Join IPR’s Steinway Café For A Tribute To String Bass Titans Of The 20th Century
The set list for the stream includes works by James "Jimmie" Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Sam Jones, Charles Mingus, Ron Carter, Percy Heath and Christian McBride.
Join University of Northern Iowa Jazz Faculty Alexander Pershounin on string bass, Chris Merz on tenor sax, Anthony Williams on trombone, Mike Conrad on piano, and Josh Hakanson on drums Wednesday, March 31 at 12 p.m. CT at iowapublicradio.org for a concert showcasing the work of Black jazz titans of the string bass.
The set list includes masterpieces by James, “Jimmie” Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Sam Jones, Charles Mingus, Ron Carter, Percy Heath, and Christian McBride.
The show begins with a work by one of the 20th century’s most influential and innovative string bass players, James Blanton, and ends with a work by Christian McBride.
About the jazz greats featured during the set
James “Jimmie” Blanton (1918-1942):
While string bass has always been considered part of the jazz band rhythm section, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Blanton transformed the approach and role of the bass.
Growing up in Chattanooga, Tenn. Blanton played violin until he switched to bass while performing with the Collegians at Tennessee State University and during college breaks with Fate Marable’s riverboat tours, featuring the Cotton Pickers. When Duke Ellington had the chance to hear Blanton’s unbelievable talent, he immediately hired Blanton for his own band.
On NPR’s “Fresh Air” with host David Bianculli, Whitehead claimed that Blanton “revolutionized the instrument.”
“Blanton’s left hand might roam the neck of the bass, grabbing a few odd notes. He broke up his phrasing and got a plump singing tone from plucked strings. Having him in the orchestra gave Ellington fresh ideas. Ellington loved having a distinctive new soloist to write for. Blanton got pocket solos and short breaks within the orchestra, but his real stages were his six duets with Duke," he said.
Blanton made bass sound like a giant guitar, and after his contributions, there was no going back. He changed the bass forever.
Oscar Pettiford (1922-1960):
Pettiford was born in Oklahoma and relocated with the family band to Minnesota. His parents were of mixed Choctaw, Cherokee, and Black heritage. He started piano when he was 12 and switched to upright bass two years later.
At 20, he joined Charlie Barnet’s band, and the following year received accolades along with Coleman Hawkins’ Swing Four on their recording of “The Man I Love.”
After moving to New York City, Pettiford started improvising at Minton’s Playhouse, and became an early bebop-style pioneer along with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Clarke.
During the 1940’s, his career involved performing with the Duke Ellington and Woody Herman bands. A baseball injury in 1949 required Pettiford to perform on a cello tuned like a string bass in fourths, only one octave higher. He discovered that even with his arm in a sling, he could play cello during rehab.
By the 1950s, Pettiford recorded his own music and albums and worked as his own band leader. During this time, he also served as sideman on over 43 jazz recordings.
In 1958, Pettiford toured France, suffered a fractured skull in a car accident, and permanently moved to Copenhagen. Sadly, he died suddenly at the age of 37, as the result of a viral infection similar to Polio.
Ray Brown (1926-2002):
Musical genius, composer, performer, talent scout, and entrepreneur, Ray Brown composed over 130 songs and performed those compositions on over 2,000 recordings. The albums featured renowned world-class jazz artists in bebop and swing, jazz and popular singers, along with R & B, rock, and pop musicians.
Brown was only eight-years-old when he became passionate about jazz after he saw performances of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and Fats Waller. A couple of years later, he started piano and joined Pittsburg’s Schenley High School Orchestra. Wanting more playing time, he convinced the director to let him take a spare upright string bass home on weekends to practice. Brown used Ellington records, with bassist Jimmie Blanton soloing, as his training-ground medium.
While still in high school, Brown formed a quintet and performed on weekends at local clubs. On Sunday nights, well-known jazz pianist and composer Erroll Garner would jam with the ensemble at the North Side Elks Club. Brown even had an offer to go on tour with the Cootie Williams band, until his mother insisted that he finish high school first.
Following graduation, Brown headed to Buffalo to play in the Jimmy Hinsley Sextet. He then joined the touring Snookum Russell Band and started jamming with his friend and pianist Hank Jones. After eight months there, Brown moved to New York City, and by 18 he had been hired by Dizzy Gillespie to perform in his small groups and big band with the likes of Max Roach, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell. He married Ella Fitzgerald in 1947. Due to touring pressures, while they still performed together, they ended up divorcing six years later.
