Born: June 23, 1910 | Died: December 19, 2000 Primary Instrument: Bass, acoustic
Milt Hinton was widely regarded as the dean of jazz bassists. This master bassist was one of the consummate sidemen in jazz history. His career very nearly spanned the gamut of jazz generations and he was one of those rare musicians who exhibited minimal ego and had an ability to make a contribution to any setting he found himself in, no matter the style. He once said, according to the New York Times, that he had made more records than anybody, and at the peak of his recording career he kept instruments at each of several major recording studios so that he would be ready to play at a moment's notice.
Like so many African American families in the early part of the 20th century, his family migrated from Mississippi north to Chicago, where he was raised. His mother was a church musician, playing organ, piano, and directing the choir. She bought him a violin for his thirteenth birthday, which he studied for four years from 1923-27. Later he picked up the sarousaphone, bass horn, and tuba and studied music at Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago. In 1928 he found his voice when he switched to string bass. One of his earliest professional affiliations was with violinist Eddie South, with whom he played intermittently between 1931-36. Other of his early affiliations were with Zutty Singleton, Johnny Long, Tiny Parham, Erskine Tate, Art Tatum, Cassino Simpson, and Jabbo Smith.
One of the longest of his early band jobs was with the Cab Calloway band, where he worked from 1936-51. This would be his most extended sideman gig as thereafter he was the ultimate freelance musician. After leaving Calloway he worked with Joe Bushkin, comedian Jackie Gleason, and Phil Moore before joining the Count Basie band for two months. He played with Louis Armstrong between 1952- 55, then became a staff musician for CBS, one of the first African American musicians welcomed into the TV studios. From 1956 on Milt was a much in-demand studio musician. He made club gigs with such musicians as Jimmy McPartland, Benny Goodman, concerts with Ben Webster, Sammy Davis, Jr., Judy Garland, and Harry Belafonte among many others. In the 1960s he became a staff musician at ABC, where he worked on the Dick Cavett Show.
He worked at a feverish pace through the '60s and '70s, appearing on recordings ranging from television commercial jingles to those by such artists as Mahalia Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Dinah Shore, Debbie Reynolds, Johnny Mathis, and a young Aretha Franklin in the pre-soul stage of her career. Accounts differ as to how Hinton acquired his lasting nickname of The Judge, but one theory holds that it came about because he insisted on absolute punctuality from the musicians with whom he worked.
He was the master of the slap bass technique that originated in New Orleans with Bill Johnson (born in 1872), a man Milt knew during his early Chicago days. Jazz historian Richard Hadlock has described Milt's slapping as ...a living link with the New Orleans bass style.
Milt had a keen interest in passing along the jazz tradition to younger generations and was eager to share his knowledge with music students of all ages. In recent years, he was a featured professor at the Manhattan School of Music. He received numerous honorary doctorate degrees and taught jazz at several colleges and universities, including Hunter College, Baruch College, Skidmore College, and Interlochen Music Camp. He served as Bass Chairman for the International Association of Jazz Educators, and on the board of the International Society of Bassists. Hinton was garnered with the coveted Living Treasure award from Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. He was one of the last survivors of the classic A Great Day in Harlem photograph, the documentary film about which included footage shot on that historic day by his wife Mona Hinton.
A parallel career for Milt was jazz photography. Some of his outstanding photos (there are 35,000 negatives) of jazz greats have been compiled in two books, Bass Line and Over Time, by Milt Hinton, David G. Berger, and Holly Maxson (Pomegranite Artbooks, Box 808022, Petaluma, CA 94975).
Throughout the mid-20th century, Hinton was in demand not only as a studio musician, but also as a live performer, working with such luminaries as Benny Goodman, Judy Garland, Harry Belafonte, and Barbara Streisand. His discography includes more than 24 albums with Hinton appearing as both a leader and a guest.
Hinton first took up photography as a hobby in the 1930s. Over the next several decades his lens captured an extensive range of jazz and pop artists on the road, in recording studios, at parties, and at home. Hinton's photographs have appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Downbeat, as well as in documentaries on jazz legends such as Billie Holiday, Ben Webster, and Quincy Jones. Before his death in 2000, Hinton also exhibited his photography in a number of shows and published two collections of his work.
Although Hinton's NEA awards were for his work as a jazz musician, he used his fellowships to support his equally important work as a jazz photographer. The support he received from the Arts Endowment enabled Hinton to archive his extensive photo collection, including the identification of prints and negatives and the creation of contact sheets and enlargements.
The initial support of the NEA was crucial to the launching of my [photography] project, Hinton said in a 1993 interview. And because of the NEA I have been able to share my visual experience of the jazz world with thousands of people across the world.
Milt Hinton died December 19, 2000 in New York City.