Born: September 23, 1928 in Philadelphia, PA
Died: April 23, 2005 in Lindenwold, NJ
By Todd S. Jenkins
Bassist Jimmy Woode, who held down the low end for Duke Ellington’s orchestra between 1955 and 1960, died at his home in Lindenwold, New Jersey, on April 23, 2005. He was 76 years old.
James Bryant Woode was born in Philadelphia on September 23, 1928. His father was a pianist and teacher who had played in Europe with Hot Lips Page and lived for a time in Sweden. Young Jimmy studied piano and bass at conservatories and universities in Philadelphia and Boston before entering the service at the end of World War II. Upon his discharge in 1946 he put together a band with himself as the pianist. He eventually chose to concentrate on the bass, which placed him in the good company of Flip Phillips, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Nat Pierce.
In about 1951 Woode became the house bassist for George Wein’s Storyville Club in Boston, where he recorded with Billie Holiday and Sidney Bechet in ‘53. Two years later Woode worked in a duo with pianist Jaki Byard, which gave him a better sense of bebop, and landed a brief job with Miles Davis. But what really made Woode’s name was joining the Ellington band in 1955, during a time when Duke’s fortunes were sagging.
Woode was present at one of the most glorious moments in the Ellington annals: the Newport Jazz Festival, July 7, 1956, a date on which Woode often joked that he was “born”. The bassist worked hand-in-glove with drummer Sam Woodyard to drive the band to heights they hadn’t seen in years, culminating with tenorman Paul Gonsalves’ legendary 27-chorus solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”. Without a rhythm section with such die-hard energy, Gonsalves might have never made the history books and Ellington’s career may have further languished.
Woode held onto the bass chair until he left Duke in 1960. Like many American jazzmen who were dissatisfied with their own country’s lack of opportunity, and like his father before him, he settled in Sweden. A fellow expatriate, bebop drummer Kenny Clarke, was just forming a big band with Francy Boland, and they invited Woode to join the fledgling orchestra. The group settled in Köln, Germany, in 1964, and Woode remained in the rhythm section until 1973. In the interim the bassist also did a large number of radio and TV jobs, backed visiting American musicians, and ran a music publishing company.
In 1975 Woode relocated to Berlin, then lived in Vienna and Berne. From 1985 to ’88 he worked with Joe Henderson, Grachan Moncur III, and others in the Paris Reunion Band, and he frequently made the rounds of Ellington memorials all over the world. In 1995 he toured with Lionel Hampton’s Golden Men of Jazz, and eventually he settled down in the New Jersey home where he died.
Jimmy Woode’s survivors include his daughter, vocalist Shawnn Monteiro.