Old School: John Worster / Arvell Shaw Bohemian Double Bass (Circa 1820)

John Worster Arvell Shaw Bohemian Double Bass frontA couple of weeks ago, Damian Erskine sent me an email filled with excitement. Here’s an excerpt:

You know about my trip to pick up my dad’s bass in St Louis, right?

Well, Jim Widner (who cared for it for the past 25 years) pointed out a name carved in the front. Faint but clear: “Shaw”.

Apparently this was Arvell Shaw’s bass before my dad bought it! You guys posted an incredible video of him with Louis Armstrong. That’s the freaking bass!!

Between my dad and Shaw, this bass traveled the world playing with Louis Armstrong, Stan Kenton, Bob Hope, Sinatra, Jr. And a ton more (my dad moved to Vegas after leaving Stan’s band and was THE guy in Vegas for years before a neurological disorder forced him to quit playing.

Amazing history!

So of course, I asked Damian to give us more details so we could share this old school gem…


An appraisal puts the instrument as a 3/4 size double bass, Bohemian, circa 1820.

How long have you owned it?

I’ve only really owned it for about a week now. I just recently acquired it from my father’s student who had been caring for the bass for the past 20 years.

How did you come across it?

My father has a neurological condition called Ataxia and was no longer able to play after he hit about 60 years old. He decided to pass the instrument along to a student and friend, Jim Widner. About a year ago, my father contacted Jim and said that, ultimately, he would like the instrument to wind up in my hands. While Jim was very attached to the bass, he decided that he needed to honor my father’s wishes. We decided that, upon his retirement from the University of Missouri, St. Louis (UMSL), we would arrange to get the bass in my hands. As I couldn’t think of a safer way to do it, I decided to drive from Portland to St. Louis (about 2,200 miles each way) to pick up the bass and drive it home.

Stock or customized? Give us all the specs!

Stock! 3/4 size. Beachwood back and ribs. The top is Spruce with a Maple scroll. Golden brown varnish on golden ground.

Any special characteristics?

It’s a striking instrument up close, very rich in color and it’s just got a mojo about it from top to bottom. It has a lot of years and miles on it, and the tone is every bit as rich and full of color as the body. It also has remnants of someones initials on the face: “SHAW”. I didn’t know this but Jim told me that Shaw owned the bass before my father did.

What’s your favorite story about the gear?

It has so many! The one I’ve heard told the most often is that of an incident involving a moving tour bus and Stan Kenton’s percussionist Ramon Lopez. This might be an addendum to my answer of “stock” in the question above because the bass was indeed repaired extensively after Ramon (who had had a few, apparently) tipped back and fell directly on top of the body of the bass, which was laying down in the back of the bus. Apparently, the bass was in pieces (Ramon was a big guy). My father carried it up to his hotel room like a wounded soldier in his arms. I’m not sure who rebuilt and repaired the instrument but, after it was repaired, he continued to play that bass until he could no longer play music.

My father had the instrument for decades and played with just about everybody back in the 50’s – 80’s. He was most widely known as the bassist in the Stan Kenton Orchestra, which he played in for about 12 years or so. He was Stan’s favorite bassist, apparently. My dad lived in Las Vegas and was “the guy” in town and played with everybody who came through (often being taken on the road with them after the fact). He’s toured or gigged with just about everybody you can think in that time.

Shaw toured with Louis Armstrong and was one of his favorite bassists.

This bass has quite a history and some wonderful music in it!

John Worster / Arvell Shaw Bohemian Double Bass Photos:

The bass in action

Any special history or story behind this instrument or the company who made it?

Aside from the massive jazz history from Shaw to my father and then to Jim Widner (who continues to run Kenton camps and workshops, teaching big band jazz to students all over the country), I don’t know it’s history beyond that.

Do you use it on gigs?

No. I may bring it out for an occasional special occasion (but haven’t yet). I consider myself a caretaker for the instrument at this point. It has some cracks and warps that I want to get repaired. I plan on getting her in great shape again and protecting her while playing mostly at home or for recording sessions. I am very much an electric player who is just getting into the upright so, until I can do her justice, it doesn’t seem worth the risk of traveling around with her. I use my Eminence upright for any upright needs right now.

What else do you want to share about your gear?

I am not an overly romantic and emotional guy when it comes to physical things. I was surprised by how heavily receiving this bass hit me. I can feel it in my chest when I think about it. It’s not just an honor to have a bass with this history but I can feel the weight of it’s presence in my home. This bass is a representation of my father’s life in music, which was cut short by his disease (one which is passed on genetically). It reminds me that our time is temporary and our ability to make music is not to be taken for granted. It reminds me to enjoy every day and have fun doing what I love because you never know how much time you really have. I find that just seeing and playing the bass brings me to a place of appreciation for the now.

Any other vintage gear?

I also was given my father’s old rig! It’s an 80’s Walter Woods Mi-100 and a Woods 115 cabinet (I didn’t even know that he made those). It still works and sounds wonderful!

What did we miss?

I’ll be posting some videos once I get my intonation a little more under control. ;)

Tell us a little about yourself.

Aside from being a contributor at No Treble for quite some time now, I also teach at Portland State University and have written a few instructional books. I also occasionally teach at jazz workshops around the world. However, I spend most of my time gigging and touring with any number of bands in any number of genres. Most often these days, I’ll be found on the road with Gino Vannelli or Peter Erskine and Vardan Ovsepian. I also gig with Les McCann and have toured with the Jaco Pastorius Big Band. I also play in a lot of funk bands, salsa bands, function bands, as well as a long list of songwriters here in Portland and around the world. I do a little bit of everything a little bit of everywhere, I guess!

If you own any vintage gear you'd like us to spotlight in "Old School", we'd love to hear from you! Drop us a line at [email protected].

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  1. John Worster was one of the finest bass players ever, world class. He recorded with my brother on some Kenton records and they worked together in Vegas too. I met John when I was 14 at a Kenton clinic. A great teacher and one of kindest people I’ve ever met. John gave me his Carol Kaye bass books which I still have and treasure today. He made a huge impression on me and encouraged me to be a professional bassist… And here I am still doing it 40 years later. Thanks John!

  2. that bass guy

    Whenever you get around to restoring the bass, I heartily recommend KC Strings/Saint Louis Strings. They worked on my 1870 full-size bass some years ago, removing the top and fixing things inside and out. It was a wonderful bass before the rehab and even better afterwards. I can’t recommend them enough.