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Musical Space: Grrrl Bass Players


The music business is as sexist as any industry could be. The wage discrimination gap is real, and I don’t need to cite any examples of how horribly women musicians are marketed - just look at any music magazine. For some reason, though, the world of the bass guitar player seems to be a little more egalitarian.

The bass-playing woman has been an archetype that started in the 1960s with Carol Kaye, probably the most recorded bassist in history. As an essential member of the otherwise all-male Wrecking Crew, she played sessions for everything from The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds to the Mission Impossible Theme.

Music history has been shaped by female bassists ever since. Witness these icons of ground-breaking rock: Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Sara Lee from Gang of Four, and Kim Deal from The Pixies. The influence of these bands is immeasurable, and the bassists were integral to their sound. These women were partners in the creative process, they had something to say, they projected assured strength, and the raw honesty of their bands’ messages meant that they weren’t sold like cake decorations.

The archetype lives on; Meshell Ndegeocello has been multi-tasking for more than two decades, fronting her band while also anchoring the rhythm section. And then there’s Esperanza Spalding, one of the strongest and most creative bassists of any gender. If her latest album, Emily’s D+Evolution, charts and wins another Grammy for Spalding, it will be for all the right reasons.

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.