During the 1960s, the entire approach to composing, arranging, performing, and producing music in regard to the bass changed radically. The decade began with the standard still being the upright acoustic bass, and ended with the electric bass guitar firmly in place for the sounds of popular rock, pop, and R&B music. The musicians playing bass in those days were literally writing the book as it happened, creating and modifying techniques that remain standards in bass playing fifty years later. One of those people was Jerry Jemmott, a man who was cited as an influence by perhaps the greatest bass innovator of all time… Jaco Pastorius. Jerry has been a decades-long supporter of ESP.
How and when did you first connect with ESP?
I connected in 1980, through Arlen Roth. He took me up there to the ESP shop in New York. I was having trouble with the instruments I was using at the time, and Arlen told me that I needed to put an ESP neck on my bass.
I met Matt and Toshi that day. After I got the bass back, I was very happy with the neck. Not long after that, I got called to give my input on a bass they were trying to develop. They came back with this beautiful Horizon bass. They actually produced a product with the exact specs that I’d recommended, with a long scale neck, and the size of the neck radius. I’d originally wanted a J- bass configuration on pickups, but they went with the P/J pickups, which hurt me a little bit (laughs).
But it sounded so good. It had a sound of its own with the ebony fingerboard. I ended up recording with that bass throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. I still record with it now! With my original recordings, that’s the bass you hear. I was using it during that entire time. And ESP now makes basses today like the B-1004, which has everything I asked for some 36 years ago, back when I had dreadlocks.
The bass you helped design, the ESP Horizon, has become somewhat legendary among serious bass players.
My actual bass is the prototype. It was never put into production until late ‘80s or early ‘90s. I realized it must have been a prototype when people on eBay were telling me that it wasn’t a real ESP! It’s on all my recordings.
When I heard I’d be talking to Jerry Jemmott, the first thing that came to mind was a video that’s famous among bass players… it used to get traded around on illegal VHS copies back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s called Jaco Pastorius/Modern Electric Bass. I probably watched it 50 times, trying to figure out what Jaco was doing. You were the host of that video, so I’d like to hear a little bit about how it happened, and about your relationship to Jaco.
It’s funny. A lot of people only know me from that video. They haven’t bothered to go back and look at my history!
It started with my bass credits on recordings from the early ‘60s by Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and B.B. King. In 1979, there was an article in Guitar World magazine, which Arlen Roth brought to show me. There was an interview in the magazine with Jaco where he was quoted as saying, “I am just a poor imitation of Gerald Jemmott.”
Wow! Did you even know Jaco at the time?
Yes, and I knew where he’d heard me, because the only place I used my legal name, Gerald, was on my credits listed on B.B. King albums, which came off of the W-2 form. Thanks to Columbia Vice president and former session bassist Jimmy Tyrell, I was one of the first to receive Jaco’s first album in 1975. I knew then that he had put the time in to do what was in his heart, with no compromises.
So that’s the connection we started with. I met a musician who knew Jaco, and he said we should get together. Jaco had wanted to do this video as a means of passing along what he’d learned. I was down with that. I’d been teaching since 1976. We found a company that would do the video production and distribution, and we just got it done. The entire purpose of the video was his fervent desire to leave something for the kiddies.
That was my connection with Jaco. He was a beautiful cat. He wanted to share what he had.
Switching gears… what’s important when you’re considering a new bass?
The very first thing I notice is how heavy it is. As part of the design team for the Horizon bass, I said that it has to be light. The quality and the sound is not about the weight. It’s about what you put into the bass.
The next step is how it feels. The neck feel. How does it feel on my body? How do I find myself adjusting my playing in relation to the bass? Each bass is balanced differently on your body, due to its weight.
After that, the next big question is, “How is it to play without plugging it in?” If it feels good and sounds good by itself unplugged, then I plug it in.
Is reliability in a bass important for a touring musician?
Definitely. More than anything else, it comes down to a good neck, bridge, and tuning system.
