Some bassists are one-trick ponies: they become successful with a single pop hit, a classic jazz recording, an epic YouTube video—you know, the clip of the cat chasing the dog through the room with the baby in the high chair and the rocker doing an epic bass-spinning fail. Gene Taylor was different. He had the talent and good fortune to experience not just one career highpoint but a wide range, playing on many landmark recordings in diverse musical genres. He played double bass on some of the greatest albums of the hard-bop era, and he also played electric bass with top pop stars later in his career.
Born March 19, 1929, Taylor honed his double-bass chops in the 80th Army Band, stationed in Germany in the early ’50s. After moving to New York in the mid ’50s, he joined Horace Silver’s Trio and Quintet. His recordings with Silver are all considered must-know albums in the hard-bop canon: Finger Poppin’ [1959, Blue Note], Blowin’ the Blues Away [1959, Blue Note], Horace-Scope [1960, Blue Note], The Tokyo Blues [1962, Blue Note], and Song for My Father [1964, Blue Note]. Although Taylor did not receive widespread public recognition like his contemporaries Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, or Ron Carter, his work with Silver’s groups ensured his place in the story of jazz bass. He projected a booming acoustic sound and intense pulse. His beat was deep and dark. His rhythmic hookup with drummer Louis Hayes was impeccable (check out the Finger Poppin’ album). Taylor’s contributions were never flashy, but they were integral to the success of the groove and vibe in every group he anchored. Taylor played with trumpeter Blue Mitchell from 1962–65, recording such albums as The Thing to Do [1965, Blue Note]—which features a young Chick Corea—and The Cup Bearers [1962, Blue Note].
In 1966, Taylor joined singer/pianist Nina Simone’s group, often playing electric bass during his two-year stint. Simone was gaining iconic status, her music fueled by the fires of the civil rights movement; she was a free-spirited, strong-willed musician who recorded numerous protest and social-commentary songs. Example 1 shows Taylor’s electric bass line on “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” [Nina Simone, Silk and Soul, 1967, RCA Victor]. The tune, composed by pianist Billy Taylor (no relation to Gene), became an anthem of the era. The lyric proffers the credo that “every man should be free.”
The line shows Taylor’s flawless note choice and perfect timing. The recording’s vibe is crossover pop–jazz–gospel, and Taylor nails the feeling. His partner-in-groove is the pocket-man himself, drummer Bernard Purdie, and the track is enhanced with some finger snapping in wide-panned stereo. The bass line is simple but dances to a very specific rhythmic hook. Note that Taylor plays a half-note or dotted quarter on every downbeat. On beat three of almost every measure, he matches Purdie’s bass drum with two eighth-notes. The first eighth on beat three is always short (the staccato articulation is indicated by the dot over the note). He ties the second eighth-note to beat four, which is held out for its full value. Listen to the track to get the vibe under your skin. When you play the line, make sure you don’t rush, lock in the eighth-notes on beat three, and let the rhythm flow.
In 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. shocked the world. Upon hearing the news of King’s death, Taylor wrote the music and lyrics to his composition “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead).” Simone performed the song at the Westbury Music Fair in Westbury, New York, just three days after King’s murder. The performance was released on her live album ’Nuff Said! [1968, RCA Victor]. After leaving Simone’s group in 1968, Taylor joined Judy Collins, then a rising folk–pop star with an angelic voice. Next time you’re in a mellow mood and want to hear the work of a master jazz bassist playing folk music, check out Collins’ Living [1971, Elektra].
In 1985, Taylor began teaching music at public schools in New York City, passing on his vast knowledge and experience to a younger generation. He retired to Sarasota, Florida in 1990, where he died on December 22, 2001. An all-around solid bassist on acoustic and electric, Taylor had a stellar career, jump-started by his groovy playing with Horace Silver. His work with Nina Simone created a soundtrack to the civil rights movement. His later work with Judy Collins further demonstrated his abilities as a successful sideman and master of ensemble playing. Gene Taylor will be remembered as a solid sideman of the hard-bop era who adapted to changing musical styles throughout his career.