Joel Quarrington


Cats of Any Color: Jazz, Black and White

by Gene Lees



The great jazz musician Red Mitchell was the first bassist in more modern times to use fifth tuning. Unfortunately I never met him before his death in 1992, but he was working fairly regularly in Toronto often with another jazz great, Don Thompson. Don must have told Red about me, because Red phoned me whenever he passed by this way and he would regale me with stories of his incredible life and his experiences with fifths tuning. I love his recordings and especially his beautiful melodic style in his solos.

I am very pleased that the famous jazz author Gene Lees has allowed me to reprint some of his interview with the real fifths legend and pioneer Red Mitchell.This excerpt is from Mr. Lees outstanding book “Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White” from Da Capo press 2001.

“When I came home from the army in 1947, and told my parents I was going to be a jazz musician, that was something different. I was not going to go back to Comell, which I could have done free, between the scholar­ship and the GI Bill. My family and everybody I knew were telling me, If you’re going to be a musician, at least go to Juilliard and get a degree, and then if you don’t make it you’ll have the degree to fall back on and you can teach.

“I went to Juilliard for three months in 1947. l took two courses, music appreciation and bass. Phil Woods came slightly after me. l got A in music appreciation and C in bass. I studied bass for three months with the man. If you were going to study bass in New York, who did you go to? Frederick Zimmerman. He was the assistant principal of the New York Philharmonic -which he was very bitter about, having started off as principal, having been Herman Rheinshagen’s star pupil. Herman was really the boss in New York, one of the major players in the New York Philharmonic, he had all the good students, all the good jobs. When he retired, he gave it all to Frederick Zimmerman, and they demoted Frederick Zimmerman after a short time because he was not leading the section. He was a pretty good bass player. I heard him play in his apartment. I’d have given him about a C, which is I guess what he gave me.

“You have to understand, I had been trying to play the bass for only three months before that. Having tried all the other instruments and failed, and finding myself more suited to the bass, having a one-track mind, and want­ing always to get to the bottom of things. That may sound comy, but it has a lot to do with it. After three months with Frederick Zimmerman, he said,

‘Forget it, kid. There’s a lot of bass players out there. lt’s a rough world. What was that other thing you were going to do?’

“I said, ‘Inventor.’

“He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, be an inventor, you’ll make a lot more money.’

“This was 1947. Five years later, in 1952, in Los Angeles, I’m playing with Red Norvo and Tal Farlow, and here cornes in this elderly couple, both with white hair, sitting down and listening. Somebody introduced me to them after the first set. It was Herman Rheinshagen and his wife, Muriel. They came to hear me. His wife, who was very nice, said confidentially in my car, ‘You know, Herman is retired now, he’s not taking any more stu­dents. But I think if you asked him, he’d take you on.’ And I said, ‘Thank you,’ and I did, and he did, and I studied with Zimmerman’s teacher for six months. He was inspiring.

“Diane said that she recently had come across Red’s baby book, in which his father had written about how musical Red was at the age of two.”I do remember I’d go to the piano,” Red said. “I’d make fun of my father’s music when l could just barely reach the keyboard. He was into classical music so deep, l used to imitate it. Especially the pompous endings. Tah-dah! He built his own pipe organ. He started out with a reed organ and then a pipe organ in the house, with a low C. l was hearing that from the time l was a kid. l kind of got it by osmosis.

“When l was a very young kid my father tumed on the radio one day to turn me onto Jascha Heifetz. My father had hi-fi long before it was called that. This was in the early ’30s. It was mono, but it was very good sound. He said, ‘This is the man; he’s the master.’ l said, ‘I can hear that he’s great, Pop, but l hate to tell you, he’s a little out of tune on some notes.’ My father said, ‘What?’ l said, ‘That one. That one there.’ And he said, ‘l’m glad you heard that. You were brought up with the tempered scale and he’s using the natural scale.’ And l said, ‘What’s the natural scale?’

“There again l was extremely lucky. My father was actually able to explain to me what the difference was. Heifetz’s thirds sounded a little raunchy to me. Later on my father wrote a paper for the American Acoustical Society, which was also presented to the American Guild of Organists, on tuning pipe organs. As far as l know, it’s still the definitive paper on the subject. He used his engineering knowledge. He carried it out to four or five decimal places, a degree of accuracy that no one had ever reached before. He ex­plained what was wrong and what was right with previous papers on that subject.

