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Tracks Unwrapped

Jimmy Blanton and Jack The Bear

 

 

Gandy Dancers

 

Looking for the origin of the name 'Jack The Bear' takes us way back beyond the title of Duke Ellington's tune.

One explanation is that Jack The Bear was a character of Black stories and rhymed tales, and crops up in a work-chant used by gandy-dancers (railroad workers laying rails) about "Jack-the-Rabbit/Jack-the-Bear". Apparently there are various theories about the derivation of the term 'Gandy Dancer', but most refer to the "dancing" movements of the workers using a specially manufactured 5-foot (1.5 m) "lining" bar, which came to be called a "gandy", as a lever to keep the tracks in alignment.

 

Jack de rabbit, Jack de bear.
Shake it back, boys, just a hair!

 

Here's a brief video about gandy dancers

 

 

 

 

Brer Bear

 

 

 

There is also reference to two characters from folklore where Jack the Bear, called either Jack or John (and sometimes John the Conqueror), was invisible to the white community. He would arrive suddenly to fix things for folks in distress. He was a hero with magical powers.

The Urban Dictionary describes Jack The Bear as a lazy person: "You like Jack the Bear, Cletus, you ain't done shit all day." The Probert Dictionary echoes this: 'Like Jack The Bear Just Ain' Nowhere' - Black-American slang for an expression of disappointment and worthlessness.

In contradiction there are other references to 'Jack The Bear' being the opposite - someone or something that goes really fast or well: "We were like 'Jack the Bear' for the first five laps of a run, but then the car would get real tight real quick and just wouldn't turn when I needed it to." (Tim Sauter AP Performance Racing).

 

 

 

 

 

Jimmy Blanton

 

 

Writing in allaboutjazz.com in 2010, Dan Bilawsky quotes Mark Tucker's liner notes for Duke Ellington: The Blanton-Webster Band (Bluebird, 1986), which say that the original Jack The Bear " ... was a Harlem bass-player who, as reed-player Gavin Bushell recently recalled, had a tailor shop at the corner of St. Nicholas and Edgecombe Avenues."

If Ellington named the tune after the tailor, Jack The Bear's musical association would be with another bass player - Jimmy Blanton.The website bassplayersunited.com says 'At a recording session on 6th March 1940, Ellington foregrounded Blanton on the day’s recordings by placing him in close proximity to the microphone. This was something he’d previously done with his original bass player, Wellman Braud, in the 1920s, when having a ‘string bassist’ in a band (as opposed to a tuba player) was still regarded as a novelty. Two numbers in particular that he recorded that day showcased both his playing as well as his rich, round tone: ‘Ko-Ko’ and ‘Jack the Bear’. Both of these feature Blanton solos, the latter becoming a concert showpiece for his playing during his tenure with Ellington.'

 

Jimmy Blanton

 

Dan Bilawsky describes Blanton’s significance: ‘When Ellington first heard Jimmy Blanton play in St. Louis in the fall of 1939, he heard something special in the bassist and appreciated his ability to take the bass beyond a simple timekeeping role and into true soloist territory....... As the song begins, Blanton plays in between the band statements and his facility and the clarity in his playing is a wondrous thing, basically unknown in jazz until this time.’

Bilawsky goes on to describe how when Ellington enters, Blanton ‘falls in line’ to be followed by Barney Bigard’s clarinet, Cootie Williams's voice-like trumpet, Harry Carney’s saxophone and Tricky Sam Nanton’s muted trombone. Jimmy Blanton steps back in for the last thirty seconds. The track was recorded at a time when Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster were so popular that the recording was also issued under the heading of the 'Blanton-Webster Band'.

 

 

 

 

The story of Jimmy Blanton is a sad one, he was another of those remarkable jazz musicians who went to play with the angels long before his time. He was born in Tennessee in 1918 and started out on the violin. He then took up the bass at Tennessee State University and played for Fate Marable during his vacations. Moving to St Louis when he left college, he joined the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra, and then became a member of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra in 1939 at the age of 21.

The website bassplayersunited.com quotes Charlie Haden as saying: ‘Duke Ellington’s band came through St. Louis and played a dance - back then it was dances and not concerts. Afterward Duke went back to the hotel to sleep, and all the musicians went to Duke Ellington and Jimmy Blantonan after-hours session. This young bass player was playing, and these guys flipped out. They went back and woke up Duke Ellington, and brought him to the session. Duke hired Jimmy on the spot, and the band left St. Louis with two bass players.’

 

Duke Ellington and Jimmy Blanton

 

Jimmy Blanton was with Ellington for just two years. Wikipedia says: ‘Blanton made an incalculable contribution in changing the way the double bass was used in jazz. Previously the double bass was rarely used to play anything but quarter notes in ensemble or solos but by soloing on the bass more in a 'horn like' fashion, Blanton began sliding into eighth- and sixteenth-note runs, introducing melodic and harmonic ideas that were totally new to jazz bass playing. His virtuosity put him in a different class from his predecessors, making him the first true master of the jazz bass and demonstrating the instrument's unsuspected potential as a solo instrument.’

In 1941, at the age of 23, Blanton was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The illness forced him to leave Ellington, and his last recording was cut on September 26, 1941 in Hollywood. Blanton died in a sanatorium in California in July 1942.

The website bassplayersunited.com describes Jimmy Blanton as ‘probably the most important and influential bassist of the twentieth century’.

Here are Duke Ellington and Jimmy Blanton playing Pitter Panther Patter recorded in Chicago in 1940, a duet that shows off Jimmy’s bass playing to full effect.

 

 

 

Now check out what is thought to be a rare solo by Jimmy Blanton playing slap bass. The piece is brief, comes from a radio broadcast and has a few crackles, but it is worth a listen.

 

 

 

It is easy to associate the upright bass with the image of a great bear, just as I have always imagined Adrian Rollini's bass saxophone sounding a bear-like instrument. In the hands of an accomplished bass player, whether a Jack, Jimmy, Michael, Charlie, Calum, Misha, Dave, Jasper, Alison, Andrew, Scott .... it is anything but.

 

Jeroen de Valk in The Netherlands writes about our article:

'Not mentioned is that Ben Webster called Blanton 'Bear'. Several friends of Ben's in Amsterdam told me so. I have an unissued recording of Ben in 1941, singing and playing a tune which he dedicates to Blanton: "This is for ol' Bear. Little jump number, haven't named it yet.'' (The song is Dearie, which he never recorded commercially, but from which Duke used the melody in Black, Brown and Beige). Readers might know the English version of my bio about Ben. See (www.jeroendevalk.nl).

 

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More Tracks Unwrapped:

Call Of The Freaks
Flight Of The Foo Birds
The Mooche
In Walked Bud

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