Sophisticated Basses: The Pioneering Players Of Duke Ellington’s Golden Years

In memory of artist, writer, and jazz buff Harvey Pekar, who passed away July 20, 2010, here's a story Pekar penned for the January '00 issue of Bass Player.   By Harvey PekarThroughout much of jazz history, and especially during

In memory of artist, writer, and jazz buff Harvey Pekar, who passed away July 12, 2010, here's a story Pekar penned for the January '00 issue of Bass Player.

By Harvey Pekar

Throughout much of jazz history, and especially during the traditional and swing periods, the bass was looked upon as only a time-keeping machine, a tuned percussion instrument. And when Duke Ellington embarked on his jazz career the bass fiddle was not even a jazz staple as it is now. Some groups used tuba, and others, like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, didn’t contain a bass instrument at all. But Ellington, one of the world’s great orchestrators in any genre, saw possibilities others missed.
In the biography Duke Ellington, Barry Ulanov writes of bassist Wellman Braud’s departure from Duke’s band: “Duke hired two bassists to take his place—not because two were needed to equal Wellman, but simply because Duke wanted to hear lots of bass and really score for the instrument as a harmonic adjunct to the band.”
There’s been some dispute why Ellington and Braud parted ways and Duke hired two bassists to replace him. However, there should be no argument about the tremendous contribution Ellington made to jazz bass playing, both directly in his bass-part writing and indirectly through his bassists Braud, Billy Taylor, Hayes Alvis, Jimmy Blanton, Junior Raglin, and Oscar Pettiford.

The Wellspring: Wellman Braud
The band Duke first led in New York in 1923 had a rhythm section consisting of piano, banjo, and drums. Duke later added a tuba player, at first Bass Edwards and then Max Shaw. Braud, who also played tuba and had started on violin, became Duke’s first full-time bassist in 1927. Thirty-six at the time, he’d been one of the string-bass jazz style founders. His primary influence, Bill Johnson, was a contemporary of Buddy Bolden’s in New Orleans—a first generation jazzman.
For a big band leader in 1927, employing a string bassist full time was forward-looking. Fletcher Henderson’s bassist alternated between string bass and tuba until 1933. McKinney’s Cotton Pickers used tuba player Billy Taylor throughout the band’s existence. Benny Moten didn’t record with a string bassist until 1932, when he used the great Walter Page, who developed walking bass’s melodic possibilities by adding rhythmic lift and counter-melodies.
Ellington and Braud demonstrated that the string bass, when properly miked, had a more explosive, incisive quality than the tuba—Ellington credited Braud with “crowding the microphone.” Duke made sure Braud was placed so he would be prominent on records, and the innovation was so successful that Duke—and later pretty much everyone else—gave up using tuba in jazz rhythm sections.
Braud’s initial recording sessions with Duke were in October 1927. In “Washington Wobble” he engages in a pizzicato call and response with the ensemble and also takes a short pizz solo. Braud’s brief solos are important, because some historians maintain Bill Johnson’s solo on Johnny Dodd’s July ’28 ‘‘Bull Fiddle Blues’’ is the first recorded pizzicato jazz bass solo. Also, Braud has been characterized as a two-beat player, but he often played four-beat pizz walking style. On “Washington Wobble” he alternates two- and four-beat lines, and on a November 1928 Okeh version of “Misty Mornin’” he plays an arco four-beat style.
On November 3, 1927, Braud can be heard to good advantage on an Okeh session—his bass is well recorded for that period. Braud plays both arco and pizzicato, switching from one to another on all three selections. During the final trumpet solo on “Black and Tan Fantasy” Braud goes from bowing to plucking, and he employs arco and pizzicato two-beat rhythms and provides harmony and melody notes.
In a March ’28 Victor version of “Black Beauty” Braud and Duke engage in a dialogue that includes exchanges, counterpoint, and double-time bass. On a November ’28 version of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” Braud uses upright to duplicate the melodic tuba intro he played on an earlier version. Other Braud hallmarks—January ’29: complex counter-rhythms during the introduction of “Bandanna Babies”; bowed pedal-points and double-time comping in “Flaming Youth.” March ’29: pizzicato counter-melodies on “Japanese Dream,” ensemble melody line on “High Life”; ostinato figures and four-beat lines on “Stevedore Stomp”; rolling, boogie-woogie-style figures beneath solos on “Saratoga Swing.” July ’29: double-time and rolling figures on “Misty Mornin.’” June ’30: ostinato figure and 16-bar solo on “Double Check Stomp.” August ’30: alternating two- and four-beat pizzicato to build and release tension on “Ring Dem Bells”; pizzicato pedal-point on “Old Man Blues.” December ’30: counterline under Bigard’s solo on “Mood Indigo.” February ’32: double-time on “Creole Love Call”; four-bar solo on “Bugle Call Rag.”
This lists shows that from 1927 to ’32 Braud used two- and four-beat arco and pizzicato and alternated two- and four-beat work within a single tune. He employed counter-rhythms, counter-melodies, pedal points, and ostinatos, and played fills, pickup figures, and solos. Duke voiced him with horns. How much of all those were Ellington’s ideas? It’s hard to say, but remember Duke often wrote out bass parts.

