A Look Back At How Virtuoso Jimmy Blanton Changed The Bass Forever

Oct 5, 2018
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. One hundred years ago today, on October 5, jazz virtuoso Jimmy Blanton was born in Chattanooga, Tenn. Blanton played violin as a child before switching to the string bass in college. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says that, in a few short years on the scene, Blanton revolutionized the instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "JACK THE BEAR")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Duke Ellington's orchestra was playing St. Louis in late October in 1939. Tipped off by a couple of scouts, after the show one night, Duke dropped by bandleader Fate Marable's gig. Marable had run the riverboat band 17-year-old Louis Armstrong had once played in. Now he was cultivating another precocious talent - a bass player who'd worked the boats and had just turned 21. Ellington sat in on piano for a couple of numbers, then told his host, he's my bass player now - even before Duke knew the young man's name. A few weeks later, Ellington and Jimmy Blanton recorded the duet "Plucked Again."

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "PLUCKED AGAIN")

WHITEHEAD: The string bass, the double bass, the bass violin has been part of jazz bands from the beginning. Its percussive sound gives it the perfect low voice for music of precise rhythmic accents. In the 1930s, Walter Page brought a springy, swing feel to the bass that lifted the whole Count Basie band. During the swing era, a few bass players would step out to take solos. This is Milt Hinton with Cab Calloway's band, two months before Ellington met Blanton.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAB CALLOWAY'S "PLUCKIN' THE BASS")

WHITEHEAD: Before Jimmy Blanton came up, bass solos were mostly about the rhythm - one way or another. That makes sense. The bass is a rhythm instrument. But Blanton, with his violin training, heard bass violin as a melodic solo voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "MR. J.B. BLUES")

WHITEHEAD: Blanton's left hand might roam the neck of the bass, grabbing a few odd notes. He broke up his phrasing and got a plump singing tone from plucked strings. Having him in the orchestra gave Ellington fresh ideas. So much goes on in the classic "Concerto For Cootie," you can miss how in the introduction the bass line slowly falls by almost two octaves. But you feel the grandiose effect - how that descent opens the music up.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "CONCERT FOR COOTIE")

WHITEHEAD: Duke Ellington loved having a distinctive new soloist to write for. Jimmy Blanton got pocket solos and short breaks within the orchestra, but his real showcases were his six duets with Duke. That duo setting yielded another dividend. It put Ellington in the mood to dig in on the piano. This is "Pitter Patter Panther" from 1940.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "PITTER PANTHER PATTER")

WHITEHEAD: Jimmy Blanton brought a new attitude to the bass. Again, there were other assertive bass players. Blanton's admirer Gunther Schuller pointed out that Slam Stewart played crisper, more accurate solos with a bow and earlier. Here's Slam in 1938.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLIM & SLAM'S "TI-PI-TIN")

WHITEHEAD: Slam Stewart, that's pretty tight. And it's true. When Jimmy Blanton picks up the bow, you can hear he doesn't always play in tune. And yet somehow, it's OK. Blanton gets a big roaring sound from the bass - makes it sing from its bullfrog belly. This is from "Mr. J.B Blues."

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "MR. J.B. BLUES")

WHITEHEAD: Jimmy Blanton died young of tuberculosis at age 23 in 1942. But his two years on the scene had a huge impact. In short order, a new crop of bass hotshots came along, including Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown and Charles Mingus. They built on Blanton's legacy and, along with Slam Stewart, really solidified the bass' role as a melodic solo instrument. After Jimmy Blanton made bass sound like a giant guitar, there was no going back. He changed the bass forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARNEY BIGARD & ORCHESTRA'S "C BLUES")

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the newest adaptation of "A Star Is Born" starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY RAY ALLEN'S "WHY CAN'T I FORGET ABOUT YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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