Double-bass (contrabass, string bass, bass viol). The largest viol and the largest bowed-string instrument. The double-bass continues to occupy a significant place in Canadian music, not only in orchestral and other classical music but also in jazz.


Double-bass (contrabass, string bass, bass viol). The largest viol and the largest bowed-string instrument. The double-bass continues to occupy a significant place in Canadian music, not only in orchestral and other classical music but also in jazz.

The Sulpician organist of Notre-Dame in Montreal, Jean Girard, noted in a song book a tuning system that corresponds with that of the bass viol or bass percussion, leading to the supposition that the instrument could have been present in Montreal 1724-65 (La Vie musicale, p. 172-3).

The Double-Bass in 19th-Century Canada
In her book Old-time Primitive Methodism in Canada (1829-1904) (Toronto 1894), R.P. Hopper reiterates the commonly held belief that the fiddle was regarded as 'the devil's instrument to snare the young into the dance; but a bass viol was not in the same category because consecrated to the service of God.' The double-bass therefore was a favourite instrument to accompany hymn singing in 19th-century parish churches, but it did not come into general secular use until late in that century, when orchestras and larger performing ensembles began to be organized. Many double-bass players began by studying other instruments, developed proficiency on the string bass only later in their careers, and were self-taught. Some doubled as tuba players; several in fact have been bandmasters. Bass players active in Quebec City and Montreal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries included Joseph-Arthur Boucher, T.-O. Dionne, Guillaume Gagnier, C. Hardelin, Nazaire LeVasseur, and Léon Wathieu. In Calgary in the late 19th century C.W. McMillan and George Mitchell played bass in early orchestral ensembles.

The 20th Century (to 1990)

In the 20th century in Canada double-bass players and teachers of note have been members of symphony, theatre, radio, and chamber orchestras throughout the country. In Vancouver Harold Perkins, F.W. Poole, and later J.P. Hamilton and Kenneth Friedman were leading bassists. James Mackay, originally a tuba player, studied bass with Sydney D. Wells of Toronto and was principal bass with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra 1945-68 and a member of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra 1968-78. Stanley H. Allen and Sidney Doe, English-born sons of bass players, studied with their fathers, J.J. Allen and Alfred Doe. They settled in Winnipeg in the early 20th century, were members of various Winnipeg orchestras and chamber groups, and taught there. Winnipeg-born Jack Drewrys and Paul Olynyk were violinists who became bass players during the 1930s.

Toronto Bassists

In Toronto Charles Greenwood and L.S. 'Puff' Addison played in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) under Frank Welsman and in the later TSO. Other Toronto bass players and teachers were Robert Cochrane, Charles Rose, and Gurney Titmarsh. The latter, who played in the TSO and the CBC Symphony Orchestra, was a tuba player who had studied the string bass with Rose and Cochrane. Sydney D. Wells, a member of the TSO and its principal bassist 1942-61, was a noted teacher. Cameron McKay, Reginald Wood, Sam Levine (1915-2005), and Sam Davis (who studied with Alfred Doe and Harold Perkins) played in the TSO. Thomas Monohan, who was principal bassist of the TSO 1966-91, gave solo recitals and became known widely as a teacher. His pupils have taken positions in orchestras throughout Canada. William Kuinka, a pupil of Ray Brown and Fred Zimmerman, was a member of several Toronto orchestras and also played with the Hamilton Philharmonic.


In Montreal the Hardy brothers, Charles, Gaston, and Joseph, played in various orchestras after the turn of the century. Charles was principal bassist of the Montreal Orchestra and of Les Concerts symphoniques de Montréal for many years. Players in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra included Nathalie Clair-Feldman, Sheldon Cantor, Joan Herschorn, Jacques Beaudoin, and Michael Leiter (b 10 Apr 1944, d 12 Oct 2000). Roger Charbonneau (principal of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra 1953-63), who studied with Léon Wathieu, taught string bass at both the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal (CMM) and Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Québec. Renald Saint-Pierre (long-time principal of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra) and Roland Desjardins of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra were among his pupils. René Gosselin, a graduate of the CMM, was principal of the Orchestre métropolitain and the Nouvel ensemble moderne and taught at the CMM. Gertrude Probyn, an original member of the Montreal Orchestra (founded 1930), was also principal double-bass of the Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra.