“He was able to explain to me that Mother Nature never promised us a rose garden, that the scale, as we call it, is a matter of wishful hearing. It doesn’t exist anywhere except within the human race. It doesn’t happen anywhere else in nature. It’s an acceptance of a series of compromises be­tween the scale you would get if you tuned an instrument in fourths and the scale you would get if you tuned it in fifths. If you tune an instrument in fourths, you get a scale that is shorter physiclly. The top notes are lower, the bottom notes are higher in pitch. If you tune an instrument in fifths, you get a bigger scale. The top notes are higher, the low notes are lower.

“One day l’m going to write a book about this. One chapter will explain why some bass players and some cellists get aIong like some cats and some dogs. They could all get along just fine, except they tune their instruments differently. AlI the other stringed instruments are tuned in fifths. As a matter of fact, that’s the tuning the bass started with.

“The ‘normal’ tuning today, which is causing this war between the bass players and all the other string players in the symphony orchestras-every symphony orchestra-is this difference in tuning. The ‘normal’ tuning of bass is fourths. It was a catastrophic mistake. I believe it started graduaIly around the 1700s. The bass originally had only three strings, tuned exactly as I have them tuned, from the top clown, A D G.

“They couldn’t make a C string in those days without its being as thick as your thumb, because they used only gut. They didn’t have wrapped strings. So the low note was G, a seventh above the lowest note on the piano, which is an A. It’s that G. Then a fifth up to D,and then a fifth up to A. That’s the way the bass started. Then some smart-asses-I think Bottesini was one of them-found that if they lowered the top string a whole tone, from A to G, they could do finger tricks across the strings and play faster, because speed was a problem on an instrument that big. For a long time the bass was tuned G D G. It was a fifth on the bottom and fourth on top.

“As a matter of fact, there are still different ways of tuning the bass, and the symphony players haven’t straightened it out yet. Three times now the Royal Philharmonic in London has been in New York when I was working at Bradley’s, and six of the eight bass players have come down to hear me. PartIy because they’re jazz fans, but partly because they’re interested in the fifth tuning. And the last time, they invited me to a concert of theirs at Lincoln Center. It was a very good concert, a very good orchestra.

“They had eight basses tuned four different ways. The principal and assistant principal used what most jazz players use, E A D G from the bottom up. The next two bass players had five-string basses, with B, not C, on the bottom. I remember because they played Brahms’ First Symphony,and he wrote a low B. Only two of the bass players had it, but it sounded great anyway. From the bottom, BEA D G. And the back row, the first two had extensions-that piece of ebony that goes up beyond the fingerboard. They have to cut the scroIl to put it on. The low string goes on up over a puIley and down to the tuning peg. There are two kinds of extensions. Two of the guys had the one, and the other two had the other.

“The one extension is without metal fingers. There’s a clamp that goes over where the low E normally is. If you want to use that, you have to open that first, and you get a loud Clack! And then you have to finger the whole scroll. Bass players with large hands can in fact play certain limited passages on that-Ron Carter, for example, and Rufus Reid. But it’s not really practical. You can’t just play a walking bass line down there and back up. You can’t use it in a solo as Zoot Sims used to use his low register. You remem­ber Zoot going down to his low register, and right back up as though it wasn’t low? Zoot could do that, and Zoot has always been one of my idols.

“The other two guys had the metaI fingers on ‘em. That’s even worse. With the metal fingers, which clamp down on the strings and are connected through telescoping tubes to four metal knobs that stick over the top of the neck, you can at least attempt to play classical music on the bass. There’s no way you can play jazz on it, but you can at least try to play classical music that is written down there-but with a lot of problems.

“During my years as the first bass player at MGM, it wasn’t because I was the best of the bass players around-it was about flexibility. I could play rock-and-roll-I played the electric bass for ten years-and I had studied enough to play the classical music that we got to play.

“But when we would turn the page and see a cue like that, depending on how many bass players we had, I would hear ‘Sh-sh-sh-shit’ right down the line. Those guys learned to hate those low notes, because they were a big problem when you had those extensions.

“There are a lot of other ways to tune the bass. Glen Moore, the Oregon bass player with the group Oregon, has several tunings. His main is high C, which Chubby Jackson and Eddie Safranski used to have on their five-string basses, down a seventh to D, down a fourth to A, and down a sixth to C. The two C’s on the outside are two octaves apart, and he calls them his melody strings, and the D and A in the middle he calls his harmony strings. And he has a lot of music he can play on that bass that nobody else can play.

“There’s a particular phenomenon on a stringed instrument when you get a perfcct fifth, and that is that you get a crescendo when you let it ring, instead of a diminuendo-you play two strings, in my case, the top A string and the D, and it’ll get gradually louder over a period of about ten seconds.

