Unsung Bassists, Part Three

The series continues with a look at the fine veteran West Coast bassist Buddy Clark, and two very good, mostly unknown bassists: Don Prell and William Austin, whose careers were almost as brief and obscure as Gary Mapp’s, but not quite.

3. Buddy Clark – Buddy Clark was a very good bassist on the L.A. scene from the early ’50s on into the ’80s, who’s often overlooked. He’s become a favourite of mine in random, incremental installments through the years because his career, though busy, followed an intermittent pattern of jazz exposure intermingled with anonymous studio work. I first became aware of him through hearing Supersax in the early ’70s; he was co-founder and co-leader of the band along with Med Flory, and did a lot of the arranging of Charlie Parker’s solos for five saxophones.

Over the years since then, I would hear him on jazz records here and there (often without knowing who was playing at first) and was always very impressed by the rhythmic flow of his playing. There’s something about the combination of his firm, full sound, his ringing, slightly percussive attack, his note choices and his placement of the quarter-note just slightly on top of the beat, that add up to a very clear, propulsive time-feel. He always seemed to get things off the ground. In this respect his playing is quite similar to Leroy Vinnegar’s, though Vinnegar was funkier, had more personality and inventiveness in his playing than Clark, was more of a dyed-in-the-wool jazz player and hence was better recognized. Clark was a more well-rounded player with a skill set better suited to studio work. For example, he was a veteran of several big bands early in his career, and an excellent sight-reader. That Clark was white didn’t hurt either.

In a jazz context he’s always sounded terrific to me and he was an interesting (if infrequent) soloist as well. So I’m often perplexed when I bring his name up in discussions with other musicians (including some bassists) and am often greeted with either a blank stare – as in “Who is Buddy Clark?” – or a shrug of indifference, as in “He’s nothing special, just another L.A. studio hack.” I’ve never quite understood this and it’s part of the reason I’ve included Buddy in this series; he’s very under-recognized.

There are strong parallels between Clark’s bass playing and the drumming of Mel Lewis; in fact, these two would have a close relationship as a rhythm section from 1957 through 1961. Like Lewis, Clark was noted for his ability to propel a big band and, also like Lewis, his playing was equally effective in small groups. Both men essentially took a small-group approach to big band playing and simply turned up the intensity a couple of notches. There is much more in the playing of each man than first meets the ear. Neither one of them exactly hits you over the head, but together they sounded awfully good.

Clark was born Buddy Goldberg on July 10, 1929, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He first took up the piano and then the trombone; he would play the piano throughout his career. He switched to bass in high school and studied at the Chicago Music College in the late ’40s, playing with Bud Freeman while there and also with the modern trombonist and arranger Bill Russo, an early indication of Buddy’s versatility. After graduating, he moved to L.A. and spent 1951-54 touring with the big bands of Tex Beneke and Les Brown. These were more commercial dance bands than jazz bands, but Brown’s was the very best of these and Clark no doubt gained a lot of valuable experience, discipline and a strong reputation from working with such a top-notch band. He gave up the road life and settled into a busy schedule of live and studio work in L.A., both of a jazz and commercial nature.

Buddy worked with the Dave Pell octet (where he may have first met Mel Lewis), Andre Previn, Peggy Lee, Chico Hamilton’s quintet and Red Norvo, as well as doing general film, TV and studio work. To give some idea of the range of this, Clark was the bassist on Richie Valens’ 1958 No. 1 hit “La Bamba” and for a time in the ’60s he worked with Lawrence Welk’s television band, which, while corny, was also stocked with first-rate musicians and paid very well. He even turns up in a couple of movies with jazz-oriented scores, playing himself. As a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet in 1957, he appears in The Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. The very jazzy score by Elmer Bernstein makes liberal use of Hamilton’s band, both on and off-screen.

