In jazz, as in most music, the bass is the bottom line. It’s both part of the rhythmic foundation of the music (along with the drums) and the sonic glue that binds everything together. In the New Orleans-style jazz ensembles of the early 20th Century, basslines were usually played by the tuba – reflecting jazz’s marching-band roots – but that instrument was eventually superseded by the upright, four-string double bass. As the jaunty 2/4 meter of 20s jazz evolved into the fluid 4/4 swing rhythms of the 30s that defined the big band era, the best jazz bassists played a crucial part in keeping the music flowing by playing walking lines that were usually slapped violently to enable the unamplified instrument to be heard.
The mid-40s and the rise of bebop – usually played in small groups – witnessed the emergence of a different kind of bassist: one whose technique and virtuosity was expected to match that of gladiatorial horn players. Bassists were still expected to harmonically anchor the music, which had become more complex, but plucked rather than slapped their instruments’ strings. They also began to enjoy a freer contrapuntal role with more independence – which came with greater expressive scope. This was the time of groundbreaking bassists such as Milt Hinton, Jimmy Blanton and Oscar Pettiford, whose formidable technique and deep understanding of harmony still ranks them among the best jazz bassists in history.
During the hard bop age of the 50s, characterised by a tougher, more aggressive, blues-based type of bebop, jazz bassists boasted a bigger sound and played walking basslines in incremental steps that swung the music with a profound sense of groove. The likes of Ray Brown, Art Davis, Percy Heath and Leroy Vinnegar were masters of this and showed that the best jazz bassists were an indispensable and highly influential component of any good ensemble.
But in the early 60s, a young man called Scott LaFaro proved that, as well as anchoring the music and giving it cohesion, the bassist could also have a valid role as an improviser, especially if he played in a band that had a more democratic ethos. One such group was pianist Bill Evans’ trio, in which LaFaro made a huge impact. Crucially, during the same time frame, LaFaro also worked with free jazz maven Ornette Coleman, whose concept of collective improvisation also helped to liberate the bass from a time-keeping role. LaFaro died tragically young but cast a huge influence as one of the best jazz bassists in history. Thanks to him, as jazz evolved throughout the 60s so did the bass’ role in it.
In the 70s, as interest in acoustic jazz waned, fusion, the plugged-in love-child of jazz and rock, held sway. It ushered in a new age dominated by two virtuosic electric bassists with contrasting styles and characters: Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius, who were both also noteworthy composers.
While fusion was the most bankable and profitable type of jazz in the 70s, its antithesis was free jazz, still very much an anti-commercial pariah, though it produced some innovative bassists in the shape of Malachi Favors and William Parker.
Though jazz during the last 30 years has been marginalised commercially, a steady stream of excellent bassists have come through, ranging from more traditional acoustic masters the likes of Charnett Moffett and Christian McBride, to predominantly electric ones such as Marcus Miller.
More recently, rising stars Esperanza Spalding, Miles Mosley, Ben Williams and Derek Hodge have all brought something different to the art of bass playing in jazz. Though each seeks to take jazz forward into the future, all acknowledge the importance of the music’s past, establishing themselves as talents that hold their own among the best jazz bassists in history.
So, if you have a predilection for big bottom ends and firmly believe that bass is the place, then this countdown of the 50 best jazz bassists of all time should hit the right notes…
50: David Izenzon (1932-1979)
Pittsburgh-born Izenzon didn’t take up the double bass until quite late in his life – he was 24 – but quickly established himself as a star of the New York avant-garde scene, playing alongside Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp on some of their key mid-60s recordings. His other credits included Sonny Rollins, Bill Dixon and Yoko Ono. Izenzon died, aged 47, of a heart attack, but though his career was relatively short, he left some memorable music behind, especially the frenetic bowed basslines that he played with Ornette Coleman on the Blue Note album At The Golden Circle.
49: Victor Bailey (1960-2016)
Like Alphonso Johnson before him, Victor Bailey was a Philadelphian who made his name playing electric bass in noted fusion group Weather Report. He appeared on the band’s final four albums and released several albums under his own name, in addition to recording with Sonny Rollins, Tom Browne, Billy Cobham, Michael Brecker, Santana and Lady Gaga. His nimble fingers and ability to play sinuous and melodic basslines with a seemingly effortless ease ensures his place among the best jazz bassists in history.
