The saga of Duke Ellington's orchestra is an epic that lasted from the 1920s to the 1970s and has spanned the history of jazz itself. It is not only the story of a man and his music, but of the musicians that he wrote for and that interpreted his songs. Ellington prided himself on knowing his musicians' individual sounds so well that he could tailor each composition to the specific musical identity of each his sidemen. So to say that one or two musicians were standouts from the most fabled orchestra in American history is no small statement indeed. Yet one period is constantly referred to as the cream of the Ellington crop, the 1939-1941 "Blanton-Webster band." While Webster is regarded as one of the finest swing tenor sax players ever, he was not the pioneering musician that Jimmy Blanton, bassist extraordinaire, was.
Jimmy Blanton (1918-42) was the musical godfather of bebop bass. While some have argued that Benny Goodman alumnus Slam Stewart was the first bassist to make the bass a solo vehicle for improvisation, his solos were merely decorated bass lines. He lacked the tone, decoration and creativity of Blanton's solos. Blanton took the bass, which had previously been used only to keep time and lay down a basic harmonic foundation, to a new level where it became an instrument capable of horn-like solos that could hold their own in duets with Duke Ellington himself. Blanton truly turned the musical world onto the possibilities of using the bass as a melodic instrument, both bowed and plucked. Had he not passed away in 1942, most musicians agree that Blanton would have been at the forefront of the bebop movement.
Blanton's uniqueness lay not only in what he played, but how he played. Gunther Schuller describes the technique involved with producing such a distinctive and pronounced tone:
"Most importantly, he was the first to develop the lone tone in pizzicato... Blanton maximize[d] the natural resonance of the string by using as much of the fleshy length of the finger as possibleplucking the string with the finger parallel to the string, rather than plucking across at right angles; and plucked the string at the point where it sets in vibration the maximum resonance. Instead of the usual quick-decay of ordinary pizzicato playing, Blanton could produce whole notes or half notes or other longer durations at will." (Schuller 1989: 111)
James "Jimmy" Blanton was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in October of 1918. His mother, a pianist who led her own band, started Jimmy on the violin during childhood. While studying at Tennessee State College, he switched to the string bass and started playing with the State Collegians and local bands led by "Bugs" Roberts and drummer Joe Smith. During his summer vacations Blanton played on the riverboat circuit with pianist Fates Marable's band, the Cotton Pickers.
After his third year of college, Blanton packed up and moved to St. Louis. In 1937 he joined the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra, playing a three-string bass. He continued to play with Fates Marable in the summer months, and at this time began to hone the skills that would be bring him fame later on.
In autumn 1939, the twenty-one year old Blanton started playing on a regular basis at the Coronado Hotel Ballroom in St. Louis. According to Miles Davis, Blanton sat in one night with Davis during his stint with the Blue Devils, the house band at the Rhumboogie Club. It was on this night that Duke Ellington, in town for a concert, stopped by and impressed by the abilities of the young musician who was to become his most famous bassist, signed Blanton immediately. Ellington was impressed with Blanton's advanced techniques that belied his young age. Also, by this time Blanton had developed a new bass technique of playing lines that sounded more like a horn than like a bass, which until then had been primarily for keeping time. Blanton agreed to join Ellington's group, but did not own a four-string bass at the time. Gene Porter, who played the saxophone, clarinet and flute in the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra with Blanton, served as the guarantor. Blanton shared the bass duties with Billy Taylor until Taylor left the Ellington orchestra in January 1940.