Milt Hinton was widely regarded as the dean of jazz bassists. This master bassist was one of the consummate sidemen in jazz history. His career very nearly spanned the gamut of jazz generations and he was one of those rare musicians who exhibited minimal ego and had an ability to make a contribution to any setting he found himself in, no matter the style. He once said, according to the New York Times, that he had made "more records than anybody," and at the peak of his recording career he kept instruments at each of several major recording studios so that he would be ready to play at a moment's notice.
Like so many African American families in the early part of the 20th century, his family migrated from Mississippi north to Chicago, where he was raised. His mother was a church musician, playing organ, piano, and directing the choir. She bought him a violin for his thirteenth birthday, which he studied for four years from 1923-27. Later he picked up the sarousaphone, bass horn, and tuba and studied music at Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago. In 1928 he found his voice when he switched to string bass. One of his earliest professional affiliations was with violinist Eddie South, with whom he played intermittently between 1931-36. Other of his early affiliations were with Zutty Singleton, Johnny Long, Tiny Parham, Erskine Tate, Art Tatum, Cassino Simpson, and Jabbo Smith.
One of the longest of his early band jobs was with the Cab Calloway band, where he worked from 1936-51. This would be his most extended sideman gig as thereafter he was the ultimate freelance musician. After leaving Calloway he worked with Joe Bushkin, comedian Jackie Gleason, and Phil Moore before joining the Count Basie band for two months. He played with Louis Armstrong between 1952- 55, then became a staff musician for CBS, one of the first African American musicians welcomed into the TV studios. From 1956 on Milt was a much in-demand studio musician. He made club gigs with such musicians as Jimmy McPartland, Benny Goodman, concerts with Ben Webster, Sammy Davis, Jr., Judy Garland, and Harry Belafonte among many others. In the 1960s he became a staff musician at ABC, where he worked on the Dick Cavett Show.
He worked at a feverish pace through the '60s and '70s, appearing on recordings ranging from television commercial jingles to those by such artists as Mahalia Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Dinah Shore, Debbie Reynolds, Johnny Mathis, and a young Aretha Franklin in the pre-soul stage of her career. Accounts differ as to how Hinton acquired his lasting nickname of "The Judge," but one theory holds that it came about because he insisted on absolute punctuality from the musicians with whom he worked.