Joel Di Bartolo

Bang Down Those Valves!

Joel Di Bartolo (1945-2011), probably best known as the Tonight Show bassist from the days of Johnny Carson and Doc Severinsen, played all over the world with many jazz greats and celebrities, like Maynard Ferguson, Louie Bellson, and Carman McRae. An Associate Professor of Double Bass and Director of Jazz Studies at Northern Arizona University, he kept an active jazz and classical playing schedule. In 2006, we caught up for breakfast, and in between mouthfuls of a "Hey, Ricky!" omelette, he shared insights into rehearsing a big band, getting musicians to play in time, and working in television.


Fun with Buddy
(mp3, 1 MB)


JK: With all the big band experience you've had playing and directing, what thoughts do you have for trumpet players?

JDB: No matter what the level, kids warm up too much. I learned this from Doc Severinsen—actually Maynard Ferguson, because I played with him for a while. They're playing all these high notes, and by the time rehearsal would start, they'd be all worn out. Doc would basically just play low F sharps, you know, three valves down, and you'd hear his lips vibrating, but he never played a high note—never! He'd do all this and he never played high, nothing above the staff. Occasionally, a little pop, pop, pop...

JK: But he sure could play it at showtime!

JDB: Oh yeah; I asked him about it and he said it was just to get the blood flowing. I tell my students, "In the staff, please." Then they start complaining, and I say, "But you're already warmed up!" At NAU, most of them are in the wind symphony which meets right before the jazz band, so why are they warming up at all?

The other thing I notice is that kids will say, "Oh, I'm just playing the 4th part," or "I'm just playing the 3rd part." What I want those guys to know is that the lead player can't play without a strong 2nd player, a strong 4th player. I grew up playing trumpet and didn't start playing the bass until I got to college, but I never knew about that support system. You need that support.

JK: As a pro you become a little calloused to it, but it can be pretty intimidating sitting in that chair and knowing that the whole band's listening to you for phrasing. Because of the characteristics of the trumpet, everything you do, right or wrong, is going to be broadcast to the audience. As a kid just learning the instrument, to have that added responsibility, you can feel really alone up there on those high notes. And as soon as you start feeling a little nervous, man, then there goes the accuracy, you start sliding around, and everything else. If you've got three or four trumpets below you, really putting out the sound—especially at the bass end, like bass trombone, bari sax—that really makes you feel like putting some air through the horn and really playing it out.

JDB: Right, that's really important stuff.

JK: How do you work on the horn players' sense of time?

JDB: As far as time is concerned, the main guy I talk to is the bass trombone player, then the other trombone players, and then the trumpets, in that order. The baritone player goes along with the bass trombone player because they're usually both behind. They're dealing with all these mp3s, digital stuff, and now they're finding a completely analog situation where you blow in, you make noise, that's it. Nothing there to help you. So I try to get the bari sax, bass trombone and bass to anticipate by a billionth of a beat so that it hits the audience's ear at the same moment.

Doc's favorite line with the trumpets was, "Bang down those valves!" I notice with the high school kids, the articulation's there, but their fingers aren't. The articulation comes from the fingers as much as their head. So the kids start banging down the valves and they're stunned, like "Whoa! It's happening in tempo."

The trombones play with this "Whuh, whuh, whuh" kind of sound—forget about it! I tell them I want to hear Bob Brookmeyer there, a valve trombone sound, and then we can save the trombone effects for when an affect is called for. They'll say, "Gee, my teacher plays that way," and I say, "That's fine, you play this way for me, because you're all going to get a job— trombonist, dentist, whatever—and someone's going to say, 'I need to have you do it this way.' And it's your obligation as the employee to do it that way." I also explain that it's not a democracy. Sometimes I wish it were, but it ain't.

