Pitter Panter Chatter
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.
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, July 2020
Thanks to Ken Steiner, Steven Lasker, and David Palmquist for their generous assistance in locating and sharing this blog’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, July 2020
Thanks to Steven Lasker and Laura J. Johnson for their generous assistance in locating and sharing this blog’s illustrations.