Pitter Panter Chatter
All About Jimmie Blanton and the jazz bass
This page features regular posts with tidbits, little-known facts, and deep dives on jazz bassist Jimmie Blanton (1918– 1942), best known for his tenure with composer and big band leader Duke Ellington between 1939 and 1941.
You can further satisfy your curiosity by reading some of my earlier work on Blanton, Ellington, and jazz bass playing. In the meanwhile, I am working on a book on Blanton's life, music, and legacy, to be published by Oxford University Press (anticipated to be available in 2024).
Thanks for visiting this blog, and keep an eye out for more news!
This research was funded by the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) and was hosted by the University of Antwerp (Belgium) - project number G003713N.
Jimmie or Jimmy?
On 5 October 1918, Gertrude Blanton (née Lewis) gave birth to her second child. The boy was named James Harvey Blanton, Jr., after his father, James Harvey Blanton, Sr. But James or Junior was not the name by which he was known. The boy who in due time became one of jazz’s most esteemed bass players was known to many as Jimmie.
But is it Jimmie or Jimmy? Most sources have it as Jimmy, including Duke Ellington’s autobiography Music Is My Mistress (1973). This spelling is also used in many contemporaneous articles, reviews, and write-ups, and it is printed on the labels of records: his name appears alongside Ellington’s on the two 1939 duets and the four 1940 duets the pair recorded for Columbia and Victor, respectively.
But this was not Jimmie’s preferred spelling. He consistently wrote his name as Jimmie, as can be seen on the few remaining documents that originate from him: a few telegrams he sent his family, a card with seasonal greetings with his name printed on it, and photos or records he signed for fans.
While no definite explanation has been given as to why he preferred this spelling, he likely adopted it from how one of the band leaders he liked most, Jimmie Lunceford, stylised his name. And just as Charles Mingus insisted on being called Charles and not Charlie, I believe we need to be considerate of Blanton’s preference and stylise it as Jimmie.
Bottom: Jimmie's signature, barely visible at the bottom.
Jimmie was not what his family and close friends would call him. Throughout his short life, Jimmie went by three different nicknames: Brother, Kid, and Bear. Being the only son of three siblings, his two sisters (Dorothy and Caroline) called him Brother, as did his parents. In fact, loving monikers had been concocted for all: James, Sr. became Jim, Gertrude was called Gert (even by her three children), Dorothy was Dotty, and Caroline was known as Tines.
Jimmie began playing double bass in all earnest in his college’s dance band, the Tennessee State Collegians (in Nashville, Tennessee), but he became a true professional in the summer of 1937, when he quit college to join the Jeter-Pillars Club Plantation Orchestra in St. Louis, Missouri. In both bands as well as the many groups he performed with as an occasional freelancer, he was the youngest member, the kid of the band. The name stuck, and Brother became Kid.
Bear was the somewhat contradictory, yet affectionate nickname bestowed upon him by his close friend in the Ellington band, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, who went by the name Frog. While Frog is almost certainly a reference to Webster’s somewhat protruding eyes, the origins of Bear are not clear. Was it a playful take on Blanton’s slim and tender build? Was it Webster’s way of praising Blanton’s powerful, roaring bass playing? Or was it simply taken from the bassist’s first orchestral feature, “Jack the Bear,” recorded on 6 March 1940? The composition began as a discarded Ellington sketch called “Take It Away” before it was reworked into a vehicle for Blanton. What came first, Webster’s sobriquet or the composition’s title?
Jimmie, Brother, Kid, or Bear, one thing is clear: by the time "Jack the Bear" was released, he could go by his last name. Everyone in the known would understand who was being referred to. Blanton had become a household name.
Be sure to keep an eye out for the next instalment in this blog series on Jimmie Blanton!
Thanks to Ken Steiner, Steven Lasker, and David Palmquist for their generous assistance in locating and sharing this post's illustrations.
Bottom: photo courtesy of Laura J. Johnson.
78 years ago today...
Today, 30 July 2020, it was precisely 78 years ago, that jazz bassist Jimmie Blanton passed away from tuberculosis at the tender age of 23.
Sometime in November 1941, he had left Duke Ellington's orchestra, the band he had joined two years earlier almost to the day, and he spent the remainder of his life in various hospitals and sanatoria.
His final two months and twenty days were spent at the Outdoor Life and Health Association, a sanatorium in Duarte, California.
