Bass on Top: the Genius of Paul Chambers

Mozart and Charlie Parker died young.  Paul Chambers died younger.  He was thirty-three years old when he succumbed to tuberculosis fifty years ago on January 4th, 1969.

Had he not been taken early, Chambers would now be eighty-three, an age achieved only rarely by jazz musicians of his generation, many of whom fell victim, either directly or indirectly, to the heroin scourge of the mid-twentieth century. One can gauge the cruel brevity of Chamber’s life by observing that two of his teenage running mates—among the many jazz master hailing from from Detroit—are still alive. Five years his senior and due to turn ninety next year, pianist Barry Harris taught the young Chambers much about harmony and about walking his bass lines with variety and direction at late night jam sessions at his house. While still in high school Chambers joined guitarist Kenny Burrell, three years older than the bassist, in his group the Four Sharps. This was another vital training ground for the young bassists’ talent, not least thanks to the leader’s penchant for playing tunes in any given key on any given night.

Just five years later, Burrell would participate in the third and last of Chamber’s recordings as a leader for the Blue Note label: Bass on Top of 1957. The guitarist’s speeding, but never-precarious lines twist and twirl above the stout walking bass, and his chordal accompaniments ring out over Chamber’s expansive bowed solos.

The album’s opening track is a tour-de-force of arco (i.e., bowed) playing: Jerome Kern’s 1930s standard “Yesterdays”begins with a bass cadenza filled out by evocative sighs, pathos-filled pauses, and self-doubting turns that flow into an elegiac presentation of the melody from Chambers below the nimbus of Burrell’s guitar chords.  Some two minutes in, drummer Art Taylor’s brushwork hisses into action and those “Yesterdays” come alive in double time: the past when “gay youth was mine, truth was mine / joyous free in flame and life” dancing to life in a vibrant, virtuosic solo with pianist Hank Jones, who’d grown up in Pontiac, Michigan and whom Chambers had also known during his Detroit days, now providing the tasteful harmonic backing. After the ephemeral elation of this up-tempo excursion, reverie again overtakes the soul-searching soloist as the tempo slows to ballad pace and then slower still for a final, tragic utterance. All of it is done with Chamber’s bow.

In none of this is the star bassist “on top” of the musical texture harmonically. The LP’s cover photograph by Francis Wolff shows Chambers’ left hand, in various degrees of close-up, high on the fingerboard, in so called thumb position—something he rarely did.  But even when playing low on his instrument Chambers is at the top of his art.  There is no musical sound more melancholic than Chamber’s bowed bass on a song of regret and longing. This magisterial reading of “Sequestered days / Olden days, golden days” comes from a man of just twenty-two. Chambers was a musician beyond his age—old before his time.

Like Burrell, Chambers was a graduate of Detroit’s Cass Tech, a high school whose unsurpassed music program turned out jazz greats as if on one of Henry Ford’s assembly lines.  Most remarkable perhaps was Cass’s manufacture of bassists. Born a year before Chambers, close friend and neighbor Doug Watkins can be heard on some 350 recordings (a couple dozen more than Chambers made). Watkins’ legacy is enshrined most brightly in his work as a mainstay of the Blue Note record label and as an original member of the Jazz Messengers; he accomplished all this before his even more untimely death at twenty-seven in a car crash in 1962. A few years younger than both of these bassists, Ron Carter took over Chamber’s seat in the Cass orchestra when Chambers left Detroit in 1954. It is extraordinary, but not accidental, that the bassists of both of trumpeter Miles Davis’s great quintets (the first of the late 50s, the second of the early 60s) were products of the same high school—and of the vibrant musical environment of downtown Detroit clubs and the homes of the city’s musicians-in-the-making.

When Chambers and his young family made the move to New York in 1954 (Watkins had introduced his friend to Ann Williams two years before, and the couple’s first child was born a year later), they initially stayed with various friends from Detroit. Chambers’ ascent through the New York scene was quick, though not without bumps. He appeared at obligatory jam sessions at that jazz mecca, Birdland. There he is purported to have encountered bebop bass kingpin Oscar Pettiford, who demanded the young man play “Body and Soul” for him. Reluctantly, Chambers started in. “Not like that!” shouted the older musician, snatching Chamber’s lady’s-head bass and playing a few definitive bars of the standard before handing the instrument back to its owner and storming off.  This rite of humiliation enacted, the two bass masters could later become cordial colleagues.

His calendar full of dates with some of the leading figures in New York, the twenty-year-old was soon asked to joined Miles Davis’ group in 1956. With one tip of the trumpeter’s horn, the kid from Detroit had been elevated to the jazz aristocracy. Chambers remained with Davis until 1963.

Enough to immortalize not just the quintet but also its tall, thin bassist was recorded at two sessions in May and October 1956 at Rudy Van Gelder studios in Hackensack, New Jersey. Fulfilling Davis’s contractual obligation to Prestige Records (the trumpeter had already signed a new deal with Capitol), the material would be released in four landmark LPs: Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and Steamin’. The sizzling version of Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” heard on Relaxin’ with its shifting ensemble textures—sometimes just two members of the rhythm section of Chambers, Philly Joe Jones on drums and Red Garland on piano, sometimes the three altogether, and sometimes bass alone—encourage full appreciation of the energy and imagination of Chamber’s walking lines.

