Lesson With Scott Mason


Scott Mason agreed to meet me on a Friday afternoon at his Roosevelt University office, just across the street from Grant Park in downtown Chicago. It turns out, though, that our appointment was the exact time two million Cubs’ fans would be going to the World Series victory rally at Grant Park. The streets were jammed – I was stuck in my car for hours. Scott was more than gracious on my frantic phone calls; we were finally able to meet on our third rescheduling.

Like me, Scott was schooled in classical bass. Even though jazz eventually lured him away from Beethoven, his approach is rooted in solid pedagogical principles. And like all good teachers, he is clear about organization and expectations. Here’s Scott’s Roosevelt U. bio: https://www.roosevelt.edu/Academics/Faculty/Profile.aspx?ID=smason



After some brief hellos he grabbed his metronome and we got to work.


Scott teaches entirely from the keyboard. “I realized two basses in a room, even if I was in tune, was an intonation struggle. And it became much better when I switched  to piano in a much more realistic playing situation.” He asked me to pull out my bow. “I start with technique… trying to leave the stress of whatever you’ve been thinking about, and I often stress the idea of breathing.” “I set the metronome somewhere between 60 and 80, and we work on durations.” (Ex. 1)


You can download a pdf version here: lesson-with-scott-mason

He asked me to play a scale with the bow; “Many jazz players don’t have the bow control… Even if you’re not interested in the bow you’re going to have to play some simple arco parts along the line, or maybe not so simple.” My key for the day happened to be the treacherous A-flat melodic minor. Scott doubled me on the piano as I played “because the hardest thing to do is to play in unison.” He specified half-notes at a slow tempo. “I emphasize slow playing; you can’t go any faster than you can sound good.” As we reached the top of the third octave and started going back down, he doubled me a third away. This proceeded to quarter-notes.

When I asked about tone, he said the “biggest sound you’re going to get is side of the finger, end of the board, using the thumb as a fulcrum and playing into the board.” When playing faster and having to use two fingers, use the ear to try to match the sound to the one-finger approach.


Here is Scott’s scale sequence:
Freshman year:
First semester:
Two-octave major and traditional minor.
Second semester:
Major scale modes
Sophomore year:
First Semester:
Harmonic minor and phrygian dominant
Symmetrical scales:
Chromatic scale: on one string, across strings, and thumb position
Whole tone, vertically and horizontally
Diminished, both forms
Second semester:
Melodic minor and it’s modes
Junior year and beyond:
“We do the whole thing again and expand it to three octaves.”

His fingering system comes from Lawrence Hurst, which I believe was also taught by Roger Scott at Curtiss. Hurst called this the “Universal System,” where the second octave ends on 4th (or 3rd) finger and the third octave proceeds in pairs until the highest three notes, which are in one position. This works for most scale types with a few exceptions (e.g. phrygian and locrian). “This relates your melodic minor to major.“

Scott asked me to play a minor-major ninth arpeggio on Bb (because that key has no open strings)(Ex. 2). He then had me play the same pattern on Ab minor in thumb position starting on the A string, so we could discuss the different possibilities for fingerings, including the Eddie Gomez “crawling thumb” technique. (Ex.3).

He set up a 3/4 groove in that key and then had me walk and solo. His comments: “On bass we often tend to play things that move around in little scale patterns. That’s the curse of bass playing because that’s what we do all the time when we’re walking.  So I encourage them to take some things that are triad patterns, or fourth patterns, anything that’s not idiomatic to the bass that is going to, like Eddie Gomez or Gary Peacock, expand your range of possibilities. Scott had me expand the Ab Minor arpeggio into triplets (Ex. 4). Then he set up a groove for me to “force feed” (Scott’s term) that technique into a solo. He likes to hit both idiomatic and non-idiomatic keys. After Ab minor we would maybe switch to A minor.


Scott then moved to repertoire. He teaches this in conjunction with the Michael Moore book, Melodic Playing in the Thumb Position, which has a nice collection of etudes based on standard chord changes. He likes the book; “it’s melodic; some of it is idiomatic, some is not, and really makes you do bigger leaps than you care to do… it’s great for measuring your shifts in thumb position and staying in tune.”

Scott introduced me to Moore’s triad and seventh chord fingering system (Example 5: Moore, 12). He called “I Can’t Get Started,” having me fake the melody in thumb position. Then, as a way of applying the ideas from the book, he had me sight-read Moore’s etude on this tune, a contrafact called Gettin’ Started (Moore, 22).

We played “It Could Happen To You,” metronome on two and four, Scott on the piano, pretending that we were accompanying a horn player with me walking. We talked about different ways to reharmonize, using common tones, etc.  (Ex. 6)

All of his students are required to learn a certain number of tunes per semester. By the last semester the student will have a list of 60 tunes that you bring into the jury for the panel to choose from.

He requires his students to do transcriptions. Juniors and Seniors have to do two. He asks “8 bars a week, written out.” By the last couple of lessons “I ask, ‘is this ready for the jury?” They have to provide a clean copy for the jury. As an example, he talked about assigning a solo from a song by John Patitucci on his album with Joe Lovano and Brian Blade, a contrafact on “Sunny Side of the Street.” (Patitucci, “Sonny Side,” Remembrance). We pulled up the song and he put me on the spot, playing a phrase once and having me play it back.

Another resource he uses is Patitucci’s book of etudes. I’m glad he mentioned it – I’ll be putting this in heavy rotation in my own teaching.

On Teaching

“A lot of what I teach is stolen from Joe Guastafeste and Rufus Reid – steal from the best.”

I told Scott I admired how organized his teaching is, and how it seems he doesn’t waste time. “No, because that hour flies by.”

Scott’s piano playing really helped him get his points across quickly, putting me in a real-time performing head-space and generally moving the lesson along. Knowing this would help my teaching, he gave me a brief piano lesson, drawing from his studies with Frank Mantooth. This was great because he played my bass as I accompanied.
A couple takeaways:
     •Play rhythmically clear
     •Use eighth-note anticipations.
     •Try playing octaves in the right hand.

“I used to think, when I was younger, it has to the the ‘faster, higher, louder thing, And then I realized how difficult it is just to be clear… eliminating the clutter and playing great notes.”


Works cited:

Michael Moore, Melodic Playing in the Thumb Position: A Method for the String Bass, Advance Music, 1998 2015. Print and CD.

John Patitucci, 60 Melodic Etudes, Carl Fischer, 2005.

John Patitucci Trio (Brian Blade, Joe Lovano, John Patitucci), Remembrance, Concord Jazz, 2009. CD.


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