Surviving Greatness: Wally Pipp & Billy Taylor

A rare few have had the misfortune to be established and very good at what they do, only to be suddenly eclipsed by a wunderkind and relegated to oblivion through no fault of their own. In fact, if these poor souls are remembered at all, it’s often only because of the greatness of those who supplanted them. One might call this the Salieri-Mozart dynamic, a most extreme case explored in the movie Amadeus. It’s a kind of halo-effect in reverse, as in, “Oh yeah, I remember him…… he’s the guy who was replaced by……. (insert famous name).”

It was this way with Wally Pipp in baseball, for example. He was a very good first baseman – not quite a star, but good enough to be a regular with the Yankees from 1915-25, before and after Babe Ruth joined them. One fateful day during the 1925 season, he begged out of the line-up with a headache and was replaced by a kid named Lou Gehrig. Baseball fans all know the rest, the phenom absolutely tore it up and Pipp never played another game at first base for the Yanks, as Gehrig embarked on his incredible streak of playing 2,130 consecutive games. He was a charter member of “Murderer’s Row”, eventually became “The Iron Horse” and of course had a mythical career, the stuff glory is made of. He’s likely the greatest first baseman of all time, certainly the most famous and best-loved one. His play and statistics established all this, but Gehrig’s untimely death from the disease now named after him – and his stirring speech to a packed Yankee Stadium just months before dying – have rendered him untouchable, an icon. Gary Cooper played Gehrig in Hollywood’s bio-film of him, which says it all.

Meanwhile, Pipp was traded in 1926 to the Cincinnati Reds and played with them for three seasons before retiring. Most baseball fans only learn of Wally Pipp as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the last man to play first base for the Yankees before Lou Gehrig started his iron-man streak?” Because he was so closely linked to Gehrig, and so badly overshadowed by him, Pipp is almost completely forgotten and many (including me) just assume he wasn’t a good player, but he was. He played fifteen years in the big leagues and three times in the World Series. He led the American League in home runs twice, hit .281 for his career, drove in and scored a lot of runs, and was much admired for his defense. He was good, he just wasn’t Lou Gehrig – and neither was anybody else. But only Pipp had so personal and close-up a view of this, only he had to lug around the burden of this uninvited comparison with Gehrig for the rest of his life.  Actually, it didn’t seem to bother him all that much, at least judging by the three solid years he put in afterward with the Reds. Life is most certainly unfair, but it cuts both ways. Gehrig died at just 38 in 1941, a hero to millions, while Pipp lived to see his grandchildren grow up, dying in 1965 at the age of 71.

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In jazz, it was much like this in the case of Billy Taylor – the bassist – not the recently deceased pianist. Most jazz fans are much more familiar with the pianist Dr. Billy Taylor, in fact most readers likely assumed the title here referred to him, but no. The bassist Billy Taylor played with many elite musicians and was quite well-known in his prime (1930-45), but it’s entirely possible these days to spend a long time studying and listening to jazz pretty closely before becoming aware of him. Taylor became one of the best jazz bassists of the 1930s and ’40s, working his way up through various good bands before landing with possibly the best of them all in 1934 – Duke Ellington. After holding down this plum post for about five years, it was Taylor’s fate to be minding his own business and playing very well, when along came a bass prodigy just barely out of his teens named Jimmie Blanton, to replace him. Not only was Blanton a far better bassist, but he would instantly and forever revolutionize the instrument in jazz. Before expanding on this though, some background on Taylor’s career because he’s so little remembered; also a brief look at the evolution of the bass in Ellington’s band prior to Blanton’s arrival.

