Remembering Bob Cranshaw

This year in which so many notable musicians have died continued with a rough patch lately. Leon Russell and Leonard Cohen, and in the jazz world, bassist Bob Cranshaw and more recently, Mose Allison. As pop stars, a lot has already been written about Russell and Cohen, to which I can’t add much except to say that the band Leon Russell assembled on short notice for Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour is still a model of what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to sound like. And that through his words and music and oddly light-handed gravitas, Leonard Cohen established a very personal definition of what it means to be existentially cool.

Though not unexpected, Mose Allison’s death hit me hard in a personal way because I worked a lot with him and came to know him well. I’ll deal with him in a separate post, but for now I want to focus on Bob Cranshaw, who was the least famous of these men, but a giant all the same. Cranshaw was, no pun intended, the walking definition of a bassist who didn’t draw attention to himself, yet even so it came as a surprise to me that several jazz insiders hadn’t heard of his death until several weeks after it occurred. (He died November 2 in Manhattan from cancer, a month shy of his 84th birthday.)

More than once Bill Kirchner has said that Bob Cranshaw was one of the most beloved and respected musicians in New York, and had been for years. He’d worked with virtually everybody and for decades had been tireless in his efforts with the musician’s union as an advocate for the rights of jazz musicians in the areas of collecting royalties, better pensions and other issues. As one of the most recorded jazz bassists in history, and one who’d done countless TV/film sessions and Broadway shows, Bob had one of the healthiest pensions imaginable. He saw his Local 802 involvement as a way of giving back, of trying to ensure fellow jazz musicians less well-set than him were treated as fairly as he had been.

Simply put, he was a beautiful guy. I can attest to this because I had the pleasure of meeting him once on a gig I played about fifteen or twenty years ago. My friend, the singer Arlene Smith, grew up in Montreal with Bob’s wife Bobbi and the two have remained best friends for life. During a Toronto visit by the Cranshaws, Arlene took them out to hear some music and beckoned me over at the end of a set to introduce me to Bob and Bobbi. They were on their way elsewhere so it was fairly brief, just enough time for Bob to say he enjoyed the music and for me to say how glad I was to meet him and how much I’d admired his playing over the years. A brief meeting, yes, but one I’ll never forget because Bob radiated such warmth, sincerity and good humour. Actually, come to think of it, he radiated soul, just as his playing did.

I wonder if it’s the same for pianists when other pianists die and so on, down the line; I expect so. When bassists who I’ve been listening to for years go, it hits me, as if a little light has passed from the world. To help myself over this in Bob’s case, I did what I usually do when a jazz great dies – I dug out some records that contain treasured musical moments by them and listened anew. Bob played on hundreds and hundreds of good jazz records, so it wasn’t easy to whittle it down to a manageable few; I simply went with some of the ones that came to mind first. Of course THE BRIDGE from 1962, the first record Sonny Rollins made after coming out of the self-imposed retirement he began in 1959, and the first of many records Cranshaw would make with Rollins in a long musical association he was best known for.

The sound isn’t ideal, but this video clip of Sonny Rollins and Co. playing “The Bridge” on JAZZ CASUAL offers visual evidence of Cranshaw in action. Check out the perfect quarter-notes during his chorus between Rollins and Jim Hall, at this tempo – the man could bring it:

I continued with Joe Henderson’s INNER URGE and Grant Green’s MATADOR, two Blue Note albums which place Cranshaw between McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, who were playing with John Coltrane’s “classic” quartet at the time – he more than holds his own. While he often shone in straight-ahead settings, he also made sizable contributions to more adventuresome ones, such as on Grachan Monchur III’s EVOLUTION, Jackie McLean’s RIGHT NOW! and two by Bobby Hutcherson: HAPPENINGS, and THE KICKER.