48: Alphonso Johnson (born 1951)
A key member of Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul’s influential fusion group, Weather Report, during the mid-70s, Philly-born Johnson’s fluid fretless electric basslines were a pivotal factor in the band embracing a funkier and more commercial approach to jazz. He appeared on their classic albums Mysterious Traveller, Tail Spinnin’ and Black Market, though quit the band halfway through recording the latter album when he realised he was about to be replaced by Jaco Pastorius. Johnson later played with Billy Cobham, Phil Collins, Wayne Shorter and Genesis’ Steve Hackett.
47: John Clayton (born 1952)
A protégé of the great Ray Brown, with whom he studied (and recorded the great SuperBass albums, along with with Christian McBride), California-born Clayton started playing bass as a teenager and was soon working professionally. As well as playing with Count Basie, his bass can be heard on recordings made by several noted female jazz singers, including Nancy Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carmen McRae and Diana Krall. As well as playing bass, Grammy-winning Clayton is also a well-respected arranger, composer and teacher, and fully established his credentials as one of the best jazz bassists as co-leader of The Clayton Brothers Band, which also features his younger sibling, saxophonist/flautist Jeff Clayton.
46: John Patitucci (born 1959)
This Brooklyn-born bass maven has enjoyed a long and productive association with Chick Corea since the 80s but has also been an in-demand session player and has contributed to records by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, as well as Warren Zevon and Natalie Cole. A master of both the acoustic and electric basses, Patitucci marries dexterity and an informed harmonic sensibility with a lush tone to create sinuous basslines.
45: Paul Jackson (born 1947)
An electric bassist from Oakland, California, who first started gigging when he was 12, Jackson rose to fame in the early 70s as part of Herbie Hancock’s pathfinding jazz-funk band The Headhunters, and his muscular basslines formed the foundation to the classic albums Head Hunters, Thrust and Man-Child. Jackson has also co-led The Headhunters as a separate entity on five albums recorded between 1975 and 2008. His other credits include Santana, Harvey Mason, Eddie Henderson and Sonny Rollins. As well as laying down seismic bass grooves, Jackson is also noted for his sweetly melodic high-register lines.
44: Marcus Miller (born 1959)
The nephew of Miles Davis pianist Wynton Kelly, Miller was a precociously talented Brooklyn-born R&B bassist who was doing album sessions in his teens. He evolved into a virtuoso bassist, accomplished composer and record producer who produced the acclaimed late 80s Miles Davis albums Tutu and Amandla. As one of the best jazz bassists to ever master the instrument, there’s nothing that the technically gifted and super-versatile Miller can’t play: he can lay down chunks of gutbucket funk with the requisite level of earthiness and also execute difficult jazz pieces with supreme skill and taste.
43: George Mraz (born 1944)
Hailing from the Czech Republic, Mraz – renowned for his instrument’s rich tone and supple, swinging basslines – made his name in the US and was a member of pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio in the 70s. A prolific session player (he’s appeared on record with Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus, Joe Henderson and Art Pepper), Mraz has released a clutch of albums as both a leader and co-leader, and continues to work today, in his mid-70s.
42: George Duvivier (1920-1985)
Though he never recorded an album under his own name, this dependable New York-born double bassist appeared on myriad LP sessions for the great and good of the jazz world during a productive, 45-year career. He featured on a slew of albums by saxophonists Gene Ammons and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and also recorded with Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt, Chico Hamilton, Coleman Hawkins and Shirley Scott. His sonorous bass can be heard on pop LPs by Janis Ian, Tom Waits, and Barry Manilow.
41: Spanky DeBrest (1937-1973)
A Philly native, William “Spanky” DeBrest, like his bass-playing contemporary Paul Chambers, didn’t live to see his 40th birthday. Though ultimately not as significant as Chambers, he still ranks among the best jazz bassists in history. Helping to lay the foundation for hard bop bass playing, he became highly sought-after in the late 50s and early 60s, playing with Thelonious Monk and appearing on albums by Clifford Jordan, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Lee Morgan and John Coltrane.