From Gillespie’s Band, Brown went on to form the Modern Jazz Quartet with pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, and drummer Kenny Clarke. Brown also performed in the Milt Jackson Quartet, in the Oscar Peterson Trio, the Gene Harris Quartet, and the L.A. Four. In addition, he helped launch many musicians in his own Ray Brown Trio.
In 1966, Brown moved to LA where he worked in TV, film, studio productions, promotion, and management. He composed more than 20 film and TV score soundtracks. While there he also directed the Monterey and Concord Jazz Festivals.
He propelled the careers of pianists Gene Harris, Benny Green, Geoffrey Keezer, Larry Fuller, and drummers Jeff Hamilton, Greg Hutchinson, George Fludas, and Karriem Riggins. He created a performing framework for the Modern Jazz Quartet and Quincy Jones, discovered and advised Diana Krall and Phineas Newborn Jr., promoted Dado Moroni and Jacky Terrasson, and, for over 20 years, served as a performer and the impresario for the Hollywood Bowl concerts.
Brown received his “Best Original Jazz Composition Grammy” in 1953 for his tune “Gravy Waltz,” which later became the "Steve Allen Show" theme song. As a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio, in 1990 and 1991, he garnered two Grammies for “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance.” The following year, the National Endowment for the Arts dubbed him a “Jazz Master.” In 1995, he received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee. Two years later, he was received into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, in 2001 he netted the First Class Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, and in 2003 he was instated into the prestigious Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
Paul Chambers (1935-1969):
A string bass virtuoso and amazing composer, Paul Chambers was only 19 when he joined the Miles Davis Quintet and a year later won "Down Beat Magazine’s" New Star Award.
Richard Scarr, bassist and writer for "Bass Player United," claims that Chambers’ performance on Davis’ multi-platinum, best-selling jazz album, Kind of Blue, produced “two of the most instantly recognizable bass lines in all of jazz in the songs ‘All Blues’ and ‘So What.’”
John Coltrane dubbed Chambers “one of the greatest bass players in jazz.” Coltrane recorded 14 albums with Chambers.
Chambers was born in Pittsburgh. Following his mother’s death, he moved to Detroit to be with his dad. He started on baritone horn, switched to tuba, and at 14, dug into the double bass.
His dad had professional baseball aspirations for him, and even threw his string bass down the stairs in disgust, but Chambers persevered and started to play professionally in Detroit clubs and bars. Eventually, in 1955, he wound up in New York City, where Miles Davis added him to his all-star cast of musicians performing in the legendary Miles Davis Quintet.
Chambers, who died at 34, left a musical legacy of more than 1,600 recordings. His brief and tragic life was cut short by tuberculosis and by his dependence on heroin and alcohol.
Sam Jones (1924-1981):
Composer, cellist, and double bassist Samuel Jones grew up in Florida performing in regional groups. He moved to New York City in his early 30s. There, with his flawless performances and brilliant groove, he was able to join forces with top-notch musicians like Bobby Timmons, Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk.
It was pure “in the pocket” rhythm-section magic when Jones united with percussionist Louis Hayes in Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet. Later he replaced Ray Brown and started playing with the Oscar Peterson Trio and eventually with Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins. He was known for his unbroken, faultless rhythm and inspired bass progressions. Until his death, Jones continued performing as a band leader and was an in-demand performer.
Charles Mingus (1922-1979):
Charles Mingus, a twentieth century musical genius, was a brilliant bass player, a magnificent bandleader and composer, as well as an expert pianist. As a young man, Mingus’ musical attraction was set from an early age as he was influenced by church hymns and choir singing, and by listening to the inimitable Duke Ellington band on the radio.
His formal education on bass and composition included studying for five years with the principal bass of the New York Philharmonic, Herman Reinshagen. Early in his career, his masterful bass playing won him gigs playing with Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, and Duke Ellington.
Art Tatum recommended that Mingus perfect his composing skills from the illustrious Lloyd Reese, who tutored the likes of Eric Dolphy, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, and Buddy Collette. Compositions by Mingus were acknowledged for their creativity and inspiration. In his Jazz Workshop, Mingus usually combined eight to ten of his colleagues, prodding and forcing them to simultaneously go beyond their improvisational limits. Some would even say it could be called a foretaste to unconventional and untamed jazz. Musicians included in the Jazz Workshop of Mingus christened it a “sweatshop” as opposed to a “workshop.”