Two-Bass Hit: Billy Taylor & Hayes Alvis
In 1934 Ellington hired Billy Taylor to play alongside Braud. Perhaps Wellman’s pride was hurt; in any event he left Duke in March ’35. Historians don’t agree why Duke hired two bassists. Possibly he was trying to modernize his rhythm section; Duke may have thought Braud’s slapping technique was dated. Also, compared to some of the younger bassists, Braud’s playing sounded stiff, although it remained powerful. Some commentators have noted Duke hated firing people, and hiring Taylor may have been a message for Braud to leave. However, Duke must have thought there was something to his two-bass concept, because when Braud left, Ellington hired Hayes Alvis to replace him while keeping Taylor. By merely using them together Duke was doing something special, setting a precedent that others—including Ornette Coleman—would eventually follow.
Alvis and Taylor remained together with Duke until 1938. Though neither could be judged better than Braud, both were very good musicians who played in a lighter, more supple style than Braud’s and were more attuned to what Duke wanted at that time. But Duke didn’t do a lot of adventurous things with them. On some recordings he uses one or the other, on others both. When they play together they’re usually not doing anything particularly advanced, although they do play in fifths on “Reminiscing in Tempo” and “New Black and Tan Fantasy.” “When Duke had the two players he liked the heavy sound he got live,” hypothesizes Andrew Homzy, a composer, arranger, and Ellington scholar. “It’s possible, though, that they had problems playing in tune together, and that came out more clearly on record. So when he recorded he had them do more simple things.”
Homzy further notes that Duke would have written out their parts. (In this period a great example of Ellington’s low-register mastery is his simultaneous use of string bass and tuba on the majestic ending of 1936’s “It Was a Sad Night in Harlem.”) Duke doesn’t have the bassists engage in interplay; mostly they’re used to add weight to performances. And they don’t play arco as much as Braud did. When the upright’s role was being defined a few years earlier a more open situation existed. String bassists had learned to play with a bow, and it probably seemed natural for them to use it in jazz bands. But by the mid ’30s arco playing had been pretty much crowded out by pizzicato. Later in the decade Slam Stewart became noted for his bowed work, which he sometimes hummed along with. Though his arco work was laudable, it was regarded for years as a novelty. Not until the 1950s, when Charles Mingus and Paul Chambers emerged, did jazz arco begin to regain popularity.

The Prodigy: Jimmie Blanton
In fall 1939, when Duke’s band was playing St. Louis, Ellington heard Jimmie Blanton at an after-hours joint and hired him on the spot. Ellington still had Taylor, though, so he stayed with the two-bass concept. But it got to be too much for Billy—whom Duke liked and called “one of the ace foundation-and-beat men on the instrument.” Taylor supposedly quit the band in the middle of a set, saying, “I’m not going to stand up here next to that young boy playing all that bass and be embarrassed.”
Duke featured the phenomenal Blanton more than any jazz bassist had ever been. Shortly after joining the band Jimmie made duo records with Duke for Columbia—“Blues” and “Plucked Again”—and in 1940 they cut four more duo titles for Victor. Blanton also soloed on a number of Duke’s big band selections, including “Jack the Bear,” “Jumpin’ Punkins,” “Ko-Ko,” “Bojangles,” “Sepia Panorama,” “Chloe,” and “Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin’.” Blanton can also be heard in small groups led by Ellington sidemen Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, and Barney Bigard.
Blanton’s pizzicato technique was incredible—in his day no jazz bassist came close to it. His lines were full of eighth- and 16th-notes and triplets, and he played melodic, piano-like parts at brisk tempos. His sound was huge and centered, and his rhythm section work was graceful and powerful. Blanton was also more successful at executing actual half- and whole-notes than previous bassists had been. In Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930–1945 [Oxford University Press] Gunther Schuller discusses Blanton’s discoveries about sustaining notes: Blanton found “you could maximize the natural resonance of the note by using as much of the fleshy length of the finger as possible, plucking the string with the finger parallel to the string, rather than plucking straight across at right angles, and you must pluck the string at a point where it sets in vibration the maximum resonance.” Schuller also calls Blanton’s harmonic substitutions “quite modern for the time.” Blanton did some arco work with Ellington on the duets, but his bowed playing, while daring, wasn’t as technically solid as Stewart’s at that time.
Even today Blanton is something special to hear. His rhythm section work is relaxed yet powerful, and he smoothly breaks up walking lines with grace notes, triplets, and dotted eighth-16th figures.
Blanton used double-stops on “Jack the Bear” and “Jumpin’ Punkins,” something that was still considered advanced as late as the 1950s. There’s no telling how far he would have progressed if he hadn’t died of tuberculosis in 1942 at age 23, having already set in motion forces that changed jazz bass playing forever.

