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City Scenes: Philadelphia's Best Of The Bass, Part 1

Jack Vartoogian
Getty Images

This is a glimpse, a cross-section of some of the most impactful bass players to have come out of Philadelphia. Sometimes their respective impacts were local, sometimes national, sometimes global. Collectively, they've excelled in several different eras and idioms, from bebop and hard bop, to free jazz and post-bop and fusion, all the way through Philly Soul and R&B to hip-hop.

Weather Report founder Joe Zawinul once famously declared that the city produced "the world's greatest bassists." This list will show you why.

It's not an exhaustive list of Philadelphia's greatest bassists; that list would be much longer. Nor is it a ranking or any other kind of value judgment. That wouldn't be in the spirit of the Philly music scene, which, while competitive, is ultimately a big family. And that especially goes for Philly bassists, among whom there is a special camaraderie.

In September 2009, former Weather Report bassist Victor Bailey was a guest on WRTI's The Bridge with host J. Michael Harrison and described the fundamental musicality that's always separated the real ones from the rest in Philadelphia, ultimately creating a timeless bond between the former.

"Philly's a jazz town," Bailey told Harrison and his listening audience. "When you went out to play (in Philly), you had to play standards, you had to play tunes. As a result, Philly turned out a lot of very, very musical bass players. If you just got a lot of chops and flash, you're not going to get on the bandstand here."

That's not to say Philly players lack chops and flash; Victor Bailey's one of those who redefined what technical wizardry on bass guitar could sound like. But, primarily, Philly bassists know how to get on the bandstand. Of Weather Report's four bassists, the final three were from Philadelphia.

Philly bassists are educated, often formally, but always through a tradition of mentorship that is the throughline linking generations. No one can spot a fake or a show-off bereft of substance faster than a Philadelphia musician, he said. That, among other reasons, is why they're so close.

"We all have a kinship when we see each other," Bailey told Harrison. "Partly it's about being bass players. And then being from Philly as well...it's a beautiful kinship."

1. Percy Heath

The elder statesman of Philadelphia's First Family of Jazz, Percy Heath was, for more than 40 years, the understated pulse of the always refined Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). One of the most in-demand session musicians of his era, Heath served as the house bassist for both Prestige and Blue Note Records and played on more than 300 records. Incredibly, he was the only bassist to record with both Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman.

Jam sessions at the Heath brothers' boyhood home in South Philly were serious and star-studded; Benny Golson and John Coltrane were regulars. With MJQ on hiatus in 1975, the Heath brothers became The Heath Brothers, with Jimmy Heath on tenor saxophone and Albert "Tootie" Heath on drums.

Percy, an NEA Jazz Master, recorded nine albums with his brothers before his death at 81 in 2005.

2. Jimmy Garrison

Garrison was probably the least celebrated member of the most celebrated jazz quartet in history. But there's no doubting his importance to John Coltrane's classic quartet as the perfect, often clarifying, counterpoint to drummer Elvin Jones and Coltrane's "sheets of sound." After the classic quartet disbanded in the mid-'60s, Garrison was the only member of the classic quartet to follow Trane into his "free jazz" period; the two played together until the latter's death in 1967.

But Garrison also memorably appeared on sessions with Elvin Jones, co-leading 1964's Illumination, and played with Ornette Coleman both before and after the classic quartet period (check out Garrison on 1961's Ornette on Tenor). But there's no denying that everything changed for Garrison with the formation of the Coltrane's classic quartet in late 1961 — after splitting time with our next Philly bass legend on Coltrane's Village Vanguard recordings.

3. Reggie Workman

Following recordings with John Coltrane in the early '60s, including the aforementioned sessions at the Village Vanguard, Workman joined Art Blakey, replacing the next Philly legend on our list, Jymie Merritt. Under Blakey, Workman anchored one of the Jazz Messengers' strongest lineups, playing alongside giants like Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller and Cedar Walton. His versatility made him Blue Note's go-to bassist in the '60s and '70s and a first call for everyone from Max Roach to Archie Shepp.

In addition to releasing 10 albums as a leader, the 83-year-old Workman continues to play and teach, performing with drummer Andrew Cyrille and saxophonist Oliver Lake as Trio 3, and mentoring musicians at The New School. Most recently, he co-produced (and played on) The Coltranes, a Coltrane tribute album led by protégé Lakecia Benjamin, and was honored as an NEA Jazz Master in August 2020.

4. Jymie Merritt

Best known for his four years as bassist of the Jazz Messengers, the Blakey albums on which Merritt played — Moanin', A Night in Tunisia, Mosaic, et. al. — laid hard bop's foundations.

