By John Pitcher
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 29, 2000; Page C01
Francois Rabbath may well be the world's greatest double-bass player, but he certainly doesn't dress the part. At a friend's home in Silver Spring, the bearded 69-year-old musician strolls about in a white caftan, looking more like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of Beatles fame than a classical virtuoso.
It is perhaps appropriate attire for an artist who has become a cult figure on the international bass scene. And in a culture that has erected an almost impenetrable wall between classical and pop music, Rabbath appears every bit the guru, an unconventional musical mystic who has an unorthodox message to share.
"Every musician must destroy the old habit of thinking that I'm either a classical player or I'm a jazz player or a variety musician," Rabbath says. "There's a richness in all kinds of music, but classical music is so strict that people don't dare anymore. People must dare to be different."
That's never been a problem for Rabbath, who is in from Paris this week to conduct master classes at the 2000 Summer Bass Workshop at Blake High School in Silver Spring. About 60 bassists from as far away as Hawaii and Australia have arrived to bask in the master's glow and learn his methods. The week-long session culminates today with a solo recital by Rabbath at the French Embassy at 8 p.m.
As a classical musician, Rabbath has always been an outsider. He is completely self-taught, which is almost unheard of in a profession that prides itself on formal education, training and pedigree. In concert, he usually wears colorful shirts and gold chains, a bone of contention with some orchestras that prefer the stuffy white-tie-and-tails look.
He has rejected the traditional concert artist's management, relying instead on friends and fellow bass players to organize his tours. And he began mixing classical, jazz and pop music nearly 40 years ago, long before anyone thought of coining the term "crossover artist."
But Rabbath's appeal and almost mythical stature in the bass community have little to do with gimmicks, quirks or eccentricities. Though his approach to the instrument is still controversial in some quarters, there seems to be a growing consensus that the Syrian-born musician is "the Paganini of the double bass," an artist who can do the seemingly impossible. In his hands, the bass has become a full-fledged solo instrument capable of producing orchestral colors, a giant step forward from its traditional role of providing oom-pah-pah accompaniment.
"I first heard him play in Cincinnati in 1977 and was blown away to the extent that I seriously considered changing occupations," says Paul Ellison, a professor of music at Rice University in Texas who at the time was principal bass player with the Houston Symphony.
"Then I heard him again in 1981 and realized that I didn't know what he was doing or how he was doing it," Ellison says. "So I took a leave of absence from the symphony and moved to Paris to study with him. That raised a few eyebrows with my colleagues, but I was 40 years old and had hit a wall artistically. His new method changed my life."
It was a method conceived in isolation. Born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1931, Rabbath got his first bass at age 13. There were no bass teachers in town, so he learned to play the instrument by ear, playing along with four brothers who had formed a popular nightclub band.
About a year later, he located a method book by the legendary French bass pedagogue Edouard Nanny. It was the closest he would ever come to receiving a formal education.
"Finding Nanny's book was a turning point for me, but I also saw that his method had a lot of limitations, and so started to do things differently," Rabbath says.
Relying on nothing but his ear and intuition, Rabbath expanded on Nanny's technique, replacing the pedagogue's one recommended fingering with as many as 130 of his own devising while adding an additional 200 or so different bow strokes. Instead of playing with a more traditional upright posture, he began wrapping himself around the bass, which gave him greater access to the instrument's highest registers. And he adopted the flexible bowing style of a world-class violinist.
For the next 10 years he honed his skill playing in hotels and nightclubs in postwar Beirut. By 1955 he had saved enough money to travel to Paris, where he intended to present himself to his hero--Nanny--at the Paris Conservatory. But when he arrived, he learned that the great teacher had died a few years earlier.
"I considered Nanny to be my only teacher, and I wanted to show him what I had learned and give him my own discoveries as a present," Rabbath recalls.
In fact, there was little left of Nanny's method in the young virtuoso's playing, and it seems likely that the old man, had he lived, would have been more bewildered than impressed. He was admitted to the conservatory but left after only three lessons. Later, he claimed that the school's conservative professors had nothing to show him.
"I don't think Nanny would have known what to make of his playing," says Frank Proto, a composer and bass player who has written several orchestral works for Rabbath. "When [Rabbath] left, the director of the conservatory apparently said something like, 'Thank God Nanny is dead.' "
Rabbath relocated permanently to Paris, forming the Trio Rabbath with two of his brothers to accompany the popular cabaret singer Charles Aznavour. He left the group in 1962 to work as a solo artist and recorded an album of his own popular and jazz compositions called "Bass Ball," which quickly became a cult favorite.
"I was a student in New York at the time the album came out, and it became a huge hit among bass players," Proto says. "All we could say was, 'My God,' and it helped to raise the standards of bass playing."
Rabbath was also experimenting with classical music (he played in the Paris Opera Orchestra from 1980 until his retirement last year), which led to another technical innovation.
"I was trying to play the Bach cello suites on the bass but was having a lot of difficulty," Rabbath says. "One day I was sitting on a beach in Nice when I saw a crab walking on the sand. And I imagined my fingers moving on the strings like that crab. So I went home and wrote a 23-page paper on how this technique would work without touching the bass, and when I tried it later it worked. That's how I invented the crab technique."
Traditionally, bass players connected musical notes by shifting their arms up and down the fingerboard, an awkward process that made fluid playing difficult. But Rabbath could now find notes by passing one finger over the other in rapid succession--without shifting--using a technique similar to playing scales on the piano. The bass player's fingers really do look like a crab racing across the sand.
Rabbath's conception was now as far removed from traditional bass playing as relativity was from Newtonian physics. With his new style, he could play Bach's suites on the double bass with clarity, speed and agility. And he could perform them at a cello's pitch. He could also play rapid passages on the bass for hours without pain or fatigue.
"There was a time when you'd be thrown out of respectable double-bass dinner parties if you subscribed to Rabbath's method," says Robert Peterson, a New Jersey bass player who is teaching at this summer's workshop. "But how can you argue with success? With Rabbath's method, I can play through an entire opera without any pain."
Though he may be the Paganini of the bass, Rabbath has still had to struggle for acceptance his whole life. His orchestral concerts are almost always successful, but he is rarely invited back to play at a subscription series. He blames this in part on the instrument's meager repertory.
"It's partly our own fault because bass players never insisted that the great composers write for our instrument," he says. "That's not how I am. And if I lived in Bach's day, he would have written those cello suites for the bass."