Bass of the Week: Ray Brown’s 7/8 Size Double Bass
The Smithsonian Institution is home to many priceless pieces of history, from ancient artifacts to modern wonders. Its vast collection includes numerous musical instruments from throughout the ages and this week, we’re featuring a bass I was lucky enough to visit recently. One that belonged to my hero, jazz legend Ray Brown.
The National Museum of American History acquired it in 2015 when it was donated by his widow, Cecilia. Brown was noted for using a small handful of basses in his career, and this was one he used toward the end of his life. His other basses now reside with John Clayton and Christian McBride.
I hitched a ride to the Smithsonian with my luthier and friend Thomas Wolf to meet up with Dr. Kenneth Slowik, who serves as Curator of the Musical Instrument Collection in the Division of Culture and the Arts at the National Museum of American History. He’s also a fantastic cellist and the artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society.
Once inside, he took us through the inner labyrinth of the museum to one of the facility’s musical instrument storage rooms. It’s packed to the gills with priceless pieces, some played by famous musicians and some purely historical instruments. (The Gene Simmons Axe Bass really sticks out.) Past an aisle of vintage banjos and guitars, we reach a back wall that I come to find out is lined with precious cellos, including one crafted by the renowned Stradivarius family. There, in the corner, sits Ray’s double bass in a stand covered by a white sheet. Dr. Slowik unveiled the bass to reveal its beautiful varnish.
This 7/8 size instrument was crafted by Dante Gabute in the Philippines in the Cremonasia, Inc. workshop, owned by Canadian luthier Jacques Gagnon. According to the Smithsonian website, the bass’s body is made from a local wood called toona calantas, also known as Philippine cedar. It has an ebony fingerboard and brass tuners, which were also built in the Philippines.
The design is a copy of a historical bass made by the famed Italian luthier Carlo Giuseppe Testore. When I first got my hands on it, I was struck by the size difference between a regular 3/4 size bass and the larger 7/8 size bass. The body is a bit larger than usual, especially in the depth, which was nearly nine inches. However, its string length is a typical 41.5 inches, making it no more difficult to play.
Getting my hands on the bass, I could feel the magic still flowing in it. It has a medium action with enough height to really get a grip on the string but not too high to inhibit playing. It was easy to pull a big sound out of the bass, which has a tone to match its varnish: dark and rich. Digging in, you can get some of the growl that Brown made famous.
Better than reading about it, hear the master himself on the bass in this unbelievable Carnegie Hall jam on “Now’s The Time.”
My deepest thanks to Tom Wolf of Wolf Instruments and Dr. Kenneth Slowik for sharing their time and knowledge!
Ray Brown’s 7/8 Gabute Bass Features:
|41.5″ String Length|
|Toona Calantas (Philippine Cedar) Top, Back and Sides|
|Made in 1990|
I played this bass at McBride’s house in 2014. It had the most ridiculous ‘E’ string I’ve ever played on a bass. Great fiddle!