Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Pettiford, Oscar

Oscar Pettiford set the standard for bassists in bebop by drawing out the melodic and solo potential of his instrument. In a groundbreaking series of recordings with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, saxophonist Sonny Rollins and his own groups, he established and expanded a vocabulary for the bass which was harmonically advanced yet grounded in melody.

               Oscar Pettiford with Max Roach and J.J. Johnson
                                              (Photo by Marcel Fleiss)

Oscar Pettiford was born on September 30, 1922 in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. He was of mixed African and Native American ancestry, and was born into a family of ten children. At the age of three, the family moved from Oklahoma to Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Pettiford’s family had a band which performed around Minneapolis. Oscar first sang and danced in the band, but wished to perform on an instrument. At the age of twelve, he began to the piano, and took up the upright bass at the age of fourteen.

Pettiford continued to perform with the family band even after graduating from Minneapolis North High School. The family band often performed at “Swing City,” an all-ages club on the St. Paul city limits. A prominent attraction of their set was Pettiford’s older sister Leontine, a pianist who doubled on reeds and contributed most of the arrangements. Oscar played with the family band until 1941.

In early 1943, Pettiford began to perform with saxophonist Charlie Barnet, and joined him on a tour that included a stop in New York. During this time, Pettiford shared bass duties in Barnet's band with Chubby Jackson. In 1943, Pettiford recorded “The Man I Love” with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, which became a hit record and increased the bassist's stature in the jazz community. In May of 1943, Pettiford left the Barnet group and settled in New York City.

Upon his arrival in New York, Pettiford began to attend jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, where he met Thelonious Monk and other bebop pioneers. Shortly afterwards, Pettiford performed on 52nd Street in Manhattan at the Onyx Club in a band led by trumpeter Roy Eldridge with saxophonist Budd Johnson, pianist Sir Charles Thompson and drummer Harold “Doc” West.

Pettiford co-led a quintet the Onyx Club with Dizzy Gillespie that included saxophonist Lester Young, pianist George Wallington and West. Don Byas eventually replaced Young and drummer Max Roach replaced West. Differences between the members eventually caused the group to break up, with Gillespie going on to perform at the Yacht Club and Pettiford leading his own quintet at the Onyx with West and trumpeter Joe Guy.

A short time later, Pettiford toured to California with Coleman Hawkins’ band, which included Thompson, trumpeter Howard McGhee and drummer Denzil Best. The Hawkins group made an appearance in John Hoffman’s 1945 film The Crimson Canary, although his performance was dubbed on the soundtrack by bassist Budd Hatch.

From November 1945 until March 1948, Pettiford performed with bandleader Duke Ellington. In April 1948, Pettiford performed with drummer J.C. Heard in pianist Erroll Garner’s trio at the Three Deuces Club. Through the end of 1948, Pettiford performed at the Three Deuces with trombonist Kai Winding and trumpeter Miles Davis.

Soon after, Pettiford formed an all star group at the Clique Club with Davis, trumpeter Fats Navarro, saxophonists Lucky Thompson and Dexter Gordon, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, pianist Bud Powell and drummer Kenny Clarke.

In February of 1949, Pettiford joined bandleader Woody Herman’s band. On one occasion, Pettiford was playing baseball with the Herman sidemen and broke his arm, severely limiting his activities over the next year. Throughout this time, Pettiford focused his energy on learning the cello, often playing it with his arm still in a sling. He later incorporated the cello into is performances and recordings, and is often credited for introducing the cello as a solo instrument into the jazz community.

After his recovery, Pettiford joined a sextet co-led by drummer Louis Bellson and trumpeter Charlie Shavers. In 1953, Pettiford joined pianist Bud Powell’s trio at Birdland. In 1955, Pettiford led a quintet that included trombonist Jimmy Cleveland, saxophonist Jerome Richardson, pianist Horace Silver and Clarke at the Café Bohemia. In March 1956, Pettiford led a trio with pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. and Clarke at the Basin Street West Club.

In December 1956, Pettiford performed on Thelonious Monk’ album Brilliant Corners. On the album's title track, Pettiford expertly anchors the ensemble through various tempo changes while securing the harmonic foundation. Pettiford allows Roach to handle most of the rhythmic inflections, leaving himself to secure the changes.

From 1956 until 1957, Pettiford led his own big band, which was highly regarded for its creative arrangements and instrumentation. The group’s personnel were rarely stable, owing in part to Pettiford’s own temperament. Pettiford’s sidemen included Cleveland, trumpeters Art Farmer and Donald Byrd French hornist David Amram, saxophonists Gigi Gryce, Sahib Shihab and Benny Golson, pianist Dick Katz and drummer Gus Johnson.

In May 1957, Pettiford appeared on trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s album Jazz Contrasts. On “I’ll Remember April,” Pettiford begins the song with a brief introduction before launching into verse. Pettiford firmly sticks to the 4/4 rhythm, with periods where he goes into a two-feel. Pettiford’s digression into several different rhythmic patterns increases the rhythmic integrity of the song.

In February 1958, Pettiford was featured on Sonny Rollins’ album Freedom Suite. Along with drummer Max Roach, the trio’s crowning achievement is the title track, on which Pettiford carefully supports the melodicism of the suite by choosing not to overplay. Pettiford pays special attention to Rollins throughout the entire suite by providing a strong harmonic framework.

In September 1958, Pettiford toured France and Germany. In June 1959, he relocated to Copenhagen, Denmark. During the last few years of his life, he performed with saxophonist Hans Koller, guitarist Atilla Zoller, with Clarke or Jimmy Pratt on drums. In 1958, Pettiford was involved in an auto accident that fractured his skull, though this did little to slow him down.

In 1958, Pettiford performed with saxophonist Stan Getz in Sven Methling’s film Soldaterkammerater. From late 1959 until 1960, Pettiford performed with Getz’s quartet at the Montmartre Club in Copenhagen.

Pettiford performed for the last time on Sunday September 4, 1960 at an art exhibit in Copenhagen. The following day, he was taken to the hospital where he fell into a coma. Pettiford passed away on September 8, 1960 in Copenhagen’s Fiedfrederiksberg Hospital at the age of thirty-seven.

At the time, Danish doctors refused to give the cause of death, though rumors spread to New York that his death was due to an act of violence. Due to the fact that paralysis became an apparent symptom, his death was believed to be caused by a “Polio-like” viral infection. One other source claimed that his death was caused by complications that stemmed from his auto accident two years earlier. Pettiford left behind a wife and three children.

Select Discography

As Oscar Pettiford

First Bass (1953)

Another One (1955)

Deep Passion (1956)

Montmartre Blues (1959)

My Little Cello (1960)

With Kenny Dorham

Jazz Contrasts (1957)

With Coleman Hawkins

The Hawk Flies High (1957)

With Thelonious Monk

Plays Duke Ellington (1955)

Brilliant Corners (1956)

The Unique Thelonious Monk (1956)

With Sonny Rollins

The Freedom Suite (1958)

With Lucky Thompson

Accent on Tenor Sax (1954)

Contributor: Eric Wendell