In 1960, Clark played bass and appeared on camera as a member of Gerry Mulligan’s band in The Subterraneans, nowhere near as good a film, but of interest to jazz fans. Mulligan actually has a sizeable acting role playing a reverend in it, and the excellent jazz score is by Andre Previn, whose trio with Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne appear backing Carmen McRae, playing herself. Mulligan also appears as himself, leading a band including Art Farmer, Bill Perkins, Bob Enevoldsen, Russ Freeman, Clark and Dave Bailey. This came on the heels of Mulligan’s appearance in the groundbreaking I Want To Live, with another great jazz score done by Johnny Mandel. It was all just part of being an L.A.-based musician in those days.

Mel Lewis left Stan Kenton’s big band in 1957, enabling him to do more freelance jazz and recording work; he and Buddy Clark would hook up on a couple of interesting jazz records done in July. The first of these was Flute Fraternity, a two-flute encounter for Mode Records between Buddy Collette and Herbie Mann, visiting from New York. The excellent rhythm section was completed by pianist Jimmy Rowles and that same week, Mann would use them and trumpeter Jack Sheldon on perhaps the most unusual (and for me, the best) record of his career, The Great Ideas of Western Mann, which came out on Riverside. It’s unusual because Mann doesn’t play any flute on it at all, just bass clarinet, an instrument he played very well but rarely. Sheldon also sounds terrific, but it’s the rhythm section that keeps me coming back to this record, they’re wondrous. Fluid, cohesive, tasteful, swinging, beautifully balanced with tremendous lift.

Leroy Vinnegar would also record with Rowles and Lewis a bit later on, with Jimmy Witherspoon and with Gerry Mulligan and Ben Webster on their celebrated encounter. It was hearing Clark and Vinnegar with the same rhythm section partners that led me to notice the similarity between them. Vinnegar is my favourite time-playing bassist, but Clark sounds almost as good with these guys, which is saying something. Buddy and Mel Lewis would record together again in late 1959 on the wonderful Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges, with pianist Claude Williamson completing the rhythm section.

Clark took some time off from Red Norvo in the summer of 1959 to do a European tour with the Jimmy Guiffre 3, which would provide a more challenging and intimate context than he was accustomed to. In 1958, Giuffre had replaced the bass with Bob Brookmeyer’s valve trombone as the third voice in the trio to go along with Jim Hall’s guitar. He would return to the bass in ’59, recording albums with Ray Brown and Red Mitchell. The trio with Clark played a concert at Rome’s Teatro Adriano in June, sharing the bill with Gerry Mulligan’s Quartet and (of course) it was recorded, but the material was not released until a few years ago. The four longish tracks show Clark to be entirely at ease in the group, sounding very authoritative, yet relaxed. The chamber setting really shows off his rich, supple tone and he gets some solo room here in which he shines. His solos are more rhythmic than linear, very intelligent and show a strong blues feeling. I wish Giuffre had done a full studio album with Buddy, he sounded really good with the trio. If you look closely, you can detect a pattern here: Buddy wasn’t quite Leroy Vinnegar, Ray Brown or Red Mitchell, they were jazz stars who would be called ahead of him. But Clark was versatile and capable enough to fill in for each of them without much of a drop in quality, if any. Over the next three years, Buddy would make his own mark in a context that didn’t offer him much of a spotlight, but was one he was made for – playing in two great big bands.

