A look at the great bass players in jazz who were at the pinnacle of their craft. Below are some that made us reconsider what was achievable in their role.
Jimmy Blanton (1918-1942)
An unbelievable young talent who found fame with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the late 1930’s, Blanton is considered to be one of the first truly great bass players in jazz. He brought the double bass to the forefront of the jazz ensemble, giving it status alongside the horn section and piano. His lines always swing and his timing, phrasing and intonation are impeccable. Ellington’s Mr J.B. Blues is a fine example of a head (melody) written with a view to being played on bass. Furthermore, it features Blanton’s superb arco (bowing) technique in addition to his pizzicato (plucking) skill.
Oscar Pettiford (1922 – 1960)
Oscar Pettiford first came to prominence in Coleman Hawkins’ band. He was one of the first bass players to play bebop alongside Dizzy Gillespie in New York in 1943. As a leader and sideman, Pettiford had a prolific career and mastered the cello as well as the bass. Perhaps his best known composition is the bass-oriented Tricotism.
Charles Mingus (1922 – 1979)
Many books could be filled up discussing one of the most charismatic and controversial figures in jazz. Although perhaps better known as one of the most influential composers and bandleaders of the twentieth century, Charles Mingus was also a stand out bassist. His swinging, deft solo lines were influenced by Blanton and drew on gospel and blues traditions. Mingus set himself apart from many of his contemporaries by drawing on elements of modern classical music, free jazz and collective improvisation.
Ray Brown (1926 – 2002)
Ray Brown is often thought of as the quintessential jazz bassist. Like many of the bass players of his era, his earliest and strongest influence was Jimmy Blanton. Brown had a long, varied and extremely successful career that lasted into his seventies. Perhaps best known for his role in Oscar Peterson’s band, he was also an accomplished studio musician and band leader.
Paul Chambers (1935 – 1969)
Chambers was another bassist in the Blanton tradition. His walking bass and bop-inspired solos can be heard on some of the most influential jazz albums of all time. For Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other heavyweights, he was the bassist of choice in the 1950’s.
That concludes the first part. These bassists were all superb and built on the foundation that Jimmy Blanton built. As jazz music started to become more rhythmically and harmonically free, the bass took an even more important role. We will look at some of the players who adopted the Blanton style and pushed it even further in Part 2.