I turned to the string of albums he made with Stanley Turrentine for Blue Note in the mid-sixties, often with an octet – HUSTLIN’, JOYRIDE, ROUGH ‘n TUMBLE, EASY WALKER and the best of these, THE SPOILER. From the standpoint of Cranshaw’s playing, here’s the track from it that has always stood out, “You’re Gonna Hear From Me”. It’s at a perfect medium tempo which Cranshaw inhabits with his own brand of loping drive, drops, cross-rhythms, and double-stops. His solid beat, alloyed with a world of rhythmic nuance and subtlety, never lets the band’s feet touch the ground:

And an old favourite, CARMEN MCRAE SINGS “LOVER MAN”, on which she offers a program of songs associated with Billie Holiday, backed by a killer band – Nat Adderley, Lockjaw Davis, Mundell Lowe, Norman Simmons, Cranshaw, and Walter Perkins on drums. There are tracks that feature Cranshaw more, but he didn’t need a feature to shine. Listen to the romp he establishes here in “two” behind Carmen and then the burn he gets going in four behind Jaws. This is how jazz bass playing is supposed to sound and feel – loose, throbbing and relentless; no prisoners taken:

Walter Perkins was an old associate of Cranshaw’s dating back to their days in Chicago, including the MJT + 3, the group which brought them to New York together. This got me to thinking that just about any drummer would sound great with Cranshaw, but he had particularly fruitful partnerships with Perkins, Ben Riley (often with Rollins), Mickey Roker, and Billy Higgins.

These drummer associations led me to a few records Cranshaw played on that I hadn’t thought of right away. CHASIN’ THE BIRD, maybe my favourite Barry Harris trio record. JUNIOR’S BLUES, a wonderful 1962 Junior Mance trio record with Mickey Roker, and a whole slew of Duke Pearson albums ranging from trios to septets to big band. It’s safe to say that Bob Cranshaw was not only Sonny Rollins’ favourite bassist, but Pearson’s as well. Once Pearson took over from Ike Quebec as Blue Note’s general aide-de-camp and also in-house producer and composer-arranger, Cranshaw became a regular on Blue Note records by Pearson and others, with Roker or Billy Higgins often in tow. I remembered the first time I worked with Junior Mance and brought in a copy of HAPPY TIME – another of his early-sixties trio records, but with Ron Carter on bass – for him to sign. He reminisced about those times and the trio with Roker, saying that he preferred it with Cranshaw, both on and off the bandstand.

That surprised me at the time, but doesn’t any longer. Cranshaw came to prominence in New York around the same time as Carter and Richard Davis, but was by dint of personality a more meat-and-potatoes bassist. He was more inclined to be unobtrusive, less flamboyantly virtuosic and innovative than either Carter or Davis. Hence he didn’t quite garner the same attention or recognition, but with his rhythmic mastery, deep sound and musical flexibility, all topped off up with a bulldog reliability, he was definitely in the same league as a bassist. Just ask Sonny Rollins.

Working my way through various tracks on all these records, I realized I’d forgotten Lee Morgan’s THE SIDEWINDER, likely the most successful and famous record of the many that Cranshaw played on. His down-home, four-note pickup to the title track leads off the record perfectly and could stand as the summary of his art – funky and accurate; deceptively simple, yet authoritative. The groove that Cranshaw, Billy Higgins and pianist Barry Harris lay down on this track is both infectious and elusive – not quite Latin or boogaloo, it’s somewhere between straight-eights and swing, but without ever going into a walking four. Higgins’ special magic has a lot to do with it, but Harris’ stripped-down Bud Powell sensibility and Cranshaw’s throbbing sound and tenacity are also in play. After chorus upon chorus of “stayin’ home” through solos by Morgan, Joe Henderson and Harris, Cranshaw has enough left for a bass solo, one that I’d forgotten he takes here. It’s short and sweet, full of blues, guts and pithy phrasing, the real deal. Cranshaw and company are even better on the rest of the record – “The Sidewinder” became the unexpected hit, but is hardly the best track on the album. We’ve all heard it before, but it can do us no harm to hear it again:

I ran out of time long before I ran out of Cranshaw records, and the cumulative effect of listening to him in so many settings reminded me of how much I’ve learned from him over the years. It could be summarized as this: though many may not notice, what the bass does is deeply important, to the music and those playing it. So be committed, and don’t be afraid to embrace the obvious. Dig deep for a big, long sound and get the quarter-notes off the ground right away to form a standing wave of momentum that lifts the band up. Use the whole bass, and if you must take a solo, play one that doesn’t waylay the music – as Duke Ellington said, “No commercial interruptions, please”.