40: Ron McClure (born 1941)
At 24, Connecticut-born McClure turned heads when he took over from the great Paul Chambers in pianist Wynton Kelly’s trio in the mid-60s. He registered on the radar of many jazz fans when he featured in saxophonist/flautist Charles Lloyd’s noteworthy late 60s quartet alongside pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette. McClure’s other credits include Joe Henderson, Carla Bley, Lee Konitz and Dave Liebman, plus a mid-70s stint in US jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears. McClure is a sensitive as well as a dexterous bassist blessed with perfect timing and an exquisite sense of groove.
39: Eberhard Weber (born 1940)
This Stuttgart-born German bassist has enjoyed a long and fruitful association with producer Manfred Eicher’s Munich-based ECM label. He’s also a noted composer and his credits as a sideman range from jazz dates with Gary Burton, Pat Metheny and Jan Garbarek to appearing on four Kate Bush albums. Weber’s bass – which he plucks and bows – has a rich, resonant sound and is often characterised by slurred glissando notes, which imbue it with a lyrical quality.
38: Malachi Favors (1927-2004)
A notable bassist in the world of free jazz, Favors, originally from Lexington, Mississippi, started out playing hard bop with Freddie Hubbard and Dizzy Gillespie in the 50s but made his mark as a member of the long-running experimental music group Art Ensemble Of Chicago, from the late 60s onwards. He also recorded with Andrew Hill, Archie Shepp, Dewey Redman and Sunny Murray. The son of a preacher, Favors brought a pronounced spiritual dimension to his music, his bass improvisations exuding a plangent, almost vocal quality that remains unique among the best jazz bassists in history.
37: Marc Johnson (born 1953)
The husband of Brazilian jazz singer and pianist Eliane Elias (to date, he’s played on 17 of her albums and won Grammys for co-producing two of them), Johnson is a noted bassist from Texas (by way of Nebraska) who first made his name playing in Bill Evans’ trio between 1979-80. He’s also appeared on records by Charles Lloyd, Stan Getz and, more recently, Joe Lovano, and led two bands, Bass Desires and Right Brain Patrol. An assured technician, Johnson also infuses his bass playing with a rare emotional intelligence.
36: William Parker (born 1952)
Born in the Bronx, Parker is a veritable giant of the American avant-garde jazz scene. His teachers included Jimmy Garrison and Richard Davis, though the young bassist quickly moved away from orthodox jazz and its traditions to embrace the free jazz aesthetic. Prior to leading his own ensembles, he played with Cecil Taylor and David S Ware. Parker frequently alternates between plucking and bowing his bass, and considers tone colour, dynamics and timbre just as important as the notes he plays. Since the early 80s, Parker – who, unique among the best jazz bassists, is also a poet and a musical essayist – has been a prolific recording artist whose work has been consistently strong.
35: Charnett Moffett (born 1967)
A child prodigy – he started on bass at eight years old, playing in his father, saxophonist Charles Moffett’s band – Big Apple-born Moffett was recording with noted horn-playing brothers Wynton and Branford Marsalis as a teenager. He was just 20 when he issued the first of 14 solo albums and has also worked with drummer Tony Williams, saxophonist Kenny Garret and guitarist Stanley Jordan. A supremely versatile musician, Moffett, like his father before him, has also played avant-garde jazz with Ornette Coleman and incorporates Middle Eastern and fusion influences into his own, very eclectic, music. Conversant with both electric and acoustic styles, Moffett is a master of post-bop jazz whose dizzying versatility more than earns him his place among the world’s best jazz bassists.
34: Christian McBride (born 1972)
This six-time Grammy-winner from Philadelphia is a prolific session player whose warm bass sound has graced a variety of recordings, ranging from jazz greats Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock to Sting, The Roots, James Brown and Paul McCartney. McBride’s career as a bassist began when he was a teenager, and his grasp of funk dynamics (he started off on electric bass in R&B bands), combined with his knowledge of the bebop lexicon, gave him a versatility that was soon in demand. He’s also made a raft of albums under his own name and his projects have included fusion and big band recordings. Though a virtuosic double bassist with precision timing, McBride is much more than an accomplished technician and also possesses a great sense of feeling and an imaginative flair when it comes to improvisation.
