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Heard at the Shop: Histories and Stories About Double Basses

Rayah Thomas's 1930s Juzek, Big Betty

A senior in high school, Rayah Thomas is already a formidable, hard-working, and wonderfully expressive musician. She spent the whole of her summer studying bass at Brevard's Summer Jazz Institute, Lincoln Center's Summer Jazz Academy, and Vail Jazz Workshop. And along with her went Big Betty (aka Hollywood Betty), a 1930s Juzek that barely escaped becoming someone's eccentric piece of living room decoration.

Rayah's grandmother, Betty, always loved the cello and wished to play. She never had an opportunity, so when Rayah joined orchestra in middle school, she thought, "Well, she [Betty] never got to play the cello, but I can, and I love the cello!" After a while though, Rayah was getting frustrated with cello, and thinking increasingly about the bass, and genres other than classical. One day on a whim, she decided to make the leap and switched to bass. Freshman year, Rayah joined the Triangle Youth Jazz ensemble and fell in love with jazz.

Like most players, Rayah began playing on a laminate bass, and feels it gave her a good foundation in understanding what is important to her in a bass. As she played other players' basses, and went to shops to try basses, every time she really liked one it always turned out to be an old Juzek. She found they consistently had a good resonance and punch - good for walking bass lines when "you want each note to bounce."

Many renowned bassists (mostly jazz players) play Juzeks, but the name has a somewhat convoluted history. John (or Jan, or Janek) Juzek was a Czechoslovakian violin maker around 1910-20, working out of a shop in Prague. However, his primary business was exporting instruments made by various makers and factories from the region to the USA. Jan's brother, Robert Jezek, moved to New York City, and eventually established the Czechoslovak Musical Instruments Company. By the 1930s, the company was importing and selling a wide range of instruments, and later became the Metropolitan Music Co, now in Vermont.

There is a wide and varying range of basses with a Juzek label, made anywhere from c. 1920 up to today. The sought-after Juzeks with that resonant bounce are the early ones, made in Czech, Bohemian, and German factories.

Last winter, Rayah and her father found a listing for a Juzek at an estate sale in Hollywood, Florida. The sellers weren't sure who had played it previously, and believed it was irreparable and might make an interesting piece of decoration. Rayah and her father could see it had potential and had the markings of a good-quality Juzek. They flew down to Florida, bought the bass, and took a 20-hour train ride back with the bass laying in a bunk bed, and brought it to the Bass Violin Shop.

After a good cleaning, repairing the cracks, and outfitting it with some new parts and a good set-up - to Rayah's specifications - she now has a bass she loves, named in honor of her grandmother and muse, Big Betty. Playing this Juzek, she says, is "like the voice of your grandparent - someone explaining everything they've been through, like it has a beautiful story that it's just been waiting to be told." Even though Betty never got to hear her play bass, Rayah continues to credit her grandmother's encouragement as a major influence and dedicates her playing to Betty.

Rayah aspires to be a "professional student," to always be challenged, open-minded, and learning the tools to tell a concise and consistent story through her music.

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2 comentarios

20 oct 2023

Wow, she is definitely on her way to making her dreams come true!!

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20 oct 2023

Beautiful story…..and Bass!

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