He was buried at the Highland Memorial Garden in his hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee, amidst of what was to become the Blanton family plot. He still rests there, surrounded by the graves of his mother, father, aunt, and uncle.
Here's Blanton with a beautiful one-chorus solo on Ted Grouya's "Flamingo" with Ellington and John Scott Trotter's Orchestra on the radio show Kraft Music Hall from 9 October 1941 (skip to the 44' mark). This marks the last time Jimmie was caught on record!
Thanks to Steven Lasker and Laura J. Johnson for their generous assistance in locating and sharing this blog’s illustrations.
Bottom: The flip cover of a 1955 reissue of the 1940 duets on 45 RPM EP.
Did you know...
... that Jimmie Blanton recorded no less than three series of piano/bass duets, one for every year of his tenure with Duke Ellington.
In 1939, mere weeks after the Duke hired him, Blanton recorded two bass spotlights with "Blues" and "Plucked Again." The best known ones stem from little less than a year later, when Duke and Bear waxed four tracks, "Pitter Panther Patter," "Sophisticated Lady," "Mr. J.B. Blues," and "Body and Soul." Several takes were made, resulting in no less than nine versions!
On three separate occasions in 1941, Ellington was invited to participate in the radio program Kraft Music Hall as one of the celebrity guests. On each occasion he brought along Blanton and together the dynamic duo played two songs per program live on the air, subtly backed by the John Scott Trotter Orchestra.
On 16 January 1941, they performed "Jive Rhapsody" and "Jumpin' Punkins," on 29 May they selected "Stomp Caprice" and "Frankie and Johnny" (for audio, see the website of the Duke Ellington Society of Sweden) , and on 9 October they followed up with "Take the 'A' Train" and "Flamingo" (for audio, see my previous post). This last session turned out to be the last time Blanton was caught on record before he left the band due to an aggravating case of tuberculosis...
Adding to this another version, albeit in trio (with Sonny Greer on drums), of "Jive Rhapsody" airchecked from a broadcast from the Casa Mañana on 16 February 1941, the total of Ellington/Blanton duets amounts to 18 records in less than two years. Quite a treat, but oh, don't we all wish it had only been the beginning...
A Family Affair
The Marsalis family. The Jones brothers. The Dodds brothers. The Brecker brothers. The Adderley brothers. The Dorsey brothers. The Montgomery brothers. The Heath brothers.
These are just a few examples of famous jazz siblings. Indeed, jazz often seems to be a family affair. But my posts are usually related to Jimmie Blanton. Does this mean there’s such a thing as the Blanton brothers? No, but the Blanton family seems to be an appropriate moniker.
It all begins with Gertrude Blanton, née Lewis, Jimmie’s mother. While raising her three children and running a household (which included both her resident parents ), she also managed to play the piano and front a small band. Some even claim she managed several bands at once, making rounds to appear briefly with those booked on a particular night. While she was most active in Chattanooga (Tennessee) and its wider region, she did garner quite a (local) reputation, even making a headline in Down Beat in February 1940, although the article's focus was really Jimmie’s recent tenure with Ellington. It’s little wonder that she taught all of her three children music; Dorothy took up the piano as well, Jimmie played the violin (before switching the double bass), and Caroline sang.
Then there is Dr. Walter Looney, Jimmie’s uncle. Looney was married to Carrie, Gertrude’s older sister, and they lived just a few blocks away from the Blantons. While he was an anesthesiologist in Walden Hospital, Chattanooga’s only African American medical facility, he was well-versed on several instruments, including the violin and piano, and knew the fundamentals of music theory. He would teach young Jimmie many things such as ear training and harmony, and together they would play (occasionally self-composed) violin and cello duets. I will save a more profound discussion of these two pivotal influences on Jimmie for a later post. For now, I want to focus on one of his cousins: Wendell Marshall (1920–2002).
Indeed, Wendell was a first cousin to Jimmie, being a son of Harriet “Hattie” Lewis, an older sister to Gertrude. They weren’t close as they only met twice, once as children during a family visit (the Blantons lived in Chattanooga, the Marshalls in St. Louis) and once for an extended period after Blanton moved to St. Louis, probably in the Summer of 1937. There, he stayed with another aunt, visiting the Marshalls once in a while, mainly to play their piano.