Life and Career : Billy Taylor was born April 3, 1906 in Washington, D.C. He had an early interest in music, first taking up the tuba, then the string bass. Oddly enough, he received early instruction on the bass from a neighbour who was a policeman, and Taylor continued to play both instruments, a common double in that day. After moving to New York City in 1924, he began working with a succession of prominent leaders and bands including Elmer Snowden (1925), Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Ten (1927-29, 1932-33), Ellington (briefly on tuba in 1928), McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (1929-31), Fats Waller (1934) and Fletcher Henderson (also in 1934, shortly before he disbanded.) Taylor established himself as one of the very best tuba players in jazz with Johnson, McKinney and Henderson, but began specializing more in playing the bass by the early-’30s, as did others.

Ellington hired Taylor in April of 1934 and for a time, he played alongside the incumbent bassist Wellman Breau (pronounced “Bro”) in a two-bass scheme (more on this later.) Braud left in April of 1935, but Ellington evidently felt there was something to this two-bass business, because he hired Hayes Alvis to play along with Taylor. This experiment continued into 1938, when Hayes left and Taylor became the sole bassist. He left Ellington abruptly in January of 1940, but continued to work and record around New York with mostly small groups led by such notables as Coleman Hawkins (1940), Red Allen (1940-41), Joe Sullivan (1942), Raymond Scott (1942-3), Ben Webster (1943), Cootie Williams (1944), Barney Bigard (1944-5), Benny Morton (1945) and Cozy Cole (1945).

He led his own band for a Keynote Records session in 1944 and one for H.R.S. in 1947. That such fellow ex-Ellingtonians as Webster, Bigard and Williams hired Taylor is a strong indication of the esteem he was held in by them, even after Blanton. Cootie Williams hired Taylor to play in his 1944 big band, and always stated that he preferred Taylor’s playing to Blanton’s, at least in terms of the bass providing accompaniment. And the fact that he worked with composer Raymond Scott’s excellent, racially integrated CBS radio orchestra speaks well for Taylor’s all-around musicianship and technical skills. Billy also did a lot of studio work as a staffer with NBC, unusual for a black musician during those times. He continued to freelance around New York until the early 1950s, when work became scarce and he moved back to Washington. He played there part-time into the ’70s and his son Billy Taylor, Jr. also became a fine bassist. Taylor retired to Fairfax, Virginia, where he died in September of 1986, at age 80.

***

Ellington became one of the very first jazz bandleaders to use the string bass, when he hired the pioneering New Orleans Creole bassist Wellman Braud in 1927. Before this Ellington had used the tuba (Bass Edwards, Mack Shaw) like most everybody else. From 1927-33, Braud (as a player) and Ellington (as a composer), did much between them to expand the use of the bass, making sure it was prominently heard on recordings and using a broad variety of approaches on the instrument. These included two-beat and walking quarter-notes (plucked, slapped or bowed), counter-melodies and counter-rhythms, brief solos, pedal points, ostinatos, little fills and pickup figures. All of this moved the bass forward from a mere time-keeping role to a more interactive one and by the early 1930s, the bass had replaced the tuba in most jazz rhythm sections. This is something neither man has received enough credit for.

When Duke hired Billy Taylor in April of 1934, he may have wanted to modernize his rhythm section with a younger, more supple bassist. Though still powerful, there was a stiffness to Braud’s playing and his slapping technique sounded dated. Duke was loathe to fire anybody though, his preferred method was to make the player in question musically uncomfortable enough that sooner or later they would leave of their own accord, so he had Taylor and Braud play together. Eventually, Braud took the hint and left in April of 1935.

Ellington had grown intrigued by the two-bass concept though and promptly hired Hayes Alvis (also a tuba-doubler) to play along with Taylor. Duke wanted more bottom end in the band (despite Harry Carney’s cavernous baritone saxophone) and to explore scoring for two basses. Although he was one of the most inventive orchestrators ever, Ellington didn’t do anything that daring with the pair. Generally he wrote separate parts for each, having one play walking quarter-notes, while the other played foundation half-notes or broken figures. Occasionally, he’d have them play in fifths or would have one of them play tuba. This was maybe the most intriguing colouristic possibility, but Duke rarely used it. Mostly, he just liked the heavier sound and low-register reinforcement they provided in live performance.

