Earl May

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Earl Charles Barrington May (1927-2008) is the most prominent idiodextrous jazz bassist to date. He recorded with John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Chet Baker, toured with Cab Calloway and Charlie Parker, and nurtured the careers of countless emerging talents.

May described himself as, ‘a natural lefty. I do everything left-handed.’ He recalled his resilience in the face of chastisement from a high school band director:

“I would play right handed. And when he wouldn’t look I would play left handed. Then he would stop the band — ‘get on the other side!’ So it took me a while before I decided, well I don’t know what side to stand on, I’m more comfortable playing left handed, but I’d never heard of a left handed bass player. But I decided to just stay [with playing back-to-front] and make myself comfortable.”

May, ‘tried every way possible’ during his early years as a bassist (Matthews 2002a: 19). It wasn’t until he began working regularly with Billy Taylor that practical considerations compelled him to permanently adopt an idiodextrous approach.[1] Lefty bassist Jennifer Leitham confirms ‘it was the travel that made him do it’.

May lamented that ‘the downside of [playing back-to-front] was that I couldn’t study with Fred Zimmerman and some of the great bass teachers’. He remembers the prevailing attitude as, ‘(playing right-handed) is the only way to play the bass’ and cites the stereotypical aversion to disturbing the uniformity of bowing directions in the orchestral string section.[2] May’s peers note that he rarely, if ever, mentioned playing back-to-front. Alto saxophonist Jimmy Cozier (1954-), who toured with May in Cab Calloway’s band from 1986 to 1995, remembers that May was more concerned with ‘playing the band parts and being the music’ and that, ‘he never thought of it as a difficulty or anything like that – it was natural to him’.

May’s 2002 Cadence interviewer Paul Matthews makes a nuanced assessment of May’s sound and handedness approach:

“In the [2002] interview [Earl] makes a passing comment on how he thought that being [idiodextrous] allowed him to always make his bottom notes heard.  To my ears… he had a ‘lighter’, more fluid sound.  It was not that booming ‘heart beat’ kind of sound…  Earl’s playing always made me think more of the pulse in your wrist.  You felt it as much as heard it but your ear always sensed his presence.  He had a noticeable (to my eyes) agility, which always impressed me all the more thinking about his unconventional playing technique.”

These comments seemingly contradict the assertions of others (including May) that his sound was ‘bottom heavy’.[3] This disparity can actually be resolved by taking into account the ‘thinning’ effect that the asymmetries of the bass can have on an idiodextrous player’s sound.

Considering this effect in combination with the proximity of the heaviest strings to Earl’s fingering hand, it is possible to propose an overall effect of increased clarity in the low notes of his playing, without them necessarily being louder or ‘deeper’. A low note produced with ergonomically enhanced fingering might have clarity (one interpretation of Billy Taylor’s and May’s beliefs about the presence of low notes in his sound) by virtue of actually being slightly thinner[4] (supporting Matthews’s experience of a ‘lightness’ in Earl’s sound).

While May played on at least 130 studio sessions, there are few performance photos in public domain and video footage of him playing is very rare.

Two videos, housed in a private collection[5] at the New York Public Library (NYPL), depict May not only accompanying, but soloing – a true rarity. While viewing a performance of Fats Navarro’s Nostalgia at May’s 75th birthday concert, I noted that May solos ‘mostly down in half position’ and wondered: does having the potentially thinner sound that we get from plucking ‘backwards’ allow us to solo in the lower register with a bit more clarity?

Matthews’s observation, which was made later and independently, supports this theory. I also noted that May ‘doubles up with two fingers on the left hand a lot’, supporting Dr Randy Kertz’s suggestion that idiodextrous bassists might benefit from adopting a two-finger plucking technique.

Footage of May displays his noticeably upright posture. NYC-based drummer Adam Nussbaum (1955-) once commented on a septuagenarian May’s ‘great carriage’, which May attributed to hanging ‘upside down on an inversion table every day’. May’s widow, singer Lee Boswell-May, verifies Nussbaum’s story, adding that, from carrying the bass a lot, his back was bothering him but that tilt table… would relieve the tension’.

While these anecdotes show that May was conscious of how he used his body, this is perhaps as much an acknowledgment of the physicality of the instrument in general than anything related specifically to his idiodexterity.

Rufus Reid believes it is unlikely that Earl ever made any effort to alter his bass to support his idiodextrous approach better. He laments never having the opportunity to ‘talk shop’ with May at length, since he felt that ‘the instrument that he had actually… should’ve been set up a little better than it was.’

However, the fingerboard of May’s ‘recording bass’ (affectionately nicknamed Coltrane) has a fingerboard with even curvature and no ridge under the E string.[6] This means that the instrument to which Reid is referring (which he notes did have a ridge) may well have been May’s ‘gigging bass’.

