CHRISTIAN McBRIDE, VICTOR WOOTEN, MARCUS Miller, Victor Bailey, Jeff Berlin, Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, James Jamerson, Scott LaFaro, Red Mitchell, Israel Crosby, Charles Mingus, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford. Th is list of giants suggests a thread woven through the hippest music of the last 70 years. A few thousand names are missing from the list, of course, but the thread leads back to one man: Jimmie Blanton. Even though Blanton died when he was only 23, he’s known as the granddaddy of modern jazz bass playing. Last month, we looked at three classic licks from “Jack the Bear,” a Blanton feature with the Duke Ellington band. This month, let’s check out four more signature Blanton solo lines.
Blanton plays the licks in Examples 1 and 2 on several different versions of “Pitter, Panther, Patter” [Solos, Duets and Trios, RCA/Bluebird], a bass and piano duet that he recorded with Ellington in 1940. Ellington probably taught Blanton the tricky duet arrangement’s basic bass melody by ear, and Blanton added his own twists and turns to his accompaniment and solo lines. Blanton plays many of the same licks—albeit with slight alterations—in the same solo spots in all three takes.
Example 1 comes 0:50 into the track, with Ellington giving Blanton a two-bar break at the end of a chorus. When I first heard these recordings years ago, this lick in particular caught my ear, and I really wanted to “take it off the record.” It remains one of my go-to licks when I’m playing a break on a G7 chord in a medium swing tempo. As proof of the lick’s ear-catching nature, I’ve also heard everyone from Ray Brown to Ron Carter play their own variations.
Example 2 shows Blanton’s next two-bar break, which arrives at 1:00. The high G is not a harmonic; Blanton is fingering the note, pulling hard and yanking the tone out of the gut string. He was obviously used to pulling a big sound out of his unamplified bass with the big band, and he didn’t pull any punches when he got his chance to record with Maestro Ellington in this intimate duo setting.
Example 3 shows Blanton’s lick at 0:22 in “Sepia Panorama”, from The Blanton-Webster Band [RCA]. The band is screaming, and then there’s the abrupt break—Blanton’s got it! He lays into a repeated high F in a triplet pattern, and then springs up into the stratosphere. It was uncommon for a bassist in 1940 to jump up to a high A, but Blanton nails it.
Listen to the original, and hear Blanton somersaulting all over the bass behind Ellington’s tinkling piano solo. Blanton is not primarily known as an interactive bass player, but I think this shows a spark of creative interaction that set him apart from the other bassists of the era. Blanton’s playing underneath Ellington’s lines is clever—like a boxer sparring, jabbing, and punching out beautiful bass melodies everywhere.
Example 4 comes at 2:58, toward the end of the “Sepia Panorama” track. Here Blanton plays alone except for light brush work from drummer Sonny Greer. Beginning on beat four of bar 1, Blanton starts a hemiola, or cross-rhythm: The eighth-note line beginning on beat four is in triplets (rhythmic groupings of three), but the melodic phrase repeats a four-note grouping (Bb, D, Eb, F). The four-note phrase played in triplets creates the feeling of “taking it out” rhythmically, or playing across the bar line.
Wherever you sit on the timeline of bass players, know that your musical bloodline contains elements of the Jimmie Blanton legacy. Bassists have made great technical strides since Blanton, playing incredible grooves and solos, and often taking the bass to the front of the bandstand. However, Blanton was the man who made the current state of the bass possible for all of us.
Plan B: “A Train”
YOU PROBABLY KNOW THE SWING standard “Take the A Train,” which is played by school bands, swing dance bands, and lounge-lizard jump bands everywhere. You might even know that “Take the A Train” was the Ellington band’s theme song for many years. Written by composer Billy Strayhorn, who was Ellington’s right-hand man, the tune was adopted in 1940 as the theme song for legal reasons.
Before “A Train,” the band’s theme song was the Ellington composition “Sepia Panorama.” In 1940, the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) tried to raise the rate that composers received when their music was played on the radio. The whole industry—radio stations, record companies, musicians, and performing rights societies—became embroiled in a legal tussle over broadcast licensing fees. Since Ellington was an ASCAP composer, he wasn’t allowed to play his compositions on the radio for the duration of the legal proceedings.
In order to keep his band performing live on the radio, Duke had to compile an entirely new non-ASCAP band book, and find a new theme song to replace “Sepia Panorama,” which featured Jimmie Blanton. Strayhorn, who belonged to the rival performing rights organization Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), composed many great songs for Ellington during this period, including the new theme song, “Take the A Train.” Imagine if the bass feature “Sepia Panorama” had remained the Ellington theme and had become as ubiquitous as “Take the A Train”—we might still be playing it at dances and hearing marching bands perform it at high school football games!
Check out John playing “Sepia Panorama” and more timeless Ellington/Blanton music with the American Jazz Orchestra on Ellington Classics [Atlantic, 1988], and visit John’s website for bass news and information, plus John’s recording of “Pitter, Panther, Patter.” johngoldsby.com