News – Marcus Miller reveals the true history of slap bass

Marcus MillerMarcus Miller reveals the true history of slap bass

Are you listening, Larry?

Story by Jon Liebman | July 10, 2014

During this year’s Gnaoua Festival in Essaouira, Morocco, music great Marcus Miller sat down with The Arts Desk to talk about fusion, slap bass, Miles Davis and the pork pie hat.

With a musical pedigree that includes high profile collaborations with Luther Vandross, Miles Davis and David Sanborn, Marcus Miller has come to the realization that all the music we hear – in America anyway – is really a combination of one or more varying genres. “The blues and jazz and R&B is all a fusion,” says Marcus, “because when Africans were brought to the United States, they brought their music and their sensibility. They encountered this music from Europe, from native America, and they interpreted it in their own way.”

According to Marcus, the phenomenon continued well beyond jazz. “Every music that came from jazz is also fusion,” he continues. “When we got to the 1980s, we gave it a proper name, we called it Fusion, but it’s always been a fusion.” His observation refers to music, but also goes much deeper. “The future of music, the future of mankind, is in fusion, in discovering new influences and incorporating them. That’s how we survive, that’s how anyone survives. So it’s very important.”

Apparently, there’s nothing new in the slap bass technique, either, one of the many outstanding qualities for which Marcus is celebrated. Traditional bass lore credits Larry Graham with inventing slap bass, but did he really? “I have to admit that when I plugged in to my style of slapping the bass, I thought it started in the 1970s, maybe the 1960s,” admits Marcus. “Then I saw the ghimbri (and) I thought, holy shit, this history goes back a long way.” This part of the Gnaoua heritage was truly an eye-opening discovery for Miller. “I thought slapping the bass was from the US,” he continues. “Of course not. You guys have been slapping the bass for centuries. Now I feel connected, and it’s a very profound, very deep feeling of revelation.”

So how do new styles come to be? Out of necessity, usually stemming from lack of resources, according to Marcus. “If you notice, all the great cultural creations around the world, they come from poor people, people who don’t have a lot, from the ghettos,” he observes. “All the new dances, all the new really exciting new music comes from people who have taken a bad situation and put it into music and turned it in to something positive.” Case in point: Hip-hop music.

“Hip-hop was created because they stopped teaching instruments in the schools in the 1980s,” says Miller. “When I was growing up in the 1970s, we all had music lessons as part of our school. You did math, you did science, you did music.” According to Marcus, once the music curriculum was taken away, the students were forced to rely on their own resourcefulness to induce much-needed forms of self-expression. “They take turntables and records, play it, stop it, play it again,” he says. “So they make new music out of records because they don’t have an instrument. They took the negativity of music being taken away from them and turned it into the positivity of a new form of music. This is something I see all the time, I see it happen over and over again.”

Herbie Hancock, Marcus Miller, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis

L-R: Herbie Hancock, Marcus, Wayne Shorter
(with Miles looking on)

The epitome of pushing the envelope, redefining virtually everything was Miles Davis himself, with whom Miller worked very closely throughout most of the ’80s.  Marcus recounted his recent association with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and how the three Davis alums, collectively, decided to do a tribute to the late jazz legend. “The problem is, what you’d expect us to do is simply get on the stage and play all of Miles’ well-known songs in the style Miles Davis did them. But we all knew that Miles Davis would hate that,” Marcus explains. “Miles was truly a man of the future. Moving forward, moving forward. He never looked back.”

The solution became clear at the first rehearsal, where, rather than playing any music, the three men just talked. “We talked about Miles, what we remembered about Miles,” recalls Miller. “We talked about the things Miles talked about – food, cars, women, cars, women.” At that point, the “aha” moment had arrived. “Why don’t we make the concert sound like this conversation?” says Marcus. “We’ll play parts of this song then go on to another song and people will recognize it and people will begin to see that it’s a conversation about Miles.”

And so they did. “It was a very successful tour,” Miller recalls, “and it felt very good to us. We felt Miles would’ve enjoyed hearing us.”

The Essaouira interview also included the topic of Marcus’ trademark pork pie hat and how it had come to be tied to so closely to his persona. “Twenty years ago, I was guest on a TV show and I was driving to the studio,” he recalls. “I looked in the window of a store I was passing and I saw the hat and went in and tried it on and wore it and then I couldn’t take it off.” The style was all the range among jazz musicians in the 1940s. “Lester Young wore a pork pie hat,” says Miller, “and when he died, Charles Mingus wrote a song called, ‘Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat.’ So I like it because it keeps me connected to my jazz roots. I play funk and rock and R&B, but my hat is always jazz.”

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  • As a kid I heard Larry practice. ( I walked by his mothers house on the way to school) I believe that he had no idea of the Gnaoua when he started doing what he was doing and has done with the bass. That being said, if it weren’t for Larry, we as bass players might not ever have known this style until Marcus found out about Gnaoua people. And would we even know then?? Great article, with all due respect! So was it really appropriate to say”Are you listening Larry”?


  • As far as the electric bass that Leo Fender invented all the credit goes to Larry Graham. They wasn’t a bassist who was even thinking about doing that back then


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