33: Curley Russell (1917-1986)
Trinidad-born Dillon “Curley” Russell was an important bassist in bebop’s early years and, between 1945 and 1957, appeared on many pivotal jazz recordings. When bebop emerged in the mid-40s, he was one of the few bassists at the time who could handle the super-fast tempos demanded by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. As well as making history with Parker (he played on the alto saxophonist’s recordings for Savoy and Verve), Russell also played with a young Miles Davis, along with Tadd Dameron, Dexter Gordon, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey and Horace Silver. He quit playing jazz in the 60s.
32: Wilbur Ware (1923-1979)
An astute choice of notes (he never overplayed) and economical use of space was what Thelonious Monk liked about Wilbur Ware’s musicianship and, during the late 50s, the Chicagoan bassist spent several years in the maverick pianist/composer’s band. Though, compared to many of the best jazz bassists, Ware was unorthodox in regard to his fingerboard work, he was an extremely effective musician who graced many significant jazz recordings in the late 50s (ranging from Monk and Art Blakey outings to Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins sessions). In the 60s, however, it was a different story, as drug addiction and imprisonment curtailed his appearances.
31: Walter Booker (1933-2006)
Many jazz fans will recall this talented Texan from his stint with Cannonball Adderley’s band between 1969 and 1975 (he played on the classic Country Preacher and The Black Messiah LPs). In the mid-60s, before he joined Cannonball, Booker played on many Blue Note sessions for the likes of Andrew Hill, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and Wayne Shorter. Despite his impressive CV, Booker was a late starter, not picking the bass up until his mid-20s (he’d previously played clarinet and saxophone). Booker’s forte was a fluid, harmonically-informed bottom end that always perfectly complimented what the other musicians were playing.
30: Milt Hinton (1910-2000)
From Vicksburg, Mississippi, Hinton grew up in Chicago and played violin and then tuba before switching to double bass when he was 23. In 1933, he got a job with singer/bandleader Cab Calloway (of ‘Minnie The Moocher’ fame) and stayed with him until 1950. By that time, bebop was all the rage, but Hinton saw the new music as an opportunity to extend his knowledge of harmony and improve his technique. Aided by his excellent sight-reading skills, he became a sough-after session musician during the 50s and 60s and played on myriad recording dates, including those for movie soundtracks, TV shows and commercials, plus key sessions with the likes of Ike Quebec and Dizzy Gillespie. As well as being technically accomplished, Hinton, whose sense of timing and intonation was impeccable, could also play with great sensitivity.
29: Reggie Workman (born 1937)
A versatile bassist who’s equally at home with hard bop, modal jazz and avant-garde music, Philadelphia-born Workman’s status as one of the best jazz bassists is assured thanks to his CV, which reads like a Who’s Who of jazz. His main claim to fame is working with John Coltrane on several albums (including Olé Coltrane and Impressions), but he also recorded with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Andrew Hill, Grant Green and Bobby Hutcherson. Later in his career, he worked with free jazz apostles Oliver Lake and Roscoe Mitchell. Workman’s bass playing was sinewy, strong, and evinced a pliable elasticity that made it ideal for modal pieces requiring a droning bassline.
28: Eddie Gomez (born 1944)
Raised in New York after being born in Puerto Rico, Gomez gravitated to the double bass at age 11 and made his recording debut with the Newport Jazz Festival’s youth band as a 15 year old, in 1959. The most notable entry on Gomez’s CV is the 11-year spell he spent with pianist Bill Evans, between 1966 and 1977, appearing on 25 of Evans’ albums. Gomez’s credits also include working with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Gomez is renowned for the rich, rotund sound of his plucked bass, combined with his penchant for singing melodic lines.
27: Scott LaFaro (1936-1961)
Ten days after recording Sunday At The Village Vanguard, one of the greatest in-concert jazz albums of all time, as part of pianist Bill Evans’ trio, 25-year-old Scott LaFaro was killed in a car crash. Though his recording career was brief (it lasted a mere five years) the young New Jersey bassist’s influence was deep and long, and his work with Bill Evans’ trio assures his place among the best jazz bassists in history. La Faroe helped to develop the concept of collective improvisation and emancipate the bass from a rudimentary role of simple time-keeping, which was something he explored in more depth while working with Ornette Coleman in 1961, on the saxophonist’s groundbreaking Free Jazz album.