Also, Wendell witnessed Jimmie perform some times; he claims that this was what instigated him to pick up the bass as well, albeit only after a few years (around 1940). In fact, his first bass was the instrument Jimmie had left behind when he purchased his first professional bass in 1937 (in St. Louis). When Jimmie died, his mother donated his bass to Wendell, just in time for his first professional tenure, with Lionel Hampton in Los Angeles in 1942, an event covered by Metronome in October 1942 with the remarkable headline “Blanton’s Bass with Hampton.” Hampton proved to be only the start of Marshall’s career. For example, this post's photo (see below) shows him with Andy Kirk and His Orchestra in 1946, in the excellent company of trumpeter Clark Terry (who was a guest of Kirk's band) and saxophonist Jimmy Forrest. The common thread connecting these men is… indeed, Duke Ellington.
Following a short stint with Mercer Ellington, Marshall was asked to join Ellington, the elder in 1948, and the sound of Jimmie’s bass was once more an integral part of the Ellington band. (Forrest joined only briefly in 1949, while Terry was with the Duke between 1951 and 1959. Incidentally, there’s more that connects these men, as all three hailed from St. Louis. Furthermore, Forrest and Terry played in some bands that had employed Blanton, such as the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra and those of pianist Fate Marable.) Marshall quit Ellington in 1955, but remained a sought-after sideman, performing and recording with jazz artists such as Gene Ammons, Gigi Gryce, and Milt Jackson, or in the pits of Broadway musicals such as Gypsy. In 1968, he retired from professional musicianship to become a minister.
While his cousin was frequently featured, Marshall was less so, but some of his playing can be heard to good effect in this little-known version of “She Wouldn’t Be Moved,” filmed in 1950 but here as part from a 1967 documentary on Ellington by Leonard Feather (see clip below, go to 5:40 mark).
And to close on an unrelated, yet related note (“say what?”), Blanton and Marshall weren’t the only bass-playing cousins. Paul Chambers, best known for his tenure with Miles Davis’ first “great” quintet, was the cousin (by marriage, in this case) of another consummate bassist in the 1950s, Doug Watkins. Do you know (of) any other bass-playing families? Let me know!
P.S.: Bassist and Ellington fan Pete Bainbridge has kindly offered the names of Keith "Red" and Gordon "Whitey" Mitchell as another example of a bass-playing family in jazz. And if we move beyond jazz, there is off course the wonderful López family, with brothers Israel "Cachao" and Orestes "Macho" as founding fathers and Orestes' son Candelario Orlando "Cachaíto" picking up the bassist's torch. If you can think of any others, do let us know.
Thanks to Nou Dadoun for his generous sharing of this blog’s video clip.
Bottom: Marshall in 1946 in Andy Kirk and His Orchestra. Also pictured are guest trumpeter Clark Terry and saxophonist Jimmy Forrest, the three of them all future Ellingtonians.
Did you know...
... that Jimmie Blanton only owned two double basses in his life, one small-sized (sometimes described as cello-sized) of unknown origin mostly used during his collegiate days with the Tennessee State Collegians, and one he bought in St. Louis at the start of his tenure with the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra in the summer of 1937.
This instrument, a 3/4-sized double bass from 1926, was made for U.S. import by the (workshop of the) Czech Josef Novotny, and sold via importer Rudolph Wurlitzer’s New York store. This is the very instrument that can be heard in all its glory in all of Blanton’s recordings with the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra and Duke Ellington, and on his cousin’s Wendell Marshall’s recordings with Ellington (and many others in the 1950s).
Bottom: Bill Johnson in the company of Louis Armstrong and Johnny Dodds (full photo shows King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in 1923).
The first jazz bass solo?
In his 1946 book Duke Ellington —possibly the first ever biography of Ellington— Barry Ulanov writes that Blanton was to first to “make the bass a legitimate solo instrument.” While you can still read this claim or a variation thereof elsewhere, for example in the entry on Blanton in the The New Grove Dictionary or in Joachim-Ernst Berendt’s The Jazz Book, it is now common knowledge that jazz bassists have been recording solos long before Blanton first appeared on the national scene.
One could say this is a matter of semantics, the nuance being the “legitimate,” or as The New Grove has it, “the earliest fully satisfying jazz solos on this instrument,” but this is a teleological and reductive perspective. It upholds Blanton as the only logical ending point of the first forty years of jazz bass evolution while discounting the role other bassists played in this development. In this blog, I focus mostly on Blanton, but I feel we do him a disservice by bestowing him with false credentials. So: no, Blanton wasn’t the first jazz bassist to solo nor was he the first one to play solos that were “satisfying,” whatever that may mean. But who, then, did record the first jazz bass solo?
