The series continues with a look at four bassists who had prolific freelance careers mostly in the mainstream, small-group swing field – John Simmons, Al Hall, Al Lucas and Gene Ramey. These men were born within five years of each other and their careers often overlapped and intersected in the patchwork quilt of New York jazz in the 1940s and ’50s. Sometimes, one would replace another with a given artist; for example, each of them played and recorded extensively with Teddy Wilson at one time or another. Simmons and Lucas each played with Illinois Jacquet and pianist Eddie Heywood in the ’40s; Lucas and Hall were with Mary Lou Williams for a time. Hall and Simmons both played with Erroll Garner, Simmons and Ramey with Thelonious Monk early in his career and also with Art Tatum. If you have multi-CD sets by certain artists – Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Wilson, Jacquet, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young – it’s not unusual to see two or three of these guys in succession. Each of them was well enough regarded during their prime that they worked constantly with a wide range of people, but this very versatility and the passage of time have pushed these fine bassists into the shadows somewhat.
7. a) – John Simmons. I’ve learned over the years that if you want a meaningful assessment of how a given jazz drummer plays, don’t ask another drummer, because they’ve likely never played with the guy in question and are apt to give information that’s too specific or technical. For the inside dope, ask a bassist who’s played with the drummer, they’ll know what he can and can’t do. And above all, what it feels like to play with him, which is all that really counts. The same is true in reverse with bassists – don’t ask another bass player, ask a drummer. I mention this because John Simmons had the distinction of being the favourite bassist of maybe the greatest jazz drummer of them all, Sid Catlett, and was also highly valued by Buddy Rich, no slouch himself. Simmons also had a long rhythmic partnership with the wonderful drummer Shadow Wilson, they played together with all sorts of good people.
Drummers never had to worry when playing with Simmons, he knew where the beat was, he was very secure, strong and flexible and his sound projected through the drums and beyond. Catlett and Rich often used Simmons on their own record dates or aced him on to others where they had some influence over personnel.
Simmons was born in Haskell, Oklahoma on June 14, 1918 and grew up in Tulsa and Los Angeles. He originally played trumpet, but a high school football injury ended that and he took up bass in his late teens. He was completely self-taught and must have been a natural, as he was playing professionally within just four months. He moved to New York in 1937, gaining some experience playing with a very early version of the Nat King Cole Trio and doing some recording with Teddy Wilson. He then moved to Chicago, working with the bands of Jimmy Bell, King Kolax, Floyd Campbell and Johnny Letman for a couple of years. He returned to New York in December, 1940, working with Roy Eldridge. 1941-42 were very busy for Simmons, those years saw him playing in the bands of Benny Goodman, Cootie Williams and Louis Armstrong.
With Goodman, Simmons was part of one of the greatest, scariest rhythm sections ever to play in a big band, alongside pianist Mel Powell, Charlie Christian and Big Sid Catlett. Unfortunately, they weren’t together long, maybe because they frightened their conservative leader along with everybody else. Benny’s indifference to and shabby treatment of Catlett were almost pathological and Simmons left soon after Sid was fired. So did Cootie Williams and he immediately hired Simmons to play in his new band. Simmons also played temporarily with Duke Ellington in October of 1943, when Junior Raglin was briefly in the Army.
Simmons became a member of the NBC Blue Network Radio Orchestra in 1943 and also did a lot of freelance recording and playing (often on 52nd St.) in those years. He was the bassist in the great quartet briefly co-led by Catlett and Ben Webster around then, with the brilliant young Tatum-influenced pianist, Marlowe Morris. They worked on “Swing Street” in 1943-44 and cut six titles in March of 1944 for the Commodore and Session labels. What a state-of-the-art, superb little band it was – loose, swinging, graceful, ageless – one wishes they’d recorded sixty titles instead of just the six.
Fortunately, Webster, Simmons and Big Sid would hook up again in May, 1946 on two sessions done for Signature a week apart. The first was led by the fine guitarist Bill De Arango and has a septet with the above three, Idrees Sulieman on trumpet, Tony Scott on clarinet and Sadik Hakim on piano. The second has Ben’s quintet featuring Al Haig on piano and De Arango with Simmons and Catlett, truly a jet-propulsion rhythm section. The music here is beyond category, neither small-group swing nor bop, but the kind of music you hope to be hearing when you reach the pearly gates. Unless of course you’re in the wrong place, in which case you’re in for a pretty hot time, but at least the music will be swingin’.