“I was extremely lucky when I was a kid. My father was one of the few people in the world who could have explained it to a kid. If you started with the low A on the piano and then measured the frequency of it, it would be 27.5 cycles. If you double that, it’s 55, and you get a natural octave, and if you double that it’s 110, another natural octave, and if you double that 220, and if you double that 440-that’s where A is supposed to be, most of the time- 880, and on up. And you get a certain number at the top. If you start with the low A and take three halves of that, that’s the ratio that a fifth is. Think of the open G string, whatever that frequency is, you’ve got a D harmonic, which is a matter of dividing the string in thirds. The D harmon­ic is an octave and a fifth above the open G. If you divide that in half, you’ll have a fifth. So that’s three halves, that’s where the interval cornes from. My father was able to explain to me that if you started with the low A, 27.5, and took three halves of that and three halves of that and so on up until you get to the next A, you’d have a completely different number-higher than if you went up by octaves. Audibly higher. You’d hear it in a second. Anybody except somebody who’s tone deaf.

“When I started playing bass, I asked several people how do you tune this thing? They said, ‘ln fourths, E from the bottom.’ That makes it quite different from cello, which is in fifths. All of the nineteen years I played that way, I had a lot of problems, most of which disappeared when I changed the tuning. It’s exactly like the cello, C G D A, but an octave lower. The bottom string is a major third lower than the normal E.”

“Did you have trouble getting strings?’” 1 asked.

“I experimented from ’66 to ’71 with all the strings in the world that I could get hold of. Hampton Hawes was particularly tolerant in that period. It was when I was with him, at Mitchell’s and Donte’s, that I made the change. I had piles of strings on the piano. I would change every set. After five years, I had gone through all the strings in the world, and it was close but no cigar. So in 1971, I called the Thomastik company, which makes the best bass strings, and that’s when I got this young renaissance man who was head of the company. He was twenty-nine, was a jazz fan, and knew who I was. He said, ‘Of course we’ll make strings for the fifth tuning. It’s a great idea.’ And they did.

“Now they make four types of fifth-tuned strings, three-quarters bass, four-quarters, normal and soft, more gut-like. It took them a year and a half to get the first batch right. They made three batches. The third batch was okay, and they’ve gone from there.

“When I made the change in ’66, I took my second wife and her son down to the beach near San Diego and practiced for nine days around the clock over the sound of the surf. There’s a motel that goes right out over the surf.” (Red’s brother has an interesting comment on this transition in Red’s life and work. “By begging, lying, and cajoling,” Gordon said, “Red created a ten-day gap in his schedule, went to that motel, restrung his bass, unlearned the old system, invented a new one, learned it, and went right back into the studios ten days later as if nothing had happened. Astonishing! It’s like learning oboe over the weekend.”)

“Legend always had it,” I told Red, “that you changed the tuning and played a gig two days later.”

“That’s a little exaggerated,” Red said. “It was nine days. I came back to Los Angeles, and the first job I worked with the bass now tuned in fifths was with André Previn. I was playing first bass with sixty-five men at the Sam Goldwyn studio. I figured: Okay, André Previn with a big orchestra. If I can fool André, with his elephant cars, I can fool anybody. I didn’t tell André I was doing anything different. About twenty minutes into the ses­sion, I made a gross mistake. I pushed my finger down on the first string, and it would have been right if I’d had a G string. But it was a whole tone high. André stopped the orchestra. He didn’t usually do that. This time he looked over at me and said, ‘Red, really. If it weren’t you, I’d say that note was out of tune.’

“I said, ‘Thank you, André, it was a whole tone out of tune. It will happen again, and I’ll explain to you on the break.’

“I explained to him what I had done.

“He said, ‘You mean, I can think of the bass the same as I think of cello? It looks the same on paper, but it sounds an octave lower?’


“He said, ‘The same string crossings?’

“I said, ‘Yes.’

“‘The same flageolets?’” (Flageolets are thc harmonics of stringed instru­ments.)

“‘Yes. ”

‘Same bowings?’


“And he slapped his forehead and he was the first of a long line of composers who said, ‘Damn! Why doesn’t everybody do that?’

“I asked, ‘Well? Why don’t they?’

“Dizzy Gillespie said the same thing. Dizzy understood it immediately. I didn’t find out until fifteen years later that it started with that tuning. Gary Karr in New York has a bass built in 1611 by Amati. He started playing seriously when he was eleven. When he made his debut in New York at, I think it was Town Hall, he got a phone call the next day from a woman who said she was Serge Koussevitzky’s wife, and she loved his playing and was going to give him Serge Koussevitzky’s Amati. He laughed and said, ‘Who is this?’ It was her, and she gave it to him. He paid $10,000 for his bow, but he got his Amati free.”