Early in 1959, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs put together a big band with the best of L.A.’s jazz and studio players, eventually called the Dream Band. It was mostly a labour of love, the band was never a touring unit or money-making proposition. Between March of ’59 and January of ’61, they settled into a series of gigs on the dark nights (Sunday through Tuesday) of three big Sunset strip clubs – the Seville, the Sundown and the Summit, attracting a large, enthusiastic following of fans, critics, musicians and celebrities. The great Bill Holman did the bulk of the arrangements and other good writers like Manny Albam, Al Cohn, Bob Brookmeyer, Marty Paich and Sy Johnson contributed charts here and there. There were some small shifts in personnel, but mostly it was consistent – Al Porcino, Ray Triscari, Johnny Audino, Conte Candoli and Stu Williamson on trumpets. Frank Rosolino, Vern Friley and Bob Edmondson on trombones. Charlie Kennedy and Joe Maini on altos (with “Crazy” Joe playing lead and soloing.) The tenors were Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca (almost as good a match as Al and Zoot) and Jack Nimitz played baritone. The rhythm section had various pianists (Pete Jolly, Lou Levy, Pat Moran) and of course Mel and Buddy – the Lewis and Clark expedition. Weaving through it all and soloing (along with Candoli, Williamson, Rosolino, Maini and Kamuca) was the dervish Gibbs on vibes.

The great engineer Wally Heider, a master of remote recording, taped the band on selected nights. The earliest from March ’59 were released as The Dream Band, and they made a studio album called Swing Is Here in 1960. The rest of the live recordings yielded four albums that were not released until the mid-’80s, all of them excellent. Although not especially innovative (and maybe featuring vibes more than some would like), the Gibbs band was incredibly thrilling and powerful. It had everything you could ask for in a big band – precise sectional playing, great soloists and charts, tremendous teamwork and spirit. It was a thundering, joyous, swinging band, considered by many one of the best ever.

Even with all these assets, perhaps the band’s greatest strength was its rhythm section – Clark and Lewis were incomparable, just burning at every turn. Mel Lewis had already garnered a reputation as a great big band drummer for his earlier work with Boyd Raeburn and Stan Kenton, and rightly so. But Buddy Clark deserved at least as much credit for the drive in Gibbs’ band, which he never quite received because the drums are much more noticeable than the bass. Lewis was a very relaxed drummer who never rushed once in his life, if anything he had a tendency to settle and maybe even slow down very slightly now and then. He had a gorgeous, sustained cymbal sound and the best way for a bassist to play with him was to put the quarter note just slightly ahead of the ride cymbal stroke. He was strong enough as a drummer to handle this, so smart bassists like Vinnegar and Clark (amd later on Bill Crow and Richard Davis) played just on top of the beat to great effect with Mel. Together, Clark and Lewis created a wide, sizzling pulse, secure yet very forward-moving.

At about the same time and 3,000 miles away in New York, Gerry Mulligan was preparing to put together a big band of his own, the Concert Jazz Band. After spending most of the ’50s leading small groups, Mulligan did a good Columbia big band record of his arrangements in 1957, and he developed an itch to do more. Here’s how he conceived of his new band:

“I wanted the same clarity of sound and interplay of lines that I had in the smaller groups. We have a clarinet in the reed section, not primarily for a clarinet-lead effect but for a sound contributing to the ensemble in general. As for the soloists, I wanted to use just a few men for the bulk of the solo work, so that they would be heard enough for the audience to become familiar with their style.” 

It would be smaller than most big bands with three trumpets, three trombones (one of them bass trombone) and four reeds – two altos (with the lead alto often doubling on clarinet), one tenor and a section baritone (apart from Mulligan’s). The rhythm section would be chordless, just bass and drums, though Mulligan or Bob Brookmeyer would play piano occasionally as a featured instrument. Mulligan also wanted each horn section free to play spontaneous riffs behind the soloists, who would be himself, Brookmeyer, tenor (Zoot Sims in the early days and later Jimmy Reider, who sounded an awful lot like Zoot) and one of the trumpets.

Mulligan appointed Bob Brookmeyer straw boss, in charge of hiring, firing, general organizing, and Brookmeyer also handled a lot of the writing (Mulligan did surprisingly few charts.) Al Cohn, Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel and the hot new arranger in town, Gary McFarland, also contributed arrangements. From its beginning in January, 1960 through June, the band did a lot of rehearsing, some club and concert gigs and some recording of material that wasn’t issued. There was a lot of potential but one major problem persisted: the rhythm section. Bill Takas on bass and Dave Bailey on drums – both from Mulligan’s quartet – just didn’t feel right here, they weren’t driving the band. Bailey was a superlative small-group player but had no big band experience (which showed) and Takas had too light a sound to be heard properly in the larger group.