Simmons and Big Sid were a magical team and practically inseparable in those years, turning up on two 1944 Blue Note Jazzmen sessions (one featuring Webster) and on an August, 1946 date with Benny Carter and His Chocolate Dandies featuring Webster and Buck Clayton. The Bluenote Jazzmen were a septet that existed in the studio only, with nominal leadership passed between Edmond Hall, Sidney De Paris and James P. Johnson, while also featuring Vic Dickenson and a terrific, under-recognized guitarist named Jimmy Shirley. The repertoire and instrumentation suggest Dixieland, yet the music is anything but, it’s small-group swing of the highest order, played by giants at the very top of their game.
Along with Red Callendar, Simmons is one of the the bassists in Jammin’ the Blues, Gjon Mili’s famous 1944 art-film featuring Lester Young, with Illinois Jacquet, Sweets Edison, Jo Jones and of course Catlett. In 1944-45, he did a lot of other freelance recording around New York with people like Don Byas, Hot Lips Page, Al Casey and Coleman Hawkins. He also maintained a home in L.A. and occasionally jumped out there to do gigs and record, as he did from August, 1945 to 1946, joining Jacquet’s terrific eight-piece jump-band, which recorded a batch of good sides for both Apollo in L.A. and Savoy in N.Y. This band took advantage of the young Jacquet’s sudden stardom and may have provided John with his first encounter with Shadow Wilson, who played drums with Jacquet until 1950. This wailing group combined the power of a big band with the freewheeling flexibility of a smaller one and generally had two trumpets (Emmett Berry, Joe Newman or Russell Jacquet), Henry Coker or J.J. Johnson on trombone, Leo Parker on baritone and Sir Charles Thompson on piano, along with Simmons and Wilson.
He left Jacquet in August of ’46, returning to the freelance scene in New York and making the transition to bebop. He and Shadow Wilson played on a 1948 Milt Jackson/Thelonious Monk quartet date on Blue Note, which yielded some very influential tracks. When Miles Davis was assembling his “Birth of the Cool” nonet in 1948-49, he wanted Simmons for “his big sound and light touch” but John was unavailable, so Davis hired Joe Shulman, who had a similar conception. Simmons and Shadow joined Erroll Garner from 1950-52, forming one of the best trios he ever had. They recorded a lot of material for Columbia which yielded the albums Body & Soul and Long Ago and Far Away, essential Garner.
It seems Simmons spent the years 1950-55 on both coasts, as he did quite a lot of recording in L.A. during that time. He became part of the Verve roster of Norman Granz, turning up on two of the Jam Session records in 1953 – #3 and #4 (with Count Basie, Wardell Gray and Buddy Rich among others) – for me, the best of these. He’s also on a Teddy Wilson trio session for Verve (with Rich) and on some good Verve dates led by Buddy Rich and/or Sweets Edison in 1955. Simmons was in several rhythm sections accompanying Art Tatum and various guests on the massive series of recordings Granz made of the pianist in 1955, eventually issued on Pablo as Art Tatum – The Small Group Masterpieces.
Simmons was back in New York in 1956 and had a busy year. He and Shadow Wilson hooked up again, this time with Tadd Dameron on his superb Prestige album Fontainebleau. As well, Simmons played on Dameron’s encounter with John Coltrane from that year, Mating Call*, with Philly Joe Jones on drums. Simmons also toured and recorded that year in a group called The Birdland All-Stars – with Conte Candoli and Kenny Dorham on trumpets, Phil Woods on alto, Al Cohn on tenor, Hank Jones on piano and Kenny Clarke on drums – not a bad band. 1956 also saw Simmons touring with the Duke Jordan-Rolf Ericson band in Scandinavia.
Simmons worked and recorded with Phineas Newborn Jr. around 1960, but bad health – he had a heart condition among other physical issues – forced him to retire from the music business soon after this. He had a long retirement, his musician’s pension from all the recording he’d done was probably quite healthy. He died at 61 in Orange, N.Y. on September 19, 1979.
