Posted by on Feb 7, 2017 in History, Jazz, News, Paul Winter Updates

On January 30th, at St. Peter’s Church (the “Jazz Church”) in midtown Manhattan, there was a memorial concert for the great bassist Bobby Cranshaw, who passed away in November 2016 at the age of 83.

Bobby was one of the most beloved and respected musicians of our times. Best known, perhaps, for having toured with Sonny Rollins for over 50 years, Bobby also played on more Blue Note recordings than any other bassist, on albums with Lee Morgan, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, Grant Green, and a vast array of others. He toured and recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and Lena Horne. And off the road, he had a busy working life in New York City. He played in the Saturday Night Live house band from 1975 to 1980, was a session bassist for Sesame street for 25 years, and served as a musical director for the Dick Cavett show, the Merv Griffin Show, and the David Frost Show.

For the past three decades, Bobby was also active on various committees of the musicians’’ union, guiding the Justice for Jazz Artists campaign, advocating for proper pay for working jazz musicians, as a representative of the executive committee of New York local 802.

The memorial event was a gathering of the clan, from this great era of jazz. Along with superb performances by a galaxy of players, there were moving testimonials by members of Bobby’s family, and many friends. One of these musician friends summed it up for me, with a line I want to long remember. He told of looking at Bobby’s hands: “these hands…to grace the bass, to make the world a better place.”

I had met Bobby in 1959, during my second year of college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, Bobby’s hometown. One Saturday afternoon I went to an “open house” at one of the sororities and heard this jazz quintet that totally knocked me out. During basic training for the Army in California in the early ’50s, Bobby had met a drummer named Walter Perkins, and after service in Korea, they met up again in Chicago. In 1957 they had formed a group called MJT+3 (Modern Jazz Two plus Three) that also included Frank Strozier (who would become one of my all-time favorite alto sax players), Willie Thomas on trumpet, and Harold Mabern on piano. Their music was exuberant, lyrical, virtuosic; and everything grooved. My college musical partner, trumpeter Dick Whitsell, and I became enthralled with this band, and their charts, They were a major inspiration to get us dreaming of creating a group of our own. And Bobby became a friend and mentor. He was the personification of the welcoming, smiling spirit of this whole genre of jazz that was coming forth from the Southside of Chicago. Soloing of course was a major focus, but ensemble playing was always integral to the balance. I’ve always thought of it as “Us Music.”

The MJT+3 recorded four great albums in the early ‘60s:

  • Walter Perkins’ MJT + 3 (Vee-Jay, 1959)
  • Make Everybody Happy (Vee-Jay, 1960)
  • MJT + 3 (Vee-Jay, 1960)
  • Message from Walton Steet (Rec. 1960; Koch Jazz, 2000)

Fast-forwarding to 1963: Bobby had come to New York, first with Cannonball Adderly, and then he relocated there. Whits (Dick Whitsell) and I had formed our sextet in 1961, and been blessed with a series of breaks which launched us into the world: Winning the 1961 Intercollegiate Jazz Festival, the prize for which was a recording contract with Columbia Records; touring 23 countries of Latin America for the State Department in 1962; and being invited by Jackie Kennedy to play at the White House. In the summer of ‘63 we were booked to play at the Newport Jazz Festival and needed a bassist. Our original bass player, Richard Evans (another miraculous musician from Chicago) had left to join Ahmad Jamal’s trio. So we called Bobby and he played the gig with us. We were proud to be playing with our mentor.

It would be 50 years before we got to play with Bobby again. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of our Sextet, in 2012 and 2013, I reorganized the band, with Cecil McBee on bass, who had followed Richard Evans in the original group. We did a series of gigs, but there was one Cecil couldn’t make. The Sextet was invited to play at the Kennedy Library in Boston, on November 22, 2013, for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. Once again we called Bobby, and were so happy to see him. Now aged 80, he didn’t look to have changed a bit, and he played as great as ever.

The musical high point, for me, of the recent concert for Bobby was hearing tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath. At age 90, he sounded wonderful, playing in a quartet with Kenny Barron on piano, Reggie Workman on bass, and Al Foster on drums.

I was thrilled to get to say hello to Jimmy, later, in the backstage area. I hadn’t seen him in 57 years, since the summer of 1960, when Whits and I drove from Chicago to look for Jimmy to try and get some of his great arrangements. We had loved Jimmy’s first album, The Thumper, and this was the kind of three-horn writing we wanted to have for the new sextet we wanted to organize. We had no idea how to contact Jimmy but figured he must be in New York, with all the other great jazz people. But the first night there we went down to the Five-Spot club to hear Slide Hampton’s band, and on a break talked with the drummer, Stu Martin. We told him why we’d come to New York, and he said: ”Jimmy Heath’s not in New York, he lives in Philadelphia.” So the next morning we drove to Philly, and somehow — I don’t remember how — we found Jimmy’s mother’s house, on the Southside. We knocked and a lady came to the door and we asked: “Is Jimmy here?” And she said “Yes, he’s down the basement,” and she ushered us down the stairs to the studio where Jimmy was working.

Jimmy was so knocked-out that these two white kids had driven all the way from Chicago to find him, that he agreed to sell us the seven charts from The Thumper for $10 a piece. We didn’t have $70 but I called my dad in Altoona and he wired me the money by Western Union.

The first thing Jimmy said to me the other night was: “Where’s my royalties?” And laughed, and then said to the other guys standing nearby: “This guy took my music to the White House and it made him famous.”


Paul with Jimmy after the memorial.

As it happened, ours had been the first jazz concert in the White House, and our opening piece had been Jimmy’s arrangement “Bells and Horns.” So Jimmy had the honor of having written the first jazz chart ever played in the White House.

In this one, memorable evening, I got to revisit the genesis of my first band, and reconnect with the legacy of two of my musical heroes.

Thank you Bobby.

Thank you Jimmy.