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 famousbassist 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 name Ampeg.
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.
Visit John on the web at johngoldsby.com for sound samples, videos, and answers to all of your bass-related questions.