Jazz Famous! No. 1 In The Polls!
WHO’S THE MOST FAMOUS BASS PLAYER OF ALL TIME?
Got your answer? Here’s your challenge: Ask every non-musician you run into if they’ve
heard of your famous bass player. Don’t ask your musician friends—they’re in the business,
and they probably know the same players that you like. Ask the cashier at the gas
station, the school nurse, the bank teller, your girlfriend’s dad—anyone who is not a
musician for fun or profit. Unless you named Paul McCartney or Sting, I’ll bet almost
none of them had heard of your famous bassist. If they’re really out of the loop, they
might not even know Mr. McCartney or Sting are bass players.
Let’s face it—even our biggest, larger-than-life bass heroes are not really famous
compared to the likes of Elvis, Mick, or Beyoncé. Geniuses like James Jamerson and
Jaco Pastorius were game changers for bass players, but not famous to the general
public. The expression famous bassist is worthy of George Carlin’s list of oxymorons,
right next to jumbo shrimp, soft rock, and tax relief. In the jazz world, when a player
makes the top of the polls, we say he or she has become jazz famous—they’re well
known to the one percent of music fans who prefer jazz. Think of the even smaller percentage
of those folks who are bass fans, and the numbers are humbling.
Eddie Safranski was a huge bass star of the ’40s and ’50s. He topped the bass categories
of Metronome magazine’s Readers Poll from 1946–53, and the Downbeat Readers
Poll from 1946–52. He was the No. 1 bassist in the polls for all of those years. He
was jazz famous!
Safranski came to prominence as a featured soloist with the Stan Kenton Orchestra
from 1945–48; he developed the innovations introduced by Jimmie Blanton a few
years earlier (see February ’13), taking Blanton’s groundbreaking technique to the next
level. Safranski possessed great technique: fast walking lines, strong arco skills, spoton
intonation, and an advanced command of the swing and bebop languages. The gig
with Kenton put him on the bass map, and he was often featured as a soloist in front
of the band, standing directly beside bandleader/pianist Kenton.
Safranski is best known for his bass feature, “Safranski: Artistry in Bass” [Stan
Kenton, Artistry in Rhythm, Capitol], written by Kenton’s arranger, Peter Rugulo.
The track starts with a Kenton trademark: screaming horns. Safranski enters with a
classical-sounding bowed statement, followed by a fast walking line accompanied only
by Kenton on piano. Th e middle section is a medium-tempo swinging bass solo, reminiscent
of Blanton’s “Jack the Bear” (see March ’13). The fast walking section returns,
followed by a great moment in jazz: the horns move through four sustained chords
while Safranski plays all over the bass (Ex. 1). This is an early example of orchestral
big band writing in support of a bass solo. Safranski ends his feature with “Jack the
Bear”-style lines, athletically springing up and down the instrument.
Safranski’s many skills were helped to the forefront
by two technological innovations of the ’40s:
an upright bass pickup, and the Michaels–Hull Electronic
Labs amplifier. In 1946, Safranski signed
on with Michaels–Hull to promote their amp and
bass pickup, which was mounted on the endpin,
or end peg, of the bass. The device was called the
“Amplified Peg,” which later became the company
In the book Ampeg: The Story Behind the Sound
[Hal Leonard], authors Gregg Hopkins and Bill
Moore write, “Safranski, who received a royalty for
every peg and bass amp sold, was responsible for
personally introducing many New York bassists to
the Michaels–Hull—and later the Ampeg—sound,
particularly after he became chief bass player for
the NBC studio orchestra.” The newfangled amplified bass system probably helped Safranski develop
his fleet technique and allowed him to play somewhat
lighter and faster than many of his contemporaries.
The Kenton band was loud, powerful, and
brassy, but Safranski can still be heard quite well
on the old recordings.
In his book Rhythm Man: Fifty Years in Jazz
[University of Michigan Press], Kenton guitarist
Steve Jordan writes, “Safranski had a small amp
beside him and behind me. I was on a riser one
step lower than Safranski, and his amp was right
by my ear until he agreed to move it to his other
side so that I wouldn’t get all that constant electronic
buzzing and humming. Safranski had another
amp beside the trumpets because the trumpet players
and trombone players on the end were so far
away from Shelly Manne and Safranski that they
couldn’t hear either the bass or drums.” Safranski
was apparently using two bass amps, one as a
monitor for the horns on the far side of the bandstand,
and one for himself.
After leaving Kenton, Safranski moved among
the best jazz ensembles of the day and worked
with top jazz players like Charlie Barnet, Marian
McPartland, and Johnny Smith. In the early ’50s,
he settled into studio work in New York as a staff
musician at NBC, where he remained until the late
’60s. He passed away on January 10, 1974, at age 55.
Eddie Safranski paved a path for the rest of us
by using cutting-edge equipment and technology
to showcase his stunning technique and musicality.
He probably gets less notice as a jazz player than
he deserves because he took himself out of the jazz
scene at the peak of his bass-playing powers and
chose to embed himself in the comfortable world
of the New York studios. Nevertheless, he was an
enormously famous bass player—jazz famous.
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