We work on getting the trombone players to play in tempo, as well as the guitar (when it's playing low), left hand piano, and bass. I don't know if you've seen my band, but I set it up like Doc set up the band. As you're looking at it, the bari sax and bass trombone are right next door to the rhythm section, so the jazz tenor is next to the baritone player. When you look at the saxophone section from the front, it's baritone, jazz tenor, lead alto, 2nd alto, 2nd tenor. Looking at the bones, it's bass trombone, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, and then whatever the trumpets want to do, because they're always throwing parts around anyway.

I have the bass between the drums and the band so they can hear some harmony, too. I remember the last vestiges of the Carson show, Doc came up with an L-shaped band and I was in the middle with the drums. The baritone and bass bone were way on the end. And it just didn't click, so finally we just tried moving them over (I forget who suggested it but it wasn't Doc) but someone said "Sit over there," and it worked.

JK: You were in front of the drums, right?

JDB: Yeah.

JK: Was that a challenge, not having eye contact with him?

JDB: No, for the most part. Playing with all these wonderful drummers—among them Dom Moio, Tim Downs, Peter Erskine, Alex Acuna, Steve Gadd—after a while, you never look at them. You just know there's something, this E.S.P. thing, that you just know what's happening. Fortunately, when I first played with Ed [Shaughnessy] we were up there together, and I would just watch when the stick was going to hit. You learn the different drummers' speeds, when the stick is going to hit; it always fascinated me. I played with three of the best old-time drummers ever, Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich and Ed Shaughnessy. When I played with Louie, his bass drum and his cymbal were together, right in the middle of the beat. With Buddy, however, his bass drum was right in the middle of the beat but his cymbal was ahead. There was this tenor player in the band, Pat La Barbera...

JK: Oh yeah! I played with Joe La Barbera on Woody Herman's band.

JDB: Right, he was his youngest brother. In fact, as an aside, there was a trumpet player by the name of Sam Noto who used to have this club in Buffalo with Don Menza called The Renaissance, and we'd play hour-and-a-half long tunes. I'm serious! It was 2:00 'til dawn and people would go out for breakfast and come back and we'd still be playing the same tune. And every morning, Joe would have to go put on his hospital whites because he was an orderly at a hospital in Rochester.

So, back to drummers, it was Pat who said, "Hey, notice Buddy, his cymbal time's a little bit ahead." When I first started to play with Buddy, he said, "Just stay with my bass drum kid, everything will be Ok." Ok, so I followed the bass drum. I don't think Buddy knew where his cymbal was, to be frank with you. So all of the sudden I started zeroing in on Buddy's cymbal and overnight—what am I saying, not even that—in the space of a tune, I became his favorite bass player: I had solos, all this and that, it was amazing.


In fact, one time, we were in Houston and the William Morris Agency made a mistake and they had Woody's band off, a night off, the same night we were playing in Houston with Buddy. So of course, they were all in there listening. And I play a solo, and the applause for the solo goes into Buddy's solo. He throws down his sticks, I got fired—it was hilarious—and of course, hired right back. In fact, I set a record for being fired and quitting so often that I got off the band making more than Pat, who had been on the band for seven years by that point.

JK: So every time he hired you back you'd re-negotiate?

JDB: Yeah, you get an extra twenty-five bucks. Seriously, that's what it was.

So getting back to Ed, both his cymbal and his bass drum were ahead, and he taught me how to listen to drummers. It's fascinating stuff, and I'm able to get that across to horn players. You know, it's interesting, I think Barb Catlin and I might be the only rhythm section players that run bands around here. As opposed to horn players that run bands, we can talk to the rhythm section, and then also talk to the other players about time from the rhythm section point of view, rather than from a horn player's point of view. Just a different take on it, and it is really different. In fact, when people hear my band, which is sounding really good these days—I've got a great bunch of freshman—they say, "Gee, we can tell you're a rhythm section player." That's because everyone plays such great time.