John Simmons was an incredibly versatile and supportive bassist and although he came from a slightly earlier time, his playing reminds me a lot of Percy Heath’s. Like Heath, Simmons was unobtrusive, had a deep groove and a sure touch, his bass lines had a sing-song quality and there was an ineffable buoyancy and rightness about everything he did. He was truly a bass player for all seasons.
7. b) – Al Hall. If drummers valued John Simmons, then pianists seemed to treasure Al Hall. He played an awful lot with two of the greatest ever in Teddy Wilson and Erroll Garner, plus shorter stints with two other brilliant ones, Ellis Larkins and Mary Lou Williams. This was likely because of his fine overall musicianship, Hall was a light and graceful player with good technique and intonation. He wasn’t a pounder, but was very tasteful, supple and was often paired with drummers who shared these qualities – J.C. Heard, Specs Powell, Denzil Best and Kenny Clarke. He was a reliable and much-loved fixture on the New York jazz scene – recording, playing clubs, Broadway shows, teaching – for 50 years.
Hall was born March 18, 1915 in Jacksonville, Florida and grew up in Philadelphia. He was serious about music early on, first studying cello and tuba before switching to bass at age 17. He dreamed of a symphonic career, but this wasn’t to be, because symphony orchestras simply didn’t hire black musicians in those days. He worked with local bands before moving to New York in 1936, playing with Billy Hicks and His Sizzlin’ Six (1936-37), Skeets Tolbert (1937-38) and the blues singer Alberta Hunter.
Teddy Wilson left Benny Goodman in 1939 to form his own big band and hired the young Hall to play bass in it. The band would be short-lived, a musical and critical success, but a commercial failure. This was a bitter disappointment for Wilson, who rebounded by forming a tremendous sextet to play a long run at Cafe Society Downtown and other smart clubs. As one would expect of Wilson, this was an elegant, swinging and very musical band, generally with Emmett Berry on trumpet, Benny Morton on trombone, Edmond Hall or Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet, Hall on bass and J.C. Heard, Specs Powell or Sid Catlett on drums and it was a big success in every way.
Hall played with them regularly through 1941 and intermittently afterwards until 1945. He worked with Ellis Larkins from 1942-3 (often in trio or duo settings at clubs like the Blue Angel) and Mary Lou Williams used Hall in her trio in 1944. Hall’s long association with Erroll Garner began in 1943 and would last until 1962, with intermittent but frequent collaborations. Around this time he took a job as a staff musician at CBS, working on the Mildred Bailey Show among others, as well as doing a lot of freelance recording (with singers such as Billie Holiday) and club work.
He was entrepreneurial and a good businessman, which led him to start his own label, Wax Records, in 1946. Hall was house bassist, producer and arranger and the label released twenty titles from four very good sessions through 1947. The music was well-received, generally in a mainstream vein with forward-looking touches, involving some of the very best jazz players in New York. Hall’s own session was an excellent one with a quintet consisting of trumpeter Dick Vance, Ben Webster, pianist Johnny Guarneri and Denzil Best on drums. The label folded in 1947 and its small catalog was bought by Atlantic in 1949.
Hall’s symphonic aspirations may have been foiled by systemic segregation, but he was a racial pioneer on another musical front. He became the first black musician to play in a Broadway musical pit, when he joined the orchestra playing for “Barefoot Boy With Cheek” in 1947. He would later play for runs of “High Button Shoes”, “The Music Man”, “Fiddler On the Roof” and “Gypsy”. He also accompanied pianist-singer Yves Montand in his first one-man show in New York.
He continued to do a lot of freelance jazz recording in the ’50s, with Teddy Wilson and especially Erroll Garner. Hall and drummer Specs Powell were semi-regulars with The Elf then, taking part in a marathon round of sessions for Columbia in 1956 that produced a number of albums, including the best-selling The Most Happy Piano, one of the crown jewels in Garner’s career. In that same period, Al also played on one of Bud Freeman’s finest records, a quintet date for Biograph with Ruby Braff, pianist Ken Kersey and George Wettling on drums.
