The recent post about the mostly forgotten bassist Billy Taylor got me to thinking of other under-recognized ones, of which there have been no shortage through the years. So here’s a look at a few other bass players who were never even close to being household names, despite playing very well. First though, a comic rant on the overuse of the word “underrated” in jazz.
I was going to call this article “Underrated Bassists”, but it occurred to me that the word underrated has become overrated in jazz. It’s certainly been overused in that context to the point where its meaning has become fuzzy, if not completely nonexistent. It’s almost as bad as “awesome” but not quite, nothing is. I guess we still have a general sense of what underrated means, but how can so many players (even in so underrated a field as jazz) be underrated? (The answer of course, is “easily”.)
This mostly started with jazz critics and reviewers in the past, they tossed around ‘underrated’ like it was confetti, to the point where certain names always summoned up the word automatically. Tommy Flanagan, Hank Mobley, Eddie Bert, Kenny Dorham, Chuck Wayne, Jerry Dodgion, Dick Katz, George Tucker, Mickey Roker, etcetera, etcetera. It almost made you wish that jazz writers came equipped with an electronic sensor-chip, so that every time they went to use ‘underrated’ they’d get a little shock and it would beep, saying “Buzzzzz – Errrorrrr – Try Another Word.” Like neglected, forgotten, unheralded, under-recognized, under-appreciated, under-known, under-exposed, under milkwood. Almost anything beginning with un- or under; after all, jazz is nothing if not negative, just like that last phrase.
And where exactly did all this ‘rating’ – under or over – take place, or appear? The Michelin Guide? Fodor’s? I mean, there are record reviews and CD guide books that use a star system for rating albums, but it’s not like this was ever applied to individual players. There isn’t a thick annual catalog called “The American Express – Diner’s Club Guide To Jazz Players” that you can just flip open and find handy ratings like:
Harold Land – ***1/2 – Did good tenor work with Cliiford Brown/Max Roach but has tended to be overlooked since being replaced by Sonny Rollins, also as a black guy in West Coast Jazz. Good value on hard-bop and blues though. Reliable and unflashy, will work cheap. Underrated.
Al Harewood – *** – That rarest of jazz specimens, a tasteful drummer who’s actually happy playing simple, groovy time in the rhythm section. Always makes everyone around him sound better and won’t be a bother asking for solos or even fours or eights. So very good value, dependable and underrated.
I’m mostly just kidding around here, but you get my drift. There are limits to the amount of space in the jazz media and to the length of jazz fans’ attention spans, most of each were taken up by stars and virtuosos. With giants like Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock (among others) ruling the piano world, how much notice would be taken of less dazzling guys like Ken Kersey, Richard Wyands, or Hugh Lawson? With trumpeters, when you had Dizzy, Miles, Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard around, who was going to bother with Richard Williams, Ray Copeland or Nick Travis?
When you put the word “underrated” together with “bassist” though, the fun really starts. You have not just a contradiction in terms, but a tautology, which is a fancy way of saying “meaning the same thing twice in a row”. As in redundant, or “it goes without saying”. Up to a certain point in time, all bassists were underrated, by definition. Back in the earlier days of jazz, this was because they were hard to notice or even hear, the bass player was just some guy thumping away in the background, possibly playing notes, but who could tell for sure?
I didn’t know it at first, but this was part of the reason I took up the bass in the first place, or at least a side benefit of doing so. I started on guitar and once I reached a basic level of competence, I discovered (to my chagrin) that people – at parties, family gatherings, or around the camp-fire at a cottage – expected you to suddenly entertain them by playing a few tunes. By myself, no less, plus they always just assumed you could sing too. “C’mon Steve, give us a few tunes – do ya know Puff the Magic Dragon? No? How about Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head ?” It drove me crazy and I found the idea of playing alone terrifying; I wanted the least amount of attention imaginable.
Playing the bass solved all this, it was my deliverance. It meant I only played with other people and got to do a lot of things in the background that went unnoticed except maybe by the other musicians, who were all I cared about anyway. And, oddly enough, people at gatherings weren’t apt to say, “Hey Steve, how about hauling that big log out and giving us a tune, maybe Stardust?” Not that I was in the habit of schlepping the thing around with me, just in case.
For a long time there were only a few ways for a bassist in jazz not to be underrated, or even to be known at all. If he was a recognized pioneer maybe, like Wellman Braud, Walter Page or Jimmie Blanton, or if he led his own band, like say John Kirby, or later on Oscar Pettiford or Charles Mingus. Or by being an enthusiastic, sweaty white guy humping away on the doghouse in a noted big band, like Eddie Safranski or Chubby Jackson. Or if he was a hotshot soloist -which was understandably rare for a long time – like Red Mitchell, Paul Chambers, or Scott LaFaro. Or if his name was Ray Brown, in which case he was far too good to be underrated, or overrated for that matter. Almost everybody else in the field was pretty much underrated across the board, except maybe Howard Rumsey, or as Jake Hanna used to call hm, “Howard Clumsy”.