Also, I do what Doc and Buddy used to do. Buddy, for example, always said he couldn't read (we really thought he could read). But nonetheless, we'd play the whole chart without him; he'd sit out front and we'd play the whole piece. It was funny: we'd be playing a 4/4 chart with a 3/4 bar, or a 2/4 bar—or a vice versa, a 3/4 chart with a 4/4 bar—he'd say, "No tricks." He'd turn it back into a 4/4 bar so it was all the same.

And Doc would do the same thing. He loved us all in the rhythm section, but he'd say to the band, "Look, they're just the frosting on the cake. If you guys don't have good time, it ain't gonna happen." He'd go through the whole chart, including the solos, with no rhythm section. And so I do that, too.

I'll have one of the players come out and listen and I'll say, "How does it sound?"

"Oh, it's awful."

"What can we fix?" and then we'll fix it. And I always include my players in the decisions, the process. "How do you want to phrase this?" "Where should we get off here?" So we'll mark it. And I'll say, "Well, gee, we said we're getting off on 3, and we're getting off on 2 or 4. Let's decide where we're going to do this."

JK: It forces them to become active listeners.

JDB: Exactly. I have kids say, "Gee, I've learned more about playing the instrument here than anywhere." It's got to be difficult in concert band with forty trumpet players; you can't be you, you just don't get that opportunity. I really integrate them into the process. They think it's really weird.

Doc would ask me these questions, all the best band leaders I worked for would want the band to do this, mainly (I found out) because then Doc wouldn't have to do anything! (laughs) Great, good for him! I'll ask how many of their band directors ask them these questions and usually the answer is 100% "No, our band director said 'You do it this way.'" And there are stylistic things that you teach, but I like to teach styles by comparing and contrasting. Let's play it like this, let's play it like that, which do you think is the more stylistically right on?

So it is a teaching class. I think the best teachers I had were Buddy and Doc. And Carman McRae, too. I think she had the best time of anybody I've ever met, ever. She had all kinds of great players. We'd do tunes, and we'd literally clock them at about quarter note equals 22, 24, it was that slow. And if you missed a beat, she'd be right there, you'd get The Look, which was withering. Man, she was good.

JK: So ideally, the bass and drums should be in sync, but if they're not, who do you think the lead player should key in on most?

JDB: Usually the drums. What I'll do, if it isn't happening right off, I'll let the lead player play his or her part and the drummer play his or her part. Then you'll see them marking stuff in their parts—where the drummer might put the accent in or mark where the lead part hits highest note—so they'll really know what going on.

It's interesting in studying drum parts, usually they're all over-written and a lot of the important stuff isn't there. You'd think it would all be there, you know, kind of write those drum parts like a circus act. There's a lot of stuff missing.

And then I'll have all the lead players play their parts in time so the other players, the 2nd through 4th or whatever, will finally figure out what's going on. Once we do that, I usually take the drum part away completely. He'll say, "Well, what am I going to do?" And I say, "Listen." And they listen, and all of the sudden they play completely different.

I got that from Shelley Manne. Don Menza has this band, and usually Nick Ceroli was the drummer, a wonderful drummer. Nick always had the book, this big, thick book. So Shelley does this one thing with us, and Don hands the book to Shelley, and Shelley says, "Nah, I'll just follow Joel, it's fine." No music at all, and he played it so musically, so different, so clear by omission, that you could hear everything. An interesting fact, the lead player Frank Zsabo, I heard him talking to some others and he said, "Man, this is really far out! We aren't hearing the drums do his stuff but it's easy, real easy." Because he just sets things up so subtly and so beautifully. It was stunning, it was so cool.

Same thing with Bob Florence's band. There was a few times when Bob would bring a new chart. Nick and I were the bass and drums. He would just have slash marks for Nick and me, just chords. So we'd play it down a couple times and, bless Bob's heart, he recorded everything. So invariably, the next week we'd have our parts, what we had played, transcribed. And then we would say, "I can't read this!" "Well, it's what you played." So we said, "Please, don't do that." We'd be listening to the chart and reacting in a slightly different way. So finally Bob stopped, but he still has those parts, I've found out, and unleashes them upon unsuspecting people.