Close with fellow Messenger Lee Morgan, Merritt played on the former's final albums, notably penning "Absolutions," the opening tune for Morgan's 1970 release, "Live at the Lighthouse." Originally written for a 1968 Max Roach-led session featuring Merritt, "Absolutions" was emblematic of the freedom Roach gave Merritt to flex his compositional muscle (see also, "Nommo," on 1966's Drums Unlimited).

Among the first jazzers to pick up the electric bass in the late '40s-early '50s, Merritt was a forward thinker, pioneering an original system of chord inversions and cross-rhythmic styles with The Forerunners, a Philly-based band he founded in the early 1960s.

Merritt died of liver cancer this past April.

5. Henry Grimes

A South Philly native, the Juilliard-trained Grimes "arrived" at Newport in 1958, playing with Monk, Sonny Rollins, Benny Goodman and more. While touring with Rollins, he became a fixture of the growing avant-garde scene, playing regularly with Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor.

And then, inexplicably, in 1968, Grimes moved to Los Angeles and disappeared for the next 35 years; he sold his bass, played no music, and lived on Skid Row. Some presumed him dead.

In 2002, a social worker and jazz enthusiast from Georgia found him. The New York bassist William Parker shipped Grimes a bass. Five months later, Grimes was back in New York City, playing a gig with Parker.

This launched Grimes' most unlikely second act.

He reconnected with free jazz heads like Taylor and Bill Dixon and began playing with guitarist Marc Ribot, who'd admired his early work with Ayler. When Ribot recorded an Ayler tribute album in 2005, Grimes was on the gig, miraculously one of hundreds since his return from a most mysterious exile.

He died from the coronavirus this past April.

6. Tyrone Brown

Brown's one that may have flown under your radar, but if you're a fan of Max Roach, check out the liner notes — you'll see Brown credited on six different Roach recordings. Brown toured with the legendary drummer for nearly two decades and has recorded with particular prodigiousness with several of Philadelphia's heaviest hitters, including multiple times each with guitarist Pat Martino and saxophonists Odean Pope, Grover Washington, Jr., and Bobby Zankel.

His most lasting legacy, however, may not be playing with the likes of Roach or Clark Terry or Nat Adderley, but instead his audacity to explore a new sound generated by a jazz ensemble comprising a string sextet (two violins, two violas, and a cello), percussion, and Brown's bass. The Tyrone Brown String Sextet has, to date, released four albums.

7. Buster Williams

A key figure in the bebop and hard bop heydays, debuting with Jimmy Heath's band and touring with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt by 18, Williams was also behind many of the recordings that shaped the way the bass would come to sound in the post-bop era.

While anchoring Herbie Hancock's early fusion groups, he memorably appeared on 1977's double live album, VSOP, one of the greatest assemblages of talent on any live date. "That band with Herbie was really a high point in my musical life," he told JazzTimes in 2001. "We were doing some things that no one ever thought a jazz band would ever consider."

An accomplished leader and composer, often working with pianists Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller and vibraphonist Stefon Harris, Williams has also been treasured by vocalists, most notably Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson, as a most perceptive accompanist.

Last year's documentary, Buster Williams: Bass to Infinity, has garnered rave-reviews, both for the film's director, Adam Kahan, and its subject, who's portrayed as a man with fierce pride in the role of making sure everyone else sounds good. And the soundtrack's pretty good, too.

Can't see the video above? Click here to watch an October 2019 performance of "Suspicion"with Buster Williams on bass, trumpeter Charles Tolliver, guitarist Bruce Edwards, pianist Victor Gould and drummer Lenny White.

8. Charles Fambrough

Just 17 when John Coltrane died in 1967, Charles Fambrough never realized his dream of playing with Trane. But he did realize the next best thing, playing with Trane's pianist, McCoy Tyner, appearing on Focal Point (1976), The Greeting (1978), and Horizon (1980), rounding out a decade that began with Fambrough anchoring the band of another Philly icon, Grover Washington, Jr.

In the early '80s, he'd land a steady gig with Blakey's Jazz Messengers, a group he revered as the stewards of "real jazz." Wynton and Branford Marsalis were his bandmates, and when Wynton left to become a leader, Fambrough played on his eponymously titled debut recording as well as its follow-up, Fathers and Sons (both 1982). A gifted composer, when Fambrough recorded his debut as a leader, 1991's The Proper Angle, Wynton and Branford Marsalis were there as sidemen.

Fambrough died at 60, in 2011, of complications from diabetes.

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Matt Silver is a journalist, commentator, and storyteller who’s been enamored with the concept of performance since his grandparents told him as a toddler that singing "Sunrise, Sunset" in rooms full of strangers was the cool thing to do.