Unsurprisingly, there’s no real consensus. After all, this very much depends on what you consider a solo. In Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller dates it to Bill Johnson’s 12-bar solo on “Bull Fiddle Blues,” recorded on 6 July 1928. However, Johnson recorded an even lengthier solo (a 2-bar introduction and one 12-bar chorus) on “Kentucky Stomp” about a month earlier.
But when we consider short solo breaks as well, a few earlier contenders pop up. On “Washington Wabble,” recorded on 6 October 1926, Ellingtonian Wellman Braud is given two measures entirely to himself, admittedly not a lot but certainly an ear-catcher, given its prominent placement at the (relative) beginning of the record. This is not atypical for this period, as evidenced by John Lindsay’s two, two-bar breaks on “Grandpa’s Spells,” from a Jelly Roll Morton session on 16 December 1926.
Another contender is Steve Brown’s slapped line on Jean Goldkette’s interpretation of “Dinah” from 28 January 1926. I think there are three ways to interpret this prominent part: as an interactive accompaniment to Don Murray’s clarinet solo, as a bass/clarinet duet, or indeed as an actual bass solo accompanied by a clarinet obbligato.
These are just a few examples of recordings that feature snippets of string bass solos, but it is clear that bassists weren't afraid to solo before Ellington introduced his newest addition to the jazz world in November 1939.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide what you think the first solo recorded by a jazz string bassist is, but Jimmie Blanton it ain’t…
Did you know...
... that “Blues,” the duet Blanton and Ellington recorded on 22 November 1939, was the longest jazz bass solo known to be captured on record up to that point. Not counting the four-bar solo piano intro, it runs for 2:45 straight, with Blanton never faltering or falling short of ideas!
Jazz instrumentalists have been recording lengthy, uninterrupted solos since the 1920s (Sidney Bechet on the 30 July 1923 sides led by Clarence Williams is a notable example) but up to 1939, bass solos were usually quite brief. Only a handful of bass features such as "Big Noise from Winnetka" (Bob Haggart, 1938) or "Pluckin' the Bass" (Milt Hinton, 1939) spotlight the bass at length, though none as long as Blanton's "Blues."
“Blues” was surpassed by Blanton’s own “Pitter Panther Patter” about a year later, although this is organized more like a piano/bass duet than an actual solo with piano accompaniment.
1941: Blanton's Forgotten Year?
In 2015, Jazz Research Journal ran an article of mine entitled “Silent Revolutions: An Exploration of 1941, Jimmie Blanton’s ‘forgotten’ year.” You can access it here (or alternately, please mail me for a free e-copy). I figured it was a nice idea to revisit some of its main viewpoints and concisely present them, ready to digest and discuss.
The premise is relatively simple: 1941 is in many ways Jimmie Blanton’s “forgotten” year. In critical and scholarly writing on Blanton, the focus lies almost exclusively on a single year, 1940. This is not without good reason: that year, Blanton was featured on a slew of orchestral features, in particular “Jack the Bear” (March) and “Sepia Panorama” (July), in addition to four piano/bass duets such as “Mr. J.B. Blues” (October; for more on the Ellington/Blanton duets, see my earlier post). But Blanton was a member of Duke’s band from November 1939 to November 1941. And before joining Ellington, he had been a professional bassist since at least 1937. That results in a career of four years, not counting his early formative years. Can his musical legacy truly be defined by a single year? His output of 1940 would have sufficed to earn him a place in jazz history, but his contributions aren’t limited to these twelve months. I argue that 1941 is unjustly neglected. For ten more months, his playing continued to develop, both technically and artistically, reaching new creative heights until his career was unexpectedly curtailed by a worsening case of tuberculosis— in November 1941, he decided to leave the band and admit himself to a medical facility. But those ten months offer some of Blanton’s most innovative playing…
In the Jazz Research Journal article, I unravel the reasons, several of which are extra-musical, behind this period’s omission and detail the far-reaching consequences of this omission. I don't intend to replicate the 9,000-word essay here, so I'll limit myself to pointing out some of the most apparent reasons why 1941 has seemingly disappeared from Blanton's history and why I think this year, or rather Jimmie's playing during this year, warrant a re-evaluation. Let's begin by listing what I believe are the leading causes:
- ASCAP radio ban: in January 1941, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (or ASCAP) imposed a ban on the use of its members' work by the American radio networks. This dispute, which lasted several months, impacted Ellington, an ASCAP member since 1935, by preventing him from playing his own compositions on radio broadcasts (and indeed, several such broadcasts were planned during this period).