Rumsey was that rare animal, a bassist who was fairly average at best, but managed to work a lot as a leader because he was a good businessman and hustler. Back in the heyday of West Coast Jazz, he copped the gig as bandleader at The Lighthouse, a popular Hermosa Beach club. All the best L.A. jazz guys were busy in the studios by day, but wanted an outlet for live playing, so they took the gig with Rumsey’s “Lighthouse All-Stars” , which became a big deal. He managed to parlay this into a series of albums under his name for Contemporary Records, maybe six or seven of them in all. They’re all good and worth having, because they feature the likes of Shorty Rogers, Stu Williamson, Frank Rosolino, Bob Cooper, Jimmy Giuffre, Bud Shank, Pete Jolly, Claude Williamson, Shelly Manne, Stan Levey, the cream of the West Coast scene. This gave Howard Rumsey a profile beyond his talents, but I always noticed when the above guys and others made their own records, the bassist was always somebody else, somebody better. Meanwhile, Rumsey was camped out at The Lighthouse 24/7, making sure nobody stole his gig.
So, that’s a rare example of a bassist who was overrated, or at least overexposed, and why. Gradually, the anonymity of being a bass player has changed, as the instrument has evolved and stepped out of the shadows maybe more than any other in the last 40 or 50 years. Thanks to pioneers like Blanton, Pettiford, Brown, Mitchell, Chambers, LaFaro and many others, standards rose and bass solos became much more common. The amplification of the bass with transducers, starting in the ’70s, has only……well, amplified all this. Being amplified meant people could hear and notice the bass more and also meant bassists didn’t have to work so hard to make an audible sound, leaving them to put more energy into other things, mainly solos. To an extent, this meant a lot of “faster, higher, louder” and gave birth to the “bass star”, for better or worse. Bassists are more often leaders now than in the past and bass solos are now so commonplace that frankly, it sometimes makes one long for the day of the underrated, workmanlike bassists of the past.
I’m going to ditch the word underrated in regard to bassists now for obvious reasons, and trade it in for ‘unsung’ as in, “very rarely celebrated and mostly forgotten” or, “not nearly as well-known as their playing warranted.” (I also like the word ‘unsung’ because it conjures up the idea of a bad singer for once not singing a favourite tune and thus ruining it forever.) Obviously, there is no shortage of bassists from the past who have been unsung, so this list is entirely subjective, personal and hardly complete. It’s not meant to be taken all that seriously either, and the order the following are listed in has no particular meaning. Generally, I’ve put them in an order showing the inverse ratio between how little they’re known and how well I think they play. The one exception is the first guy, whose case is such an odd one-off, that he has to come first.
1. Gary Mapp – Gary Mapp is not unsung so much as unknown, he’s practically unheard of these days and wasn’t prominent in his own time either. Only serious jazz nuts and record collectors will recognize the name and even Google offered only a few hits on him, most of them being of the “Facebook : contact professionals with the name Gary Mapp” variety. This is because he appears on only one jazz record (actually made up of two sessions) in his entire career, but with someone very famous indeed – Thelonious Monk.
The two Monk sessions with Mapp are both 1952 trio outings. The first was done on October 15, with Max Roach on drums and the second on December 18, with Art Blakey replacing Roach. These were the first recordings Monk made for Prestige Records during his brief stay with the label, which ended in 1954. Each session features three Monk originals and a standard; the session with Roach has “Little Rootie Tootie”, “Bye-Ya”, Monk’s Dream” and “Sweet and Lovely.” On the session with Blakey, they tackle “Bemsha Swing”, “Reflections”, “Trinkle Tinkle” and “These Foolish Things.” These weren’t the first Monk records I heard, but they came fairly early in my days of jazz listening and are the ones which finally made me a Monk fan, convincing me he was something special as a pianist and composer. The presence of the unknown Mapp on bass in such heavy company – and playing such difficult music – raised questions even back then when I knew very little about jazz and its history. The liner notes on the Prestige “twofer” Monk reissue I had only revealed that Mapp was a cop, a friend of Monk’s and that these were the only jazz sessions he ever appeared on.
So over the years I’ve often wondered: 1) – Who was Gary Mapp exactly? 2) – How and why did he come to play on these important sessions? (Monk could have used a more established bassist of the day, like say Oscar Pettiford, Percy Heath or Curley Russell, to go along with the star drummers.) And, 3) – Given that Mapp sounds good and acquits himself well enough to be invited back for the second session, what became of him? Why did he never make even one more jazz record with somebody, sometime, somewhere?
These mysteries remained in the back of my mind for decades and were finally solved by reading Robin D.G. Kelley’s extremely informative biography, “Thelonious Monk, the Life and Times of an American Original”. Kelley reveals that Gary Mapp was from Barbados and settled in Brooklyn, where he was fairly well-regarded as a bassist, but was almost completely unknown in Manhattan even then; Brooklyn had its own very localized, lower profile scene. Like many, he was unable to make a living as a full-time musician, so he also worked as a policeman for the New York Transit Authority and was known as “The Hip Cop”. He led a band at a funky little Brooklyn joint called “Tony’s Bar & Grill”, which later went under the more ambitious “Tony’s Club Grandean.”