26: Richard Davis (born 1930)
Chicago native Davis is a familiar name to some rock fans, who may have heard his bass playing on albums by Van Morrison (Astral Weeks), Laura Nyro (Smile) and Bruce Springsteen (Born To Run). He was drawn to the bass at high school and, by the late 50s, was recording with singer Sarah Vaughan. In the 60s, Davis was never short of work, and the myriad sessions he played on ranged from those with Eric Dolphy, Roland Kirk and Andrew Hill, to Elvin Jones and Jimmy Smith. Such was Davis’ prowess that he even made several classical recordings under the batons of conductors Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein, playing double bass. Davis had a warm, resonant tone, and could lay down a swinging, in-the-pocket groove. He was also gifted at bowing the bass; such was his expertise, he later became a university professor.
25: Bob Cranshaw (1932-2016)
Originally from Chicago, the late Bob Cranshaw had a long association with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins (he played with him from 1959 until Rollins retired, in 2012) but also appeared on a host of classic Blue Note sessions for Lee Morgan (it’s Cranshaw’s bass you can hear holding down the groove on Morgan’s ‘The Sidewinder’), Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver, Hank Mobley, Stanley Turrentine and Duke Pearson. Cranshaw’s versatility also meant that he was able to contribute to music for movie scores, TV shows and stage musicals. It was jazz, however, that was his first love, and his assured command of the bass, combined with his ability to lock in a groove and improvise, meant that he was never out of work.
24: Percy Heath (1923-2005)
The eldest of three Philly-based brothers who became famous jazz musicians (his other siblings were saxophonist Jimmy and drummer Albert, aka “Tootie”), Percy Heath was the bass-playing mainstay with The Modern Jazz Quartet, a groundbreaking group that married bebop with classical music and was active between 1952 and 1974. Outside of the MJQ, Heath’s numerous credits ranged from Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk to Ruth Brown and Wes Montgomery. Heath, who, like a handful of the best jazz bassists on this list, could also play the cello, was adept at playing walking basslines that swung with a blithe, toe-tapping groove.
23: Larry Grenadier (born 1966)
This San Francisco musician grew up in a musical family and played trumpet before turning his attention to jazz and being seduced by the sound of the double bass. In his late teens, he got to play live as a pickup bassist with the likes of Bobby Hutcherson and Joe Henderson. It was in the 90s when Grenadier’s career really took off, however, thanks to his presence in a groundbreaking trio led by pianist Brad Mehldau, which is still going strong today. Away from Mehldau, Grenadier has played with Pat Metheny and Charles Lloyd, and co-leads a band called Fly. Though he’s a master technician, Grenadier also has a great feel on the bass and instinctively knows how to complement other musicians with the notes, phrases – and spaces – in his music.
22: Cecil McBee (born 1935)
McBee, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, relinquished the clarinet for a double bass in 1952, and never looked back. He cut his teeth backing singer Dinah Washington, in 1959, before being sought after by the likes of Jackie Mclean, Charles Lloyd and Yusef Lateef in the 60s. After that, he would play with Pharoah Sanders, Wayne Shorter, Alice Coltrane and Lonnie Liston Smith. Renowned for his digital dexterity as well as his acute sensitivity and ability to play almost telepathically with other musicians, McBee is a bona fide master of the bass who’s also a respected teacher of his instrument.
21: Gary Peacock (born 1935)
Though born in Idaho, Peacock first rose to fame on the US West Coast in the late 50s, playing with the likes of Gary Crosby, Bud Shank and Don Ellis, before relocating to New York and, like many of the best jazz bassists on this list, finding work in Bill Evans’ trio. Peacock also embraced the avant-garde zeitgeist of the early 60s, playing with saxophonist Albert Ayler on several albums. Peacock has a long association with ECM Records, both as a solo artist and working alongside Keith Jarrett (he was a member of the pianist’s Standards Trio from 1983 to 2014). An imaginative bassist who’s open to melodic and harmonic exploration, Peacock helped to liberate the bass from a purely supporting and time-keeping role.