Getting back to drummers, eventually I get the drummers to stop playing everything. The lead players are astounded because now they can be heard more. I just explain to tell them what I'd like to hear and they seem to get it. I'm not a trumpet player—I mean, I got through the Arban's book, but I never played lead in a big band—but I played with two wonderful trumpet players, Maynard and Doc. Those are the only two guys who can play a note in your face and you just shut down, I mean it's so intense. It's a perfectly formed sound, like a laser. Stunning.

I'll have each section play, say, the brass guys. They'll say, "Wow, I didn't know that was going on." And how could they know? I have a whole bunch of Tonight Show charts that aren't published, about sixty of them—great [Bill] Holman charts, fantastic. I'd be out front and say, "Hey, I never heard that before!" and I had played it for like, twenty years. "Where did that come from?"

In the same way, a lot of directors will say to the rhythm section, "No, cool it; quiet, quiet," and it changes the way the horns play. So finally I said, "Look here, rhythm section, play really loud, now let's play this," and the horn players usually love it. Now, all of the sudden, they're getting a lot more support.

I'll also really study the score and see who is paired with whom. With older charts it's pretty standard, but with someone like Maria Schneider, she'll have 2nd Trombone paired with lead tenor and 3rd trumpet. So my scores are like orchestra scores, with red and blue lines I make with colored pencils. So they all know who they're playing with at any given moment and that really helps them. And it helps me too, of course, because I didn't write the piece. There are times in her parts where there are four trumpets and four parts, and they're not with one another. So a lot of music calls for much more that just what you think is on the page.

I never thought I'd become this "big band bass player," but I did and I guess it all worked out for the best. I got to play with such wonderful big bands all the time, even the rehearsal bands in L.A.—going to Holman's band, Kim Richmond's band, Roger Newman's band, Bob Florence, or course—and I'd just watch these people play and learned a lot about it. When I hear a great Frank Zsabo sound, right in my face, it makes me play differently.

You should know, too, that while the horn parts are very meticulously written with articulations and dynamics, for the most part, rhythm section parts have nothing. And I think that was designed so that leaders could yell at the rhythm section. So I make sure all the dynamics are in and everybody plays with that. I'll suggest to the horns, "Well, look, maybe you don't like these dynamics, what do you think?" And they'll come up with some pretty interesting things. While I may not particularly like what they come up with, if they play it with conviction, then it's in. It's absolutely in.

So I love the fact that everybody's engaged. It's wonderful.

JK: Talking to bassists, now, what kind of different mind set do you have in playing in a trio setting, like you said with Shelley Manne? What are you thinking about going into that situation versus playing with a big band?

JDB: There's no difference. Of course, playing with Shelley is quite special, but the size of the group has really never mattered to me. You see books on big band bass playing, big band drumming, and I'm thinking, "Gee, I've played with great big band drummers and they never do what's in these books." Still, you're in a quartet/quintet setting with a rhythm section, you're still going to be listening to the horn, it's exactly the same thing. It might be a little louder and there will be more stuff written, note for note, but still, it's the same thing.

Someone stands up to play a solo, it's a quartet; the piano player takes a solo, it's a trio. So now you have these groups of varying sizes. And I've known people that change what they do based upon the size or number of people playing, and it sucks—just awful! They're busting the groove, man. That's why we're here.

The fascinating thing about rhythm section stuff, while you're doing it with the horns, say if I just have a chord chart—often you'll see master rhythm parts, piano, bass and drums, all the same stuff, maybe a few kicks written in or a couple of notes—but most of the time, you're improvising constantly. You might not be the soloist, but it's up to us to be able to improvise around what's going on. It's been great training for me listening to good brass players and sax players.