- Jump for Joy: in 1941, Ellington pursued what was arguably his biggest ambition to date: the creation and staging of the musical revue Jump for Joy. Duke began writing this extensive work in May, and the actual revue ran from July to September. This would have left him with little time to write dedicated bass features.
- Oversaturation: since November 1939, Blanton had been featured in virtually every recording session and every concert. The many records and the various live broadcasts and airchecks attest to that. But at a given point, the novelty inevitably wears off. It wouldn't be hard to imagine that a saturation point was reached, and Ellington simply didn't feel inspired enough to compose yet another bass showcase.
This last point may be a bit provocative (and indeed hypothetical), but it doesn’t detract from Ellington’s deep affection for Blanton’s bass playing, nor did it stop Jimmie from putting his bass front and center whenever he saw the opportunity. Also, remember that Duke brought along Jimmie as his only sideman to the 1941 Kraft Music Hall shows, where they performed those six wonderful piano/bass duets. As I stated earlier, some of Blanton’s most innovative bass playing can be found in 1941. Let us briefly explore some of this wonderful music.
In 1941, the Ellington band continued to play strings of one-nighters and lengthy residences, during which they recapitulated many of the earlier bass features. A small number were captured on broadcasts, airchecks, and live bootlegs, and allow us to hear some of the ways in which Blanton’s playing kept evolving. Sadly, many such live takes are not commercially available and cannot be found online. But here's a good example: this live version of “Sepia Panorama” was airchecked from a broadcast from a Californian ballroom in June 1941 and offers a great comparison with the master version, recorded on 24 July 1940 in a New York studio. This isn’t the place to do a deep analytical dive into the differences between these versions — Jimmie’s first and last that we know off — but I’d like to draw your attention to two aspects.
First, you may notice how, in the 1941 live version, Blanton seems unable to stop soloing after his opening statement. Unlike the 1940 studio version, he continues to solo underneath the trombone and trumpet melody. I call this "soloistic accompanying," a genuinely pioneering approach that holds the middle ground between a bass solo and a bass accompaniment. You may hear this conversational type of playing in the 1950s and 1960s by bassists such as Charles Mingus and Scott LaFaro, but not in 1941! Blanton used this approach on several other tunes (such as the Strayhorn song “Take The ‘A’ Train,” skip to the 13'33" mark) and not always bass spotlights. This suggests that his playing developed so that Ellington no longer felt the need to compose dedicated bass features. This is what I meant when I wrote earlier that Jimmie put "his bass front and center whenever he saw the opportunity." Indeed, he could turn any tune into an impromptu bass showcase!
Next, notice how Blanton’s actual solo is developed from the original version one year earlier. Interim (live) versions such as this version from November 1940 at a Fargo dance reveal how Blanton takes specific key cells and motives from the first (studio) version and plays around with them, developing them further and further, making every subsequent solo a bit more intricate and sophisticated. This gives us, listeners, an outstanding balance between recognition and surprise. The same applies to some of his other solo work that debuted in 1940 and kept in the band book throughout 1941, demonstrating how Jimmie kept pushing his creativity. Never let it be said that Blanton stopped evolving after 1940!
Mind you, this post gives you a heavily condensed version of my article, with many arguments and analyses left out. Still, I hope it helps you better appreciate 1941, Jimmie Blanton’s “forgotten” year! As always, feel free to reach out to me with questions, suggestions, or requests…
Did you know...
... that Jimmie Blanton was a big fan of pianist Art Tatum?
We know very little about Blanton's musical preferences. What did he enjoy listening to? What music inspired him? Who was Jimmie a fan of? We simply don't know.
A few hints are sprinkled around in interviews with friends and relatives, and in the music itself. For example, as Phil Schaap pointed out in one of his radio shows, the 1940 duet “Mr. J.B. Blues” contains an obvious reference to trumpeter Buck Clayton’s solo on “One O’clock Jump” from the 1937 version by Count Basie. This is no surprise as Blanton must have heard “One O’Clock Jump” dozens of times on the radio, on jukeboxes, or perhaps even live.
