Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Callender, Red (George Sylvester)

Red Callender could lay down a huge walking bass line as easily as he made his upright sing like a violin. An incredibly talented performer on both string bass and tuba, he was also a gifted arranger and composer. Callender’s diverse talents and sensitive accompaniment meant that he was always working, from his first recording session at the age of twenty, until his death at the age of eighty-six.

George Sylvester Callender was born March 6th, 1916 in Haynesville, Virginia. Callender’s father was from Barbados, and while primarily of African descent, he also traced his ancestry back to Scotland. Red Callender attributed his “red hair, freckles and light-brown eyes” to this lineage.

Callender grew up with music in the house, as his mother was an amateur singer and guitarist. By 1919 the Callender family relocated to Atlantic City, New Jersey where Callender first studied music at the Bordentown School. His first instrument was alto horn but he later learned the violin, tuba and double bass.

By the time Callender reached his teenage years, his parents had split up. After the divorce he, his mother, and his father all relocated to New York City, where his father worked as a cook for the actor Edward G. Robinson and his mother worked as a housekeeper for Sam Jaffee, also an actor. By this time, Callender was dedicating his musical energies to jazz and once in the Big Apple, he jumped head-first in the New York scene. He frequented the Harlem Rhythm Club and the Savoy Ballroom in particular, absorbing as much information and music as he could.

Callender’s first paying gig, a 1933 stint with “Banjo” Bernie, took him back home to Atlantic City. In 1936 he went on tour with Blanche Thompson’s Brownskin Models, finding himself in Los Angeles by the end of the year. Callender was so taken with the West Coast he decided to stay. In his own words, “I wasn’t quite twenty years old, yet I knew I had arrived in the place I had dreamed of all my life.”

Callender was able to find steady, if not high-profile, work in Los Angeles before getting the call for his first recording session on November 15th, 1937. That call came from none other than trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and the session yielded two sides, “Once in a While” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” for the Decca label. At only twenty-one years of age, Callender now had the distinction of having recorded with the biggest name in jazz, not to mention the other noted jazz veterans on the session, trombonist J.C. Higginbotham and trumpeter Luis Russell.

Callender’s cachet in the Los Angeles music scene continued to grow. He performed with trumpeters Buck Clayton and Mutt Carey in the late thirties and had at least one of his compositions recorded by Lionel Hampton. In 1939, Callender took on a seventeen-year-old Charles Mingus as a student. Mingus had heard Callender practicing between tunes at a rehearsal session, and was so taken with his flawless technique and musicality that he insisted Callender take him on. The bond that was established through their lessons became the foundation for a life-long friendship between these two bass masters.

In the early forties, Callender spent three years working with Lee and Lester Young’s Band. Callender’s next important recording would be as the third piece in the trio co-led by Lester Young and Nat "King" Cole. The group recorded four sides on July 15th, 1942. While these recordings are not of great sonic quality, “Tea for Two” from that session provides a fine example of the young Red Callender’s ability to support and compliment a great soloist.

By the middle of the forties, Callender performed and recorded with New Orleans cornetist Bunk Johnson and an all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic band, along with tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet Nat King Cole, Les Paul and Lee Young. He then formed his own group, The Red Callender Trio, toured the country extensively before settling back in New York in 1946.

Callender’s services were in great demand upon his return to the New York scene. In 1946 alone he recorded with Errol Garner Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Boyd Raeburn, Big Joe Turner, Dinah Washington, Gerald Wilson, Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Lucky Thompson Wardell Gray and Charlie Parker. In September and October of that year, Callender worked alongside Armstrong and Billie Holiday on the filming of the motion picture New Orleans.

Following the filming session for New Orleans, Callender remained in Los Angeles. As a result, Callender was in the right place at the right time to be called to record with Charlie Parker on his first sessions after his release from California’s Camarillo State Hospital. Callender recorded on two dates with Parker in Feburary 1947, both for the Dial label. The second of these sessions yielded the classic “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” and the often underappreciated “Carvin’ the Bird.” In the span of just a few months Callender demonstrated that he was both comfortable, and good, enough in such disparate styles as old-fashioned Dixieland and the then ultra-modern bebop to work with the best in both arenas.

In 1947, Callender added vibraphonist Red Norvo, clarinetist Benny Goodman, Benny Carter, and tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon to the list of legendary leaders he backed on recordings. Callender finally slowed down his hectic recording schedule in the last part of the decade when he led a trio in Hawaii. While living there, Callender wrote The Pastel Symphony and performed it with the Hawaiian Symphony Orchestra.

Callender returned to Los Angeles by 1950. At this point in his career he elected to kept is traveling to a minimum, instead focusing on recording work. Around this time Callender stretched his activities beyond jazz into more commercial recording endeavors. A clear indication of his musical skill and diversity, Callender was one of the first African Americans to be hired by both the NBC and CBS orchestras.

Of Callender’s extensive studio output in the fifties his 1956 sessions with Art Tatum stand out above the rest. Callender proved more than capable at keeping up with the often unpredictable Tatum. The two worked together on three sessions, one a trio with Jo Jones, another with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and a session in September of that year featuring tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. Of the resulting tracks “Deep Night” from the DeFranco session and “My Ideal” with Ben Webster stand out as brilliant examples of the connection between Tatum and Callender.

Callender never stopped and barely slowed down for the rest of his career. In the sixties Callender recorded with Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie and he reunited with Charles Mingus. He even became a favorite accompanist of vocalist Mel Torme. By the 1970s, Diana Ross joined the list of star performers who had sought out his services.

Callender continued to record and perform right up to his last years. In 1987 Callender’s career came full circle when he became a key member of the Satchmo Legacy Band, a Louis Armstrong tribute group fronted by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and Curtis Fuller. Red Callender died March 8th, 1992 from thyroid cancer.

Few musicians can claim as long and diverse a career as Red Callender, a career he chronicled his musical journey in his 1985 autobiography Unfinished Dream: The Musical World of Red Callender. In his fifty-nine years as a professional musician Callender worked in more styles and with more top-flight jazz musicians, than virtually any other bass player in the business.

Select Discography

Lester Young: The Complete Aladdin Recordings (Blue Note)

Complete Jazz at the Philharmonic 1944-1949 (Verve)

Charlie Parker: Immortal Sessions, Vol. 1 (Saga)

Art Tatum: Presenting "The Art Tatum Trio" (Verve)

The Art Tatum/Ben Webster Quartet (Verve)

Red Callender: Speak Low (Fresh Sounds)

Contributor: Sean Lorre