Listen to the opening chorus of Davis’ solo—his cajoling, sardonic banter above a buoyant beat provided by Chambers. It has been said that the best definition of “swing” can be found in any two adjacent notes played by Paul Chambers: unerring but never clocklike, he made jazz time tangible. There is always intention behind his sublime, subtle distortions anchored in absolute reliability.

If I were forced to pick just one gem from the vast riches of Chambers’ contributions to Miles Davis’ first quintet, however, I might chose his sprawling, rollicking solo on “Straight, No Chaser” from Milestones of 1958: over many choruses and some one-hundred seconds, Chambers’ blues and bebop glisten in the heart of his instrument, towards the conclusion of the oration striving higher up the neck before returning to the low sweet spot and to the play-out.

Even while an essential member of Davis group, Chambers was in perpetual demand.  Listen to him get to boogie-woogie-ing with pianist Kenny Drew beneath trumpeter Lee Morgan’s solo on the title track of John Coltrane’s Blue Train of 1957.

Thrilling is the way Chambers holds off drummer Philly Joe Jones’s double-time breakouts in the midst of each of the solos: first leader Coltrane, then trumpeter Lee Morgan, trombonist Curtis Fuller (another one of those Cass graduates), and Kenny Drew on piano. The string of inspired improvisations is rounded off with Chamber’s own succinct sermon.

The Blue Train session took place at the Van Gelder studio in Hackensack on September 15th.  Chambers had just been there on the 13thwith the Sonny Clark trio and returned again on the 17thto record with the A. K. Salim octet. Chambers made seven recordings that month.

After leaving the great quintet, Chambers joined the trio fronted by pianist and fellow former Davis’ sideman, Wynton Kelly: both had great gifts for the bop-inflected blues and stoked one another’s unquenchable rhythmic vitality, especially when teaming up with powerhouse guitarist Wes Montgomery as they often did, as in the 1962 burner of an album, Full House

Chambers’ was a thirteen-year run in the capital of jazz, with many tours across the country and even recordings out West as well. The end came too soon. After getting quickly hooked on heroin like his road roommate John Coltrane, the tenor saxophone giant of the Davis quintet, Chambers won a Pyrrhic victory over that addiction by unrelenting and destructive use of alcohol. Chambers ran up huge bar tabs at Davis’s expanse, was often hours late to sessions, including those led by arranger Gil Evans at the Columbia studios in midtown Manhattan.  Money wasted on booze, he fled through second-story hotel windows to avoid paying his bills.

These and other dispiriting details can be gleaned from Rob Palmer’s comprehensive, if frustratingly digressive and distracted Mr. P. C.: The Life and Times of Paul Chambers (Equinox, 2012). Dozens and dozens of recordings are slogged through track by track in the book, with free-wheeling opinion often standing in for tight critical attention. The best thing about the study is the comprehensive discography, which shows the extent of Chambers’ corpus. As Palmer convincingly argues, Chambers was not dedicated to making works of art, but instead to work as art: he made huge amounts of compelling music just by showing up to do the job. Whatever his own aesthetic principles, Chambers’ catalog is a monument not only to well-trained, dedicated craft, but also to functional alcoholism.

The poise and purpose of his music-making stand in depressing contrast to his life beyond the studio and bandstand. His bass had a lady’s head. Chambers was fond of the ladies. He was a womanizer and left his wife and kids, rarely making the required child support payments. Barmen in the clubs he played in or frequented to numb his physical and psychological ailments were shocked at the quantity and the variety of the drinks he ordered—a crazy succession of wine and spirits that hurtled him towards his grave in Brooklyn’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Given his own unreliability, his refusal to play electric bass, and the incursions of rock music at the expense of jazz’s popularity, the gigs withered and so too Chambers’ livelihood, already under immense strain from his drinking. The decline can be heard musically as well. His last recording was made in Chicago with the Kelly trio in August of 1968 a few months before he died: the final track on The Last Session (for Delmark Records) is not Kern’s “Yesterdays,” but John Lennon’s “Yesterday.” The result is a slack and sorry swansong for one of the most brilliant of all jazz trios. The choice to record the song might have been kindled by Chambers’ own late suspicions that he would likely have to sustain himself financially by selling-out to more popular forces. Palmer is unstinting in his censure of the trio’s version of “Yesterday”: “Its main merit is that it terminates the agony of The Last Session.” Kelly was also a heavy drinker; he would die two years after Chambers of a brain hemorrhage.

In desperate health but still occasionally on the road, Chambers was admitted to New York University hospital for tuberculosis towards the end of 1968. His beloved bass leaned in the corner of his room on the eleventh floor. He was still trying to practice and clearly thought he’d make it out. Old girlfriends visited, new ones were made.  Dorismarie Welcher, who was the single mother of another of his sons, Paul Chambers III, happened to be on the sixteenth floor of the same hospital at the time for back surgery. She did not, could not visit.

Chambers did not make it out. After some weeks in the hospital, he slipped into a coma and was gone. The young Paull Chambers III first met his half-siblings when he sat next to them at the Harlem funeral of their father. A bass choir of luminaries played Ellington’s “Come Sunday.”

In 1957 fellow bassist Charlie Haden sat in the front row of the Jazz City club in Hollywood for Miles Davis’ great quintet, gazing intently during the first set at Chambers. During the break Chambers approached Haden’s table and asked the young man why he was staring.  Haden replied that he thought there were tears in Chamber’s eyes.  “I do,” replied Chambers. “I cry.”

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at