Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Garrison, Jimmy (James Emory)

Bassist Jimmy Garrison’s extensive timbre, concrete pulse and imaginative bass lines made important contributions to the work of both Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Garrison’s distinct physicality produced uninhibited passion out of the ensembles he worked with. One of the most adaptable bassists in jazz, Garrison had a rare ability to employ various harmonic and rhythmic devices to his bass lines.

James Emory Garrison was born on March 3, 1933 in Miami, Florida. Garrison grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he began his musical studies, first playing the clarinet as a teenager. Garrison switched to bass while in high school and after graduating he continued his musical studies at local music schools.

Garrison was fortunate enough to benefit from Philadelphia’s flourishing jazz scene. The scene included top-notch talent such as bassists Henry Grimes and Reggie Workman, trumpeter Lee Morgan and pianist McCoy Tyner.

Garrison first began touring with an ensemble named “The Five Guys,” eventually returning home to continue his musical education. In Philadelphia, Garrison played with pianist Bobby Timmons and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. Garrison first worked alongside drummer Elvin Jones while sitting in for bassist Jimmy Bond in the Sonny Rollins trio one night in 1957.

Garrison first came to New York to play with drummer Philly Joe Jones in 1958. Garrison freelanced for a short while and built up his resumé playing with pianists Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and saxophonist Benny Golson, amongst others.

H first prominent association was with Ornette Coleman, whom he began playing with shortly after his arrival in New York. Garrison’s early efforts with Coleman garnered him the admiration and acknowledgement of the New York jazz scene.

Garrison’s first recorded with Coleman in 1959, on tracks released on the 1970 album The Art Of The Improvisers. On “Harlem’s Manhattan,” Garrison offers a more firm feeling to his rhythmic approach that contrasted with then Coleman bassist Charlie Haden’s more subtle approach. The pairing of Garrison with drummer Elvin Jones brought out a harder edged side to Coleman’s performance.

During this time, Garrison was performing with Coleman on a regular basis at the famous New York club “The Five Spot,” following Haden’s departure. One night, John Coltrane was in attendance at the club and was particularly blown away by Garrison’s talent. Coltrane invited him to join his quartet, to which Garrison accepted. The inclusion of Garrison to the quartet solidified the line-up of one of the most important ensembles in jazz history.

Garrison was already familiar with Coltrane, having played with Coltrane and pianist McCoy Tyner on a gig in 1957 while still in Philadelphia. Garrison first performed with the Coltrane group at the Village Vanguard in November 1961, occasionally sharing the stage with Coltrane's regular bassist, Reggie Workman and sometimes as the only bassist.

In 1963, Garrison recorded the album Illumination! with Elvin Jones, his only release as a co-leader. The album also features alto/english horn player Sonny Simmons, flutist/clarinetist Prince Lasha and Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner.

In 1965, the Coltrane group released the groundbreaking record, A Love Supreme. A Love Supreme is regarded as one of Coltrane’s most important works, as it juxtaposes Coltrane’s early bebop style with the free jazz style he would soon embrace in his later career.

On “A Love Supreme Part 1: Acknowledgement," Garrison begins by playing an ostinato for the rest of the ensemble to vamp over. Garrison takes to the free-formed sentiment of the song by not overcrowding the overall sound with a lot of notes. It’s in Garrison’s restraint that he allows the ensemble to shine.

According to historian Ashley Kahn, Garrison, Tyner and Jones were paid a flat fee of $142 for their participation on the A Love Supreme session.

Garrison was often given his own solo piece during live engagements with the Coltrane group. Garrison would perform an unaccompanied solo that occasionally acted as an introduction to the next song. Garrison’s band mates would often stop playing to allow Garrison to improvise freely.

After A Love Supreme, the group continued to stretch the imagination of free jazz, and Garrison evolved with the group. The fundamental example of the group’s sound was the 1967 album, Expression.

On “Offering,” Garrison does a superb job of anchoring the song over Jones’ and Coltrane’s rhythmic fireworks. Garrison displays an advanced knowledge of space, knowing when and where to break up the beat and still support the ensemble.

Garrison left Coltrane in July 1966 following a tour of Japan. Garrison soon left for West Coast to join a trio that included pianist Hampton Hawes, but was replaced by Sonny Johnson, brother of trumpeter Dewey Johnson.

Garrison eventually returned to the group to play on Coltrane’s final recordings. Garrison stayed with the group until Coltrane’s death on July 17 1967, having been the only member of the classic quartet to play with Coltrane until the very end.

After Coltrane’s death, Garrison returned to playing with Ornette Coleman, playing with Jones onNew York Is Now and Love Call. Garrison also played with saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, and Archie as well as Coltrane’s widow Alice Coltrane and groups led by Jones. Garrison was also active as a session musician on numerous dates.

Garrison also pursued a career as an educator, holding positions at Bennington College in Vermont and Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Garrison also kept an expansive studio of private students that included bassist and composer Jerry Rizzi and William Parker.

Garrison’s health took a turn for the worse, beginning in late 1974 when he began to experience difficulties with his hands. In 1975, Garrison had an operation to treat lung cancer. It was this operation that indicated the end of Garrison’s career.

Garrison ultimately succumbed to lung cancer on April 7, 1976 in New York. Garrison is survived by his son Matthew, also a bassist, who has played with Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin amongst others, and a daughter, MaiaClaire, who is a dancer and choreographer.

Select Discography

With Ornette Coleman

Art Of The Improvisers (1959-61, released in 1970)

Beauty Is A Rare Thing (Complete Atlantic Recordings, released as box set in 1993)

Love Call (1968)

New York Is Now (1968)

With John Coltrane

My Favorite Things (1960)

Ballads (1961)

Live At The Village Vanguard (1961)

A Love Supreme (1964)

Ascension (1965)

Expression (1967)

With Elvin Jones

Illumination! (1963)

With Archie Shepp

Attica Blues (1972)

There’s A Trumpet In My Soul (1975)

Contributor: Eric Wendell