There were problems with the two-bass scheme though, beyond the extra writing involved. It’s likely the two had trouble playing in tune together and some said the effect was rhythmically lumpy. Ellington only occasionally used both basses on recordings, as the pitch and sonic issues may have posed problems in the studio. Then there was the attitude of the two players involved; reportedly Alvis enjoyed the pairing, but Taylor less so.

Alone at last, 1938-39 : Perhaps because of these problems, Alvis left Ellington in mid-1938 and Billy Taylor at last had the bass reins to himself. By this point, Taylor was a seasoned and mature bassist, his playing marked by very secure and accurate time, true notes with good intonation and an overall suppleness and buoyancy. He was a quick sight reader, a very good musician attuned to what Duke wanted, indeed Ellington referred to him as “one of the best foundation and beat men in the business.” The years 1938-9 were great ones for Ellington and his band, as Duke was entering one of his peaks as a composer, with such standout offerings as “Braggin’ In Brass”, “Rumpus In Richmond”, “Boy Meets Horn”, “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue”, “Reminiscing in Tempo” and many more.

Having just Taylor playing bass helped to smooth out some of the rhythm section issues Duke’s band had been troubled with. For much of the mid-30s, the band made the ears happier than the feet and this was a problem in the dance-crazed height of The Swing Era. The band was famous for its exotic palette of colours, the originality of Duke’s writing and the brilliant work of its soloists, but wasn’t great for dancing; much of this can be attributed to drummer Sonny Greer. It’s not that Greer wasn’t a good drummer – he was – it’s just that he conceived of himself not as a time-keeper so much as a percussionist, a showman, with his huge, gleaming set of drums (including tympani, bells, gongs and God knows what else) on a separate riser. His playing was splashy and colouristic, but didn’t have the kind of groove that drummers like Walter Johnson, Sid Catlett, Dave Tough or Jo Jones could lay down. These men and others could swing a band into submission single-handedly, while also colouring the music. Ellington was renowned for his extreme loyalty to his inner circle of early sidemen and Greer was his oldest friend, so he wasn’t going anywhere despite his shortcomings. Increasingly, it fell on the band’s bassist to provide a steady pulse and for the most part, Taylor was up to this task.

The Ellington band recorded a lot in this period and many sessions were also made around then with small groups under the leadership of Duke’s star soloists; Taylor can be heard to good advantage on many of these. During Ellington’s 1939 tour of Europe, Billy also took part in a quartet session which would be much-celebrated over the years, a meeting of three Ellingtonians and the great gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Reinhardt had recorded with American jazz stars visiting Paris – including the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Bill Coleman, Dicky Wells and Eddie South – since 1935. On April 5th of 1939, a session was organized in Paris with cornetist Rex Stewart, clarinettist Barney Bigard, Taylor and Django, under the none too original name of Rex Stewart and His Feetwarmers. Sonny Greer was to have played drums, but simply didn’t turn up and for a time they toyed with the idea of having French jazz critic Hughes Panassie take his place, but happily this was scuppered. One can only shudder and imagine how stiff the drumming of such a narrow-minded critic as Pannassie would have been, especially in such fast company. They went ahead without Greer, though Bigard plays drums briefly on one track. The absence of drums and piano gave the group more space and a lighter texture, making this session one of the earliest and best examples of what came to be known as “chamber jazz.” This hot-yet-light music was a direct inspiration for the equally fine Muggsy Spanier-Sidney Bechet Big Four sessions of 1940, with a similar instrumentation, but a more traditional repertoire. Both of these may have also been inspirational to similar chamber jazz units from much later on, such as the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet.