In mid-June, the band travelled to California to do a one-nighter at the Hollywood Bowl. Brookmeyer stayed with his old friend Mel Lewis and the next day, Lewis took him to a rehearsal of the Dream Band. As soon as he heard it, Brookmeyer was floored, thinking, “Jesus, we sound like fucking amateurs – this is a band!” Without even asking Mulligan and, in the time-honoured tradition of old bandleaders like Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, Brookmeyer simply raided the Gibbs band, hiring Mel Lewis, Buddy Clark and trumpeter Conte Candoli on the spot to play in the CJB.

These three fit the band like a glove and the CJB really got rolling after their arrival. They played a celebrated concert at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 1, followed by two weeks at the Village Vanguard and recorded their first album on July 25 and 27. After another two weeks at the Vanguard in September, the band flew to the West Coast and began a California tour, followed by a cross-country trip back to the east in a bus, with Zoot Sims back aboard as a guest soloist. They went to western Europe for a three-week tour in November; by this point the band had been playing almost constantly since July and was really steaming. My favourite recording of them is an unofficial one from their Paris concert on November 19, 1960, which captures them in very loose but great form, beautifully recorded. Buddy Clark and Mel Lewis are brilliant, much as they were with the Dream Band, except that the writing in the CJB is much more interesting and original and there is much more room for stretching out. Clark is featured in some walking solos that show a fat growl down low and an amazing ability to walk up high on the bass, the notes shorter but still ringing, creating a lot of tension and release. There’s a singular 21-minute performance of Mulligan’s “Spring Has Sprung”, which starts out sounding like a very lyrical tune but is actually a mid-tempo blues. After grinding out chorus after chorus of perfect quarter-notes behind various soloists (Brookmeyer, Sims, Gene Quill, two dueling trumpets and Mulligan on piano) for 16 minutes, Clark takes an arresting, swinging bass solo, with bluesy melodic phrases interspersed with walking tenths. It’s a testament both to his musicality and stamina, one of his finest moments on record.

After the European tour Clark and Candoli left the band and returned to the West Coast but Lewis elected to stay on, living and working in L.A. till 1963, but commuting to work with the CJB, a deep commitment on his part. Eventually he made the move to New York permanently, a turning point in his career. Clark’s place in Mulligan’s band was taken by Bill Crow, who also went on to form an excellent rhythm partnership with Lewis; Conte Candoli was replaced by the great Clark Terry. From a jazz perspective, returning to L.A. might not have been the wisest move on Buddy’s part, but there were other factors involved. He had a home and family there, plus professional roots and connections that he didn’t want to disrupt by moving to New York, whereas Mel Lewis was single. The CJB lasted intermittently through 1964, making five albums in all and establishing Lewis as a force on the NY scene; in its break-up lay the seeds of the famous big band Lewis would co-lead with Thad Jones for so many years. Apart from Basie and Ellington, the CJB is my favourite big band; though short-lived, it was very special in combining the virtues of small group jazz with the possibilities of a larger ensemble.

At any rate, the timing of Clark’s return home was not great, as the live jazz scene in L.A. was quickly dying. He spent most of the 1960s doing generic studio work and whatever jazz playing he could. Supersax was born in 1972 out of his desire to get back to playing jazz and through hanging out with his old friend, the veteran saxophonist Med Flory, who had played in the Dream Band and many others through the years. Flory had three transcriptions of Charlie Parker solos that he’d arranged for a five-man sax section and Clark loved the sound, so they decided to put a band together devoted to doing more of this. They assembled a crack saxophone section of veterans Flory and Joe Lopes on alto, Jay Migliori and Warne Marsh on tenor and Jack “The Admiral” Nimitz on baritone; the rhythm section would be Clark on bass, Ronnell Bright or Lou Levy on piano, with the great Jake Hanna on drums. Generally they had a guest soloist to spell the saxophonists and provide more improvisation – trumpeter Conte Candoli or Frank Rosolino on trombone. Clark did a lot of the arranging in expanding the band’s book, voicing out Bird’s great solos in four-voice block-style harmony, with the baritone doubling the lead alto an octave below.