“Is there such a thing as a $10,000 bow?” I asked, naïvely.

“Oh boy!” Red said, raising his eyes. “I’ll give you the same answer I gave my son when he asked, ‘What is it with women?’ I said, ‘You must keep it in mind that all women have one thing in common, and that is that each one is unique.’ And it is exactly the same thing with bows. Two bows made by the same maker-forget it, they’re going to be different. I finally found the bow of my life in 1972. It was a French-style bow made by a German maker, Pfretschner, and I was playing all my solos with the bow, and finally getting the bow to sound like I always thought it could-like Gene Ammons a couple of octaves down. I was not out after that classical sound at all. l was after Gene Ammons sound specifically.

“It started to sound that way. And then a customer came into a little jazz club in Stockholm, a young guy who was totally drunk. This guy took the bow and started conducting us with it. I took it away from him. It happened three times. l said, ‘Look, l’m not angry at you at all. But if you do that one more time, l’m going to kill you! You got it?’ He laughed, ha ha ha, and sat down. l thought l had cooled him out. We took a break. We came back, and he was gone, and the bow was gone and l haven’t played with the bow since. That was the bow of my life. That was twenty years ago. It may sound a little childish.

“After two or three years, I realized that not having that resin on the strings allowed them to sing much longer. And I could get all the colors out of the strings that I couldn’t get when that resin was stuck on ‘em.”

“Can you get a sound without resin on a very good bow?” I asked. “The best players use the least possible amount of resin,” Red said. “Gary Karr, after a concert, wipes the resin off the bow. The less resin you use, the better it sounds, right down to zero. I had always preferred my pizzicato sound to my arco sound. That’s not about anybody else, that’s just about me.”

“John Heard,” I interjected, “says that there are all sorts of techniques of bass playing, including harmonics, that have not been fully explored by jazz players.”

“He’s right,” Red said. “And there are all sorts of tricks and techniques used by cellists. When I made the switch to fifths, I got together with Fred Seykora, who is now working with Roger Kellaway’s new cello group. He was the second cellist at MGM, and one of my best friends. Fred and I got together every day for a week at my house. He wanted to learn how to improvise. l had been teaching that. l wanted to learn how a cellist thinks with this fifth tuning. I think we helped each other. I think he’s the only cellist in Los Angeles now who can improvise, unless Fred Katz is still around. He blew my mind with his explanation of the tricks and physical things cellists have to go through that bass players never even think of.

“To get from one note to another note on the same string, let’s say from F to B-flat on the D string. You have four fingers up there to start with, not counting your thumb, and your nose, and your elbow, and anything else you might be able to get up there. You should be able to go from any of the four fingers on the one to any one of the four fingers on the other note. That means you’ve got sixteen ways to get from one note to the other, and you’ve gotta know all sixteen ways. It’s gotta be in your muscle memory, you can’t be thinking about it. And they all sound different, and each one has a different function. Especially as a jazz player, you need to know those alternatives, because you don’t know where you’re going from the second note.

“One of my favorite tricks-I got it from Charlie Christian-is like false fingering on saxophone, to go back and forth to the same note on different strings. You get a bloop-blop bloop-blop effect.

“My idols are not all bass players. Zoot Sims was one of them, and Sarah Vaughan for her intonation, among her countless other qualities. She could land on a note perfectly and then it would get better. How in hell did she do that? She’d land right in the center of the bull’s-eye and then go deeper into the middle of the center of the middle of the bull’s eye. That alone could give me goose bumps and make me cry.”

“Sahib Shihab said you could listen to her just for her use of vibrato,” I told Red.

“That too. l usually advise my students to emulate horn players, not bass players, and I recommend most heartily Miles Davis from the ’50s and ’60s. First of all, because he was not a natural trumpet player, he had to fight for everything he got out of the trumpet. So he thought and thought. He both fought and thought. And what he came out with was so simple and so deep that any bass player could play it. So if you’re going to emulate a horn player, emulate Miles Davis. A couple of octaves down it sounds even deeper.

“I think Miles used his problem as an instrumentalist to the nth degree. He thought hard and fought hard behind every note he played. He never ever played thoughtlessly…

This excerpt is from Mr. Lees outstanding book “Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White”, Da Capo press 2001.


Images by Fred Cattroll