Along with Monk Montgomery and Steve Swallow, Cranshaw was one of the first string bassists in jazz to make the transition to playing electric bass. This versatility ensured him a lot of studio work; he was well-known as the only bassist for the Children’s Television Playhouse, which produced “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company”. He was also in the original house bands for “Saturday Night Live” and the David Frost and Dick Cavett talk shows. He played both instruments for a time, until a 1970s car accident left him with long-term back woes which made the switch to the smaller bass more permanent. But he brought all his musical virtues to the table – the rock-solid time, the fat, long notes, the round sound – making the electric bass sound and feel more like a string bass than anyone else I can think of. Here’s a good example of his groove on electric bass, a cosmic version of “Close to You” with Erroll Garner, from the seventies. The only version of this unlikely jazz vehicle to rival this one is Bill Kirchner’s, though for very different reasons:

So, jazz has lost a great and important bassist and one of its best citizens. Condolences to Bob Cranshaw’s wife Bobbi and the rest of his family and many friends. And perhaps most of all, condolences to Sonny Rollins. The musical partnership between Cranshaw and Rollins lasted 57 years and was likely deeper and closer than most marriages. Sonny turned 86 this year and the loss of such a lifelong friend can’t be easy to bear. My heart goes out to him.

One last track for the road, “God Bless the Child”. And God bless Bob Cranshaw.

 

 

© 2016 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

20 thoughts on “Remembering Bob Cranshaw

  1. Steve: this is a lovely piece. I too will head off to listen to more of Bob, using your song road map to guide me.

    Craig

  2. Beautiful tribute Steve
    When I saw him for the last time a short while before he passed, I gave him your regards
    He was his usual generous smiling handsome self as he said he remembered you well & to say hello
    There have been so many tributes – I know yours will be among the finest
    Thankful for his friendship & guidance

  3. Steve: Back when I was really green (still am, somewhat), in 1963, Bob came, with Junior Mance and Mickey Roker, to McMaster University, where I was, briefly, a student. We had a sort of big band to open the show. Bob borrowed my Neurnberger bass – you don’t know it, it’s gone now. His had been stolen, in Chicago. I had some kind of weird Red O Ray gut like plastic strings on. Well, he made that cheap bass sound like an Amati, and the band swung like a you – know – what. It was great to meet him.

    Jack

  4. Thanks for much for this piece, Steve. Few writers would so appreciate that the little things that “meat and potatoes” bassists do to keep it interesting constitute high art.

  5. Steve, beautiful and touching. And proof , unneeded, that you are the perfect guy to say final words about any musician , and of course never more so than another master bassist.
    Terry

  6. Beautifully put, Steve.
    When I heard of Bob Cranshaw’s passing, I played two of his greatest and most contrasting recordings (though they’re about the same length): Grant Green’s Idle Moments (by Duke Pearson), some of the most beautifully sustained bass notes I’ve ever heard, and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” with Rollins, Cherry and Higgins, Cranshaw solid through all of that.

  7. Thoroughly enjoyable and touching piece Steve and another contribution to my Jazz Education. Loved the story and the clips… Jack

  8. One more excellent piece Steve. I have long enjoyed the playing of Bob Cranshaw and have a very lengthy list of recordings on which he performs in my collection.

    As I recall, it was Sonny Rollins who asked Bob to play electric bass. Though my strong presence is for the acoustic bass, Crenshaw was one of the few I was able to enjoy on the electric instrument.

