Steve Swallow was born in New York City in 1940, and spent his childhood in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Before turning to the acoustic bass at age 14, he studied piano (with Howard Kasschau, who also taught Nelson Riddle) and trumpet. His otherwise miserable adolescence was brightened by his discovery of jazz. He took many of his first stabs at improvisation with Ian Underwood (who subsequently became a Mother Of Invention and an L.A. studio ace), with whom he attended a swank New England private school.
During his years at Yale University he studied composition with Donald Martino, and played dixieland with many of the greats, including Pee Wee Russell, Buck Clayton and Vic Dickenson. In 1960 he met Paul and Carla Bley, left Yale in a hurry, moved to New York City, and began to tour and record with Paul Bley, The Jimmy Giuffre Trio and George Russell’s sextet, which featured Eric Dolphy and Thad Jones. He also performed in the early ‘60s with Joao Gilberto, Sheila Jordan, and bands led by Benny Goodman, Marian McPartland, Chico Hamilton, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, Clark Terry and Bob Brookmeyer, and Chick Corea.