Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Wellman Braud's percussive, slap-bass style made him a master at propelling the bands of Duke Ellington and others, in an era when most bandleaders relied on the tuba and piano to anchor the beat. Even when playing with a bow, Braud could swing a band like mad.
The upright bass rose to prominence in jazz along with improved recording technologies which better captured its sound, and with innovations in playing technique, like those pioneered by Braud. In Braud's hands, the string bass became the norm in jazz, and not just an option.
Wellman Braud, whose family name is sometimes spelled as “Braux,” was born on January 25th, 1891 in St. James, Louisiana, the same parish which lent its name to the New Orleans blues standard “St. James Infirmary,” which became a small-group hit for Ellington with Braud in 1930.
By 1903, at age twelve, Braud was active as a professional musician, playing violin with a string trio at Tom Anderson’s, also known as the Arlington Annexe, in Storyville, New Orleans' prostitution district.
Ten years older than New Orleans trumpeter Louis Armstrong and eight years senior to his future boss, Duke Ellington, Braud got in on the ground floor of "hot" music in New Orleans, before it was called jazz. He was part of the generation of Crescent City musicians which brought these hot sounds to the world. While it's impossible to pinpoint a single originator or single moment as the birth of the improvised music we now call jazz, Braud was standing close to the cradle.
In 1917, with Storyville on the wane, and with it, steady employment for musicians in the Crescent City, Braud relocated to Chicago, forging a path soon followed by New Orleans cornetist Joe "King" Oliver, clarinetist Johnny Dodds and Louis Armstrong. Around this time, he made a professional switch from violin to string bass and tuba.
Bassist Walter Page, who was the most influential bassist of the Swing Era while in the band of pianist William "Count" Basie, recalled first hearing Wellman Braud with a Chicago-based band during this period and was incredibly impressed by what he described as the “oomp, oomp, oomp of (Braud’s) bass… Braud hit those notes like hammers and made the jump right out of that box.”
In 1922 Braud left Chicago to accompany stride pianist James P. Johnson on a European tour of the show “Plantation Days.” He returned from Europe in May of 1923 and shortly thereafter picked up work with Wilbur Sweatman before spending the next three years with a touring burlesque show. By 1927, Braud landed in New York and landed what became his steady employment and most influential gig, as a key contributor to the band led by Duke Ellington.
Braud was the first regular string bass player in the Ellington Orchestra. Prior to Braud’s engagement, Ellington relied on tuba player Henry Edwards to hold up the bottom end. He brought Braud into the band to impart a New Orleans influence and a bigger sound to the Ellington band.
Braud first recorded with Ellington on October 6th, 1927, on a tune titled “Washington Wobble.” Clearly impressed with Braud’s facility, Ellington included a call and response section between Braud and the ensemble on the recording, as well as a short break for the bass in the arrangement.
These are not earth-shattering orchestration choices by today’s standards, but considering the time constraints of 78-rpm records, this speaks volumes about Ellington's esteem for Braud’s playing. This also came a full year before what has gone down in history as the “first” recorded bass solo in jazz, by Bill Johnson on drummer Baby Dodds' “Bull Fiddle Blues.”
Braud’s sound was featured heavily on Ellington's recordings in the following years. Just a month after “Washington Wobble,” Braud’s clean but strong bowed playing and the occasional driving pizzicato can be heard loud and clear on the November 3rd, 1927 recordings of “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Chicago Stomp-Down” for Okeh Records. On these sessions, as was the case for much of the Ellington recordings from the 1920s, Braud favors using the bow over plucking or the slapping technique which became his signature style.
Braud’s driving rhythmic “slap” sound was achieved by pulling or plucking a single string up on one beat and slapping down on the other stings on the next. Braud can be heard to have arrived at this very different approach to the bass by June 12th, 1930, when he recorded “Double Check Stomp” with Ellington. Braud's pizzicato two-beat feel drives the band with a subtle intensity that is only bested by his syncopated slap bass solo.
Braud’s performance on Ellington's famous December 10th, 1930 recording of “Mood Indigo” is nothing short of a gold standard against which other bass players of the early thirties would be weighed. Braud places the beat so clearly and consistently on this record that you could hang your hat on his down beats.
Wellman Braud continued to work with the Ellington Orchestra for the first half of the 1930s until Ellington brought in a second bassist to play beside him. By this time, Braud was the oldest member of the band by four years, and there is reason to believe that Ellington was concerned that Braud’s playing caused the band to sound dated.
It is unclear whether Ellington's move to add a second bassist was simply part of his search for for a new sound for his rhythm section, or if he wished to subtley push Braud out of the band, but Braud left the Ellington Orchestra in March of 1935.
For the remainder of the thirties, Braud remained based in New York, where he played with the “Spirits of Rhythm” and led a local trio based out of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn.
While Braud never stopped playing entirely, he remained semi-retired from music for the rest of his life, and focused on business ventures like the club he ran briefly with clarinetist Jimmie Noone in Harlem. Notable exceptions to his “retired” status include a tour of Europe with trombonist Kid Ory in 1956, and recording dates for Capitol Records through 1960s. Wellman Braud passed away from a heart attack at his home in Los Angeles home on October 29th, 1966 at the age of seventy-five.
In a career which spanned more than six decades, Braud was present in New Orleans when very seeds of jazz were sown, and continued to record and perform through the days of free jazz, avant-garde and the Beatles.
In 1970, Ellington commemorated Braud's contributions to jazz in his “New Orleans Suite,” in which he dedicates an entire movement to his former bass player. While Braud's name is rarely mentioned, his innovations and sound live on in the playing of every jazz bassist on the scene today, whether they know it or not.
Duke Ellington: The OKeh Ellington (Columbia 46177)
Ken Burns Jazz: Duke Ellington (Columbia/Legacy CK 61444)
Duke Ellington: Jungle Nights in Harlem (1927-1932) (Bluebird)
Great Original Performances 1927-1934 (Mobile Fidelity)
Cotton Club Stars (Stash)
Contributor: Sean Lorre