Now, where was I? I think I mentioned how, as a teenager I fell out with the double bass - the instrument I'd learnt at school. It wasn't the jokes - that was quite fun. Wherever you go with a double bass some wag will quip "That's a big violin, mate" (always 'mate', for some reason) or "I bet you can't get that under your chin". What's really sad is that from the look on the faces of these comedians (who probably hardly ever see a double bass), each thinks he (and it's invariably "he") is the first to think up the joke. My stock reply is:
Q: What's the smallest book in the world, mate?
A: The Bumper Book of Original Double Bass Jokes.
I used to have a beautiful bass. I sold it when it got so fragile that it really needed a lot of expensive restoration work and, rather than having the money to do it, I needed the money I could sell the thing for! Anyway, in those days it just sat in the corner, doing nothing. I was in my twenties, working as a residential social worker and involved in lots of other things. I was sad to see it go though. My parents bought it for seventy quid from an elderly Belgian man, a Mr Fockaert, who had carried it on his back through the trenches in the First World War. It was covered in cracks which had been filled with what looked like bitumen. After the war he played it in the silent cinema. There was a short scratch on the back where a theatre cat had reached up and scratched it. Then the talkies came and that work dried up. Mr Fockaert had fingers like teaspoons from his years of playing. One summer I mowed his lawn in exchange for French conversation. I still failed French O level, but I did learn that a Belgian says "mes doigts" (at this, he'd hold up his teaspoons) for "my fingers" and not, as the French do, "les doigts". I can't remember a lot about Mr and Mrs Fockaert, except to say that they left me with the impression that they were happy people, despite all that they'd lived through and that Mr Fockaert claimed to have been responsible for the death of the famous xylophone player Teddy Brown. He told the story of how Teddy had fallen out with him over a musical arrangement -so much so that he'd looked positively ill- hours before he died of a heart attack. I took it with a pinch of salt until I found this account on the net, although I doubt Mr Fockaert really caused his death: by the sound of it Brown was probably irascible at the time because he was unwell.
I had a wonderful bass and the jokes didn't put me off: I fell out with it for the simple reason that there seemed to me, then, to be hardly any decent music written for it. Added to that, I didn't like playing in orchestras much. All the kids playing other instruments seemed to have loads of stuff to play. It's a shame there's not more music around as good as Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf's Concerto (which I loved back then and still love), and it's a shame that what good music there is isn't heard more often:
The other piece of double bass music, for me, that stands out above the mediocre is Gunther Schuller's Quartet, once affectionately -I think- described as a "quartet for four wardrobes". The sound-world it creates is truly original, somewhere between Bartok and modern jazz. If you've got some big speakers somewhere, now's the time to plug them in (I have! Someone's just come upstairs and told me to turn it down!), turn out the lights and turn it up. Oh, sorry - there is a minute of chat at the beginning, but I thought it was the best performance of the piece on Youtube:
Oh, and then there's this, third in my personal double bass "top three". An acquired taste, perhaps. but I like it. Not so long ago I played the final third of this to children at a primary school, and they loved it (incidentally, that's not me in the video):
4 years ago