Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Blanton, Jimmy (James H., Jr.)

In his two short years with the Ellington band, bassist Jimmy Blanton's huge tone and tremendous rhythmic feel made him the most influential bass player of the Swing Era. Beyond his ability to drive an ensemble, Blanton was a thoughtful and adventurous musician who advanced the role of the bass with his melodic and chromatic lines, often employing elements of the bebop vocabulary which became the standard in jazz in the years after his death.

Blanton contributed more to the jazz legacy before the age of twenty-five than most do in a lifetime. Exploding onto the national scene with Duke Ellington in late 1939, he was pivotal in expanding the role of the bass from simple time keeper and rhythmic foundation of a band.

“Ko-Ko,” “Cottontail," and “Harlem Airshaft," are just a few of the classic Ellington recordings which demonstrate Blanton’s ability to make the bass a fully-fledged melody and solo instrument. In the words of Metronome magazine editor Barry Ulanov, “[Blanton] took the bass out of the dog house.”

Jimmy Blanton

James H. Blanton Jr. was born in Chattanooga City, Tennessee on October 5 of either 1918 or 1919 to James Harvey Blanton and Gertrude (Lewis) Blanton. The exact year of birth is unclear: Blanton’s death certificate indicates 1919, but information found in the 1930 U.S. Census suggests 1918.

Gertrude Blanton had worked as a professional musician for at least ten years prior to the birth of her son, and she continued to perform on piano and work as a band leader throughout his life. Jimmy Blanton benefited greatly from his mother’s experience, receiving his earliest musical training from her on piano at a young age. Prior to picking up the double bass, Blanton also played violin and alto saxophone, performing in a Blanton family band throughout the Chattanooga area.

Blanton later attended Tennessee State College, where he focused on bass, playing with the Tennessee State Collegians as well as a few local combos before moving from Nashville to St. Louis, Missouri in 1937. It was in St. Louis that he began his career as a fulltime professional bass player, playing with the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra and the Fate Marable Orchestra, both well established local touring bands.

In the fall of 1939, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra were playing a two-week run at the Club Caprice in the Coronado Hotel of St. Louis. On October 20, Duke and few of his musicians first heard Blanton perform at an after-hours spot called the Rhumboogie Club. Blanton made an immediate and quite positive impression on the band leader. According to Duke, “…all we wanted was that sound, that beat, and those precision notes in the right places… he was a sensation… we had to have him.”

Blanton sat in on a few tunes with the Ellington Orchestra the next night, and was hired on the spot. For the next three months both Blanton and Billy Taylor played bass with the band until Taylor, tired of being outplayed by the young new addition to the band, quit in January of 1940.

Ellington wasted little time in taking full advantage of his new talent. Only one month after Blanton joined the band Ellington and Blanton recorded the first two of six bass and piano duets that would be recorded between November 1939 and October 1940. Of the six four were released as 78s, “Blues” and “Plucked Again” for the Columbia label, and “Body and Soul” and “Mr. J. B. Blues” on Victor.

Until these recordings, bass solos in jazz were a rarity and, with the exception of Slam Stewart, were generally comprised of little more than short breaks that featured only ornamented and decorated bass lines. On the Ellington-Blanton duets, Blanton offered melodies, both bowed and plucked, bass lines and accompaniment, as well as multiple chorus solos. On “Body and Soul” he interprets the classic melody beautifully with a full, rich arco sound, although his intonation is below modern standards.

On "Mr. J. B. Blues," Blanton demonstrates the full extent of his improvisational abilities. The majority of this eight chorus, 12-bar blues tune is Blanton stretching out and demonstrating his originality and creativity on the bass.

With the exception of one chorus Blanton is either soloing or filling the whole tune through, his big sound and creative approach to harmony on full display. While these recordings met with mixed critical reviews, they had an immense impact on both Blanton’s contemporaries and on the next generation of jazz bassists.

Blanton worked with the Ellington Orchestra from October 21, 1939 until late 1941 during what would later be referred to as the historic Blanton-Webster period. It is both a credit to Jimmy’s playing and Duke’s innovative composing that Ellington used the bass as such an integral part of his compositions, such as “Concerto for Cootie”, and “In a Mellotone,” during this time.

“Jack the Bear,”Blanton’s feature piece with the Ellington Orchestra, is a brilliant example of his multifaceted contribution to jazz bass playing. Blanton executes a number of melodic lines with beautiful tone and feeling throughout the piece, his walking lines are powerful and perfectly in the pocket, creating an unparalleled swing feel, and his solo breaks at the end of the record show his remarkable knack for melodic improvisation as well as demonstrate his remarkable technical proficiency.

The impact of Blanton’s work with the Ellington Orchestra can be heard almost immediately in the bass features of rival bands, such as Cab Calloway's “Ebony Silhouette,” Stan Kenton's “Concerto for Doghouse,” and Lionel Hampton's “Mingus Fingers.”

Tragically Jimmy Blanton’s career was cut short. By September of 1941 he had begun showing signs of a lung ailment. On October 9th of that year Blanton made his last recordings with the Ellington, a guest appearance with the Scott Trotter Orchestra on Bing Crosby’s “Kraft Music Hall” broadcast. Later that month, Blanton checked into a hospital in Los Angeles and was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and was moved to the Duarte Sanitarium for treatment.

Though the doctors were at first hopeful for a recovery, Blanton’s health declined. Jimmy Blanton died on July 30, 1942, before he even reached his twenty-fifth birthday. His loss was mourned by jazz musicians and fans throughout the country, but by no one more than Ellington and the members of his orchestra. When news of Blanton’s passing reached the band during a stint at the Hotel Sherman, Ben Webster, a close friend and father figure to Jimmy, was said to have been unable to perform due to his grief.

Though his recording career lasted only two years, Blanton appeared on about seventy sides, an astonishing number for the era, all with Ellington or other members of the Ellington Orchestra. Due to Ellington’s meticulous attention to detail in the studio, Blanton can always be heard on record leaving clear examples of his brilliance.

The impact of Blanton’s playing can aso be clearly heard in the generation of bass players who followed him, who include Charles Mingus, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford, and not "Mr. J.B.," but “Mr. P.C.,” Paul Chambers.

Selected Discography

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra

Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (RCA Bluebird)

The Blanton-Webster Band (RCA Bluebird 5659)

Duke Ellington

Fargo, North Dakota, November 7, 1940 (Vintage Jazz Classics)

Solos, Duets and Trios (RCA Bluebird)

Contributor: Sean Lorre