Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Shank, Bud (Clifford Everett)

Bud Shank is best known as one of the leading figures on the West Coast jazz scene of the 1950s, yet he did much to resist the connection. Although his alto sax work in the early part of the decade took on the warm tone and melodic contours associated with this time and place, he eventually adopted a more swinging and driving approach. He was defying the marketing angle associated with West Coast jazz, a spin that portrayed this music as lyrical and laid-back, but Shank didn't have much patience with those types of considerations.

Bud Shank by  Scott Strohmeier

He pioneered the use of the flute during the decadeóand recorded in a "flute and oboe" setting along with Bob Cooper that was typical of the search for new sounds of the period. Shank was a pioneer in legitimizing this instrument in jazz and won awards as a flautist, yet he also grew dissatisfied with this sound too, telling me in 1988 that ďI think the flute is a stupid instrument to be playing jazz music on.Ē

The constant in all this change was Shank's probing horn work, and a commitment to realizing his full potential on the alto. In a career spanning some sixty years, Shank stood out as a outstanding soloist, a versatile instrumentalist, a skilled session player, and a frank, no-nonsense presence in the jazz world.

The altoist was born as Clifford Everett Shank, Jr. in Dayton, Ohio on May 27, 1926, and grew up on a country farm some ten miles from town. His country school had an experimental music education program, and the youngster started playing clarinet at age ten. He recalled to me making his musical debut four weeks after starting on the horn. "A very simple piece," he told me. "I still have the music." At age twelve, he started on the saxophone, and later studied music at the University of North Carolina, where his father was stationed in the armed forces.

Jazz in Hollywood

Shank left the university during his third year, along with other student musicians, to go on the road as a touring band. The experience lasted only a few months, but Shank never looked back. He played with Charlie Barnet in 1947, and headed to Los Angeles in 1949, where he worked with Alvino Rey. But his break came when Shank was invited to join Stan Kenton's new Innovations in Modern Music band. This proved to be a springboard to solo career in the early 1950s. Shank recorded with guitarist Laurindo Almeida, and though it is not correct to claim, as some have, that this music was the birth of bossa nova, it certainly set a precedent in combining a jazz sensibility with Brazilian-oriented material. He was an important member of the Lighthouse All-Stars, and collaborated with Bob Cooper on some memorable projects, including a vital 1956 live recording made at Cal Tech. Shank was often at his best in live performance, as demonstrated on a powerful mid-1950s amateur recording made the Haig, which sat unreleased for many years. This first rate (but seldom heard) album finds Shank in transition between his earlier cool and later hot styles. In the early 1960s, he played regularly at the Drift Inn in Malibu, often with Carmell Jones, Dennis Budimir, and Gary Peacock in a forward-looking band that also deserved greater visibility.

During the 1960s, Shank increasingly relied on studio work to support himself. His skill on a range of instruments made him a welcome presence on commercial sessions. His work shows up in surprising places during this period, for example on hit singles by the Mamas and the Papas ("California Dreamin'") and The Association ("Windy"), or accompanying the legendary surf footage of Bruce Brown. Shank himself covered pop-rock hits in projects under his own leadership. Yet he bristled when critics accused him of abandoning jazz. He told one European interviewer: "You have to survive. When I became a full-time studio musician, I had been unemployed for a long time since jazz music left us in 1962-63 or whenever. I donít think any of us realized what was going on, but some American jazz musicians ended up here in Europe, some gave up playing altogether, some went off into never-never land by whatever chemical they could find. And there were some others who went into another business. Thatís what I did. I went into another business using the tools I had, which was playing the flute and the saxophone. Consider that a copout? No, I donít."

Shank returned to jazz, and found some success in the 1970s in the LA Four, in which he was reunited with guitarist Laurindo Almeida. In the 1980s, he renewed musical partnerships with other old colleagues from the West Coast period, such as Shorty Rogers and Bill Perkins, and recorded a number of top flight leader dates. Shank also mentored younger players at an influential jazz education workshop in Port Townsend, Washington, and benefited from the gradual resurgence of interest in the post-war West Coast jazz players during the 1980s and 1990s. Shank kept active even into his eighties, touring Europe and Japan and delighting new audiences with his fervent alto playing. He was reportedly working on a recording in San Diego the day before his death in Tuscon, Arizona from pulmonary failure on April 2, 2009.

Contributor: Ted Gioia