Student Summer Scholars


The Electric Bass: Its Origins and Influence on the Evolution of Jazz and the Development of Contemporary Music



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The electric bass was an idea born of the late 1940's, a time when jazz bands were getting larger and it was becoming more difficult to hear an upright bass over other instruments. The first commercially produced electric bass was developed by Fender and available for distribution in 1951. Also starting in the 1950s, the world of jazz was changing—it was becoming an intellectual endeavor, more about musicians, and less about dancers. After the introduction of the electric bass, the position that the bass held within an ensemble began to change as well. Before the 60's and 70's the primary function of the bass instrument in jazz was to keep time and lay down the harmony of the chord progression. It was mainly a background, supporting instrument, for other members of the ensemble. After the 70's, solo bass and especially solo electric bass, had become more acceptable, and jazz diverged even more with new innovations and styles that continued to push boundaries—even to the point where people hesitated to still call it jazz. Other forms of music, such as R&B, funk, and soul also emerged, which are similar to jazz, and often times created by jazz musicians, but characterized by different bass lines. Today the electric bass is a solo instrument and has been used for wide varieties of music. This presentation shows how the perspective of the bass has changed since the introduction of the electric bass guitar, and how this change was facilitated by differences between it and its predecessor, the stand-up, acoustic bass. It uses interviews, research, and recordings to contrast bass lines from before and after the introduction of the electric to jazz ensembles and show the difference that this instrument has made in modern jazz music.