Jimmy Blanton is a name that is little known outside of the coterie of jazz aficionados and double bass players, yet he is probably the most important and influential bassist of the twentieth century. His recording career was brief, lasting just three years between 1939 and 1941, before being tragically cut short due to his early death at the age of twenty-three. However, during that time he revolutionised the way the bass was played and perceived, both to musicians and audiences alike. Until Blanton, the bassist’s primary function in popular music was to provide a steady flow of minims (half notes) and crotchets (quarter notes) under which other instrumentalists could solo. Very few players deviated from this, not least because that was what band leaders expected of them. After Blanton, the bass had joined the ranks of a soloist’s instrument, one with an armoury of skips, trills, slides and slurs, equivalent to that of any horn player or vocalist.
Born on 5th October 1918 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Blanton first studied violin before switching to the double bass while at University, where he played with the Tennessee State Collegians. Upon graduation, he joined the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra, and also performed with Fate Marable’s riverboat band, the Cotton Pickers, before becoming a regular performer at the Coronado Hotel, St Louis. It was here that Duke Ellington was holding down a two week engagement when he first saw Blanton perform in October 1939. Charlie Haden tells the story thus
‘Duke Ellington’s band came through St. Louis and played a dance—back then it was dances and not concerts. Afterward Duke went back to the hotel to sleep, and all the musicians went to an after-hours session. This young bass player was playing, and these guys flipped out. They went back and woke up Duke Ellington, and brought him to the session. Duke hired Jimmy on the spot, and the band left St. Louis with two bass players.’
The session in question was at the Rhumboogie Club, whose house band, the Blue Devils, would later include Miles Davis on trumpet. Ellington always strove to acquire the best players he possibly could for his group, nurturing their talents and providing space and opportunity for them to shine. Blanton’s playing at that point was already exploring beyond the expected boundaries of his instrument. Ellington’s in-situ bassist Billy Taylor was no slouch as a player, but Blanton’s imaginative approach and dazzling technique rendered him surplus to requirements. Ellington travelled with two bassists for three months. Whilst this now sounds unusual, Ellington’s orchestra had contained two bass players before (between1934 and 1938), to strengthen the bottom end in performance. Taylor, having been with the band during that period and unwilling to return to that format, especially when the other bassist in question was younger and more prodigiously talented, quit in January 1940.
Ellington was quick to capitalise on the commercial potential of Blanton’s new and revolutionary approach to his instrument. His first recording studio appearance for his new employer was for one of his band’s side projects, clarinettist Barney Bigard and his Orchestra (essentially Ellington’s band), on 22nd November 1939 at ARC-Brunswick’s studio in Chicago. In addition to playing on Bigard’s tunes, Blanton recorded two bass and piano duets with Duke on that day, ‘The Blues’ and ‘Plucked Again’. These were subsequently issued on 78. One should not underestimate the importance of this record as, at this point, Ellington’s band was at the height of their success and arguably the most popular band in America. To release a bass/piano duet meant that not only did it get maximum attention from the record buying public and music media of the time but – more crucially – no-one had ever done this before (or at least, no-one as famous as Ellington). Soon every bassist in the US was listening to the fresh and exciting way that that the twenty year old Blanton was playing the bass.
At a recording session on 6th March 1940, Ellington foregrounded Blanton on the day’s recordings by placing him in close proximity to the microphone. This was something he’d previously done with his original bass player, Wellman Braud, in the 1920s, when having a ‘string bassist’ in a band (as opposed to a tuba player) was still regarded as a novelty. Two numbers in particular that he recorded that day showcased both his playing as well as his rich, round tone: ‘Ko-Ko’ and ‘Jack the Bear’. Both of these feature Blanton solos, the latter becoming a concert showpiece for his playing during his tenure with Ellington.
Blanton’s work throughout this period is full of innovative treats such as the call and response sections of ‘Bojangles’, the fast and fluid walking of ‘Cotton Tail’, the falling raindrops intro to ‘Concerto for Cootie’, and the dainty figures of ‘In a Mellow Tone’. He is attributed as the first bassist to use a ‘double stop’. However the most important session he played on took place on 1st October 1940, when Ellington and Blanton entered the RCA studio in Chicago together, the session booked solely for their use. The four duets that they laid on that day, with Ellington holding the rhythm while Blanton soloed, still sound fiery and exhilarating today. From a player’s perspective, it is amazing how far the already dazzling Blanton had progressed in his year with the Duke. ‘Pitter Panther Patter’, with its trilling melody and ragtime vibe gives Blanton full reign to manoeuvre the fingerboard from top to bottom. Their plaintive version of ‘Body and Soul’, a number which they had recorded a full band version of just three months, earlier, features two extended solos, the first of which Blanton plays Arco (bow style). ’Sophisticated Lady’, which Blanton and Ellington had recorded with the full band just three months earlier, has a Chamber music quality, while on ‘Mr JB Blues’, with its catchy, introductory bass riff, Blanton has a nimble, almost playful quality to his performance.
Blanton continued to tour and record with Ellington until late 1941 when he began to show signs of illness. While performing in Los Angeles he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis. He entered hospital there, and was later admitted to a local sanatorium where he remained until his death on July 30, 1942. He was the first bass virtuoso, and while his style had an immediate impact on his peers – Cab Calloway’s Milt Hinton in particular – his true influence was most keenly felt on those players who followed him in the 1950s: Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro, et al. Ray Brown even re-recorded some of those famous duets with an elderly Ellington in the early 1970s. He was a pioneer of the instrument, as important to the bass as Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar, laying the foundations of the modern jazz bassist and one to whom all of us – irrespective of style or genre – owe a debt of thanks.