Double-Bassists Elsewhere in Canada

Ruth Budd, who studied in Winnipeg and Vancouver, was a member of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra 1944-6 and of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra 1947-52 and 1964-89. Paul Rogers played in the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) 1986-9 before joining the Toronto Symphony. Alan Molitz, the original principal of the NACO, retained the position until 1990. Stuart Knussen (1923-90), director of the Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra 1983-90, was principal bass with the London Symphony Orchestra for 19 years before moving to North America in 1972. Janet Auger joined the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra in 1972 and the Stratford Festival Ensemble (Canadian Chamber Ensemble) in 1974. Graeme Mudd played with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra 1980-4 and became principal of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in 1985. Composer Frederick Schipizky, a pupil of Ken Friedman, joined the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in 1978. Composer David Keane was a member of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra 1969-70 and later principal bass of the Kingston Symphony. Roberto Occhipinti, a member of ARRAYMUSIC, specializes in new music and small ensemble work, as well as jazz.

Canadian Soloists

Few bassists have made solo careers. Notable exceptions in Canada are Joel Quarrington and the US-born Gary Karr, who lived in Halifax and performed widely 1972-7 in Canada and abroad. After returning to the US, Karr continued to perform frequently in Canada, and from 1977 taught at the Johannesen International School of the Arts. Karr became a Canadian citizen in 1995 and although retired, continues to teach during the month-long Karr Kamp held in Victoria every summer.

Canadian bassists have performed at such festivals as the Vancouver Chamber Music Festival (Wilmer Fawcett 1986, 1988), Festival of the Sound (Nancicarole Monohan 1983-5, Dave Young 1988), Music at Sharon (Edward Tait 1985, Charles Elliott 1988), National Arts Centre Summer Festival (Alan Molitz 1988), Orford Festival (Michael Leiter 1986) and the Scotia Festival of Music (Lawrence Angell 1983).

Canadian Compositions for Double-Bass

Works for double-bass have been composed by Canadians, eg, Rêve for Double Bass and Piano by Leo Roy (1912, published in Canadian Musical Heritage Society vol 23, 1998); Baker's Contours (1972, recorded by Quarrington); Brott'sProfundum Praedictum (written for and recorded by Gary Karr); Weinzweig'sRefrains (1977, recorded by Quarrington); and Schipizky's Recitative and Theme and Variations, the latter work premiered in 1973 by Gary Karr and Harmon Lewis; and Keane's Elegy (1976, recorded by Quarrington). Thomas Monohan composed Melodic Studies for the Double-Bass (Harris 1973), and in 1973 he commissioned Buczynski'sDuo for double-bass and piano.

Interest in composing for the instrument increased in the 1980s. Works written during and after that period include Anne Lauber's Mouvement pour contrebasse et piano (1980) and Three Moods for Double-bass (1988); Michael Horwood's Concerto for Double-bass and Piano (1982) and Concerto for Double-bass and String Orchestra (1985); Ka Nin Chan'sMute Muse (1985); Dave Young's Suite for Joel (1985); Milton Barnes's Papageno Variations: after the Magic Flute (1988, recorded by Quarrington) and Song of the Bow (1991); Rodney Sharman's Orpheus Garden (1987) and In Deepening Light (1989); Don Thompson's Quartet '89 (1989), John Burge's Interplay (1989); and Henry Brant's Ghost Nets, a double-bass concerto (1988, recorded by Lewis Paer).

Murray Adaskin wrote two quintets with the double-bass in the role of an equal voice. String Quintet (1995) was commissioned by Gary Karr and dedicated to the Lafayette Quartet and Karr. The work was premiered 28 Mar 1996 at the University of Victoria on the composer's 90th birthday (and recorded by the quartet and Karr). Musica Victoria (2000), Adaskin's final composition, was commissioned by the Thüringer Salonquintett with Peter Nelson.

Recent compositions for double-bass include Kenneth Nichols's Sonata for double-bass and piano (1988); Morris Kates's Sonata for double-bass and piano (1989); Donald Steven's That Other Side for double-bass and low strings (1989); Denis Dion's Sonaxe for double-bass and tape (1990); Monte Pishny-Floyd'sSonata for double-bass and piano (1992); Elizabeth Raum's Concerto for double-bass and orchestra (1993); David Kaplan's And the Spirit Soars (1994); Raymond Luedeke's Concerto for double-bass and orchestra (1997), premiered by Joel Quarrington and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Barry Truax's Androgyne, mon amour for male double-bass players and two digital soundtracks (1997, recorded by Robert Black); Daniel Foley's Romanesca antico (1999); Jon Siddall's Low Gravity Ambient (2000) and Majestic, delicate for two double-basses (2000); and Jeffrey Ryan's Bellatrix (2001).


