Revolutionizing the Jazz Bass: The Life and Music of Jimmie Blanton
23 March 2018
Koninklijk Conservatorium Antwerpen, gebouw Beel Hoog, lokaal 435 - Desguinlei 25 - 2018 Antwerpen
Dhoest, Alexander en Schreurs, Eugeen
PhD defence Matthias Heyman - Faculty of Arts, ARIA
This research project offers a comprehensive study of the life, music, and legacy of jazz bass player James 'Jimmie' Blanton, Jr. (1918–1942). Best known for his tenure with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra between 1939 and 1941, Blanton is widely regarded as one of the key figures in the development of jazz bass playing. From 1946 on, an iconic narrative came into being that established him as an artistic hero in the pantheon of jazz (bass) history. In most literature, such icons are treated in generalizing, uncritical manners, resulting in a flawed, limited understanding of Blanton. Previous studies have primarily focused on his recorded solos from 1940, and rarely compare his work to that of his fellow bass players. This research is the first to consider Blanton's complete recorded body of work taken from his entire five-year career, including a large number of broadcasts and live versions. Furthermore, considerable attention is dedicated to his accompaniments, and his work is properly contextualized with a selection of that of his peers.
Through a combination of biography and musical analyses, I reevaluate the importance this bassist holds in the history of jazz, adding nuance to his iconic status. This is achieved through an interdisciplinary methodology, building upon such diverse methods as archival research, reception study, music analysis, visual analysis, and historically informed performance practice. As such, this research, the first one in Belgium to focus on jazz, offers new insights into the historical development of jazz bass playing up to the 1940s, into the social and musical milieus Blanton belonged to, and into the role Ellington played in Blanton's development as a performer. Furthermore, a number of technical matters are addressed, in particular his performance posture and the impact recording technology had on his reception.
Overall, I argue that Blanton did indeed play a transformative role in the development of string bass playing in jazz, yet should also be considered as part of a continuum of bass players that each in their own way contributed to this evolution. While Blanton's approach laid the foundation for how the majority of future bassist soloed and accompanied, he himself relied in part on the groundworks established by other bassists such as Wellman Braud and Walter Page, his own musical influences such as tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and pianist Art Tatum, and Ellington's earlier experiments in writing for the string bass.