I’d had so much trouble with my previous bass before I connected with ESP. Other bass players would tell me about trouble they were having with bass necks in general. Having a good tuning system, and stability throughout the bass, is important. Much of it is in the quality of the components. I’ve had no problems with “Moana”, my ESP/Fender hot rod, while touring. The neck is good and solid. I got it stock in 1980, and only had it adjusted twice in 36 years of playing. It was 20 years before it was even touched! It’s always stable, always there.
What’s really required for someone to become a professional session player on bass?
Being true to yourself. Being a good person, number one. Being someone who’s able to communicate well with others. Being able to take direction. To take criticism. To be expedient in terms of working with a new idea. Being open. But being a good person leads you to those kinds of things.
If you come in with that kind of upbringing, you’ll do well. You’ll learn how to do well, if that’s your gift, to make music memorable and be recorded, as opposed to just having a job. The thing you do with your career is based on how you make your first steps. My first steps were to make the bass sound better, and as a result to make the players around me sound better.
Who were the guys who influenced you when you were getting started?
There are too many to even name. Paul Chambers. Larry Gales. Charles Mingus. Richard Davis. Ahmed Abdul-Malik. Slam Stewart. Sam Jones. Al McKibbon. Eddie Jones. These guys were slamming. I can’t touch that. I thought that if I could play well, I could be among the best on upright. But when I got to electric bass, in spite of the great work of James Jamerson, I was hearing so many possibilities. It was new and I was thinking, “There’s something missing here. I can make a difference!”
It gets down to your concept on what your role is, and to function according to the style and the purpose of the music, paying attention to the tempo, and on and on. You can always be more tuned to these things. It’s not about playing as hard and fast as you can. You need to understand and feel the groove, and nurture the groove, and support the melody.
You got into it when doing session work was a realistic way for a bass player to earn a living, but you then turned your skills toward arranging and conducting, and working on film scoring.
I’ll tell you a story. In the late ‘60s, I was making records in studios in New York and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I’d be flying back and forth. One of the guys who played on those sessions was Duane Allman. We’d meet in Atlanta and fly to Muscle Shoals, and talk about how session work was changing. You’d go in and they’d only have chord notations, and you’d end up having to make your own arrangements of what was going on.
So, after the Wilson Pickett “Hey Jude” session, I told Duane, “I’m done with this. I’m going home and only accepting dates for jingles and films.” Duane said, “I’m gonna go home and start a band with my brother.”
Part B of the story is that 40 years later, I also played in his brother’s band. It came full circle.
What advice do you have for players who hit a lull in the kind of work they’re doing, and might be looking to switch gears, as you did then?
If a bass player is true to their art and form, it’s about supporting, number one. When you support everything, you can see what’s next. You’re looking beyond your bass and bass part. You ask, “What else can I do musically that doesn’t involve the bass per se, but uses my bass player’s mentality of “support and create”?”
You look for the next step. It’s there waiting for you. If you do it right, you’re always training yourself for that next level.
What’s a compelling factor for a bass player to try different styles?
When I was starting out playing upright bass as a professional in 1958, there would be social events where people came to be entertained. They’d have five, seven kinds of different bands at the same event! There would be a calypso band, a Latin band, jazz, blues, and a featured popular artist. At these events, I was seeing different bands and formations, seeing the response of different audiences, and at one point in 1963 I said, “I’m gonna play in that other band with the electric stuff!”
People were having more fun with the bands that had electric instruments. Electric bass came across at a different tone and volume level than the upright, and when I got my hands on one in 1964, and thought, “Gee, you can do a lot.” It was also so much easier to make it funky with the electric bass.
That’s where I come from; variety, the spice of life! Once you realize you have the juice and the spice, you have a vision; you take that leap of faith, which Jaco did, and I have done. You think of yourself as an artist with a responsibility to tell a story, very often as a teacher, and your life is enriched.
It seems like you still have a lot that you want to share with your fellow musicians. Where can people go to connect with you?
You can hit me up for lessons at jerryjemmott.com!