Several Canadian bassists have recorded solo CDs in recent years. Zbigniew Borowicz (b Gdansk, Poland; settled in Canada in 1987) released the CD Bottesini : le Paganini de la contrebasse for Société nouvelle d'enregistrement in 1992. David Murray (b 1958, Saint John, NB) produced a self-titled CD in 1993 and Vocalise in 1999. Murray also released a video of theatre pieces for bass entitled The Big Bad Bass in 2003. David Sinclair and the group Musicians of the Old Post Road recorded The Virtuoso Double Bass for the Titanic label in 1994. Gisèle Blondeau, a member of the German bass quartet Bassiona Amerosa, performed on two CDs in 2001, Bassiona Amerosa live, and Internationales Kontrabassquartett München Konzertmitschnitt.

Jazz Double-bassists in Canada

In Canada, as in the US, early jazz and dance bands employed the 'brass bass' (tuba) until the late 1920s, and many double-bassists (eg, the aforementioned Gurney Titmarsh) began as tuba players. (See also Brass.) The double-bass was the mainstay of jazz, dance, and (beginning in the late 1920s) country bands, until the rise of the bass guitar in the 1960s. (See also Guitar.) Only in jazz has the double-bass remained in wide use, and by the late 1960s most jazz bassists also played bass guitar.

Canadian jazz bassists to achieve international renown include Michel Donato, Hal Gaylor, Neil Swainson, Don Thompson, Steve Wallace and Dave Young. Others of note over the years in their respective cities include Lisle Ellis, Stan Johnson, Rick Kilburn, Torben Oxbol, Clyde Reed, and Paul Ruhland of Vancouver; Lenny Boyd, Carne Bray, Bill Britto, David Field, Terry Forster, Richard Homme, Jack Lander, and David Piltch of Toronto; Vic Angelillo, Charles Biddle, Don Habib, Daniel Lessard, Fred McHugh, Neil J. Michaud, Austin 'Ozzie' Roberts, and Bob Rudd in Montreal; and Skip Beckwith in Halifax. Ellis, Reed, Pierre Cartier, David Lee, Claude Simard, and George Koller were prominent in the free-jazz, or free-improvisational styles that proliferated in Canada during the 1980s.

Among notable bassists to emerge in more traditional styles in the 1980s were Scott Alexander, Pat Collins, Al Henderson, and Kieran Overs in Toronto; Jim Vivian in St John's, Nfld, and Toronto; Sylvain Gagnon, David Gelfand, Normand Guilbeault, and Ron Seguin in Montreal; Paul Blaney and Chris Nelson in Vancouver; and Mike Lent in Edmonton.

Of economic necessity jazz bassists have been versatile musicians. The leading players usually have been among the elite of studio musicians in their respective cities. Others have worked in commercial or pop contexts (eg, dance bands, lounge groups), and some (eg, Donato, Tom Haslett, George Koller, Éric Lagacé, Jack McFadden, Ruhland, and Young) have played in symphony or chamber orchestras. Some symphony musicians, in turn, have played jazz, including Sam Levine (b Toronto 1915, d Toronto 22 Jan 2005) and J.P. 'Doc' Hamilton. Several Canadian-born bassists have had careers abroad, among them Lloyd Thompson in Europe and Hal Gaylor, Al Lucas, and Bob Rudd in the US. (See also Jazz.)

Further Reading

  • 'Gary Karr,' Encyclopedia of Music in Canada 1981

    'J.P. Hamilton' Encyclopedia of Music in Canada 1981

    Wilson, Susan. 'A sound move: conservation preparations for a musical instrument loan,' Rotunda, vol 15, Spring 1982

    Brine, Patricia. 'Starting them young in Edmonton,' International Society of Bassists, vol 11, Spring 1985

    Schipizky, Frederick. Concerto for contrabass and orchestra, Mus Doc, University of Toronto, 1994

    Casselman, Gregg. An electric upright bass, M.E.Des., University of Calgary, 1999

    Chandler, Peter. So . . . You Want to Make a Double Bass (Ilderton, Ont 2001)