JIMMY WOODE - A Master Musician and a Man of Elegance, Charm, Wit and Wisdom
By Mike Hennessey
The death last April of Jimmy Woode, as a result of post-operative complications following surgery for a stomach aneurysm, leaves an unfillable gap in the hierarchy of Jazz bassists.
Jimmy, who died on April 23 at his home in Lindenwold, New Jersey, at the age of 76, made an enormous contribution to the music to which he dedicated his life. He was a man of multiple talents - musician, composer, lyricist, arranger, vocalist, journalist and music publisher. He will be sorely missed by his legion of friends and admirers, not only for his consummate musicianship, but also for his amiable personality, for his deadpan humor and his prodigious gift as a hugely entertaining raconteur.
In the course of a career spanning six decades, Jimmy Woode played with a Who's Who of Jazz musicians, among them Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines, Zoot Sims, Toots Thielemans and Johnny Griffin and singers Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald. He was a regular member of the superb Clarke-Boland Big Band and of the highly acclaimed Paris Reunion Band.
James Bryant Woode II was born in Philadelphia on September 23, 1928. The son of a music teacher, he started out on baritone horn and also studied piano and double bass, initially at the Philadelphia Music Academy and then at the Boston Conservatory. He finally settled on the double bass as his chosen instrument and, in 1946, after military service as a radar operator in the U. S. Navy, he sang and played piano with the Velvetaires and then formed his own group, which worked in the Boston area. He later toured with Flip Phillips and worked with Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
In 1950, he made his first visit to Sweden, where his father, Jimmy Woode Sr., had settled three years earlier, following dates with Hot Lips Page.
For two years, in the early 1950s, Woode was a member of the house band in George Wein's Storyville Club in Boston and played with a long list of major Jazz names, including Charlie Parker, with whom he recorded some live dates in Boston's Hi-Hat Club in January 1954.
In 1955, Jimmy Woode replaced Junior Raglin in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He remained with Duke, in his words, "for five years, four months, two weeks and two days - the most invaluable period of my life."
During his time with Ellington, Woode also worked as a sideman in the Johnny Hodges band and with Clark Terry. In 1957, he recorded the album, "The Colorful Strings Of Jimmy Woode", with a septet which comprised Clark Terry, Mike Simpson, Porter Kilbert, Paul Gonsalves, Ramsey Lewis and Sam Woodyard. Incredibly enough, this recording, according to the Tom Lord Jazz Discography, is his only album as leader.
In 1960, Jimmy Woode moved to Europe, settling first in Stockholm, where he worked for the Swedish Radio service and recorded with many visiting American Jazzmen, including Eric Dolphy, and top Swedish musicians, and then moving to Paris, where he appeared in the Blue Note with Kenny Clarke and also played in the Mars Club, Le Chat Qui Peche and the Living Room, with such eminent Jazzmen as Dexter Gordon, Donald Byrd, Ben Webster, Sahib Shihab, Sonny Criss and Bud Powell.
In December 1961, Jimmy Woode became a founder member of the Clarke-Boland Band, with which he remained until it disbanded in April 1972. He also recorded with Don Byas, Albert Nicholas, Johnny Griffin, Ted Curson, Booker Ervin, Milt Buckner, Benny Bailey, Mal Waldron, Helen Humes and a host of other major names.
In 1964, Woode moved from Paris to Cologne in Germany, where he formed the Cawoo music publishing company with Gigi Campi. He subsequently moved to Holland (1966) and then to Munich (1975).
Over the next 30 years, Jimmy Woode recorded with an enormous variety of artists, demonstrating his versatility and adaptability. In the early 1980s, he moved to Vienna and then, later, to Berne, Switzerland where he lived for 14 years.
In 1985, Jimmy Woode became a founder member of the Paris Reunion Band, an eight-piece unit which was created in an endeavor to capture the mood and spirit of Paris in the 1960s - a period when the Jazz scene of the French capital was enriched and enlivened by the presence of a substantial colony of expatriate American Jazzmen.