Hall’s career continued to branch out in the ’60s, as he worked with Benny Goodman, Tiny Grimes, Hazel Scott, Eddie Condon and others, doing some occasional touring. When Alberta Hunter came out of her long retirement Al rejoined her, playing at Gregory’s, the Village Vanguard and other Manhattan clubs from 1977-78. He was a regular on Doc Cheatham’s long run of Sundays at The Cookery, continuing right up to Al’s hospitalization in late 1987. He died of lung cancer at 72 on January 18, 1988, leaving behind two daughters and a son.
His cheery personality and springy, stylish bass playing were such an integral part of the New York jazz scene for so long, it just wouldn’t have been the same at all without Al Hall.
7. c) – Al Lucas. Al Lucas brings some unexpected Canadian content to this series – he was born in Windsor, Ontario on November 16, 1916 – I didn’t realize this until doing some research on him. As a child he studied piano with his mother, who had been a concert pianist, then took up both tuba and bass at age 12. He moved to New York in 1933 and, after a short stint with the veteran swing drummer Kaiser Marshall, joined Doc Wheeler’s Sunset Orchestra, serving a long apprenticeship with them until 1942.
Not much is known about Wheeler’s outfit now, but some digging revealed that they were a good, swinging band (also known as the Sunset Royal Serenaders) that didn’t record much, but were terrific to hear live and dance to. The Sunsetters provided an incubator for other excellent young musicians in the ’30s, such as trumpeters Cat Anderson and Reunald Jones (who would both go on to play with Duke Ellington) and saxophonist Sam “The Man” Taylor. A biography of Tommy Dorsey reveals that the Sunsetters once upstaged Dorsey’s band, cutting them pretty badly at a Philadelphia theatre in 1936 and that Dorsey was thoroughly impressed with their rendition of “Marie”, complete with band background vocals. He traded eight of his arrangements for Wheeler’s chart of “Marie”, had Sy Oliver dress it up a little and it became a huge hit for the always canny Dorsey.
Lucas left the band in 1942 a seasoned, strong, well-respected pro and he began to freelance around New York, recording and appearing with Hot Lips Page, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Erroll Garner, James P. Johnson and violinist Eddie South. He joined pianist Eddie Heywood’s fine sextet (with Doc Cheatham and Vic Dickenson) in 1944-45, playing on Heywood’s hit record of “Begin the Beguine”. Mary Lou Williams hired Lucas in 1946 and he played on the recording of her noted “Zodiac Suite.”
Al recorded as a guest with Duke Ellington’s band on July 24, 1945, playing on two numbers from “The Perfume Suite”, sounding entirely at home. Duke used a number of guest bassists in the studio right around then – Bob Haggart and Sid Weiss preceded Lucas – and I don’t quite know why.
Lucas replaced John Simmons with Illinois Jacquet’s band in late 1946 and would remain through 1953. When Lucas arrived the band was much as described earlier re Simmons, except Joe Newman had replaced Emmett Berry full-time on trumpet and they occasionally added alto saxophone (often Porter Kilbert) and the rhythm guitar of John Collins. If anything, they were even hotter and more popular than before, touring constantly and recording many fine sessions for Aladdin and RCA. RCA’s better distribution really put them over the top, they scored a big triumph at Carnegie Hall, did a tour with Ella Fitzgerald and shared billing in concerts with Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. Al’s work with the band was exemplary, displaying a sturdy sound and a driving, meaty beat that dovetailed with Shadow Wilson and Sir Charles Thompson to really lift the band.
After leaving Jacquet, Lucas rejoined Heywood, who had revived his career after polio-induced hand trouble had sidelined him. Al remained with Heywood from 1954-56, playing on the records of his hit songs “Land of Dreams”, “Soft Summer Wind” and “Canadian Sunset”. Lucas also played and recorded in the ’50s with Ruby Braff, Charlie Byrd and Teddy Wilson, who he worked with quite often. On July 13, 1956 Wilson, Lucas and Jo Jones did a marathon recording session which yielded 24 titles and two full Verve albums, The Impeccable Mr. Wilson and These Tunes Remind Me of You. Both are among Teddy’s finest mid-career records, they’re the epitome of swing-piano trio playing on which Lucas delivers all the goods – time, taste, beautiful notes and bass lines – with great aplomb.
