Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Chambers, Paul (Laurence Dunbar, Jr.)

"Mr. P.C.," Paul Chambers, had a distinctively accurate style which made him the bassist of choice for both Miles Davis and John Coltrane.. Chambers' playing remains the gold standard for accompaniment and soloing for modern bassists. Among his many accomplishments, he reintroduced bowing into the contemporary jazz language.

Paul Laurence Dunbar Chambers, Jr. was born on April 11, 1935 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Paul Lawrence Chambers and Ann Dunbar. Chambers began studying music as a child when a teacher asked him to play the baritone horn in school. In 1948, Chambers’ mother passed away, and he went to live his father in Detroit.

                          Paul Chambers by JC Jaress

Upon his arrival in Detroit, Chambers switched to the tuba, ultimately settling on studying the upright bass. By 1952, Chambers began taking lessons from a bassist that performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Chambers gained his first performing experience while attending Cass Technical High School where he played with the symphony orchestra. Chambers also participated in student ensembles where he would sometimes perform on the baritone saxophone.

Throughout this time, Chambers’ interest in jazz began to grow. At the age of fifteen, Chambers became interested in bebop through listening to recordings of saxophonist Charlie Parker and pianist Bud Powel.l Chambers later spoke of bassists Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown as his first influences as a player. Chambers later discovered Charles Mingus and was impressed by his rhythmic prowess and harmonic complexity. Duke Ellington bassist Jimmy Blanton was the bassist he considered his favorite.

Paul and his father did not see eye to eye when it came to his musical aspirations. Chambers’ father wanted him to become a professional baseball player, but the boy preferred music. When the boy tried to practice at home, his father would express his displeasure by throwing the school-owned bass down the stairs.

Deciding to embark on a career as a professional bassist, Chambers studied with pianists Hugh Lawson and Barry Harris. Chambers began performing in Detroit’s prosperous jazz scene with Detroit stars guitarist Kenny Burrell and cornetist Thad Jones. Clubs that Chambers first began performing at included the Bluebird Inn, Klein’s Show Bar and The Rouge Lounge.

In 1955, Chambers began touring with saxophonist Paul Quinichette and later moved to New York where he joined a group led by trombonists J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding. Chambers then went on to working with pianist Benny Green and later pianist George Wallington’s group at the Café Bohemia with saxophonist Jackie McLean trumpeter Donald Byrd and drummer Art Taylor.

Chambers impressed McLean, who brought him to the attention of trumpeter Miles Davis. Upon hearing Chambers, Davis hired him for his quintet, which included saxophonist Sonny Rollins, pianist Red Garland and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Following several rehearsals, the quintet opened at the Café Bohemia.

By September 1955, Rollins left the quintet and was replaced by saxophonist John Coltrane.A month later, the quintet recorded their first sessions for Columbia Records even though Davis was still under contract with Prestige Records.

In 1956, Chambers recorded his first solo album Chambers’ Music, which featured Coltrane and saxophonist Pepper Adams. In 1956, the Davis quintet recorded two sessions that yielded the albums Cookin’ and Relaxin’.

Songs from the sessions produced two more albums entitled Workin’ and Steamin’. With the intermittent absence of Coltrane in March 1956, Davis brought back Rollins to record on the Miles Davis All-Stars session that included Chambers, Taylor, and pianist Tommy Flanagan. The same year, Down Beat Magazine awarded Chambers the “New Star Award.”

In 1956, Chambers released the album Whim of Chambers, which featured trumpeter Donald Byrd and pianist Horace Silver and made a guest appearance on Rollins’ album Tenor Madness. Chambers’ 1957 release Bass On Top featured Burrell and pianist Hank Jones. In September 1957, Chambers performed on Coltrane’s only Blue Note release Blue Train.

In March 1958, Chambers, Flanagan and drummer Jimmy Cobb were featured as the rhythm section on the album Kenny Burell and John Coltrane. The album featured the Flanagan original “Big Paul,” which was dedicated to Chambers. In March and April 1959, the Davis group recorded which has since become one of the most influential recordings in jazz.

On “All Blues,” Chambers and pianist Bill Evans construct an introductory vamp that perfectly executes the atmospheric mood of the song. The restrained performance of Chambers fully allows the soloists to excel while retaining the overall ambiance of the song.

A mere month after recording Kind of Blue, Chambers performed on Coltrane’s innovative album Giant Steps. Chambers was once again the subject of tribute when Coltrane wrote the song “Mr. P.C.” for Chambers.

The album’s crowning achievement is the title track. On “Giant Steps,” Chambers effortlessly anchors the group while perfectly executing the chord changes. Chambers and Flanagan find the precise balance of remaining true to the changes while making it their own.

In 1960, Chambers carried on his path as a studio musician. Chambers performed on Oliver Nelson’s album Blues and the Abstract Truth with drummer Roy Haynes.

In the same year, Chambers performed on the Jackie McLean album Jackie’s Bag. On “Appointment in Ghana,” Chambers expertly evokes the quality from every chord while maintaining a reliable rhythmic flow. The energetic performances of the entire ensemble elicit a hard-driving swing feel with Chambers at the forefront.

In June 1962 while on the west coast, Chambers, Cobb, pianist Wynton Kelly, and saxophonist Johnny Griffin joined guitarist Wes Montgomery for a live performance, which appeared on the album Full House.

In 1963, Chambers left Davis’s band citing issues with money and wanting to play his own music. Soon after, pianist Wynton Kelly left the group and joined Chambers in the formation of a trio. In 1965, Chambers and drummer Art Blakey supported saxophonist Hank Mobley on his album The Turnaround. Two years later, Chambers began recording with saxophonist Sonny Criss, which resulted in several albums being released. Chambers also performed with pianist Barry Harris at the West Boondock Club in New York.

Unfortunately after years of alcohol and heroin abuse, Chambers succumbed to tuberculosis on January 4, 1969 at the age of thirty-three. Subsequent to his death, drummer Max Roach wrote “Five For Paul” in his memory while Red Garland wrote “The P.C. Blues” in tribute to Chambers.

Select Discography

As Paul Chambers

Chambers’ Music (1956)

Whims Of Chambers (1956)

Paul Chambers Quintet (1957)

Bass On Top (1957)

With Kenny Burrell

Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane (1958)

With John Coltrane

Blue Train (1957)

Lush Life (1958)

Soultrane (1958)

Giant Steps (1960)

With Miles Davis

Cookin’ (1956)

Relaxin’ (1956)

Steamin’ (1956)

Workin’ (1956)

Porgy And Bess (1958)

Kind Of Blue (1959)

Someday My Prince Will Come (1961)

With Red Garland

Dig It! (1957)

P.C. Blues (1957)

It’s A Blue World (1957)

With Wynton Kelly

Piano (1958)

Kelly Blue (1959)

Wynton Kelly (1961)

With Jackie McLean

Jackie’s Bag (1959)

With Wes Montgomery

Full House (1962)

With Oliver Nelson

The Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961)

Contributor: Eric Wendell