The PRB also represented a tribute to the great Kenny Clarke, the spiritual leader of the Paris Jazz community, who was originally to have been the band's drummer. Sadly, Kenny never got to play with his former Paris colleagues. He suffered a fatal heart attack in January 1985, five months before the band embarked on its first European tour, with Billy Brooks substituting for Klook.
Over the next four years the Paris Reunion Band toured around Europe and recorded four albums for the Swedish Sonet company and one for the East German Amiga Jazz label.
In November 1987, the Paris Reunion Band, with Nat Adderley, Woody Shaw, Nathan Davis, Joe Henderson, Curtis Fuller, Kenny Drew, Jimmy Woode and Idris Muhammad, played a week at Ronnie Scott's Club and recorded the Sonet album Hot Licks - a session which included a memorable vocal rendition by Jimmy Woode of his delightfully sardonic original, "I Don't Want Nothin' ".
British writer Brian Priestley has described Jimmy Woode as "the standard bearer for the friendly invasion of Europe by US musicians." He was the archetypal musicians' musician. The level of public appreciation afforded to him was far below what his talents and accomplishments deserved.
John Clayton says of Jimmy: "There was a life, a buoyancy to his playing that was also very solid and grounded. It was the perfect carpet for Duke's magic to ride upon. He played his personality: joyful, and a lover of life."
Jimmy Woode's funeral was held at the 10th Street Baptist Church in Camden, New Jersey on April 29 and a memorial service was held for him in the Mahogany Hall, Berne, Switzerland, on May 10.
Jimmy was married and widowed twice. He is survived by three daughters - singer Shawnn Monteiro of Providence Rhode Island, Deirdre Woode of Santa Barbara, California, and Anne Frederickson of Stockholm, Sweden; a son, Patrick Bergmans of Berlin, two sisters - Ruth Fullard of Camden, New Jersey and Edwina Reese of South Ozone Park, New York, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
The gathering in the Mahogany Hall in Berne, Switzerland, on May 10, for a memorial tribute to Jimmy Woode, was eloquent testimony to the great respect and affection his family and friends had for him.
More than a hundred and fifty people crowded into the hall for an evening which reflected the warmth and spirit of James Bryant Woode II. Among those present were Jimmy's daughters, Shawnn Monteiro and Deirdre Woode.
It was an evening of which, if he were watching from up there, Jimmy would have wholeheartedly approved.
Vocalist Ron Ringwood, a long-time friend of Jimmy's, was master of ceremonies and he made the point that Jimmy would not have wanted it to be an occasion for tears and sorrow, but an opportunity to celebrate the contribution he made to music and the pleasure his music and his company brought to so many people.
Ringwood delivered a moving tribute to Woode and read the poems "Come Into This House," written by Shawnn Monteiro's daughter, Amana Woode, and "The Bottom Line Is," by Alice Day.
And, of course, it was an evening filled with straight-ahead, hard-swinging Jazz and blues, thanks to the many musicians who turned up to pay their respects to Jimmy.
Among the selection of "good old good ones" were "Perdido," "Drop Me Off In Harlem," Jimmy's lively blues, "The Man From Potter's Crossing" (dedicated to Duke Ellington's drummer, Sam Woodyard) and "Every Time We Say Goodbye," sensitively sung by Sandy Patton, who was the principal organizer of the evening, together with alto saxophonist, George Robert.
Shawnn Monteiro delivered distinctive versions of "I'm Beginning To See The Light," "Never Let Me Go" and, as a personal salute to Jimmy, "I've Grown Accustomed To His Face." And everybody joined in a rendition of Jimmy's favorite vocal number, "Georgia."
Other singers taking part included Joan Faulkner, Bernetta Bush and Tommie Harris. Instrumentalists included Roman Schwaller, George Robert and Stephan Abel (saxophones), Francis Coletta (guitar), Dado Moroni and Gustav Csik (piano), Reggie Johnson, Michel Poffet and Isla Eckinger (bass), Mario Gunzi and Peter Schmidlin (drums) and the groups of Joe Haider and Franz Biffiger.