The band was an instant success, touring and playing many clubs and jazz festivals and making a series of albums for Capitol. I heard them live at the Belvedere King Size Jazz Festival in July of 1974, a two-day extravaganza held at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, featuring the big bands of Woody Herman, Count Basie, Louis Bellson and other great artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Buddy DeFranco, Jack Wilkins and many others. The Supersax set on the first night was memorable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, their saxophone music didn’t arrive with them, a big problem because that was the core of their repertoire. They adapted to this on the fly by actually playing some of the material by memory, which was very impressive in itself, but also by opening up the tunes to more solos by the saxophonists, something many of their fans had been wanting for a while. So I got to hear lots of Warne Marsh that night, and to realize what good players Jay Migliori and Med Flory were. It was the first time I heard Jake Hanna live and what a marvelous rhythm team he and Clark made. I also realized for the first time that some guys are eye players and some are ear players – Jack Nimitz swung like crazy playing the Bird solos on baritone, which isn’t easy, but when he improvised… well, not so much. And secondly, Dizzy Gillespie made a spontaneous guest appearance, dashing onstage from the wings to play brilliantly with them, making up for a pretty perfunctory set with his quartet earlier in the day.

Buddy Clark left the group after 1975 for reasons I’m not privy to; Flory kept it going with various other people through the later ’70s, but the band’s peak years were 1972-75. I never met Buddy, but strangely enough I met his son Todd under unexpected circumstances. I played Donte’s in L.A. a couple of times with The Boss Brass in the 1980s and Todd was one of the bartenders, along with a grizzled, older guy named Bob. They were a hilarious but effective, good-cop-bad-cop tag-team behind the bar. Someone introduced me and mentioned Todd was Buddy’s son, and he was delighted that not only did I know of his dad, but I was a big fan. Todd played some bass himself, mostly electric, rock and funk, he was a very nice guy. At the end of three nights of playing and fairly serious drinking, I went to settle my tab, and the pair looked me straight in the eye and said “That’ll be twelve dollars” which was a joke, it had to have been more like a hundred, but they wouldn’t budge. I gave them each a twenty and called it even.

Buddy Clark stayed fairly active through the 1980s and died June 8, 1999 at 69. I’ll never understand why he isn’t respected more, but I often turn to his records with the Dream Band or the CJB just for the sheer pleasure of hearing them, but also to be reminded of what a rhythm section in a big band is supposed to sound and feel like. Not that there’s much call for that kind of thing anymore.

***

4 a) – Don Prell. When 20-year-old saxophonist Bud Shank arrived in L.A. from Ohio in 1946, one of the first people he met was a young bassist named Don Prell. Prell was heavily involved in classical music and studying orchestral bass, but also had a keen interest in modern jazz; the two hit it off musically and personally and remained friends for life. Shank would do much in the next nine years to establish himself on the West Coast jazz scene: first playing in Charlie Barnet’s big band, then lead alto with Stan Kenton and later with the Lighthouse All-Stars as well as becoming a studio regular. He also did some innovative things he didn’t receive much credit for, like becoming the first modern jazz flautist and recording the earliest bossa nova records with Laurindo Almeida, almost a decade before Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd. By late 1955 he decided to put together his own group to play more straight-ahead, less experimental-composed music. It was a quartet with Claude Williamson on piano, Prell on bass and a very good 22-year-old drummer named Chuck Flores.