Monk came to know Mapp through his close friendship with fellow pianist-composer Randy Weston, who was at the center of the Brooklyn jazz scene. Weston told Monk of the many good musicians in Brooklyn, such as bassists Mapp, Sam Gill and Ahmed Abdul-Malik, drummers G.T. Hogan and Willie Jones, alto saxophonist Ernie Henry and others. Monk was intrigued and trusted Weston’s judgement, they got into the habit of driving out to Brooklyn together to play with some of these guys. Monk was impressed with the Brooklyn players; Abdul-Malik would later become Monk’s regular bassist for a few years and Monk would use Willie Jones and Ernie Henry on later sessions.
Monk did some informal jamming/rehearsing with Gary Mapp and also heard him live at Tony’s. In fact, Monk played the club a few times, including one night with an all-star band consisting of Monk, Miles Davis, Gigi Gryce, Charles Mingus and Max Roach! Monk was impressed with Mapp’s big sound, good time, work ethic and receptivity to his unusual music. The bassist put in some hours learning Monk’s challenging tunes, trying to get them right and this may have convinced Monk to use the relative unknown on the upcoming trio sessions.
Mapp’s Caribbean roots may also have had something to do with this, as two of the originals Monk planned to record had a West Indian flavour – “Bemsha Swing” (co-written with Barbadian drummer Denzil Best), and “Bye-Ya”. In fact, Kelley’s book reveals that the titles of both these tunes were originally Caribbean in nature, but have been corrupted through the years. “Bemsha Swing” was originally called “Bimsha Swing”, Bimsha being the phonetic spelling of “Bimshire”, a nickname for Barbados. “Bye-Ya” was untitled at the Prestige session and producer Bob Weinstock wanted to call it “Go”. Monk asked Mapp for the Spanish translation of go, which is “vaya”; somehow this became “Bye-Ya” and it stuck.
The trio sessions were recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, but were done at Manhattan’s Beltone studio, as this was shortly before Prestige and other labels began recording in the Hackensack home of Van Gelder’s parents, with its great Steinway piano. The Beltone studio piano was in an awful state of repair and horribly out of tune, which is obvious from the outset. It doesn’t faze Monk in the least, in fact his approach seems to be to gleefully exploit the tinny sound and most offending registers of the piano as much as possible, making them part of the overall sound by playing very percussively, using chord clusters, close intervals and the like. The plan was to highlight Monk’s piano playing and to have the four tunes from both sessions each fit onto one side of a 10″ LP, thus each track is in the three-minute range.
So Mapp isn’t afforded any solo room, but it’s doubtful he would have been anyway, as Monk’s records rarely featured bass solos except later on, and usually in live performance. Mapp does play a good two-bar solo fill on the intro to “Bemsha Swing” though, and plays the melody to “Little Rootie Tootie” along with Monk. Having played “Rootie” with a trio myself recently, I can attest to how hard this is, and Mapp brings it off very well. His time, sound and pitch are all solid and he contends well with some specific challenges on top of the general difficulty of Monk’s tunes. For example, Monk conceives of “Bemsha” as being a kind of calypso drum feature and for large portions of it, Roach doesn’t supply a pulse but more of a melodic interplay around the drum-kit with the piano. It falls on Mapp to keep the basic beat moving and he does a solid job of keeping it on the rails. “Rootie” is similar.
The arrangements of “Bye-Ya” and “Monk’s Dream” call for the bass to play some tricky and specific figures along with Monk’s left hand, and Mapp is right up to the task. In general, he sounds strong and well-prepared, he doesn’t seriously put a foot wrong anymore than anyone else does here. It may be partly the awful piano, the looseness of Monk’s approach at times and the difficulty of his music, but these sides are not for the faint of heart. They’re adventurous and funny, and at times a bit messy; profound and exhilarating, but far from flawless. At the end of the day though, this is classic, original Monk. And coming as they do from so relatively early in Monk’s recording career, Mapp offers a template for future bassists playing Monk’s music: don’t do anything fancy, know the tunes inside out, be a bulldog, keep things moving along and above all, swing, no matter what.
Given that he accomplished all this in such a heady setting, it remains something of a mystery that Gary Mapp never made another jazz session. Google turned up a hit on him that revealed he’s on some compilations of indie blues recordings from the ’50s, most of them pretty obscure. This was his lot in life, it seems he was mostly involved with blues and R & B music before and after playing with Monk. Nothing has turned up about the rest of his life and given the date of the Monk sessions he’s likely either very old or deceased.
Perverse souls could make the point that Mapp’s case could be turned on its head, that he’s not unsung at all, but that his lone record with Monk has at least kept his obscure name alive, perhaps undeservedly. This seems harsh to me, he’ll always have a special place in my heart as the bassist who was playing when the light went on for me at last about Monk’s great music.
So there you have the strange, shadowy jazz career of Gary Mapp, so brief and unsung that he’s the Moonlight Graham of jazz bass.
© 2013 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.