A Truly Great Dane
"Arguably the most inventive bassist in Jazz, His virtuosity on the bass surpasses anything else that I have known" - Oscar Peterson
The emancipation of the double bass has been one of the most vital developments in Jazz since Jimmy Blanton, from St. Louis, Missouri, brought a new eloquence and flexibility to the instrument - with Fate Marable in the late 1930s, and between 1939 and 1941, with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Blanton revolutionized bass playing. In the words of Leonard Feather, "he exercised an incalculable influence in transforming the use of the string bass in Jazz."
Since then, the liberation process has continued in the United States, through the work of men like Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus, Red Mitchell, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Richard Davis, Charlie Haden, Stanley Clarke, David Izenzon, Scott La Faro, Eddie Gomez and Jaco Pastorius. There has also been a significant European contribution to the movement, by George Mraz, Miroslav Vitous, Eberhard Weber, Aladar Pege, Dave Holland and Peter Ind. In fact, Ind was one of the very first Jazz musicians to give solo bass recitals.
However, it is no exaggeration to say that, of all the contributions made to the bass emancipation movement by European musicians, easily the most outstanding has been that of Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, the Danish virtuoso.
N-HØP suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in Ishoej, south of Copenhagen, last April 2005 at the age of 58, bringing an untimely end to a brilliant career spanning four and a half decades, during which he played with a who's who of musicians, and participated in more than 400 recordings. He is survived by his wife, Solveig, and three children.
It is a fact that music students whose aim in life is to become instrumental virtuosi tend to seek to excel on the pianoforte, the violin, the cello and, rather more rarely, the guitar. The awkward, cumbersome and unglamorous double bass does not engender much enthusiasm in the average conservatory alumnus - and it is a telling fact that a large number of bass players took up the instrument only because there were no vacancies in the student orchestra for players of the more manageable instruments.
Even the legendary Giovanni Bottesini (1822-1889), who is widely regarded as one of the greatest double bass virtuosi of all time, was a reluctant convert to the instrument. When he applied for admission to the Milan Conservatory, he found that the establishment had only one vacancy - and that was for a student of the double bass. So that is what Bottesini became and, despite himself, he developed into a peerless master of the instrument.
Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen was born in Osted, Denmark, on May 27, 1946. The son of a church organist, he took piano lessons at the age of seven and first picked up the double bass in 1959, at the age of 13. It was not that the instrument had an irresistible appeal for him, but he was the youngest of five children and the family band needed a bass player.
NHØP, too, went on to become a virtuoso of the instrument, learning his art in the tough but thoroughly efficacious school of public performance with some of the world's greatest Jazz musicians.
It is interesting to speculate just what the distinguished classical bass players - Bottesini, Dragonetti and Koussevitzky - would have made of Pedersen's extraordinary expertise on the instrument. I suspect that they would have regarded his playing with very much the same degree of awe and admiration as Yehudi Menuhin had for the improvisational flair of Stéphane Grappelli.
The fact that NHØP achieved such rare mastery of an instrument to which he was not particularly attracted in the first place, lends support to the view that, where musical creativity and integrity are concerned, the medium is far less important than the message. If the Ørsted Pedersen family band had required a trombonist or a glockenspiel player instead of a bassist, I have no doubt whatsoever that NHØP would have taken either instrument in his confident stride.
He once told me: "The bass, as such, doesn't interest me. It's an awkward, clumsy instrument. I like to think of myself as playing music - not playing the bass."
Denmark is a most propitious country in which to study music and musical instruments because, as NHØP once observed, teaching standards are very high. And certainly, as far as the double bass is concerned, the country has produced some extremely talented practitioners, including Hugo Rasmussen, Bo Stief and Mads Vinding.
But perhaps the most effective educational establishment in Niels-Henning's case was the Montmartre Jazzhus. The Montmartre, on Dahlerupsgade in Copenhagen, which first opened its doors in 1959, was one of the world's most celebrated Jazz clubs, with a house rhythm section normally comprising Kenny Drew, Albert "Tootie" Heath and either NHØP or Mads Vinding.
