KEEPING TIME WITH OSCAR PETTIFORD
by Armand Lewis ~
During the swing era, the bass was rarely prominent in either performance or recording. Used almost exclusively to “keep time” and to maintain the rhythmic foundation behind the front line instruments, the bass player would primarily support the soloists or the ensemble. Any solos a bassist might play were usually short perfunctory passages that merely displayed the time signature of the tune being played. With the advent of bebop in the early 1940s, this began to change; in large part due to one bassist who saw the potential of the bass as an instrument for improvisation.
Oscar Pettiford was born in 1922 on an Indian reservation in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. His mother was full Cherokee and his father was half Cherokee and half African-American. By the early 1930s, the family had moved to Minneapolis, where with eleven children, the senior Pettifords created a big band made up entirely of family members who toured successfully throughout the Midwestern United States.
Originally learning piano at age twelve, in his mid-teens young Oscar Pettiford took up the double bass because, as he later said, he didn’t like the way the instrument was played, so he developed his own way of playing it.
In the early 1940s, Pettiford would work with Charlie Barnet’s big band as well as co-lead with Dizzy Gillespie one of the first modern jazz / bebop bands. His last big band gig came in 1949, when he played bass in Woody Herman’s band.
By the early 1950s, Pettiford had become the pre-eminent bass player on the New York recording scene. He can be heard on early albums by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Tal Farlow among others. Throughout the ‘50s, Pettiford would also record his own large bebop groups including an excellent album for fellow bassist Charles Mingus’ Debut label.
In 1958, Pettiford went to Europe and settled in Copenhagen, where he quickly found work backing visiting American musicians while also leading and recording his own bands. A number of excellent albums resulted in this period as well as several radio broadcasts, which have just been discovered in German archives.
As part of their “Lost Tapes” series, JazzHaus/SWR Music has just released an album of radio broadcasts Pettiford made between late 1958 and mid-1959. Oscar Pettiford – Lost Tapes Germany 1958/1959 (Jazzhaus 101719) features a mix of standards and original compositions by both Pettiford and members of his groups.
Opening with George Gershwin’s “But Not for Me”, Pettiford and trumpeter Dusko Goykovich perform a soft duet. Goykovich’s sound echoes the early style of Miles Davis and the simple bass / trumpet interplay captures the haunting beauty of the tune as it was likely played in late nightclubs.
“A Smooth One” features a duet between Pettiford and German clarinetist Rolf Kuhn. At the time, clarinet was not thought of as an instrument for modern jazz. Yet Kuhn’s playing is perfect; setting a literally mysterious tone that, here and on subsequent tracks, is crisp and precise, yet hauntingly emotional.
“The Nearness of You”, “Yesterdays” and “All the Things You Are” highlight the tracks featuring tenor saxophonist Hans Koller. Once voted “the number one saxophonist in Germany”, Koller’s sound echoes that of Lester Young by way of Al Cohn — very smooth and bluesy.
The album closes with two live concert performances; including a solo rendition of “All the Things You Are” featuring Pettiford along with piano, guitar and drums playing rhythm behind the bass, which carries the melody.
The discovery of these tapes marks an important addition to Pettiford’s recorded legacy as these sessions were all done within two years of his untimely death from a virus in 1960. Had he lived, chances are he would have continued working with the smaller group sizes he was developing at the time of these sessions. This album is not only of some of Pettiford’s last recorded performances, but also an indication of what would likely have been his future musical direction.
Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org