The Paris quartet played five numbers – one standard (“I Know That You Know”) and four originals (including Taylor’s “Finesse”) – but one wishes they’d played twenty. Simply put, everyone is in peak form and each track offers a succession of brilliant solos. The music is unique and charming, it’s one of the great small-group swing sessions ever done. The intimate quiet of the group particularly suits Bigard, he’s very eloquent and relaxed here and has rarely sounded better. The accidental absence of drums also highlights the interplay between Django and Billy Taylor as a rhythm section; needless to say, Reinhardt is his usual arresting self as a soloist. Taylor isn’t given any bass solos because he simply wasn’t interested in them, but his playing here is elegant and light, his notes and lines supple and propulsive. He sounds quite modern, utterly at ease in such heady company and apart from the many fine records he made with Ellington and related groups, this session alone ensures Taylor a small bit of immortality.

The Arrival of Jimmie Blanton – In October of 1939, the Ellington band was playing a two-week engagement in St. Louis. After one of the gigs a number of the men, including Sonny Greer, went to an after-hours joint called the Rhumboogie Club, whose house band, the Blue Devils, would later include Miles Davis. The bassist was Jimmie Blanton, who had just turned 21 and his playing set everyone on their ears, jaws fell open. Duke had gone back to the hotel to sleep; Greer called and awoke him, insisting he come right over and hear this kid play. Duke did and knew immediately he had to have Blanton, hiring him on the spot.

It’s hard to imagine the impact Blanton’s playing must have had then on first hearing, although it still sounds special even today. He was light years ahead of any other jazz bassist, both musically and technically. His pizzicato technique and articulation were just phenomenal; his lines included eigth- and sixteenth-notes, triplets, double-stops and he was capable of playing intricate, piano-like interjections at fast tempos. His tone was massive and focused, his intonation centered. His notes were much longer than those of previous bassists, as he plucked the strings with the long, fleshy part of the finger parallel to the fingerboard (as close to the bridge as possible), instead of at a right angle to it. His left-hand technique amplified this, as he formed notes on the balls of his fingertips with his hand arched properly like classically-trained bassists did. This gave his notes more clarity and ring, as opposed to the deadening “clutch and grab” method used by many bassists back then. Blanton could also bow, though his arco work was less assured than Slam Stewart’s and revealed some slight pitch problems, as bowing almost always does. He also had tremendous melodic imagination and a very advanced sense of harmony for that time. All of this combined to make Blanton both the first great bass soloist in jazz and a great rhythm section player – his beat was very alive and lifting – and it was this double-edged completeness that made his playing so incredible, so game-changing.

Ellington knew he had to have Blanton, but the problem remained…. what to do with Billy Taylor? Duke didn’t want to fire him, and indeed Taylor had done nothing to deserve this. He was both admired and popular in the band for a number of reasons, not the least of which was he was a terrific cook. Often on road trips, Billy would take up a collection, find a kitchen and whip up a soul-food feast for the guys to eat backstage or on Pullman cars. Duke went to his tried-and-true method of doing nothing and having the two bassists play together, hoping that it would get to be too much for Taylor.

It didn’t take long. In the middle of a set during a January, 1940 engagement in Boston, Taylor suddenly put down his bass in disgust and leaned in to Duke at the piano, saying, “I’m not going to stand up here next to that young boy playing all that bass and be embarrassed.” And with that, he packed up his bass and left for good.

This had to have been both humiliating and hurtful for Taylor; there was a cruelty to Ellington’s passive-aggressive method and a direct dismissal would have been quicker and more humane. There was certainly some grumbling in the Ellington ranks about Taylor’s treatment, though no resentment toward Blanton on anyone’s part, including Taylor’s. Aside from being a great bassist, Blanton was a sweet kid, “a living doll” in the words of pianist Jimmy Rowles. Taylor was in the lonely position of being the only member of the band not able to fully enjoy Blanton, everybody else immediately loved him. He “fit the band like a glove” as trombonist Lawrence Brown put it.