At the age of 16, Niels-Henning worked in the club with the legendary Bud Powell. "Playing with Bud," he once told me, "was the best possible introduction to what Jazz is all about, due to the fact that he wasn't well at the time and rehearsals were out of the question. So I learned by watching him every night, and picking up the changes by reading his left hand."
During his stint at the Montmartre, NHØP worked with Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Art Farmer, Roland Kirk, Bill Evans, Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins, among other major names.
At 17, he was invited to join the Count Basie Band but declined the offer in order to continue his studies. Between 1964 and 1982 he was a regular member of the exemplary Danish Radio Big Band.
When I interviewed NHØP back in 1978, preparatory to writing the liner notes for his SteepleChase albums, "Live At Montmartre," Volumes 1 and 2, he told me: "Of course, I have been very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with so many fine musicians. One of the guys who really lifted me up was Sonny Rollins - and I have also drawn great inspiration from people like Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew, Ben Webster and Don Byas. And, of course, Oscar."
Niels-Henning first played with Oscar Peterson in 1971, at the age of 25, when he was a last-minute replacement for George Mraz, who was unable to make an engagement in Zagreb. A couple of years later, he became a permanent member of the trio, a position he held until 1987. He was hired by Peterson on the recommendation of Ray Brown, who is reported to have said, "He's the only bass player I know that might keep up with you."
After relinquishing his permanent position in the Trio, NHØP continued to work with Peterson from time to time, their last record date, "A Night In Vienna" - with guitarist Ulf Wakenius and drummer Martin Drew -being released on DVD in July 2004.
Oscar Peterson's concern to set his musical standards dauntingly high certainly rubbed off on Niels-Henning. He told me: "Oscar is such a demanding man that, whatever loose ends you have as a musician, he'll straighten out. He is impatient of mistakes, especially his own. What I learned from him was the discipline to fight my own lack of interest. Instead of asking myself whether I felt good, I started telling myself that, as a professional, I owed it to the people out there to play as well as I possibly could every night. Oscar should really get a lot of credit for the sense of professionalism he gives to people who work with him."
NHØP's aim ever since he first took up the bass was to eliminate the technical problems as far as possible so that he could concentrate on creating music - a precisely identical philosophy to that of Oscar Peterson. He once explained: "I feel that a lot of people fight the instrument and waste energy pulling strings in all directions. All you get out of that is noise and less technique." He told me that his heroes on the instrument were Walter Page, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Scott LaFaro and Jaco Pastorius.
Niels-Henning had a phenomenal technique. Early on, he developed a method of playing pizzicato passages using all four fingers of his right hand and this made it possible for him to perform with perfect intonation at extremely fast tempi.
It always struck me, when I watched NHØP with Peterson, that he manifested an extraordinary composure, even when playing at furious tempi. It was the composure of a person who not only had almost complete mastery of his instrument but who was also an extremely well-adjusted, quietly confident human being. For someone who achieved so much celebrity and acclaim at a comparatively young age, he was remarkably unassuming. He had an unobtrusive assurance, an engagingly amiable manner and a passionate enthusiasm for his craft.
In 1991, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen was awarded the Nordic Music Council Prize, the first time this prize for composition was given to a performing musician. In recent years he led his own groups of mostly Scandinavian musicians and taught at the Rytmiske Musikkonservatorium in Copenhagen.
Writing about NHØP in his autobiography, "A Jazz Odyssey," Oscar Peterson described him as a prolific and stunningly gifted soloist. He added: "Niels Pedersen is the type of player whose talents on his instrument are such that he is almost unaware of what he does. His melodic sense is impeccable, his choice of harmonic sequences is a pure delight to play with and his time is flawless. The ease with which he executed linear unison lines with me was a particular cause of astonishment. He is now arguably the most inventive bassist in Jazz."
And in a valedictory statement following the announcement of NHØP's death, Oscar said, "Niels-Henning was a player of unbelievable talent and dexterity, but selfishly speaking, personally, he became my closest friend and brother, and I shall never forget him or his talent. God bless you, Niels, and may you brighten up the musical world in Heaven as you have done on earth."
by Mike Hennessey
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