Jazz Bassoon Revolution

Post by Kami B.
Featured image by Scott Wolford

If I had fifteen cents for every time I had to describe what a bassoon is, I would actually be able to afford my own bassoon, and they can cost upwards from $30,000. When asked what a bassoon is, the basic and technical explanation of: ‘It’s a tall, woodwind, double reed instrument, and a bass member of the oboe family, consisting of five pieces (bell, tenor, bass, and boot joints, plus the bocal),’ tends to confuse the person even more than before they asked. A befuddled expression crosses their face, which is when I know to abandon technicalities: ‘It kind of looks like a bed post, but it has a bunch of metal keys in the side, and holes down the front, and I press certain keys and cover certain holes to make sounds.’

Image by Alexander Golde

image00Despite that the bassoon is one of the most difficult instruments to play, it is just not taken seriously. It is often described as the ‘buffoon of the orchestra.’ This perception of the bassoon was started with its birth in the 17th century. The muffled, dark-sounding bassoon was so hard to play, especially in tune, that there weren’t many good players at all and composers just didn’t include parts for them. As time went on, better reeds and techniques were developed, more keys were added, and people began to take notice of its potential. It never lost its comical reputation, however. And as a result, the bassoon is a very misunderstood instrument.

The bassoon is not usually used outside of the classical music realm, and is rarely seen in genres such as jazz, rock, hip hop, viking metal, irish rock, etc. But why not?!

We live in an age of advancements, improvements, and new ideas, in all areas, including music. Jazz, especially, is a genre where having one’s own sound is of paramount importance. Uniqueness is a priority. The Definition of Jazz says, “Jazz is not the result of choosing a tune, but an ideal that is created first in the mind, inspired by one’s passion and willed next in playing music.” Basically, as long as one can play music, and as long as one is passionate about that music, one can play jazz. It also says that it is in “the act of creating the form itself” that one will “truly find Jazz.” Apparently, this genre is all about individuality and anomalousness: “Jazz music thrives on instrumental diversities; the player’s individual ‘sound’ becoming the desired proficiency.”

While it is not common for a bassoon to be used in jazz, it is not unheard of. It has been done successfully before. Daniel Smith, the world’s most recorded bassoon soloist, has gone where few bassoonists have gone (or have been allowed to go) before. His Jazz quartet: Bassoon and Beyond has been a major success in the genre of jazz. One of Smith’s albums in particular, Bebop Bassoon, has received over 50 outstanding reviews and worldwide extensive overplay.

The famous bassoon group, the Bassoon Brothers, has also incorporated jazz styles into their bassooning. Their album, Wanted!, included a their rendition of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a La Turk”. There are also jazz tracks on their Captured album.

So, it is not impossible for a bassoon to be used in jazz music, it is just the simple obstacle of difficulty. It is difficult for a bassoonist to play in the style, because the intonation difficulties resulting from the sensitive fingerings, among other things. As a result, it is difficult for the bassoonist to be accepted musically.

Lack of ease should not be a reason to exclude a musician, or an instrument from a band or genre of music. One of the greatest beauties of music is the challenge it imposes. One starts out with feeling hesitant and even intimidated by the seemingly insurmountable obstacles brought on by the music, but for those with the passion, and for those who extort the effort to endure, the intimidation and hesitancy eventually dissipate, through practice and dedication, to be replaced by exuberance and elation. These challenges are what forms the great qualities of a passionate musician.

The mere challenge for a jazz bassoonist should not be a reason to prevent that individual from at least trying. This exclusion from various genres is part of what makes the bassoon one of the most misunderstood instruments. It’s not often used, and because of this, not many people even know what a bassoon is. They mistake it for an oboe, or a clarinet, or one of those ‘show horse’ instrument. This really is frustrating. An example of the tolls of the general population’s ignorance is the story of Johann Spector, whose actions with a rocket launcher demonstrate exactly how bassoonists feel when people fail to understand.

It is worth mentioning that referring to a bassoon as an oboe is a serious problem. It is even stated on the homepage of website of the Bassoon Brothers, “Tell your friends that it is not an oboe.”

While not every bassoonist has a rocket launcher, or the bravery to use it, or even friends, we do all have one thing: dedication and endurance. Day in and day out, bassoonists across the globe are taken for granted and rejected. Yet, we keep our chins and bells up and do what all musicians do best: play our hearts out. We give it our all, everything we have.

The bassoon is not unpopular, per se, it’s just underused. There are some individuals who, do not play the bassoon, yet know what it is, and also hold the bassoon in a gold light. Frank Zappa, an amazing musician, once said that the bassoon was one of his “favorite instruments” that it has “that medieval aroma, like the days when everything used to sound like that.” Zappa was an artist who performed, and even composed, music in all sorts of genres such as classical, rock, blues, and even jazz, and who played instruments such as the guitar, bass, keyboard, and much lesser known bouzouki.

The bassoon is a double reed, woodwind instrument, almost always used in orchestral or classical music. Despite the efforts of famous bassoonists, it is rarely used in other genres. It is an elegant instrument that has been around since the 19th century, yet is unfamiliar to most people, many of which mistakenly refer to the bassoon as an oboe. It is one of the most misunderstood instruments.

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