Williamson was one of the best and hardest-swinging of the L.A. jazz pianists and Flores had just come off a stint impressing everyone with his ability to kick Woody Herman’s band along (this edition was known as the Road Band, but Woody himself called it the “Un-Herd” because so few seemed to have heard it.) Bud could have hired someone more established on bass, but chose his old friend Prell, who Shank thought would sound good between these two and who didn’t have a lot of conflicting commitments. Shank secured a steady gig at The Haig, the same small club that had launched Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet a few years earlier. It was a great, intimate place to play and the group developed a real rapport and loyal audience there.

They would record their first album, The Bud Shank Quartet, for Pacific Jazz in January, 1956. Though Shank had been at the very centre of West Coast jazz activity for years, this band didn’t play West Coast jazz, whatever that meant. (West Coast jazz as a term was invented by East Coast critics and I’ve never liked it because it’s willfully confusing, among other things.) This band was playing straight-up, swinging bebop, with a repertoire of standards, jazz tunes and a few originals. They used minimal arrangements, just some intros and endings to keep things tidy. On alto, Shank was heavily into Charlie Parker with touches of Lee Konitz and Art Pepper, on tenor he sounded a bit like Zoot Sims. His flute playing was wholly original, but he played it less with this group. Williamson was deeply into Bud Powell and comped along the boiling, percussive lines of Horace Silver, though a bit smoother. Flores was influenced mostly by Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones, he’s quite fiery, with lots of bombs and accents.

Whether by design or not, Don Prell would take a very simple, four-on-the-floor approach to playing in this rhythm section and it really worked. He mostly played straight quarter-notes, fairly long but with a definite beginning and end to each one, which held things together nicely with his more active mates. The overall effect is a very orderly swinging, balanced time-feel. It takes a while to appreciate what Prell is doing and maybe only other bass players would fully get it, but this is the right approach with this kind of rhythm section. It’s a dirty job, but when the piano and drums are active, playing lots of cross-rhythms and figures together and so on, somebody has to stay at home and supply a bedrock pulse and the bass is the right instrument for it. At any rate, I admire Prell for this and for some other virtues in his playing. Photos from various sessions of the band show him to be playing a very large, full-size bass with a dark varnish. His sound reflects this, it’s very deep and booming and his pitch is spot on.

The Shank quartet played at The Haig from January until July, then hit the road in a big way. From August to October they would play at the Newport Jazz Festival, weeks in Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, Hartford, Washington, D.C., a concert at the New York Jazz Festival, Washington and Detroit again, Chicago, the Colonial Tavern in Toronto, a concert in Buffalo, Boston, then Chicago again. They returned to California a very seasoned band, playing a series of November dates at Jazz City in Hollywood, then back to The Haig in December.

They took advantage of all this road-hardening by recording two more Pacific Jazz albums in November, each an improvement on their promising debut issue. November 7-8 yielded The Bud Shank Quartet Featuring Claude Williamson and November 29 brought Bud Shank Plays Tenor, my favourite of the lot. Shank sounds relaxed and great on his original instrument, which he hadn’t played all that much for some years. The rhythm section has really jelled and there’s more variety in their approach – just Prell behind Shank on some choruses, sometimes just Flores, and Prell has begun to find his voice as a soloist. There’s also maybe some extra fire here because they knew Flores was about to be drafted.

This is one of the all-time great blindfold test records, I’ve been both the victim and the victimizer with it. Because Shank played tenor so rarely, nobody would guess it was him and I started guessing all kinds of players who sound generally similar, without really listening – Zoot Sims, Bob Cooper, Jack Montrose, Richie Kamuca, Bill Holman, Bill Perkins. It’s only once you get past the tenor and listen to the musical content – the phrasing and ideas – that you realize it sounds just like Bud Shank (after you’ve been told it’s him, of course.)

