Born: October 5, 1918 | Died: July 30, 1942 Primary Instrument: Bass, acoustic
In his short tenure with Duke Ellington, Jimmy Blanton became the first great double bass virtuoso in jazz. Blanton had both the technique and the fine tone to take this style of playing to higher levels. Blanton took the bass, which had previously been used only to keep time and lay down a basic harmonic foundation, to a new dimension where it became an instrument capable of horn-like solos. Blanton truly turned the musical world onto the possibilities of using the bass as a melodic instrument, both bowed and plucked. His uniqueness lay not only in what he played, but how he played. His influence on generations of bassists has been monumental.
James Jimmy Blanton was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in October of 1918. His mother, a pianist who led her own band, started Jimmy on the violin during childhood. While studying at Tennessee State College, he switched to the string bass and started playing with the State Collegians and local bands led by Bugs Roberts and drummer Joe Smith. During his summer vacations Blanton played on the riverboat circuit with pianist Fates Marable's band, the Cotton Pickers.
After his third year of college, Blanton packed up and moved to St. Louis. In 1937 he joined the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra, playing a three-string bass. He continued to play with Fates Marable in the summer months, and at this time began to hone the skills that would be bring him fame later on.
In autumn 1939, the twenty-one year old Blanton started playing on a regular basis at the Coronado Hotel Ballroom in St. Louis. According to Miles Davis, Blanton sat in one night with Davis during his stint with the Blue Devils, the house band at the Rhumboogie Club. It was on this night that Duke Ellington, in town for a concert, stopped by and impressed by the abilities of the young musician, signed Blanton immediately. Blanton shared the bass duties in Duke’s band with Billy Taylor until Taylor left the Ellington orchestra in January 1940.
Jimmy Blanton immediately changed the sound and pulse of the orchestra. He had a fluent, buoyant sense of swing, matched with a unique sense of intonation. It was his quality of levitating the sound by his superior musicianship which inspired the other members of the band to rise to the occasion. In his solos, he varied from the usual walking bass lines, and was innovative and inventive in his approach to ensemble playing as well. The other soloists could rely on his bass patterns as his playing complemented the horns. Duke himself wrote and recorded some piano/ bass duets specifically with and for Blanton
Tenor saxophonist Ben Webster had played sporadically with Ellington in 1935 and 1936, and joined as a full time member of the band in January 1940. With these two formidable musicians in place, the Ellington band entered its golden age. What was remarkable was the quality of the music Ellington wrote for these musicians, and how well they interpreted and recorded it. Ellington and his band entered into a new recording contract with Victor, and went into the studio for ten different sessions. Advancements in recording techniques made during this period have resulted in every nuance of Blanton's playing being preserved for posterity. During this time Blanton also recorded on several dates with other Ellington sidemen, including Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges and Rex Stewart.
While on tour with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in late 1941, Blanton became seriously ill and entered Los Angeles Hospital. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The following spring he was moved to the Duarte Sanitarium, near Los Angeles, where he was spent the last few months of his life. Jimmy Blanton passed away in Monrovia, California on July 30, 1942.
Adapted from article Remembering Jimmy Blanton by Scott Pollard at ‘all about jazz.’
Photo courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
Source: Scott Pollard