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 (available in 2023, at the earliest).
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!
Matt Heyman, June 2020
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!
Matt Heyman, Augustus 2020
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" (recording courtesy of the Duke Ellington Society of Sweden) and "Jumpin' Punkins," on 29 May they selected "Stomp Caprice" and "Frankie and Johnny," 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!
Matt Heyman, October 2020
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?
Matt Heyman, December 2020
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?
Matt Heyman, February 2021
Did you know...
... that Jimmie Blanton was a big fan of pianist Art Tatum?
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 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
Matt Heyman, April 2021