Oscar Pettiford: Bass Beyond Bop

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Oscar Pettiford, ca. Nov. 1946. i i

Oscar Pettiford, ca. Nov. 1946. William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress via flickr.com hide caption

itoggle caption William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress via flickr.com
Oscar Pettiford, ca. Nov. 1946.

Oscar Pettiford, ca. Nov. 1946.

William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress via flickr.com

One of the giants of the double bass, Oscar Pettiford was known for his fine tone, the clarity of his attack, and the melody of his line. A successor to Jimmy Blanton and a contemporary of Red Callender and Charles Mingus, Pettiford was among the most sought-after musicians in jazz. During his short life, Pettiford distinguished himself as a performer, composer, and bandleader.

Born in 1922 on an Indian reservation in Okmulgee, Okla., Pettiford grew up around music — his father headed the family band, and his mother played the piano and taught music. Even at a young age, "OP," as he was called by friends, was a talent to be reckoned with. By age 10, Pettiford was singing in front of the family band. By 14, he was playing the bass, and his burgeoning skill would soon change the way the bass was heard and played.

During the early '40s, Jimmy Blanton, Duke Ellington's nimble bassist, was redefining the role of the bass in jazz. Blanton and fellow bassist Milt Hinton were both major influences on Pettiford. Once, while living in Minneapolis, Pettiford quit the bass for a steady job, but Hinton convinced him to stay with it. Just months later, he was hired by saxophone-playing bandleader Charlie Barnet.

In 1943, Blanton left Minneapolis and headed to New York, a city which intimidated many young musicians. Pettiford soon made a name for himself and became a frequent performer in the city's jazz clubs, jamming with bebop pioneers. He landed gigs with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Erroll Garner, and Max Roach. Pianist Billy Taylor recalls seeing the young Pettiford in performance: "OP had the strength and the rhythmic capacity to do things that were on the same level as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker," Taylor says.

In 1945, Pettiford joined Ellington's band, where he stayed for three years. In Woody Herman's band, Pettiford often played the cello — he was one of the first to incorporate the instrument into jazz performances. "He got the same tone on the cello as he did on the bass; it's amazing," bassist Christian McBride says. "Just pure, clean notes."

A prolific performer, Pettiford also composed and recorded some two dozen tunes. A few, such as "Tricotism" and "Bohemia After Dark," have become minor standards. Jazz fans and musicians still marvel at the intricacy of Pettiford's compositions.

In 1958, Pettiford traveled to Europe with the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. He liked it there so much that he made it his home. He experienced stints with saxophonist Stan Getz, and with prominent European musicians such as Hans Koller and Attila Zoller, but never achieved the level of acclaim for which he had hoped. Oscar Pettiford died in 1960 in Copenhagen, at the age of 37.

Link to NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library:

Sonny Rollins: 'Freedom Suite' (with Max Roach & Oscar Pettiford)

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