I was first immersed in jazz organ playing through live performances in the fertile Newark, New Jersey, jazz scene. Some of the who made an early impact on me were John Patton, Sonny Phillips, Ernie Jones, and David Brahm. As most organ trios don’t include a bass player, the creation and execution of driving, inventive bass lines is one of the organist’s most important tasks. And while the majority of organ players (myself included) use the bass pedals to add impact and thump to their bass lines, often combining staccato playing on the foot pedals with legato playing in the left hand, my focus here will be on developing your left hand bass lines.
One area where organ bass lines often differ compared to those on piano and string bass is their frequent reliance on open intervals, including fifths and octaves, with chromatic approach tones connecting them. Play the following examples alone at first, and then add comping on beat 1 and the “and” of beat 2, in order to develop independence between your hands.
1. Roots and Fifths
Ex. 1 employs the root and fifth of each chord, with a chromatic approach tone on beat 4. Notice the pattern adjustment on the B7 chord in order to stay in the proper bass range—this happens regularly on the organ. I’m using the flatted fifth here on beat 4 as an approach note to the root of the next chord. Always think ahead to the next chord!
2. Octaves and Fifths
The bass line in Ex. 2 uses octaves and fifths, along with a chromatic passing tone to the next chord. The octave surrounds the fifth and provides motion to the bass line, and is also contrasted by the chromatic motion leading to the root of each new chord. Octaves (and interval skips in general) are often effective between beats 1 and 2.
3. Root, Fifth, Minor Seventh, Fifth
Ex. 3 employs the root, fifth, and minor seventh, then returns to the fifth of the chord, for a very funky bass line. This type of motion also works well when syncopated over a funk groove. I used this bass concept on the tune “Browne James” on the Cecil Brooks III recording For Those Who Love to Groove. The passing tone on this bass line is a whole step to the root of the next chord.
4. Putting It Together
Ex. 4 puts all these concepts to work over “cycle blues” changes, also called “Confirmation changes” after the Charlie Parker standard. Note that sometimes on a II-V chord progression, you can lead directly into the root of the V chord, as shown in measures 4 and 8. I also stayed on the II chord in bar 2, and used chromatic motion into the D minor chord in bar 3. This is a common result of using open intervals, and gives an alternative to more standard-sounding ii-V-I bass lines. Also note that when you approach your target note (root or fifth) from below, it’s almost always by a half step.
Radam Schwartz has appeared and recorded with acclaimed musicians like Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, Arthur Prysock, Russell Gunn, David ‘Fathead’ Newman, and countless others. Schwartz’s 1995 album Organized was called “one of the essential organ records of all time” in Mark Vail’s book The Hammond Organ: Beauty in the B (Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard). Find out more at radamschwartzjazz.com.