20: Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (1946-2005)
Danish bass maven Pedersen took up the instrument at 14 and, a year later, was playing professionally. In the 60s, he backed (both live and in the studio) a welter of touring US jazz musicians that visited Europe, including Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Ben Webster, Bud Powell and myriad others. The following decade, he cut several albums with pianist Oscar Peterson, who regarded him highly. Pedersen, who also enjoyed a parallel solo career, was a technically accomplished bassist with an astute harmonic awareness and unimpeachable timing.
19: Doug Watkins (1934-1962)
Jazz fans who avidly peruse the sleevenotes of 50s and 60s bebop albums will recognise Doug Watkins’ name. Though he didn’t live beyond his 27th birthday – he perished in a car crash while driving to a gig – this Motor City bassist recorded prolifically between 1956 and 1962. He appeared on a host of classic jazz albums, ranging from Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus to Horace Silver’s 6 Pieces Of Silver and Jackie McLean’s Bluesnik. Blessed with perfect intonation, superior technique and an ability to create a smooth but deeply-swinging walking bassline, Watkins was one of the best jazz bassists of the hard bop era.
18: Art Davis (1934-2007)
There aren’t many jazz musicians who can claim to possess a doctorate in clinical psychology, but Art Davis, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, could. He was also a college professor but, despite his academic achievements, he’s best remembered for contributions to a multitude of classic jazz albums, including Coltrane’s Africa/Brass and Olé Coltrane, Max Roach’s Percussion Bitter Sweet, and McCoy Tyner’s Inception. Technically gifted with precision timing, Davis was renowned for the warm, full tone of his bass.
17: Sam Jones (1924-1981)
Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Jones was a stalwart of Cannonball Adderley’s band from 1958 to 1964. His bass held down a funk, soul-jazz groove on some of the alto saxophonist’s greatest albums – among them Somethin’ Else (with Miles Davis) and The Cannonball Adderley Quintet In San Francisco – but he also made 11 albums under his own name, and his innumerable sideman sessions ranged from Chet Baker to Thelonious Monk. As well as being a fine bassist with split-second timing and a stupendous sense of swing, Jones could play cello.
16: Al McKibbon (1919-2005)
Chicago-born McKibbon’s career took off in the late 40s when he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra, replacing Ray Brown. He then played on Miles Davis’ famous Birth Of The Cool recordings in 1948, while, in the 50s, his sessions included those for George Shearing (McKibbon spent five years in the British pianist’s band), Johnny Hodges, Thelonious Monk and Cal Tjader. He was also an in-demand musician in Hollywood, and appeared on movie and TV show soundtracks (including Batman). A reliable bassist with an intuitive sense of swing, McKibbon’s copious album credits reveal just how many musicians regarded him as one of the best jazz bassists of all time.
15: Chuck Israels (born 1936)
A native New Yorker, Israels is best known for his fertile five-year stint with the Bill Evans’ trio in the 60s, but also played bass with Billie Holiday, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Herbie Hancock and Nina Simone. He’s also been in demand outside of jazz, contributing to records by Judy Collins and Phoebe Snow. More recently, Israels – who, at 81, is one of the oldest working musicians among this list of the best jazz bassists – has led a jazz orchestra. Able to balance dazzling technique with deep emotional expression, Israel’s bass possesses a resonant, full-bodied tone that is immediately recognisable.
14: Steve Swallow (born 1940)
The bass wasn’t this New Jersey-born musician’s first instrument (he started out on trumpet and piano) but after taking up the double bass as a teenager, he never looked back. In the 60s, Swallow played with Gary Burton – with whom he’s had a fruitful partnership – Jimmy Giuffre and Stan Getz. The 70s saw Swallow switch permanently from acoustic to electric bass and embark on a long stint in Carla Bley’s band. He also has a stack of LPs under his own name and is noted as much for his ability to compose music as he is his exceptional and distinctive bass playing.