Coltrane would have accommodated May’s idiodexterity much better. The quality of the instrument and its favourable fingerboard contribute to the sonic identity of May’s recorded legacy. Boswell-May recalls that Charles Mingus, who was ‘like [May’s] coach’, found Coltrane for him and impressed upon May the need to own a bass ‘that… has a really good sound and that you always record with, so that your sound is always the same.’

Dave Glasser note that although he was ‘a master of enabling and making the music come alive from where he sat’, while Boswell-May remembers that Earl ‘hated soloing’. [7] NYC-based German bassist Martin Wind (1968-) considers that usually ‘the character of the person and the way they play… go hand in hand’ and recalls Earl as ‘very gentle, soft spoken’ and ‘always about… serving the music, making everybody else sound good.’

How might this attitude relate to May’s idiodexterity? Bassist and psychologist Robin Ruscio suggests that ‘if you value humility, it’s going to inform how you perform with other people’ and that May’s reluctance to solo was likely rooted in ‘how he felt about himself, or how he felt he fit into the world.’ Ruscio (ibid.) juxtaposes the trend of recent decades in pedagogy towards ‘social justice and promoting people to be authentically themselves’ against the marginalisation of left-handers of May’s generation as an ‘oppressed minority’. Herek (2003) likens the historical stigma of left-handedness in American society with that of homosexuality – both genetic traits.

Ruscio notes that ‘people sometimes have “stories” about their bodies’ and that ‘the meaning you make around that is really the key part’. He views May’s adoption of an idiodextrous approach as an adaptive kind of resourcefulness – a compromise that demonstrates both determination and humility. Ruscio concludes that, ‘identity is malleable, it changes over time’ (ibid.) and that if May ever struggled with his handedness approach, interviews conducted during his later life suggest that he had come to embrace it.

[1] “In those days (early 1950s), Manhattan was jammed with people walking and strolling. It looked like New Year’s Eve every weekend… But in between some of those sets, we’d have to go to the studio and maybe do ‘The Tonight Show,’ or something like that… and run out again to get back to the club for the next set. So there was no time to change the strings [on a studio bass]. Now you could hardly get a taxi, much less two so I could take my bass. So I figured I’d better learn how to play a right-handed bass left-handed so that I could always play anybody else’s instrument.”                  (Matthews 2002a: 19)            

[2] May offers a humorous ‘jazz version’ of this trope: “I have a Percy Heath story about that, when I was with Billy [Taylor’s trio]. We were playing at a club called Le Downbeat. Percy was playing with Art Blakey. They were playing at Birdland, I think it was. They decided to go over and see who was at Le Downbeat. Well, somebody had given them a joint. So they smoked the joint on the way over. This was in January and it was cold. When they finally got into the club, they had their collars pulled up to their ears [mimics a head tucked down into a coat]. Coming from the cold into all that heat made Percy’s glasses fog up. Up on the bandstand is [drummer] Charlie Smith, who’s left-handed, and me… I’m left-handed. Percy wipes off his glasses and sees us playing our instruments from the ‘wrong’ side! He says, ‘Damn! I’m not smokin’ any more of that shit!’ And he turned around and flew out of there! [laughs]” (Matthews 2002a: 20)

[3] It is worth considering the subjectivity of sound perception, not to mention the vast array of variables in the environments in which that sound is experienced. See Clarke (2007) for a thorough psychological, physiological and environmental analysis.

[4] ‘Thinner’ in this case means that although the overall pitch of the note sounded is the same as that note played by a conventionally right- or left-handed bassist, it has more of the higher harmonic overtones produced by that note, due to factors of ‘attack transience’ and internal construction features.

[5] The videos form part of the Bill Spilka Collection of Jazz Videorecordings and their library call numbers are LVH 2214 and LVH 2231. Both are available to members of the NYPL for viewing by appointment.

[6] During my visit to New York, I was fortunate enough to meet Coltrane:

coltrane-update

The encounter took place in the foyer of David Gage String Instruments (DGSI), where the bass was being checked in for extensive repairs. Lee Boswell-May recently gifted the bass to New Jersey bassist Mike Griot, who launched a successful Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign to, ‘Fund a Jazz Legend’s Bass Repair & Preserve Jazz History!’ The campaign’s video depicts DGSI employee Charles Mike Weatherley assessing the repairs needed and theorising about the provenance of the bass. While the ‘165-year-old instrument’ was in poor condition, playing it for a few moments before it went into the shop was a very special experience and gave me some small insights. One is that this bass does not have a ridge under the E-string.

[7] Earl is nevertheless a competent and engaging soloist. To my ears, his lyrical phrasing, consummate time feel, well developed sound and command of jazz and bebop vocabulary contradict his own feelings about soloing.

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