The quartet did a tour of South Africa in 1958, with Jimmy Pratt replacing Flores on drums. They made quite an impression and recorded there at the urging of the local fans, even though Pacific Jazz wasn’t willing to finance an album. Soon after this, the quartet disbanded, one of the problems being that The Haig had been sold and bulldozed, leaving the band without a home base. These two years and four albums with Shank mark the bulk of Don Prell’s jazz career, but for happy reasons. In 1959, he auditioned for and won a chair in the bass section of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He remained for over 35 years, eventually working his way up to Principal Bass and retiring in 1995. He returned to jazz playing after this, leading a small group called Sea Bop, playing around the Bay Area. I’m assuming he’s still alive – he would be in his eighties by now – there are recent entries on YouTube of the group and Prell looks amazingly similar to 1956 photos I’ve seen of him – a little older, grayer and heavier but intact.

Making the transition from playing jazz to classical music (or vice versa) is not easy and Prell is one of the rare bassists to pull this off. He wasn’t a sensational jazz bassist, but was good enough to have played and recorded with one of the better West Coast bands during a peak period of activity, all of their records are well worth hearing. Good bass player, unique career.

4 b) – William Austin. About six years ago, I did a tour of Brazil with David Braid’s sextet and just before I left my son Lee gave me an iPod as a gift, loaded up with hundreds of jazz goodies. Among these was Breakin’ It Up, the first record by Barry Harris as a leader. My favourite track from it is “Bluesky”, a medium tempo, Bud Powell-style blues. One day while waiting around for our luggage to arrive at an airport, I dialled up this track and gave Braid the earphones, figuring he’d enjoy the snaky, laid-back, horn-like blues playing. Nobody does this better than Barry Harris, not even Bud Powell. After listening intently for a few minutes, David took off the phones and said, “Who is that bass player ?!? The big, fat sound and the way he joins those long quarter-notes together – he sounds fantastic!” I was a little surprised that he didn’t mention Barry Harris, but David is a very perceptive listener and he was right, the bass player does sound fantastic here – it’s William Austin.

Austin was one of the younger and lesser-known musicians of the 1950s Detroit jazz scene which produced so many great bebop players, known as “The Detroit Wave”. It began with a few guys in the ’40s – tenor saxophonists Lucky Thompson and Wardell Gray, pianist Hank Jones, bassist Al McKibbon, trumpeter Howard McGhee and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. It reached a peak about a decade later with too many people to mention, but key ones included guitarist Kenny Burrell, pianists Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan, trombonist Curtis Fuller, baritonist Pepper Adams, trumpeters Thad Jones and Donald Byrd, bassists Doug Watkins, Paul Chambers and Ron Carter, drummers Louis Hayes and Elvin Jones. These and many more came up playing together on the hyper-active Motor City scene and many of the best – including all of the above – left for New York between 1954 and 1958, making an immediate impact there.

Will Austin was a little younger than these men and the migration of Watkins, Chambers and Carter opened up more room for him and some of the other less established bass players. These included Beans Richardson (who played with everybody), Alvin Jackson (brother of drummer Oliver), Ali Jackson (Milt’s brother), Ray McKinney (part of another Detroit three-brother musical family like the Jones boys) and Ernie Farrow, whose sister Alice would become John Coltrane’s second wife.

Austin played a lot with the wonderful drummer Frank Gant, who would leave Detroit for New York in 1960 and went on to have a long, productive jazz career. They played together in the Harris trio 1957-58 and with Yusef Lateef’s quintet 1958-9. On July 31, 1958, Harris took Austin and Gant to Chicago to record Breakin’ It Up for Argo. It has a mixed program of originals, bebop tunes and standards and has become my favourite Barry Harris record. Harris made a lot of good ones and he himself plays consistently well on all of them, but what sets this one apart for me is the bass-drums team. They’re just so together, they’d done so much playing as a unit that they phrase as one. I’ve played a number of times with Harris and he makes some very specific demands of a rhythm section having to do with bebop style – things like relaxation, space, phrasing, dynamics, rhythmic elasticity and pressure; Gant and Austin deliver these better than any other guys I’ve heard with Harris, including some pretty big names.