An interesting thing on the Carson show, the piano was always closed. They'd use one of those PCM mics or whatever you call them, because Doc liked to use it as a table. A big 7-foot grand, a big table. So basically, the only harmony the guys could hear was me. Ernie Watts and Pete Christlieb were the main tenor players, and Doc loved those "tenor battle" kinds of things. Ernie would want me to play all the exotic scale pitches and this and that, and Pete wanted it as old-timey as possible. Root-fifth was fine with him. Conte Candoli [trumpeter] didn't care which he got. Conte was astounding, he could fit in any band, just astounding. But Pete and Ernie, as I say, Pete wanted root-fifth, and Ernie wanted flat 9s, sharp 11s, sharp 5s, whatever. (laughs) So we were playing Shawnee and they were trading 8s, and Doc wasn't looking at them, he was looking at me. You know, "What the *** are you doing?" I said it just like I told you, "Ernie likes this, Pete likes that." "How do you know?" He was actually kind of upset, because he didn't understand it at all. He said, "How can you do that?" I said, "Well, if I see a G altered chord I know what I'm going to play." "Oh, yeah? What will you play there?" So I'd show him. "Oh, yeah!" It was fascinating for me to have to react to both solo players, because again, I was the only guy they could hear. And both guitar players, though they were wonderful players, never played those kinds of voicings, those Abercrombie kinds of things. It was great fun to see how they all reacted, Conte too, because he was actually much closer to me than those two guys were. And what was nice for me, they'd be listening so hard, if I played a particular note, Ernie'd jump on it. There was a lot of communication going on.

Tell me this: With every band I've ever been in, why is it that the horn players are always sharp to the rhythm section? Doc finally had all the NBC pianos tuned to A=442, which is really nice and bright. But everyone was still sharp.

JK: (laughs) Yeah, because everyone can just push in a little more!

JDB: It was awful! Because if I was playing the electric bass, when it would get down to a trio thing, the piano was so flat I would often have to stretch the string up to make it work.

JK: Could you talk a little bit about what it's like playing for TV. I would imagine that it's a situation where you have to bring your "A game" every time you show up.

JDB: With the Carson or Letterman show, you only have one shot at it. You'll rehearse for whatever time you need, but not that long. And then you'll play it for 20 million people. In fact, I used to send in very good bass players to sub. One thing, very important—I wish more people would do this, I learned the hard way—always send in the best sub you can find, not the worst sub you can find, because then they're going to blame you for that person's lousy performance and they'll look at you askance all the time.

JK: So instead of making yourself look good, it makes you look worse.

JDB: Yep. It makes no difference: symphony, latin band, jazz band, whatever.

When you do a sitcom, variety show, or TV movie, you're in a real studio and they do a lot of takes. But "A game" is right, you're there. The thing about Los Angeles (and New York, too) is that most of the players in that city, if not all, are so good. It's just unbelievable.

When I came to NAU, one of my favorite (and true) lines was, "I'm just a spoiled brat." Really. I mean you hear these guys play and they nail it all the time, and if they want to change it subtly, they can, no problem. There's that much control. Look at Wayne Bergeron, for example. Or Chuck Findley. Chuck did the Carson show and the Leno show for a while. When Chuck would warm up, it'd be like, "doo doo doo" and that'd be it. He didn't go through all those gyrations. Same with Bill Reichenbach, the trombone player. He was in Buddy's band. A couple of toots, and that's it. And they were great. Same with Snooky [Young]; he never warmed up like most people warm up.

You're surrounded by wonderful, wonderful people who play exceedingly well. And yes, it is stressful. The Carson thing and the Letterman thing are more stressful by virtue of the fact that you only do them once on the air. There were wonderful bass players that I would send in to sub for me that said, "Don't ever call me again."

So when the Carson show ended, or even during the tenure on the Carson thing, I'd do a studio date and think, "Why are we doing ten takes? Let's do two takes." I was so used to just doing it, that after a while your tenth take is really bad. (laughs) What's this ten takes stuff? Get outta here! But of course, there's was always a reason for the tenth take.

