Lesson / Transcription: Johnny St. Cyr's 'bassline' on "Heebie Jeebies"

Here's a cool one: Johnny St. Cyr (banjo) playing a duet with Louis Armstrong in the middle of this legendary Hot Fives track from 1926 (duet at 1:21):

This track has been written about extensively, and is widely regarded as either the birth or the popularizer of scat singing, depending on who you ask. Ricky Riccardi, archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, has an excellent post on the track here

In this post, however, we'll focus on the other half of this fantastic duet. To be honest, the first thing that grabbed me in listening to this was how hip the banjo accompaniment was, and in particular how well it would lay on the bass.

Click here for a free PDF download of the transcription

Some things to pay attention to here:

  • This is an amazing example of duo accompaniment on the bass. St. Cyr never strays too far from playing a rock solid bass line, but still mixes it up quite a bit:
    • He starts a few bars with the third on the downbeat, which can be a weak move in a more normal context with an entire band playing but which allows him to create a more melodic bassline here.
    • His use of 8th note lines throughout give a contrapuntal aspect to his line, putting him on more equal footing with Louis' vocal line.
    • Note how if he played just a little bit more, this would be a great solo, and if he played just a little bit less, it would be a super functional bassline in a full band context.
  • This track makes me wonder about the link between banjo and bass in the early days of jazz music. The bass and the tuba have long been kin, and you hear the reciprocal influence in things like bassists using a bow to emulate the sound of the tuba. But what about the banjo? I wonder if slap bass was ever an attempt to emulate the percussive sound or feel of the banjo.
  • LISTEN TO HOW SWINGING HIS STRAIGHT 8ths ARE. Budding jazz musicians have been incorrectly taught for a long while now that a swing feeling comes from playing 8th notes with a triplet feel. In reality, swing has almost nothing to do with 8th notes (listen to Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb playing quarter notes), and as Mr. St. Cyr's fine example here shows, nothing to do with a triplet feel either. Indeed, the juxtaposition here of St. Cyr's straight 8ths line underneath Louis' more swung (for lack of a better word) 8ths creates a lot of rhythmic interest without ever seeming to clash.

I hope you enjoyed this. Comments, corrections, and feedback of any type are always welcome. Thanks for reading, and please share with anyone who might be interested.