In 1971, Mingus was installed into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame and in 1988, posthumously, he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts called, “Let My Children Hear Music,” which encompassed a cataloged list of all of his works. In 1993 the Library of Congress assimilated all of his jazz papers, creating a massive compendium of jazz history for the library. Mingus received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award four years later and, two years after his Grammy Honors, his 1959 album "Mingus Dynasty" was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Finally, in 2005, Jazz at Lincoln Center inducted him into the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame.
Ron Carter (1937-):
With over 2,000 recordings to his name, Ron Carter’s amazing career as a jazz double bassist, cellist, composer, and educator has spanned over 60 years. He grew up in a musical family in Michigan and netted his bachelor’s degree at Eastman and his master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music.
He started playing with Chico Hamilton in 1959 and went on to work with Jaki Byard, Cannonball Adderley, Bobby Timmons, and Thelonious Monk. In the 1960s, he joined the second Miles Davis Quartet with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Tony Williams.
Carter continued performing and recording under his own name and as a sideman with many jazz greats. His instrumental composition for the film "Round Midnight" earned him a Grammy in 1978. Seven years later he received his second Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Group, for his album dedicated to Miles Davis.
France bestowed their medallion and Commander of the Ordre des Arts et Des Lettres on Carter in 2010. Two years later "Down Beat Magazine" selected Carter for their Jazz Hall of Fame.
Carter continues to be a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the City College of New York. He was bestowed with an honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music and has been on the faculty at Juilliard since 2008. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the Jazz Foundation of America and on the Honorary Founder’s Committee.
Percy Heath (1923-2005):
Percy Heath was a member of one of jazz’s most cherished families. He was born in North Carolina and grew up in Philadelphia. With his brothers, saxophonist Jimmy Heath,and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, he joined the ranks of jazz royalty.
At school, he played violin and sang. In 1944, he proudly served as a Tuskegee Airman. Following WWII, Lieutenant Heath purchased a string bass and registered in Philly’s Granoff School of Music.
Heath soon developed into an outstanding bassist. He joined Jimmy in Howard McGhee’s band in 1947 and, after heading to New York City, performed regularly with jazz greats Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Fats Navarro, and Charlie Parker.
Heath ended up playing in Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet in the early 1950s, where he met and became the mainstay of the future Modern Jazz Quartet with performers John Lewis, Milt Jackson, and Kenny Clarke. Starting in 1952, Heath spent more than 40 years presenting world-class MJQ jazz performances around the globe.
In 1975, in a hiatus from the MJQ, Heath performed with Sarah Vaughan and started playing with Jimmy and “Tootie” in the Heath Brothers Band.
During his almost 60-year career, Heath performed on nearly 300 recordings, won the prestigious French medallion and Commander of the Ordre des Arts et Des Lettres, received an honorary doctor’s degree from Berklee College, and played for former presidents Nixon and Clinton at the White House.
Christian McBride (1972-):
Writer, activist, tour and production manager Alan Leeds applauded the Christian McBride Band as “one of the most intoxicating, least predictable bands on the scene today.”
The UNI Jazz Faculty will polish off IPR’s Steinway Café’s String Bass Tribute Concert with the music of Philadelphia native, bassist, composer, arranger, and six-time Grammy Award winner Christian McBride.
McBride started playing electric bass at eight, and by 13, earned his first musician’s paycheck. He played upright bass in Philly’s esteemed Settlement School Orchestra, and in only three years was gigging in neighborhood jazz and R & B clubs. At 17, he headed to New York to study at the prestigious Juilliard School before joining forces one year later with saxophonist Bobby Watson.
He started performing with Roy Hargrove, Freddie Hubbard, Benny Green, Mulgrew Miller, Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, and his mentor Ray Brown. Brown created the SuperBass group with McBride and another bass protégé John Clayton, releasing two albums. His musical circle expanded as he performed as a member of the Redman Quartet and with a host of other jazz greats. He formed five of his own groups, released 17 recordings as leader, and performed as sideman on more than 300 albums.
In his “spare time” he has served as artistic director of the summer jazz program at the University of Richmond, held down an 11-year stint as artistic director of the Jazz Aspen-Snowmass summer program, worked in a five-year run as jazz programming creative chair for the LA Philharmonic Association, and continues to assist as artistic advisor for Jazz Programming at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in a nationally recognized program called Jazz House Kids.
