Bassists are often the unsung heroes of any genre of music; they're the backbone of the band that tends to go unnoticed. In the development of jazz over the 20th century (particularly following the emergence of bebop), however, we see a new kind of bassist emerge.
These were bassists not only talented enough to match and compliment the virtuosity of their bandmates but who could also take center stage with their instruments.
Here are ten bassists who brought the instrument to new heights within the jazz genre.
Top Ten Jazz Bassists
- Jaco Pastorius
- Ron Carter
- Ray Brown
- Paul Chambers
- Charles Mingus
- Charlie Haden
- Stanley Clarke
- Dave Holland
- Oscar Pettiford
- Jimmy Blanton
1. Jaco Pastorius
A member of Weather Report who also recorded as a solo artist, Jaco Pastorius is widely considered one of the most influential jazz bassists of all time. Pastorius was a fast and loud player, beginning on the double bass before switching to the electric bass. He was especially known for using a modified fretless bass called 'The Bass of Doom.'
Known as much for his onstage antics as his playing style, Pastorius would dance, make jokes, sing and even do flips during performances. That isn't to take away from his skill as a player, though, which saw him use Afro-Cuban and R&B rhythms and artificial harmonics.
Unfortunately, Pastorius struggled with mental health and drug addiction despite his acclaim. He spent long stretches homeless during the mid-eighties and even time in jail. Pastorius passed away at just 35 due to injuries he sustained during a fight at a nightclub.
2. Ron Carter
A prolific artist with over 2200 albums and 65 years of professional performance to his name, Ron Carter deserves his name on this list through his sheer amount of output alone.
Carter's career isn't a case of quantity over quality, though. The double bassist has performed and recorded with some of the all-time greats, including Gil Evans, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, Wes Montgomery, and many others.
Carter was also a member of the Miles Davis Quintet, has worked as a composer, and is a two-time Grammy Award winner.
3. Ray Brown
Ray Brown is another prolific double bassist with a Grammy to his name. Best known for his work with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, Brown began his career as a bassist at 19 and continued refining his technique right up until his death at 75.
Brown's composition 'Gravy Waltz' would earn him a grammy and later serve as the theme song for The Steve Allen Show.
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4. Paul Chambers
A brilliant improviser who could work both as a sideman or bandleader, Paul Chambers played a vital role in developing jazz bass. His great timing and great sound earned him a place in the first iteration of Miles Davis's quintet (1955–63).
Unfortunately, like too many of the greats, Chambers passed away far too young, with alcoholism and heroin use leading to his untimely death at 33.
5. Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus might well be better known for his compositions and temper than his bass playing but was no less a pioneer in double bass techniques.
'The angry man of jazz' drew influence from the blues, free jazz, gospel, and even classical music, in creating his take on hard bop jazz.
Though periods of depression often slowed his output, Mingus's was no less prolific throughout his life. However, his great masterpiece is 'Epitaph', a two-hour-long composition that was not discovered or played until after Mingus's death.
Today Mingus's work continues to be performed live by the Mingus Big Band run by his widow, Sue Graham Mingus.
6. Charlie Haden
Building on the legacy of players like Jimmy Blanton and Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden helped rethink the role of bass playing in jazz.
An original member of the revolutionary Ornette Coleman Quartet, Haden built a reputation on his ability to respond to Coleman's free-form solos with his own improvisation. The result was a bass sound that stood out for its own merits while still complementing his fellow musicians.
Charlie Haden would later form his own bands, including the Liberation Music Orchestra and Quartet West. He believed that jazz could be both a spiritual and rebellious form of music and that improvisation was key to truly experiencing the fleeting beauty of a moment.
7. Stanley Clarke
There's a reason Stanley Clarke's bass is on permanent display in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C..
Fusing jazz with funk, the five-time Grammy award winner established the bass guitar as a viable solo instrument. Indeed, Clarke was one of the first jazz bassists to sell out shows worldwide as a headliner and sell thousands of records in the process.
8. Dave Holland
Whether it's playing in a big band, performing solo pieces, accompanying legends, or running an independent label, Dave Holland could, can, and still does it all.
With a career spanning five decades, the virtuosic Englishman has performed sideman duties with Miles Davis, Anouar Brahem, and Anthony Braxton, led his own bands, and played everything from avant-garde jazz to pop and rock.
9. Oscar Pettiford
One of the pioneering figures of jazz bebop, this double bassist and cellist said he didn't like how others played the bass, so he decided to develop his own way of playing.
Pettiford's career, however, is one that almost didn't happen. Pettiford gave up playing for five months, believing there was no way he could make money as a bassist. Thankfully, another great bassist and admirer of Pettiford, Milton John Hinton, convinced him to return to playing.
Pettiford would get his big break playing with Coleman Hawkins, and the bassist would soon be in great demand as a sideman before deciding to focus on working as a bandleader.
10. Jimmy Blanton
Jimmy Blanton's jazz career was tragically short, but he left an astounding legacy regardless.
Simply put, Blanton's bass playing was on an entirely different level to many of his contemporaries and predecessors, making him one of the first true masters of the instrument.
One of the first bass players to show the instrument could take center stage during a performance, Blanton would lay the foundations for the likes of Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden.
Dying of tuberculosis at just 23, it's impossible not to wonder what could have been when it comes to Blanton. Still, he takes his place as one of the all-time greats regardless.
Thanks for Reading!
So there you have it, ten of the all-time great jazz bassists. Of course, many other greats could have easily made this list, including Jimmy Garrison, Buster Williams and Leroy Vinegar, to name a few. Still, we hope you enjoyed this list.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Mike Grindle