Other bassists in that period had to deal with the gauntlet thrown down by the challenges and implications of Blanton’s futuristic playing, had to suddenly face their own relative obsolescence and inadequacies. Younger ones such as Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown idolized Blanton, were inspired by him and could take up this challenge. Many of the older, established bassists must have felt insecure or threatened by him. But like Wally Pipp before him, only Billy Taylor had to look this so straight in the face, only he had to stand so close to the fire.

It might have broken a lesser man or bassist, but Taylor didn’t lick his wounds on the shelf for long. His years with Ellington left him with a solid reputation and, as noted earlier, he was now available and snapped up by some of the best men in jazz. Though initially dispiriting, his departure from Ellington had a silver lining, as in many ways the 1940s were the best years of his career. He became something of a trailblazer in his own right with regard to racially integrated studio work. He also made many fine small-group jazz sessions, including six for the H.R.S label. His first H.R.S session, under Jack Teagarden’s leadership in 1940, yielded music on a par with the 1939 Reinhardt sides, earning Taylor a further sliver of jazz immortality.

It’s striking that Wally Pipp and Billy Taylor were not deposed from just any organizations, but from the most prestigious ones in their respective fields – the New York Yankees, and Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra. Unfortunately, there is a further, much darker similarity in the Pipp-Gehrig-Taylor-Blanton parallels. Like Gehrig, Blanton would die prematurely from a disease, though even more tragically and at a much younger age. In late 1941, while playing with the Ellington band in Los Angeles, Blanton fell ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He entered a hospital there and later was admitted to a local sanitarium where he remained until his death on June 30, 1942. He was just 23, it was an unspeakable loss; sometimes genius exacts a heavy toll. Incredibly, Charlie Christian – Blanton’s parallel innovator on jazz guitar – succumbed to the same disease in March of ’42, at age 25. Jimmie Blanton’s brutal schedule and musical intensity certainly hastened his decline; he often played himself ragged on stage, his shirt and jacket soaked through with sweat. As an inveterate late-night jammer he slept very little and this helped to bring on his condition; it was much the same with Christian.

Lou Gehrig died much too young, but at least his career was in its twilight when he was stricken, he’d had most of his innings. Blanton’s had barely begun, yet he achieved so much in such a short time and luckily, records have preserved his brilliant work forever, enabling his influence to be felt to this very day. Jazz is not quite afforded the same central place in American culture as baseball, there was no Hall of Fame for Blanton to enter. Make no mistake though, if there were a jazz Cooperstown, Blanton would have long ago been unanimously enshrined.

So there it is, the oddly concentric web of fate linking these men. Life holds trials and burdens for all of us; Wally Pipp and Billy Taylor bore theirs like the good people and solid pros they were. Though thrust into the shadows of history, they at least lived to a decent age and had good careers doing what they each loved. As for the early deaths of Gehrig and Blanton, nobody can really explain or understand such things. Sometimes great ones consume themselves, like Arthur Rimbaud or Charlie Parker. In other instances, geniuses such as Ellington or Louis Armstrong walk among us for a good long while. And sometimes, giants are taken far too early, seemingly for no reason at all. If nothing else, maybe this demonstrates that whatever forces rule the universe – call them God, or what you will – they ensure that no one gets everything, and nobody gets anything for free. There are always dues to be paid, some heavier than others.

© 2013 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Surviving Greatness: Wally Pipp & Billy Taylor

  1. One pleasant footnote about Billy Taylor shows him being imposed, not deposed. In 1945, Leonard Feather briefly ran a record label called Continental that he mainly used to get jazz musicians to record his own tunes. He recruited Mary Lou Williams for an “all-girl” date, which she despised in principle but finally agreed to. Feather recruited the band. At the session, Mary Lou was pretty happy with Margie Hyams on vibes and Mary Osborne on guitar, but she couldn’t tolerate the bass player. So she fired her and brought in “Bea Taylor,” a ringer among the “Girl Stars.”

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