He also started hosting NPR’s "Jazz Night in America" and satellite radio’s "The Lowdown: Conversations with Christian." He also serves as the artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival and the Associate Artistic Director of Harlem’s National Jazz Museum.
“Jack the Bear” by Duke Ellington
Several origin stories exist surrounding the song “Jack the Bear.” One refers to a couple of folk characters named Jack or John, who possessed miraculous abilities and could repair things for those in trouble.
According to Mark Tucker’s liner notes from Duke Ellington: The Blanton-Webster Band recording on the Bluebird label, the first ‘Jack the Bear’ “was a Harlem bass-player.”
“Tricotism” by Oscar Pettiford
This is a well-known self-styled bepop song.
“F.S.R.” by Ray Brown
British journalist Leonard Feather says that F.S.R. (For Sonny Rollins) began as a rehearsal of Rollins’ own “Doxy” on a record date with Milt Jackson. Brown said that the wrote this as a sort of pre-out chorus for ‘Doxy,’ and it came off so well that he made a separate tune out of it.
"Visitation” by Paul Chambers
“Visitation” is a 1957 tune that was part of Chambers’ album Chambers’ Music: A Jazz Delegation from the East which featured John Coltrane on saxophone.
"Little Waltz" by Ron Carter
Ron Carter’s well-known “Little Waltz” appeared on his second album called “Uptown Conversation” dating from 1969.
“Big P” by Jimmy Heath
Percy Heath’s brother, saxophonist Jimmy, composed “Big P” in tribute to his legendary brother, Percy.
“Unit Seven” by Sam Jones
One of his most celebrated charts called “Unit 7” was also known as “Cannon’s Theme.” Jones initially composed it in 1962 as an instrumental track for a Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley album.
“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and “Boogie Stop Shuffle” by Charles Mingus
Mingus recorded these works with his Sextet “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” initially in 1959 on his album Mingus Ah Um as a memorial to the peerless saxophonist Lester Young. It was also called an “Elegy to Lester Young.” Young, who was notorious for drinking and sporting a crunched-down wide-brimmed hat, passed away only a couple of months prior to the recording of this famous jazz standard by Mingus.
The UNI Jazz Faculty will present the mixed-meter 7 + 6 “Boogie Stop Shuffle” hard bop 12-bar blues tune, also composed by Mingus in 1959.
“Eighty One” by Ron Carter
“Eighty One” was composed by Carter in 1965 for the Miles Davis recording called E.S.P.Don Drotos from Keyboardimprov.com says “’Eighty One’ is a 12-bar blues with some twists and turns. The melody contains a few unpredictable rhythmic hits. The chord progression is also interesting and hints at the ways in which Carter ‘modernized’ the traditional blues chord progression.”The ensemble will also perform Carter’s well-known “Little Waltz” which appeared on his second album called “Uptown Conversation” dating from 1969.
“The Shade of the Cedar Tree” by Christian McBride
McBride’s “The Shade of the Cedar Tree” was originally included on his debut solo album called Gettin’ To It released in 1995 on Verve Records. McBride composed this swinging tune as a tribute to the remarkable jazz pianist Cedar Walton.
About Alex Pershounin
Alex Pershounin has performed and taught in both classical and jazz settings in Europe and the United States. In addition to serving as principal bass in the wcfsymphony and many other ensembles, he performs in his own band, known as the Alex Pershounin Jazz Trio.
Pershounin has presented as a performer and composer at international events such as the Montreux and Pori Jazz Festivals, Belgium’s Jazz Contest, and the New Orleans Jazz Fest. He has produced several discs and four full-length motion picture soundtracks.
He has performed with world-class musicians including Itzhak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma, Ray Charles, Benny Golson, Conrad Herwig, Mulgrew Miller, and Bob Berg.
Currently, Pershounin is UNI’s Instructor of String Bass and directs and coaches UNI’s Bass Studio. He received his Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees from Moscow, Russia’s prestigious Gnessins’ State Academy of Music. He went on to get a second master’s degree and his doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.
About Chris Merz
Chris Merz is a master teacher, solo performer, published composer and arranger, recording producer, and a nationally sought guest soloist, clinician, and conductor. Merz has performed with the Brubeck family across the globe. He worked as a Lecturer of Jazz and Saxophone at the University of Natal in Durban and performed with South Africa jazz greats including Hugh Masekela, Winston Mankanku, and Barney Rachabane.
