This One's for Blanton

by Con Chapman

In an old joke a woman complains to her psychiatrist that her husband is uncommunicative.

“He never talks to me!” she exclaims.

“Take him to a jazz club,” the shrink says.

“What good will that do?” the woman asks.

“Everybody talks during the bass solo.”

And so it goes for the guys who provide the bottom, the foundation from which jazz is built upwards. They labor in obscurity, less heard then felt unless and until everybody else takes a break, which the audience takes as a sign that nothing important's going on.

In many cases this is true; there are journeymen of the instrument who are mere timekeepers—literally; they also serve who merely stand and pluck, as Milton might have said if he'd lived into the jazz age. And until 1939 that was true generally, until Duke Ellington heard a young man named Jimmy Blanton playing with Fate Marable's band aboard a riverboat in St. Louis.

Marable's Cotton Pickers.

Ellington's ear for prospective sidemen was keen; Blanton was unknown, and Ellington already had one, and sometimes two bassists in his ensemble. Blanton was different, however; he was classically trained, or at least as much as a black man could be classically trained in 1939, and he could solo in a pizzicato fashion that had never been heard before.

Duke asked if he could sit in, and Marable—an old friend—said sure. Without saying a word to Blanton, Ellington began to improvise and modulate through different keys. Blanton didn't miss a note, and when the two were done Marable—who had served as musical father to Louis Armstrong, among other jazz notables—said “How do you like my bass player?” To which Ellington replied “He's my bass player now.”

Ellington's spontaneous offer of employment was accepted, the Duke paying royal family wages thanks to his broader media reach, and there began a burst of inspired creativity on the part of Ellington's band that Blanton—a bassist, of all things!—is generally credited with touching off.

Blanton and Johnny Hodges on alto

Blanton, unlike the run-of-the-mill bassist, created solos that people sat silent to listen to and which Ellington, as was his style, wove into the fabric of his compositions instead of leaving them at the fringe. Blanton's work on Ko Ko, Jack the Bear and, most memorably to these ears, Pitter Panther Patter, was both useful and ornamental; it laid down the rhythm, but it was never satisfied with that utilitarian function. He created melodies of his own, in some cases inspiring the Duke to go chasing after him, like two kids at play.

Blanton was a frail, other-worldly creature; thin and scholarly in appearance, he would put down the receiver when women called his hotel room on the road, saying “Just a minute, I've got to finish what I'm doing.” Then he'd return to his practice and forget that there was a woman waiting for him if he'd only pick up the phone. As it turned out, Blanton's fey disposition had a physical cause; he suffered from congenital tuberculosis, and was forced to leave the Ellington band only two years after joining it.

Ellington and bassist Ray Brown recorded a fine tribue to Blanton in 1973, This One's for Blanton, which was reissued by the Musical Heritage Society in 1992. It's good, and Ray Brown had few equals among bassists of his generation, but he wasn't Jimmy Blanton.

Blanton died in 1942, leaving a legacy you can hear in every bass solo played today—if everyone would just be quiet and listen.