13: Leroy Vinnegar (1928-1999)
Nicknamed “The Walker” for his ability to create lithe, walking basslines, Indianapolis-born Vinnegar rose to fame in Los Angeles during the 50s, playing with West Coast jazz giants Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne. He also recorded six solo LPs, appeared on several movie soundtracks (including Some Like It Hot), and, outside of jazz, he recorded on albums by The Doors (he appears on ‘Spanish Caravan’, from their 1968 album, Waiting For The Sun) and Van Morrison (listen to ‘Almost Independence Day’ from Saint Dominic’s Preview).
12: Buster Williams (born 1942)
A New Jersey bassist, Williams has recorded 15 albums under his own name, but it’s his work as a sideman that brought him to the attention of the jazz public. He played with Miles Davis, Gene Ammons, Roy Ayers, Dexter Gordon and Stanley Turrentine in the late 60s, before joining Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band in the early 70s. Williams was also a member of the 80s band Sphere, who were devoted to Thelonious Monk’s music. A master of both the acoustic and electric bass, Williams earns his place among the world’s best jazz bassists thanks to his ability to combine an astute harmonic sense with a full tone and an unerring ability to play sinewy, contrapuntal lines that keep the music moving.
11: Dave Holland (born 1946)
Inspired to pick up the bass after hearing Ray Brown, Wolverhampton-born Holland was Ron Carter’s replacement in Miles Davis’ band when the trumpeter sought to transition from acoustic to electric jazz in the late 60s. Initially, Holland played double bass with Miles (on classic proto-fusion albums such as In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew) before switching to electric for later recordings. After leaving Miles in 1970, Holland formed the avant-garde group Circle, with Chick Corea, and later co-founded the trio Gateway with Jack DeJohnette. Since then, Holland, who is equally at home with straight-ahead and more exploratory jazz, has been busy as both a sideman and an artist in his own right. Holland’s trademark is a warm tone and plangent, lyrical style.
10: Jimmy Garrison (1934-1976)
Hailing from Americus, Georgia, and raised in Philly, Jimmy Garrison will forever be associated with the mighty jazz deity that is John Coltrane and played in his “classic quartet” alongside pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones. Before he joined Trane in 1961, he had played with free jazz avatar Ornette Coleman, as well as Kenny Dorham and Jackie McLean. He stayed with Coltrane until the saxophonist’s death in 1967 and played on over 20 albums with him, including the totemic A Love Supreme – a feat that in itself earns him his place among the best jazz bassists. Coltrane seemed to like Garrison’s throbbing sound and pragmatic approach because the bassist knew how to provide a solid sonic anchor that kept the music grounded and yet glued it all together seamlessly.
9: Charlie Haden (1937-2014)
A self-proclaimed hillbilly from Iowa who was born into a family of professional country musicians, Haden turned to jazz bass after hearing bebop in his local record store. It was after moving to LA that he joined Ornette Coleman’s band in 1959. There he learned about the value of collective improvisation, laying the foundation for his own distinctive style, where a mellow tone and soft vibrato combined with an exploratory, almost lyrical melodicism. As well as Coleman, the versatile Haden recorded with Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Paul Motian and Art Pepper, in addition to making a slew of solo albums and leading the bands Liberation Music Orchestra, Old And New Dreams and Quartet West.
8: Charles Mingus (1922-1979)
Though he was a superlative bassist with a singular style and became an important bandleader in the bebop era, Charles Mingus is rare among the best jazz bassists in that he was also a noteworthy composer who could play piano. Born in Arizona, Mingus started out on the cello before becoming a double bass prodigy as a teenager. He played with Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton early on in his career before meeting Charlie Parker and becoming a bebop convert. In the 50s, Mingus led his own bands, started his own record label, Debut, and emerged as a composer and recording of artist of note. In terms of his bass playing, he freed the instrument from a purely time-keeping role and validated it as an expressive solo instrument.
7: Paul Chambers (1935-1969)
Chambers’ early death, from TB, at the age of 33, robbed the hard bop era of one its most formidable bass masters. From Pittsburgh, but raised in Detroit, he came on the radar of most jazz fans when he joined Miles Davis’ quintet in 1955 and played on the trumpeter’s seminal albums Milestones and Kind Of Blue. Chambers had a big sound, impeccable time-keeping and possessed an astute understanding of harmony and melody, which always made his basslines interesting. He also pioneered the use of bowed basslines in jazz. His status as one of the best jazz bassists of all time is reflected by the fact that several notable jazz musicians dedicated music to him – among them John Coltrane (‘Mr PC’), Red Garland (‘The PC Blues’), Max Roach (‘Five For Paul’) and Sonny Rollins (‘Paul’s Pal’).