Lucas spent most of the next two decades doing studio work, playing live only rarely. He turns up on albums with all sorts of people – Sonny Stitt, Oliver Nelson, Jacquet, Roy Eldridge, Buddy Tate, Paul Quinichette – always sounding solid and swinging. His old buddy Jacquet coaxed him into some live playing and touring in 1968-69. Lucas died at 66 on June 19, 1983 in New York. He maybe wasn’t quite as well-known as Simmons, Hall or Ramey were in their time, but offered many of the same virtues – swing, consistency, support and weight – he did what a bass player is supposed to do and thus didn’t attract much attention.
7. d) – Gene Ramey. Musically speaking, Gene Ramey was the direct progeny of Walter Page, the original master of walking bass, those four even quarter-notes per bar which have been the heartbeat of so much jazz. The timing and trajectory of Ramey’s career uniquely positioned him to weave the strands of Page’s approach, Kansas City jazz and bebop into one unified, pulsing beat. He was a master of time, space and swing.
Ramey was born April 4, 1913 in Austin, Texas and played a number of instruments while growing up – the ukulele, then the trumpet and a series of lower brass horns – culminating with the tuba. He toured around the Southwest with George Corley’s eleven-piece territory band and stayed until 1932, when he entered Western University in Kansas City. Somewhere in there he’d bought a string bass and set about teaching himself to play it, mostly slapping it at first, without much of an idea of what notes he was playing.
Kansas City in those Boss Pendergast years was like a jazz forerunner to Las Vegas, wide-open and not bound by the strictures of Prohibition, the clock, or conventional morality. Whatever else this modern-day Gomorrah bred, it created an ideal hot-house for music. At all hours, from out of dozens of bars and dance-joints poured the blues in a million shades, boogie-woogie, whores, whiskey, braying trombones, moaning saxophone riffs, blistering jump-tunes, jam sessions, the roaring voices of blues shouters like Jimmy Rushing and Big Joe Turner carrying for blocks, all fuelled by a driving but even 4/4 beat. This rollicking scene spawned two great big bands – Benny Moten’s, and Walter Page’s Blue Devils – which would eventually morph into the Count Basie band.
The young Ramey soaked all of this in, studying the bass with Page both in private and by watching him play nightly. The master taught Ramey not only the fundamentals of the bass, but the finer points of playing in a rhythm section. How to play notes that made a line and told a story just like the soloist was doing. To caress the beat, give it drive but also restraint, to lasso jumpy drummers and bring them into line, to make the quarter-notes lifting and even, balanced and smooth, to be steady. After about two years of this instruction, Gene began to make a name for himself at jam sessions and would find his way to becoming a fixture on the Kansas City scene.
He also became very close friends with Charlie Parker, whom he met in 1934 when Parker was fourteen; the two would remain friends for the rest of Parker’s life. Ramey was at the infamous Reno Club jam session where Parker was ‘gonged’ off the stage when Jo Jones dropped his ride-cymbal at the struggling saxophonist’s feet – “you ain’t makin’ it kid, get out.” Ramey was Parker’s senior by eight years and made the incipient musical giant something of a project after this, keeping an eye on him for the next twenty years and bailing him out of trouble when necessary.
Ramey left K.C. in 1939 with Jay McShann’s jumping blues-based band and Parker, now called “Bird”, would soon follow, becoming its star soloist. Although McShann wouldn’t have the success of Basie’s band, he did have a million-seller with “Confessin’ the Blues”. Ramey remained with the band until the draft caught up to McShann in early 1944; McShann wanted Ramey to take over leadership of the band, but the Rockwell-O’Keefe Agency had other ideas, giving over the reins to blues singer Walter Brown. So Ramey quit and joined Luis Russell’s band at the Reno Club back in K.C. He went on a tour with Russell where he was featured as a soloist, rare for a bassist in that time and something he considered one of the highlights of his career.