So, what about Art Tatum? We know that Jimmie was a major Tatum buff because his younger sister Caroline remembers that there was a stack of 78s rpm discs by Tatum among his few possessions. It shows! The harmonic sophistication demonstrated by Tatum (and others such as Coleman Hawkins) found its way into Blanton’s bass playing, as evidenced in duets such as “Sophisticated Lady.”
And now for something completely different...
I am thrilled to announce that I have been offered a contract by Oxford University Press to publish a book on Jimmie Blanton, Duke Ellington's revolutionary bassist.
I am honored to share my research of the past decade on Blanton's life and music!
Writing and publishing is a time-consuming process, so it will be a while before you can find my book online or in your local bookstore, but I will keep you updated here and on my Twitter account.
Blanton the accompanist
Yesterday, 31 March 2021, I was invited to speak on Uptown Lockdown, the Duke Ellington Society UK's online broadcast series. Obviously, our focus was on Jimmie Blanton, particularly an oft-neglected aspect of his music: his accompaniments. As I mention in the episode, Blanton was first and foremost a bassist: while was heavily featured as a soloist—indeed, he was one of Ellington's star soloist—the bulk of his playing, be it on stage or in the studio, was accompanying, providing a steady pulse and outlining the harmony. I dedicated much research to this aspect of his playing, transcribing, performing, and analysing many of his walking bass lines, two-beat lines, and grooves and found many of them to contain truly original elements. Unsurprisingly, as innovative and varied as his solos were, so too were his accompaniments.
But rather than offering a lengthy post on these accompaniments, I have embedded the full episode, 1h45 of great music and engaging discussions for your viewing and listening pleasure.
We played a total of nine tracks, several of which are rare live versions that haven't been commercially released. This is the episode's playlist:
1. Sidewalks of NY: live, Fargo, 7 November 1940
2. Things Ain't What They Used To Be: studio, L.A., RCA-Victor, 3 July 1941 (Hodges-led nonet)
3. Jack the Bear: live, Eastwood Gardens, Detroit, NBC broadcast, 29 July 1940
4. Echoes of Harlem: live, Hotel Sherman, Chicago, NBC broadcast, 6 September 1940
5. Rose Room: live, Canobie Lake Park, Salem, NBC broadcast, 17 August 1940
6. St. Louis Blues: live, Fargo, 7 November 1940
7. Bakiff: studio, L.A., Standard Radio Transcription, 17 September 1941
8. Jumpin' Punkins: live, L.A., CBS broadcast, 25 August 1941
9. Subtle Slough: studio, L.A., RCA-Victor, 3 July 1941 (Rex Stewart-led septet)
As time was limited, I managed only to scratch the surface in this episode, but I hope it gives you a better understanding of how Jimmie's creative mastery and virtuosity extend to his accompanying! Rest assured to Blanton's accompaniments will receive due attention in my forthcoming book. As always, feel free to reach out to me with questions, suggestions, or requests…
Did you know...
… that Jimmie Blanton and jazz guitarist Charlie Christian hardly had an opportunity to perform together? The biographies of these two young musicians reveal many striking parallels: they were trailblazers on their instrument, they were sidemen in a leading jazz orchestra (Ellington and Benny Goodman, respectively), they were extensively featured as soloists, they died from tuberculosis at a young age, and so forth. Given their reputation as fervent jam-goers, they were bound to play together during a jam session. Indeed, a number of contemporaries claimed they have seen or performed together with both youngsters at one point or another.
Yet, their busy schedules did not allow for many such opportunities. A juxtaposition of their itineraries reveals that the bassist and guitarist were together in the Los Angeles region only from 23 to 30 April 1940 and 2 to 4 May 1940, while their time in New York was limited to 28 November to 24 December 1940. Several anecdotes that portray this “meeting of giants” fall outside of these periods, so must have either been misremembered or dated incorrectly. I’m not suggesting they didn’t jam together, but perhaps not as much as they—and many of us, for that matter—would have liked…
The Bass Shed podcast
Last month, Ryan Roberts from the Bass Shed invited me to be a guest on his podcast series. Ryan is on a mission to spotlight all things bass, from upright to electric, from classical to funk, from instrument builders to educators. I was truly humbled to be part of this illustrious list of amazing bass people featured on his podcast. His main impetus for asking me was to talk about my forthcoming book on Blanton. And I gladly obliged!
After us discussing jazz history and its relationship to protest and me rambling about my education as a musician, we talked about a variety of Blanton-related topics: my doctoral research on the young bassist, the book-in-process, and more biographical stuff, such as Jimmie's ancestry and his time as a sideman with Fate Marable.