At the school they have these student evaluations, and I'll get these evaluations that would say "Joel's great but he tells jokes." So finally I had to explain that in that environment it is so tense. I was back in Los Angeles some months ago doing some recording, and people are walking around with "Time is money" T-shirts on. You want it to be right. And in order to relieve the tension, somebody tells a dumb joke, and then you're back into it. Every time between takes, some laughing or giggling, letting the pressure valve open. That's very important. I explain to the kids that that's how I operate. And, of course, the comment is, "Joel, you're so weird." And I go, "Yes, you're so right. Absolutely, I work long and hard at becoming a weirdo."

JK: I imagine it's not just the musical pressure from everyone trying to play at their peak, but then you have additional pressure from some studio and network guys barking at you through some intercom or loudspeaker.

JDB: Yeah, it's this voice that comes out of nowhere and says, "Arrr arrr arrr." Ok, fine, whatever.

It's wonderful because it keeps you sharp. It's about keeping focused. I tell trumpet players, "Wouldn't you like to have Chuck Findley's worst day?" I tend to teach from the bottom up, meaning everybody likes to have a great, Nirvana-like day, but it's that high low-level that constitutes your consistency that's going to keep you working.

JK: Working with so many celebrities on the show, there has to be some challenges working with the personalities involved, people coming on and demanding this or that.

JDB: You just try to ignore them. Ray Charles used to come on and for some reason, he always used to pick on Ed Shaughnessy, and then he started picking on other guys, too. So finally, Carson said, "You can't come back until you apologize to every one individually." So he came back—he wasn't scheduled—he came back, apologized to all of us, and Carson never had him back. Excellent! But for the most part, Ray Charles included, the better they were, the nicer they were to work with. It was really nice.

One of my favorite times was when the show was an hour and a half, Carson wanted a music show, so we had Beverly Sills, Dizzy and Aretha Franklin perform a half hour each. I was playing this red electric bass, and Beverly Sills comes over to me and says, "You make that thing sound really nice, young man." (laughs) It was just great. And to get to play with Aretha, come on, it was heaven, it was fantastic. Surrounded by all these people we mentioned—Chuck, John Audino, incredible trombone players, everybody—they never, ever, let up. Never.

The jazz bands at NAU meet the last periods of the day. I tell the students, "Look, if I have an 8:00 am call and an 8:00 pm call, and calls in the middle, the 8:00 pm call doesn't give a darn what I was doing earlier." I better be happening right up 'til midnight, or whatever. And there were some days that went from 8:00 am until 10:00 or 11:00 pm, and you just had to be happening all day.

You'd do a double date, a couple jingles, come do the show 3:15 to 6:30, go off and play in a club or do another date or something. Not very good for marriages, I found out, but just work and work and work. It was great. And for the most part, you never really knew what you were going to be up against, even with the Carson show. You never knew, so that element of surprise kept you going.

JK: Any final advice for someone thinking about pursuing a career in music?

JDB: Gee, I don't know...how about: "Get out while you still can!"

—November 2006

Artist Info


Electric Bass

▸Three custom Music Man Basses I received directly from the hands of Leo Fender!! (Pre Sterling Ball Music Man Basses.) ▸Modulus Graphite neck 6-string fretless bass.
▸1964 (Pre-CBS) Precision Bass with a 1952 Precision Bass maple neck, stacked tone controls, a Jazz Bass pick-up near the bridge and a BadAss bridge.

Acoustic Bass

▸For orchestra, I use a 250-year-old bass of unknown origin. It has an extension on it custom made by Robertson's in Albuquerque. I use Permanent Strings on it.
▸My jazz bass is approximately 180 years old and is Bohemian in origin. I have a Wilson pick-up on it. I use three Spirocore solo strings, tuned to orchesta pitch (G,D, A) and a Sporicore Weich E string.


It's very hard for me to choose which job was the most fun, fulfilling, lucrative, etc., as I've had the opportunity play with so many people from so many eras and styles.

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