Missed Basses

When you get to be a certain age the number of entries in your address book across which you scribble “deceased” begins to increase. I know this, and given that my husband knows more dead people than live ones, I really shouldn’t be the one to comment. Still, I can’t help but notice that six world-class jazz bassists, five of whom I knew personally, have died in the last three-and-a-half months, starting with former Ellington bassist, Jimmy Woode, who passed away on April 22nd, and ending with Keter Betts who died this past weekend. In between, we lost Percy Heath (April), Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen (May), Pierre Michelot, and Al McKibbon (July). If I’ve forgotten anyone, let me know.

I first met Jimmy Woode in a recording studio in Berlin. It was June of 1969. We (Mom, me, and my best friend Daisy) were with Dad on one of his whirlwind tours – Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Berlin all in two weeks. For some reason, we flew into East Berlin where Dad’s amplifier did not appear with the rest of our baggage. Thankfully, the bus stopped at an outer building where the amplifier was found, and then took us on to West Berlin. Of course the ride included the obligatory stop at Checkpoint Charlie, where, against explicit instructions, we took snapshots and got away with it. It was a trio recording (Daniel Humair on drums), and as producer Joachim E. Berendt pointed out, it was Dad’s first recording of his own in more than ten years. “It’s Nice To Be With You” was a family album, if you will, in that Mom wrote the title tune and I am on the cover. I wasn’t too thrilled with the cover back then – at thirteen I would have preferred something more glamorous than eating a bockwurst out of my father’s hand at the Berlin Zoo – but that was then, and today I wish I had a copy of the original photo.

It was Dad who first introduced me to Percy Heath. Percy was playing with The Modern Jazz Quartet – I think it was the 1966 concert at Carnegie Hall. Listening to my Dad, I was familiar with a tune called Bags’ Groove, and the MJQ played it that night; it was probably the only tune I recognized. In recent years, my husband, John, and I have had the pleasure of hanging out with all three Heath Brothers at annual events like Monterey and IAJE conventions. I especially enjoy it as Beverly and Mona (Mrs. Tootie and Mrs. Jimmy, respectively) often travel with them; seeing Percy’s wife, June, was a much rarer treat. It’s funny that we always see them on the road and seldom at home, even though Tootie & Beverly are neighbors. John had breakfast with Jimmy and Tootie at the Heritage Festival in New Orleans the day after Percy died.

I never knew Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen personally, but you can’t be a jazz lover and not know his playing, especially his work with Oscar Peterson. Ray Brown, who left us three years ago (it doesn’t seem like that long) recommended him to Peterson, reportedly saying, “He’s the only one I know that might keep up with you.” The word virtuoso is often over-used, but NHOP was one, and I’ve read that he can be heard on more than 400 recordings. Of the many Pedersen-Peterson recordings, The Paris Concert, recorded live in October of 1978, is often singled out.

Pierre was not so well-known in the U.S., save by those who recognized him as the unnamed bassist in the movie, ‘Round Midnight or knew his work with Miles Davis on Louis Malle’s 1957 film, Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud. Serious jazz fans, of course, knew him from recordings with Bud Powell, Coleman Hawkins and Buck Clayton, Django Reinhardt, Dizzy Gillespie, and Clifford Brown, among others. I was in my early twenties when I met him in Paris. He, along with pianist George Arvanitas, was working in the tiny cave (basement) of a little nightclub called Le petit Opportun’ (15, rue des Lavandières-Ste-Opportune) with saxophonist Jerome Richardson. I remember Pierre as always swinging and smiling, and I was sad to learn that during the last few years of his life he suffered with Alzheimers.

Al McKibbon I’ve written about recently (here and here). I am not sure when I first met Keter, but I think it was in Nice, France, at Le Grande Parade du Jazz (the festival produce by George Wein). I was an impressionable sixteen-year-old on a summer excursion, and he was on tour with Ella Fitzgerald. I saw him many times over the years, usually with Ella, sometimes with Joe Williams, later with Etta Jones, and at recording sessions with everyone who was anyone. At home, he was active in the Washington, D.C.-area schools and music programs, taught at Howard University, and coordinated jazz programming for Black Entertainment Television.

The beat will go on without them, or perhaps, because of them.