortunate to have met this fine gentleman many years later, albeit only once in my life. It happened at the “Blue Note” in New York City in 1993, where he was performing 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 few minutes between sets, and I was immensely proud to have been able to tell him how much he had influenced me as a bassist and musician when I was first starting out. He was very pleased and moved, and gave me one of his trademark, toothy grins 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 all very fortunate because of the immense musical legacy, the tremendous body of work he left behind and the countless others he influenced and mentored with his stellar playing.

I truly believe that Ray was the most “logical” bass player who ever put his hands on the instrument. He possessed flawless technique, great time, pitch, sound and power. He was a true giant who never forgot the true lifetime mission of a bassist: to play the bass!

I also believe that I became a good bass player mainly because I “always listen” and am able to follow musicians in the context of the music. The better you can train yourself to hear chord changes, musical form/structure, and such music related items “on the fly,” the better you’ll be able to do so and the better jazz musician you will become. We need to get away from the printed page because music does not exist on paper. It is every jazz musician’s professional duty to be able to play as many tunes, in as many styles, tempi, and keys as possible, without having to resort to the written page. This should be a lifetime mission for all of us. Nothing can be more personally and professionally rewarding for a musician than to sit in at a jam session and be able to “function,” by being to play on any tune that gets called while demonstrating great skills. When you can reach that level you shall have arrived as a respected jazz musician. You will then be in a position to function and truly “exist” in the realm of this unique, marvelously creative music.

*- Author’s note: “rhythm changes” (along with the blues) is one of the most popular harmonic structures in jazz. It is based on the harmonic form of “I’ve Got Rhythm,” a very famous composition by George and Ira Gershwin.

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