He returned to New York in late 1944 and the rest of the decade saw him freelancing with many stars – Billie Holiday, Art Tatum, Lockjaw Davis, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Hot Lips Page, Teddy Wilson, Miles Davis and his old friend Bird. Ramey’s very early exposure to Bird and Lester Young made him more attuned and open-minded to new music than most and he would make the transition to bebop quite easily. For example, he and Art Blakey were with Thelonious Monk’s first trio in 1947, they would record a seminal session for Blue Note on October 24 of that year. Monk valued Ramey for both his rhythmic steadiness and his willingness to play Monk’s chord changes without substitutions.
This adaptability continued in the early ’50s as Ramey appeared and recorded with both bebop and swing groups. He recorded with Illinois Jacquet in 1951, Lou Donaldson in 1952 and was with Count Basie for a period in late 1952. He was in an early version of the Jazz Messengers, co-led by Blakey and Horace Silver in 1953, also appearing on a rare Silver trio session for Blue Note. Ramey was a regular with both Lester Young and Teddy Wilson in the mid-’50s and plays bass on the two albums that reunited these giants – Pres and Teddy and Jazz Giants ’56. He is paired with Jo Jones on both records and they form a classic, ageless rhythm section with both traditional and modern touches, perfect for this music.
In 1957, Ramey turns up on the first studio album Sonny Rollins would make for Blue Note, Sonny Rollins Volume One, in the company of Donald Byrd, Wynton Kelly and Max Roach. It’s one of my favourites of the lesser-known Rollins records and Gene sounds wonderful on it, solid as a rock and hard-swinging. Ornette Coleman liked Ramey’s time and sound and wanted to record with him, but after hearing Coleman at a rehearsal, Ramey backed out, telling the altoist he didn’t think he could give his music what it needed.
Gene spent most of the 1960s playing with mainstream players – Jimmy Rushing, Muggsy Spanier, Dick Wellstood, Eddie Vinson, some touring in Europe and elsewhere with Buck Clayton and some reunion gigs with Jay McShann. Anyone interested in Gene Ramey and Kansas City jazz should see the documentary Last of the Blue Devils, one of the finest ever made about jazz. It gives a highly entertaining look at the history of K.C. music, combining old footage and stills, stories and interviews, while centering on a live, around-the-clock reunion/jam from the ’70s involving some of the giants of this genre – Basie, McShann, Joe Turner, Jo Jones, Paul Quinichette, Ramey and others. It’s informative, great fun and is not to be missed.
Ramey moved back to Austin in 1976, continuing to play in semi-retirement and starting some jazz activity in his hometown as both a bandleader and mentor to young musicians. He died suddenly of heart failure at home in December of 1984, he was 71.
Gene Ramey’s bass playing was very consistent, both sturdy and pliant; like many who cut their musical teeth in the Southwest during the mid-’30s, his playing also wears very well, gets to the heart of the matter while always sounding fresh and unmannered.
None of these four men was known as a soloist, they were all unobtrusive but very strong, smart rhythm players, providing the engine for an awful lot of good jazz in their time. In doing what the bass is primarily meant to do, they were almost assured of being overlooked by all except their fellow musicians, it was ever thus. If you want to know – or have forgotten – what swinging means or feels like, then hearing any of these men in a band will do nicely. They’re certainly frequent and welcome guests in my home via the CD player; the chances of me playing a record one of them is on are quite high and to say the least, it’s always rewarding listening.
Notes – * I first became fully aware of John Simmons when I stumbled across a used vinyl copy of Mating Call in a record store when I was quite young. I’d been wanting to hear this album for a while because I’d been playing one of Tadd Dameron’s songs from it – the lovely On A Misty Night – with tenor saxophonist Pat LaBarbera. My delight at this find was squelched when I saw the name John Simmons on the album cover though – at that point I vaguely knew of him only as a guy who had played with Benny Goodman, so I considered him strictly old-hat. To give you some idea of how ignorant and label-ridden my mind was back then, I thought, “What are they doing with this old swing guy on bass when they could have had Paul Chambers or Doug Watkins?” Of course, Simmons and Philly Joe sounded really good together and it was a long time before I realized that Jones was probably honoured to be playing alongside Simmons, the old running buddy and favourite of Philly’s mentor, Big Sid Catlett.
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