Stuck In The Middle: Junior Raglin
Duke’s next bassist, Alvin “Junior” Raglin, had the misfortune to come between two greats, Blanton and Oscar Pettiford. He didn’t have those players’ chops or innovation—how many bassists do?—but he was a fine performer in his own right, steady, powerful, and technically skilled. It’s reasonable to claim Raglin was among the best jazz bassists in the early and mid ’40s—and one of the very first to exhibit Blanton’s influence. Indeed, Ellington placed him in Blanton’s role, as he had given Bubber Miley’s plunger-muted trumpet spot to Cootie Williams and then Ray Nance, or Ben Webster’s breathy-toned tenor sax position to Al Sears, Paul Gonsalves, and Harold Ashby. During Ellington’s 1943 Carnegie Hall concert Raglin was assigned Blanton’s solos on “Jack the Bear,” “Ko-Ko,” and “Bojangles.” In the 1944 concert Duke and Junior performed “Pitter Panther Patter,” originally cut by Duke and Blanton, and Raglin’s part doesn’t depart much from Blanton’s version. A standout Raglin moment, however, is his unusual strumming effect behind the Johnny Hodges alto sax solo on ’44’s “Come Sunday.”

Oscar Pettiford
Pettiford, the first and best bop bassist, replaced Raglin. Pettiford is featured on another version of “Pitter Panther Patter” during a 1946 Carnegie Hall concert, and his work, like Raglin’s, is Blanton-like. Because of the context Oscar’s playing with Duke wasn’t always that boppish, though you can hear bop in his playing on “Basso Profundo” from the 1947 Carnegie concert. Duke wrote this unusual piece for two bass players, Pettiford and Raglin, who state the theme and then solo on it, with notable use of double-stops and upper-register work. (In studio recordings Pettiford uses double-stops on “Overture to a Jam Session” and “Happy-Go-Lucky Local.”) After Pettiford left Duke he returned in 1950 to cut some records on the Ellington family’s Mercer label (Mercer is Duke’s son) on which he plays pizzicato cello!
Duke had some fine bassists after Pettiford, including Blanton’s cousin Wendell Marshall, but Pettiford was his last great one—although Ellington later cut a trio record with Mingus, Money Jungle [Blue Note].
For a non-bassist Ellington’s understanding of the instrument’s potential was especially impressive. From 1927 through the mid ’40s Duke, working with Braud through Pettiford, had a tremendous impact on the evolution of jazz bass playing. It’s one of his great achievements—and one of his least appreciated.

If you have $300-plus to spend, you can dive into The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (24 discs). You can also get your feet wet by sampling the 28 discs in Jazz Chronological Classics’ Ellington series, spanning 1924-1927 to 1946. Also:
Wellman Braud: Jungle Nights in Harlem (1927-1932), Bluebird; Great Original Performances 1927-1934, Mobile Fidelity; Okeh Ellington, Columbia; Cotton Club Stars, Stash.
Braud, Blanton & Hayes Alvis: Duke Ellington: His Greatest Recordings 1927-1941, Best Of Jazz/Swing Era
Jimmie Blanton: Solos, Duets, & Trios, Bluebird; Duke Ellington: The Blanton-Webster Years [RCA]; The Duke in Boston 1939-1940, Jazz Unlimited.
Braud, Blanton, Hayes Alvis & Billy Taylor: Sophisticated Lady: Duke’s Greatest Hits, Classic Jazz
Blanton, Junior Raglin & Oscar Pettiford (plus Sid Weiss & Bob Haggart: Sophisticated Lady, RCA
Junior Raglin: Carnegie Hall Concerts January 1943, Carnegie Hall Concerts December 1944, Prestige
Raglin & Pettiford: Carnegie Hall Concerts December 1947, Prestige
Pettiford: Carnegie Hall Concerts January 1946, Prestige; The Great Chicago Concerts, Music Masters; (plus Wilson Myers) Duke Ellington & His World Famous Orchestra ’46-47, Hindsight


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