6: Jimmy Blanton (1918-1942)
The violin was Chattanooga-born Blanton’s first instrument, but at university he switched to double bass and soon proved proficient – so much so that, in 1939, aged 21, he joined Duke Ellington’s band. Impressed by Blanton’s virtuosity, Ellington even cut some duets with the young bassist, though his tenure in the jazz aristocrat’s group was cut short when tuberculosis ended his life in 1942. Though he was only 23 when he died, Jimmy Blanton, who was adept at playing pizzicato-style and using a bow, laid the foundations for modern jazz bass by showing that, in the right hands, the bass could be a viable solo instrument capable of melodic expression.
5: Oscar Pettiford (1922-1960)
One of the founding fathers of modern jazz bass was this Oklahoma musician, who gained notoriety after recording with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, in 1943, which led to him working with Earl Hines and Ben Webster. After moving to the Big Apple in the mid-40s, Pettiford co-led a band with bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. From the 50s onwards, the much sought-after bassist – noted for his virtuosity and tasteful playing – appeared on countless albums, including those by Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. Pettiford was also a noted bandleader and his bass style – with its supple tone and melodic clarity – was profoundly influential.
4: Ray Brown (1926-2002)
From Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Brown was a revered master of the upright bass, which he took up in high school. Influenced by Jimmy Blanton, Brown made his name with Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop band in the late 40s, but it was in the 50s, as part of pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio, that he truly made his mark as one of the world’s best jazz bassists. In the 60s, a move to the US West Coast initiated a period of lucrative session work. As well as being an in-demand sideman, Brown also made a welter of solo records. His trademark was a warm, well-rounded tone and an ability to play a walking bassline with a combination of precision and soulfulness.
3: Ron Carter (born 1937)
With over 2,200 session appearances to his name, Michigan-born Carter is without doubt the most recorded jazz bassist in history – not to mention one of the best jazz bassists to ever pick up the intsrument. He started as a classical cellist but switched to bass and got hooked on jazz. After playing with Chico Hamilton, Jaki Byard and Milt Jackson in the early 60s, Carter joined Miles Davis’ quintet in 1963, and stayed with The Dark Magus for five years, playing on classic albums such as ESP and Miles Smiles. In the late 60s and early 70s, Carter appeared on a plethora of recordings for producer Creed Taylor’s CTI label, where he also cut several solo albums. He’s also recorded film soundtracks, written books on bass playing, and continues to tour and teach today. With his classical training, Carter brought a high level of technical accomplishment to the art of double bass playing.
2: Stanley Clarke (born 1951)
With his dexterous fretboard work and supreme technical mastery, this virtuoso Philadelphia bass pioneer and composer helped to establish the electric bass guitar as a viable solo instrument in the 70s, with a series of groundbreaking albums that fused jazz with funk and rock. With his superior technique, Clarke was able to advance and build upon the percussive, slapping effect developed by Sly & The Family Stone bassist Larry Graham in the late 60s. Comfortable with both electric and acoustic bass, Clarke was also a key member of Chick Corea’s pathfinding fusion band, Return To Forever, in the 70s.
1: Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987)
Topping our list of the 50 best jazz bassists is the mighty and inimitable Jaco Pastorius, who rose to fame in the 70s fusion supergroup Weather Report. Born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Pastorius started out as a drummer but took up the double bass after injuring his hand. He went on to pioneer the electric fretless bass in jazz and developed a unique style that combined sinuous funk lines with lyrical, melodic passages, chords and bell-like harmonics. A flamboyant character with a big personality who played with swagger, Pastorius suffered from bipolar disorder. He died, aged 36, after being beaten into a coma by a nightclub bouncer. As well as arguably being the most influential bassist of all time, Pastorious was also a fine composer.
Follow the Jazz Giants playlist here.