Want to know more? Listen to the Bass Shed podcast (and if you’re short on time, skip to the 39:40 mark to get to the Blanton discussion)…
Flamingo, Jimmie Blanton's swan song
Usually, this is a "Did you know…" month on my Pitter Panther Chatter blog, but as we remember the passing of Jimmie, precisely seventy-nine years ago today, I decided to dedicate a lengthier post to our man. Before his passing, on 30 July 1942, Blanton spent several months at several medical institutions in the Los Angeles region. He left the Ellington band some time in mid-November 1941, mere weeks after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. While the twenty-three-year-old had been losing weight and felt exhausted, his playing didn't suffer under his declining health. Despite some claims to the contrary, Blanton kept performing at a very high level until he had to face the stark reality: if he wanted to convalesce, he would need to seek out medical assistance.
The story of his illness and, ultimately, death is for another time. What I want to focus on now is the musical proof of his consistently high level of musicianship, even while showing the early signs of tuberculosis. Mainly, I want to highlight what can be considered his “swan song”: his rendition of “Flamingo” on the radio show Kraft Music Hall on 9 October 1941. Blanton’s final appearance in the recording studio was on 29 September 1941, with a Bigard-led small band, while his ultimate studio session with the full band took place three days earlier. But this Kraft Music Hall episode features the very last time the bassist was captured on record. As per usual, Ellington and Blanton appeared in duo, albeit accompanied by John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra, and played two songs: “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Flamingo.” The former is a true marvel of musical dialogue as it showcases the hand-in-glove way Ellington and Blanton interacted with one another. But "Flamingo" highlights a different side of our bassist. Currently, it is not commercially available, but we can listen to an online version, courtesy of our Swedish friends of the Duke Ellington Society of Sweden.
Blanton's role in this "Flamingo" is limited, but his fifteen-bar solo (1:58–2:38) is one of his most fascinating. It is tempting to recognize this last (documented) solo as the bassist’s ultimate crowning achievement in anticipation of his impending death, especially given the somewhat poignant feeling. Yet, neither Blanton nor anyone in his entourage knew that this would be his final recorded performance. It is a stretch to imbue this solo retrospectively with a sense of spirituality, transcendence, or mortality, as happens so often with final performances, as Walter van de Leur argues in “Swan Songs: Jazz, Death, and Famous Last Concerts” (The Routledge Companion the Jazz Studies, 2019). Instead, it illustrates that Blanton's style was still in full progress, revealing a promise of future development.
Instead of Strayhorn’s inventive arrangement (recorded on 28 December 1940), we hear a somewhat rhapsodic interpretation, meandering between slow orchestral sections and Ellington's rubato solo piano passages. Blanton underscores the theme’s lush reading with a few plucked bass notes, but he comes to the fore in his solo. While his 1940 ballad duets are heavily indebted to Coleman Hawkins’ style of harmonic improvisation, Blanton’s solo on “Flamingo” adds a more “Lesterian” approach (as in inspired by Lester Young) to the mix while remaining loyal to his style. His playing is rooted in the chord progression, yet it is rhythmically less dense than his earlier ballad excursions. By starting each new segment with a brief pause (usually a rest of an eighth-note triplet), Blanton gives the impression of taking a breath before playing, creating a relaxed feel and adding to the speech-like atmosphere. Moreover, this is the only documented Blanton solo that is so motivically driven, with two primary, recurring motives that underpin the entire improvisation. With virtually every measure based on either one of these motives, this solo has a very structured and coherent feel.
Furthermore, the flexible timing (often slightly laid-back and with a rubato feel), the subtle use of dynamics, and the weight Blanton invests in each note (by letting them ring to their full value) make for a more lyrical character than much of his earlier solo work. This solo on “Flamingo,” a prime example of simple yet effective motivic development, does not spotlight Blanton’s often awe-inspiring specialty of “running the changes” but shows his more melodic side, something he rarely explored. As a result, some may hear a degree of emotion behind this solo, maybe in line with the lyric’s melancholic tale of love beyond reach. What the bassist really thought or felt while he played this solo is pure conjecture, but it did show his potential for developing the string bass’ melodic possibilities. For Blanton, this promise remained unfulfilled; it was left to others, such as Oscar Pettiford or Charles Mingus, to develop this aspect further.