His albums consist of recordings with Darius Brubeck, Steve McCraven, John Rapson, and Jon Snell; including his own recordings: Counterculture, the Chris Merz/Bob Washut Duo, the X-tet, Equilateral, and his own band, Christopher’s Very Happy Band.
Merz composes and performs new works for his own band and performs in Michael Conrad’s new Big Band, Colossus Central.
He has served as the President for the Jazz Educators of Iowa (JEI) and in 2015, was inducted into the Iowa Jazz Educators’ Hall of Fame. He currently is the University of Northern Iowa’s Professor of Jazz Studies, Director of UNI’s esteemed Jazz Band One, and founded and directs UNI’s annual June Combo Camp for high school jazz students and educators.
About Anthony Williams
Anthony Williams performs the lead trombone of the Mike Waldrop Big Band with two original titles including “Origin Suite” and “Time Within Itself” and Jorge Sosa’s album, “Plastic Time,” with the “Grosso for Trombone and Electronics.” In addition to playing principal trombone in the wcfsymphony, Williams also plays jazz and commercial performances with The Des Moines Big Band, The Orquesta Alto Maiz, NOLA Jazz Band, and Big Fun. His debut solo album called “Synthesis,” featured five newly commissioned solo trombone works showcasing classical, Latin, and jazz music styles.
Williams serves as the Associate Professor of Trombone at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. He also teaches trombone, chamber music, trombone pedagogy, trombone literature, low brass technique, is a member of the UNI Jazz Faculty, and director of the UNI Jazz Trombone ensemble. Williams obtained his bachelor’s degree at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and his master’s degree at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. Williams completed his doctorate at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.
About Mike Conrad
Award-winning composer Mike Conrad has received four ASCAP Herb Albert Young Jazz Composer Awards, seven DownBeat Awards, honors and contracts from Germany’s Bundesjazzorchester, the West Point Jazz Knights, Ithaca College’s Jazz Composition Contest, and the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers. Conrad has appeared in China, performed in Italy at the Umbria Jazz Festival, and played in venues and jazz festivals all across America. He has performed with Dave Chisholm’s Calligraphy and the Alexa Tarantino Quintet.
One of Conrad’s works was performed at the 2013 U.S. Presidential Inauguration, and a year later, another work was premiered at Carnegie Hall. In 2017, Conrad joined in the Metropole Orchestra Arrangers Workshop with Vince Mendoza, which resulted in his final selection for the “Spheres Of A Genius” work competition with the Vienna Radio Symphony.
In addition to his compositional, trombone, and piano talents, Conrad performs with the Damani Philips and Jim Buennig Quintet and Christopher’s Very Happy. Band. Many of his compositions and arrangements are published by UNC Jazz Press, ejazzlines and his own website, www.mconradmusic.com.
Conrad serves as UNI’s Assistant Professor of Jazz and Music Education and is the director of UNI’s Jazz Band 2. Conrad completed his bachelor of music and a bachelor of music education degrees at the University of Northern Iowa, his master of music degree at Eastman and his doctorate of arts degree at the University of Northern Colorado.
About Josh Hakanson
Josh Hakanson is a percussion musician, an adjunct UNI Instructor, and educator based in Cedar Falls, IA. On drum set, Hakanson has played professionally in the Northwest and Midwest in a range of musical styles, encompassing jazz, rock, hip-hop, and fusion. As a student and professional performer, he has made appearances with such musicians as Bobby Shew, Adam Kolker, John Wojciechowski, Luis Bonilla, Benny Green, Steve Owen, Idit Shner, Joe Manis, Bob Washut, Chris Merz, Dave Rezek, and Don Jaques. As an educator, he has taught private lessons to all ages, coached large and small collegiate jazz ensembles, and administered middle-and-high school level music clinics. Hakanson received his Master of Music in Jazz Performance and Pedagogy from the University of Northern Iowa.
About Tom Barry
Audio recording and sound reinforcement engineer, Tom Barry currently manages all audio recordings for the University of Northern Iowa. Previously, Barry was a UNI Professor of Music in oboe and saxophone performance, music technology, audio recording, guitar performing and served as UNI’s Jazz Band 2 director from 1989 to 1991. Barry served for 36 years as the wcf symphony’s principal oboe. Barry also currently performs saxophone with Checker and the Bluetones band in Cedar Falls.
Barry has served as concert and album sound technician for the Salsa Band, Orquesta Alto Maiz, and many other university, faculty, and professional artist recordings.
Barry received his bachelor and master degrees from the University of Colorado in Boulder.