Jimmy Blanton

Yesterday we posted about Stanley Clarke’s 1976 jazz fusion classic School Days, which is pretty essential listening for electric bassist and the people who love them — today’s post is about another bassist who may seem obscure until you hear a little of his playing — He was surely one of the most influential performers in the instrument’s history. Take a listen to this 1940 song by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra…

concerto for cootie“Concerto for Cootie”

Ellington did not write “Concerto for Cootie” with his new bassist, Jimmy Blanton, in mind — the song was intended to showcase Cootie Williams, the trumpeter who would return the Duke’s favor by leaving for the Benny Goodman Orchestra the following year. Ellington, in turn, re-cast his tune for Cootie as a swingin’ pop number, with Al Hibbler lending his pipes to the cause, which topped the R n’ B chart for weeks. Raymond Scott wrote a a song about it the same summer (“When Cootie Left the Duke”) but whether Duke felt as sad is hard to say — his hit, after all, contained the lyric “Do nothing ’til you hear from me / Pay no attention to what’s said.”

Cootie left the Goodman Orchestra after only a year and struck out as a bandleader himself, never really hitting the kind of commercial success his former employers consistently achieved (he did briefly employee both Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, leading to his only previous appearance here on the Hymie’s blog). So nuts to Cootie — he kinda got what he deserved, being too big for his britches and all.

Jimmy Blanton, on the other hand, was anything but hifalutin — he was only twenty-one when the band recorded “Concerto for Cootie,” and had been with them for only a year or so. Very little is written about him in jazz literature — He is not as famous as he ought to be, for in a couple of short years with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra he completely changed jazz music. Without Jimmy Blanton the string bass might still be little more than a bulky time keeper —  there might have never been a School Days for us to listen to all weekend, which is an ironic thing to do when you think about it.

56ec6ea19836e4a85f1bbfbd7d242Blanton took it upon himself to solo a little on “Concerto for Cootie” even though it wasn’t named for him (his own song would come later and appears further down in this post). And in doing so, he found himself playing a little more than just the steady quarter notes that kept time in jazz arrangements up until 1940. While still moving the beat forward, his backing on “Concerto for Cootie” is filled with brief runs of eigth and sixteenth notes.

Here’s a more remarkable example of Blanton’s singular, amazing contribution to the Ellington Orchestra. On “Jack the Bear” Blanton take on the role of a soloist in the great romantic concertos of the 19th century (think Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B Flat Minor, or Grieg’s in A Minor), where a single performer is said to be battling the entire orchestra. If the opening of “Jack the Bear” sounds decidedly modern for a recording from 1940, that’s because it is one of the very first of its kind.

jack the bear“Jack the Bear” by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra

Duke Ellington was always one to recognize talent, and he loved writing arrangements that featured specific members of the Orchestra. He was clearly excited about Blanton, giving the bassist unprecedented prominence, especially considering that his only previous work had been with the University of Tennessee’s jazz band and the short-lived Orchestra of James Jeter and Haynes Pillar (Blanton recorded on a couple of sides with them for Vocalion before joining the Duke’s Orchestra). The clearest evidence of Ellington’s enthusiasm is that he recorded a series of duets with the young bassist, something he rarely did in his seventy-some year career.

duke blantonThe Ellington/Blanton duets are legendary jazz recordings, but awfully difficult to find for collectors. Our own personal copy of the 45rpm EP RCA/Victor put out is in pretty poor shape, and doesn’t even have the jacket. Still, as Ellington fans we’re glad to have any copy at all — especially as Blanton was honored with his own song in the Ellington book, “Mr. JB Blues.”

pitter panther patter“Pitter Panther Patter”

mr jb blues“Mr JB Blues”

The Duke Ellington Centennial Collection (an extraordinary 24-disc box set) includes all four of the duets originally released, plus two more (“Plucked Again” and “Blues”) previously only on an oddball collection. There is also a live recording that features Blanton playing slap-style and quoting from his solo at the beginning of “Jack the Bear.” These are, of course, just a few of the treasures in this set which includes more than 450 tracks — If only we had the hundreds of dollars to purchase one!

Jimmy Blanton was diagnosed with tuberculosis around a year after recording the duets with Ellington, and he left the Orchestra. He lived briefly in a sanatorium in California, but died at the age of twenty-three.

duke ray brownEllington surely never forgot Blanton, recording a beautiful tribute album to him just over thirty years later. He is joined by bassist Ray Brown, who is probably best known to jazz fans for his work with Oscar Peterson. He also played in Dizzy Gillespie’s band when they recorded “Manteca,” a song that we featured here on the blog just last week.

In the notes to the 1973 Pablo album This One’s For Blanton, Brown writes: “I can remember clearly as a young buy standing outside a neighborhood bar, listening to ‘Things Ain’t What the Used to Be’ and always wiaint to the end to hear those last two bass notes … I found myself continually playing Duke’s records because you could hear the bass clearly. This brings up two salient points: (1) that Ellington knew how to record the bass, (2) that Blanton could play it like no one had before.”

do nothing til you hear from me“Do Nothing Til You Hear from Me” performed by Duke Ellington and Ray Brown


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