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By Chris Jisi

imgAlthough I didn’t get to meet Jess Oliver until the December of his remarkable life, when I traveled to his charming home and storied basement on suburban Long Island for BP’s March ’11 Ampeg B-15 cover story I felt an immediate kinship with him. Like my grandparents, uncle, and father, here was a musician from a special era in New York City. This was the post-war period, before the musicians union gave in to venues wanting to play recorded music—there were live bands and gigs everywhere, at every hotel, club, and gathering hole across the five boroughs. I could hear it in Jess’s accent and lingo, I could see it in his eyes, and of course he recounted some of his combo tales. What an amazing time to be in Manhattan’s music scene, with bebop, classical, Afro-Cuban, Broadway, rhythm & blues, and the burgeoning rock & roll all accessible and intertwining around every concrete corner. Unlike most musicians back then, however, Jess wasn’t just witnessing this surging wave, he was key in helping its sonic transformation. True, he was blessed with an acute engineering and electronics aptitude, but every brilliant design idea he got had a musical motive, from his first getting hired by Ampeg when he visited their Times Square shop in need of amplification for his upright, to his historic installation of reverb in a guitar amp, his key role in the creation of the Ampeg Baby Bass, and his most perfect package, the Ampeg B-15, which gave the bass guitar its first true, big-toned voice. And what could be more musical then getting to interact with customers like Charles Mingus, Milt Hinton, Oscar Pettiford, Gary Karr, and Bobby Rodriguez?
    As I sat in his basement that memorable day marveling at all of his inventions (including his cool post-Ampeg Oliver amps) what I really envied were the folks who got to know Jess the man over the years; such as my colleagues that day, Chrys Johnson and Dino Monoxelos of Ampeg, his fellow sound savants Dennis Kager and Mark Gandenberger, and my friend, 12-string bassist Tony Senatore. Tony, who snapped the picture of Jess’s car with its unique roof covered in Ampeg blue Tolex that hangs in Oliver’s basement stairway, recalls, “That was when I first met Jess. He saw the photo on my website, called me and said, ‘Thanks for the plug!’ He fixed my upright and made it playable when no one could. He was an innovative genius, a musical MacGyver who could fix anything with what he had on hand. He built a magnetic pickup for my Baby Bass and fashioned a new end pin out of thin air, from parts laying around his shop. Best of all, he was humble, and without question the most ethical man I ever dealt with. Even though it never needed work of any kind—which was a testament to its ingenious and reliable design—I frequently brought my 1965 Ampeg B-15 to Jess to make sure it was functioning properly. I felt privileged to have the opportunity to bring it right to the source; like bringing your Ferrari 250 to Enzo Ferrari for maintenance, having Steve Jobs install new software on your MacBook, or having Antonio Stradivari himself scrutinize your 1697 Molitor Stradivarius! I use my B-15 as a conduit to tap into all that I hold sacred in music: Jamerson, the ’60s, and the Motown sound. I was delighted when Jess used it in a similar way; the mere sight of it, functioning as efficiently as the day he created it brought him back to his cherished youth, and the inevitable realization that he had created perhaps the finest bass amplifier ever built.” Well said Tony, and thanks Jess for your enormous contributions to music and your humanity, it was an honor and privilege to meet you.

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17 comment(s) so far...


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Remembering Jess Oliver

Jess Oliver was a good man!

By Dan Howard on   7/6/2011 8:26 AM
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Remembering Jess Oliver

Jess sold me my first amp in 1979 in the room pictured above. Rich life. Thanks Jess. RIP.

By Neal Wilson on   7/6/2011 9:15 AM
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Remembering Jess Oliver

thank you for all your kinds words....

By Roberta on   7/8/2011 5:55 AM
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Remembering Jess Oliver

A true visionary in the world of sound, and music. May you rest in Heavenly peace.

By Chas T. White on   7/7/2011 6:42 AM
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Remembering Jess Oliver

I live around the block from Jess's old home. Many, many local players would bring their Geminis and B15 to Jess for a "touch". He would talk to you for an hour about gear and life. When his late wife was ill and needed Oxygen, he plumber lines through the walls and put the Tanks in the basement because she the sound of the Tanks bothered him. He crafted a special boost pump to keep the Oxygen at the right pressure because of the added distance. I saw him many times growing up at The Jones Beach Bandshell, playing to Square Dancers and Ballroom Dancer, using an Ampeg Baby Bass and Oliver Amp. Jess was a true gentleman. Both Jess Oliver and Oliver Jesperson were listed in the local Phone Book.

By Johnny Cola on   7/7/2011 8:08 AM
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Remembering Jess Oliver

I had the good fortune of meeting Jess a few years ago at a NAMM show and I showed him a photograph of my 1971 Ampeg V4 full stack. He was so excited to see it. He posed for a picture with me. I really regret never getting a chance to bring my amp to him for a rebuild because I was too busy using and enjoying it. May God rest his soul.

By E Peter Drake on   7/9/2011 11:24 AM
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Remembering Jess Oliver

I had the good fortune of meeting Jess a few years ago at a NAMM show and I showed him a photograph of my 1971 Ampeg V4 full stack. He was so excited to see it. He posed for a picture with me. I really regret never getting a chance to bring my amp to him for a rebuild because I was too busy using and enjoying it. May God rest his soul.

By E Peter Drake on   7/9/2011 11:22 AM
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Remembering Jess Oliver

I met Jess through my friend Tommy Mudcat who was his assisitant. It was great to talk to him about gear! He fixed many of my amps especially my Jet!! Great guy! Rest in peace Jess. His memorial service is coming up soon and should be quite moving.

By rich on   7/9/2011 3:27 PM
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Re: Remembering Jess Oliver

Amaizing post! Thanks.

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By Ms Free Adams on   8/11/2011 12:28 PM
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Re: Remembering Jess Oliver

Really the article is spreading its wings rapidly Great posting dear, really thanks

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Re: Remembering Jess Oliver

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By Alvinacharlotte on   10/5/2011 5:56 AM
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Re: Remembering Jess Oliver

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By Alvinacharlotte on   10/5/2011 5:58 AM
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Re: Remembering Jess Oliver

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By Alvinacharlotte on   10/5/2011 5:59 AM
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Re: Remembering Jess Oliver

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By Alvinacharlotte on   10/5/2011 5:59 AM
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Re: Remembering Jess Oliver

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By Alvinacharlotte on   10/5/2011 5:59 AM
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Re: Remembering Jess Oliver

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By christopherdoylelam on   10/24/2011 4:54 AM

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