  9. Cannot thank you enough, Steve, for your wonderful tribute to Bob. I loved, respected and appreciated this special guy since I met him in NYC during the early ’70s. We had many mutual friends which helped our friendship be easy and pleasurable. He most definitely deserves to Rest in Peace. He worked his tail off, just as much for others as for himself and his family. I will miss him forever.

  10. Great piece, Steve. Thank you for including the fabulous “F***ing Carpenters” track by Erroll Garner, which was how I first heard of Bob Cranshaw.
    Coincidentally I just ordered “Sidewinder” yesterday, and am awaiting its arrival.
    The Curl Caresser

  11. I first heard Cranshaw, with Walter Perkins Jr., at a jam session at Northwestern University in Evanston, Il., in about 1957-8 or maybe even ’56. They were very impressive. Evanston, as you probably know, was Cranshaw’s hometown.

  12. Oh my goodness, such exquisite writing and perceptive comment. Thanks so much for this and for giving me an opportunity to read Jack McFadden’s memory of performing jazz at McMaster in the 1960s – a local hotbed of jazz during that period where students and local fans heard Oscar, Cannonball, Gerry Mulligan and others in a concert setting (unfortunately the actual setting was the drafty old Drill Hall, but never mind). Looking forward to your reminiscences of Mose Allison.

  13. I am sure I saw him with Carmen McCrae in 1961 at the Vanguard. It was a late set and or some reason she was giving him a lot of grief but with a lot of fun and affection – things that make for good music.

  14. A heartfelt tribute to a fine bass player.It’s clear that you liked this man.Must dig out some of his recordings.I was going to catalogue my LP and CD collection with lots of cross references viz.Musicians, tunes, composers,instruments.I got a far as John Abercrombie and gave up;it would have taken me forever.John just rang me and we talked music.Is there anything else?He told me that George Mraz is quite ill.
    That fellow with the hour glass and scythe has been too busy of late in the jazz world.May I add to the obits and mention the Scottish tenor player Bobby Wellins who died on 27th October last after a long illness.He left quite a few recordings and is probably best known for his work with Stan Tracey.Check out the 1965 recording of Under Milkwood.This is a classic.Let’s all of us try and keep away from the grim reaper.Keep writing and find a publisher.Stay cool.

  15. Hallelujah Steve.On you writing about and, me reading.The only worthwhile tribute to Bob Cranshaw,that I’ve seen recently.He was not only a great musician.But a great man as well.I have listened to him,since I was to young to know what jazz was.Starting out with him playing on my late uncle ( Duke Pearson) Angel Eyes released 1961.On the Polydor label.And he went on to record about 10 more albums with him.And countless other sessions,that my late uncle either arranged,produced or composed for.I too,was touched personally,when I heard of his passing.And had spoken with him not long ago.To insist his help.With a current project,I’m putting together on uncle duke.From the start,he never said no.And told me wonderful stories.Of himself,Mickey Roker and uncle Duke.And there time together,when they first met in New York.He said that they we’re like the three blind mice.And pretty much did everything together.And I got an tearfully during our conversation.Some say that,Grant Greens Idle Moments.Which uncle Duke wrote.Was G.G.best work.I say it was Some of Bob Cranshaws best work also.Listen to his slow,mainstay groove on it.He never disappoint.Uncle Duke always said that Cranshaw and Roker always knew where he was going.And that Cranshaw was his left hand and Roker was his right.Someone asked Roker in a interview a while back.Did he have any stories about Duke Pearson to tell.And he told the interviewer.Yes he did.But he would let Duke Pearson rest in peace.Lets hope we don’t have to lay another jazz icon to rest before 2016 ends.With the recent passing of Bob Cranshaw,Mose Allison and Bobby Hutcherson.I don’t know how much more I can take.

    • Amazing, Rudy. You say “Idle Moments” is some of the greatest Cranshaw and the greatest Grant Green and maybe the greatest Duke Pearson. And whenever I think of it I think immediately of Joe Henderson. Was he ever more relaxed, totally at ease? He plays long, and you wish he would keep going. Same for all of them. Really special.

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