The very next day the trio would back Sonny Stitt on his Burnin’ and it’s more of the same. It’s an entirely typical Stitt quartet date (a lot of his were) which benefits from this dancing, expert bebop rhythm section. Not a bad two day’s work for the little-known Austin and Gant.

Yusef Lateef used Austin and Gant in his quintet during a long run at Klein’s Showbar, one of Detroit’s main jazz clubs. Pianist Terry Pollard (she also played good vibes) was a mainstay of the group, which included a good, little-known baritone saxophonist named Frank Morelli. This group recorded four numbers in concert at the Cranbrook Arts Academy on April 8, 1958 which would be released on Argo as Live At Cranbrook. The album would be completed with some studio quartet tracks with Lateef and the Harris trio. It’s not clear when these were done – Lateef’s early discography is a bit sketchy – maybe when the trio recorded the other sides in Chicago.

Later in 1958, Bernard McKinney replaced Morelli in the quintet, playing euphonium, which essentially sounds like a trombone. They recorded ten selections on June 11, 1959, which would yield two Savoy albums, The Dreamer and The Fabric of Jazz. This was part of a series of albums Lateef made for the label, taking his quintets by train to New York on Sundays, then returning by Tuesday in time for their live gig. Austin and Gant again sound great here in the context of Lateef’s odd but musical blend of bebop and Asian exotica.

These sides would be the last of Will Austin’s jazz career. He was a good enough player that had he followed Gant to New York in 1960, I’m sure he would have had a long, viable career there. But he was young, maybe lacked the confidence, or maybe he didn’t want to leave Detroit, even though the jazz scene there was drying up quickly. Despite the huge roster of incredible jazz talent and plentiful venues in Detroit during the ’40s and ’50s, there was absolutely no jazz recording done there at all, doubly strange given the amount of pop recording which would be done by Motown in the 1960s. For this reason, the good jazz players who remained in Detroit didn’t get much recognition and had to rely on club work, which evaporated by the early ’60s.

For these reasons, Will Austin enlisted in the military and had a long career playing bass in the U.S. Air Force Band, which provided some security and a steady paycheck along with jazz anonymity, not unlike the case of Don Prell. Will Austin was really good, I highly recommend seeking him out on these records to hear a young walkin’, swingin’ fool, playing bebop bass the way it’s supposed to be played.

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

3 thoughts on “Unsung Bassists, Part Three

  1. u left out FRANK ROSOLINO coming from DETROIT, but u mention CURTIS FULLER. CURTIS couldn’t shine FRANK’S shoes! I quess FRANK wasn’t black enough for u?

    • Hi Basil. First of all, the piece is about bass players, not trombonists, so the relative merits of Rosolino and Fuller aren’t really relevant – if you want to read a piece on this, write it yourself. I heard Rosolino in person many times and played a week once with Curtis Fuller, I happen to be a big fan of both. I didn’t mention Ros coming from Detroit because he was from slightly earlier than the period I was talking about, but also in the interests of brevity – I could have mentioned 40 or 50 other Detroit musicians too, both black and white. As for Ros not being black enough for me, I don’t play that game, so what are you talking about? The context was a piece about William Austin, who was black, and the other two bassists covered earlier in the same piece were white. If you look at the whole bassist series, which isn’t over yet, so far I’ve covered seven black bassists and three white ones. I listen with my ears, not my eyes……suggest you try the same.

  2. I enjoyed this, very informative. Came across this after listening to Johnny Hodges and Gerry Mulligan record while doing my duty going through the Mel Lewis sideman discography. Buddy had such a great sound and feel on that record and so I had to look him up, thanks for writing this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *