Very special thanks to Shane Gasteyer of Local 802 for arranging the introduction to Bob Cranshaw; thanks also to Janelle Fisk for transcribing the interview. When preparing Ben Street and Mark Stryker offered valuable insight into Bob’s music.
Bob Cranshaw: I’m from Evanston, which is outside the suburban area of Chicago, north of Chicago. It’s a college town – Northwestern University, Baha’i Temple – there’s a lot of things there. The Chicago area is where I had my musical arising.
Ethan Iverson: How did you start learning about music in Evanston?
BC: I’m kind of from a musical family. My father was a drummer from Kansas City.
EI: A professional drummer?
BC: Yeah. He was a drummer with the circus in Kansas City. He came up with Count Basie and that group, but I never really got a chance to really hear him play. I just know of his playing.
I have a brother who was a pianist and an adopted brother who was a vibist. Music was always there. My brother was really an incredible player but at a young age, he got strung out on drugs. He started using. He was a college graduate and so forth, but could play his buns off. He came to New York.
EI: What was his full name?
BC: Stanley Cranshaw. Then, I have an adopted brother who was Jewish. He was a friend of my brother’s whose parents were killed and my parents adopted him at a young age. He was a vibist.
So, I was around music. I started out playing piano but I wouldn’t read. I was studying and my teacher would play something, “This is what I want you to play next week.” I heard it, so I’d go out and play baseball all week and come back and play the same thing she’d play because I had heard it. My brother really was a student of the piano, so I got a chance to really listen a lot and they pushed me a lot. Now I didn’t really want to get into jazz. I wanted to be a classical percussionist. I wasn’t really interested in jazz at all [laughs].
EI: What does classical percussion mean? Is that mallets and timpani?
BC: Timpani, yeah. I did all of that through junior high school and high school. Then, I just kind of started with the bass. One of my friends had a bass, so I would go to his house and just mess around. My brother played with a band, so I would go and listen when they were rehearsing. I would be out sitting on the porch. They wouldn’t allow me to come inside because they’re smoking weed and so forth, so they didn’t really want me to see it. I had to stay outside, but I would listen to what was happening.
EI: And it was jazz?
BC: It was jazz. Junior Mance is also from Evanston, and he’s one of the few people that knew my brother well and really knew of his playing.
I was fighting the feeling, I guess at that time, as far as really wanting to be a jazz musician. In the orchestra, when my friend had this bass, I started to study with another guy in Evanston who played bass. He gave me lessons and I really started to get into it. Now, by my family kind of being from more of a jazz background, I really didn’t hear a lot of classical music. Although I wanted to be a classical percussionist, other than being in the orchestra and the band, I really didn’t hear any other things. I didn’t have a collection. I didn’t go to symphonies and so forth. I really never heard any of that.
But my father was a choir director, and I really got a chance to hear his gospel choir. I mean, it was an incredible choir. As a young kid, I wanted to sing with the choir but I was too young and I used to just cry. I used to listen to the choir and I wanted to be a part of it so bad. One of the things that stood out at the time with the choir was the bass singers. He had three or four guys that were bass and I enjoyed the sound, that deep roar. Being in Evanston, I got a chance to hear a lot of choirs at Northwestern University, male choirs. I heard a Russian choir. I swear – the basses were so low – it just went through me. I could hear the sound. I enjoyed the sound. I just said, “I want to play bass.” So I started to get into playing the bass. My parents bought me a bass and I started to study.
EI: Who did you study with?
BC: I had the same problem with the bass. I heard it; I played it. Evanston is a pretty wealthy community, black and white, because of Northwestern, so I came up in a really lovely neighborhood. As I tell guys, I can play the blues, but I can’t cry the blues because I didn’t come from that kind of thing. Chicago was a whole different thing. Evanston was a safe city – just a beautiful community – with Northwestern, right on Lake Michigan. It was just a gorgeous place.
EI: Was your high school segregated?
BC: No. Everybody in Evanston went there and it was a brilliant school. It was large, but it was a wealthy school. That’s what I’m saying: I can’t cry poverty because I didn’t really have it. Sometimes, you’d like to be able to say, “I came from the wrong side of this or so forth.” I really can’t tell those kind of tales because I didn’t. I had the best. I came from a gorgeous high school, a brilliant high school that was like a college. It was a huge school.
EI: Sounds like you played some symphonic repertoire in your high school.
BC: I think I was the sixth chair bassist. It was mainly a lot of girls in front of me, you know, the first chair and the second and third. I was not still sold on the bass, on really getting into it, but one day we had a sectional rehearsal with the bass, and it was a passage that the conductor wanted each one of us to play alone. I remember the first chair girl said, “You know, I’d rather work on it a while.” A couple of people tried it. By the time it got to me, I’d already heard it, so I played it! I already heard it; I knew what it was, so I didn’t have any problem. But again, I was depending upon my ear; I didn’t depend upon what I know or what I saw. I depended upon more of what I heard.
EI: How did you start playing jazz on the bass?
BC: My brother would play things. My brother could play harmonically. He was incredible. We were teenagers, but he was serious. He could play.
EI: So this was early ‘50s, then?
BC: This was in the early ‘50s, ‘40s. He could already play. I mean, he was great. So, he would play a chord and he would say, “Play the bass.” So, again, by me playing by ear, all of it was generally by ear when I played. I learned to read long after I could play, and it was harder for me to really read because I could hear it. My brother would play a chord and then I would play the root. But again, a lot of it came from the bass singers in the choir that I was really drawn to – hearing this Russian male choir that came to Northwestern University and I wanted to scream because the basses were so low and it just ran through me. It was like the woofers and the tweeters. I like the woofers [laughs] rather than the tweeters.
I was a tenor; I sang in the choir. All of the musical activities in school, I was a part of. Gospel music I still listen to when I want to get pumped up. The gospel thing, especially now, all of that shit is hot. It’s hot. You go to hear one of those gospel choirs, and the shit is swinging. The rhythm sections are swinging. The guys that are playing – the stuff is just happening. I listen to a lot of it because it gets me ready to fight. I put it that way.
I have a lot of students and I talk about generally playing by ear. When I played piano, my piano teacher after two or three years went to my parents and said, “Look. There’s no need for him to study with me because he’s not reading anything. I play it, he hears it, and he plays.” At that point, I just stopped the piano and my brother continued playing.
EI: At some point, you must have started listening to the jazz records and listening to the bassists.
BC: I heard my brother playing with those different groups, although I was sitting on the porch. There was a guy named Big Guy Brown; he was huge, about 200, 300 pounds. They would be playing with the better musicians in Evanston. They would be rehearsing and playing. I could just hear what he was doing. I knew because of listening to records, listening to Nat Cole. My brother was into Bud Powell, he loved that kind of thing, so I heard it. I just wasn’t really participating as much.
Then, when I started to participate in a band, it was kind of playing for the chicks, you know? Music was probably a way to get to the chicks. I was in the choir. The high school was so large; they had auto mechanics. It was a tremendous high school. While the guys were taking other things, I was in the choir because the girls were in the choir. I learned to knit in high school because the girls were there! I didn’t want to be with a bunch of guys all the time. So, I got involved in the things where the girls were.
At that point, I was interested in music and then I started to conduct choirs watching and listening to my father. I started to conduct youth choirs, and I belonged to a youth choir. It was music all the way and fortunately, my parents encouraged me to play. They never stifled my development at all.
EI: The bass teacher you mentioned, was he teaching you jazz or just bass?
BC: Just bass. My high school orchestra was a large orchestra; it had to be 40 or 50 kids. It was really outstanding. Now, I didn’t understand that much about classical music. I was there, but I didn’t have that kind of background where I heard it or where I was really into it. I didn’t hear it at home.
The orchestra director challenged me and said, “Look. I want you to play. I want you to get some material together for the state bass contest.” He gave me maybe two months or more.
I said, “Okay, I’ll do it,” not thinking that I was going to really do it. One month went by and he said, “How are you doing on your tune?” I hadn’t even started to work on shit. I went down to the music store and having no idea what I was doing, I picked a Sonata in A Minor by Marcello that had three movements. My teacher at Northwestern looked at it and said, “Wait a minute. I don’t know whether you can play this. You have thumb position—you’ve got stuff here that you’re nowhere near.” I played it on the piano and learned the whole thing by playing and hearing it! Okay, so, I didn’t really read it. I won the state contest, but it was way over my head.
Everything changed because the orchestra director really challenged me in that. When I won, I said, “I gotta stop bullshitting now. It’s been bullshit all the way. I’ve been able to get by by hearing it and then playing it. Now, I gotta learn to read. I gotta turn the equation around.” At that point, with my teacher at Northwestern, I started to get into it. I started to really devote some time to it.
EI: Who were some of the jazz bass players that inspired you?
BC: Again, coming up, the guys that were in Chicago that were a little ahead of me: Victor Sproles…
EI: Was Wilbur Ware there?
BC: Wilbur Ware – Wilbur Beware! Gene Wright. They were all playing.
EI: Was that the same Eugene Wright that played with Brubeck?
BC: With Brubeck, yeah. He was with Gene Ammons and so forth. I started to get more into it. I started to listen more because my brother had all of the records there. I was in the jazz experience at that point.
EI: Why did you say, “Wilbur Beware”?
BC: Because you had to keep your eye on him! At that point, a lot of the guys were strung out. The drug thing was big, and my brother was a part of that group of guys that were musically ahead of me. I’m sure they were trying to push me to make sure Wilbur stayed cool. Wilbur used to use my bass all the time because he would pawn his stuff. He would call me, but I would go with him. I would never leave the bass with him and say, “Well, you bring it back home.” I knew the deal, but I wanted to hear him play.
I watched Israel Crosby with Ahmad Jamal. We worked opposite guys like that, so I got a chance to really learn a lot more about jazz, but I could also already hear it, so my main thing was the playing by ear.
I’ll go some place to play, and I don’t ask what key. If you put the music there, I can read it, but if you just play, I hear it. I trust my ear. I don’t ask any questions. I tell my students, “I don’t think about the chords.” I don’t even get into that.
EI: Well, you know, you’re famous for that. You’re famous for being able to play any tune, any key, just by hearing it, the first time.
BC: You know what I’m saying?
EI: On this recording with Sonny Rollins in ’59, he changes keys and you follow him.
BC: That’s when I became his bass player. I met Sonny through Walter Perkins, Walter was better known in Chicago at that time, but Walter and I played together in a trio with Eddie Higgins. Everything that Walter was doing in Chicago, I was with him. We had a relationship. We formed a groove that was just incredible, the two of us. We could play with anybody, anywhere.
EI: Where was he from? Was he from Chicago?
BC: Yeah. He was from Chicago. By me living in Evanston, it was a ride to get to Chicago, 45 minutes to an hour, so I didn’t really hang in Chicago a lot. I was really a small town, country guy. The guys in Chicago, “Look. He’s from Evanston. Get outta here with that shit.” But it was okay; again, the way I was brought up was like a rich kid.
EI: When you say Walter Perkins and you had a groove, and then you’re talking about these guys like Wilbur Ware and Israel Crosby, we usually think about this powerful groove and this powerful quarter note, like the four notes in the bar that have a real strength, and you have this, too.
BC: That’s kind of my thing. Even when I came to New York, I never look and say I had to be this or I had to be that. I knew what I brought to the package.
I don’t care to solo, although I enjoy hearing other bass players solo. My thing is playing time. I’m a groove merchant. I like to set a pocket.
I know there are guys who solo and play their asses off. I appreciate it, but it was never my thing. I don’t hear that kind of thing. I hear the bottom of the chord. It was easy for me to play. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t put any pressure on myself. I understood from an early age what God had given me. I wanted to be a part of something that’s great. I didn’t have to be the greatest. I didn’t push myself to be the greatest or have to be in front.
I used to play a lot of club dates, so I played a lot of bar mitzvahs and that kind of thing. I enjoyed them! But when I came to New York, most jazz musicians didn’t do that, “Oh, I’m too proud. I ain’t playing that shit.”
What I enjoyed about it is I got a chance to learn some tunes. I got a chance to play with other guys. I was going to make it feel so good. That lady in the wheelchair? I was going to make her get up and dance! That was my attitude. I wanted it to feel good to the people that I was playing for. A lot of times, for me, because of my gospel upbringing and whatever, I gravitate towards the groove of whatever I’m listening to first.
I’m an Oscar Peterson fan. I played opposite Oscar for years in Chicago. They would come to a place called The London House, which was a big room for all of the celebrities. They would be at The London House for a whole month. I worked with a trio – Eddie Higgins and Walter Perkins and myself – and for a month, it was like taking a beating [laughs]. You know? I got a chance to learn from Ray Brown, but it was like they just stomped us. We would open, and it was like the steak came in; we were the salad, and they would just wipe us.
I remember Jonah Jones coming in for a month after Oscar left. I took my anger out on them because we swung them almost outta the joint because we were burned for a whole month. We were hurt, so we were ready to hurt somebody else [laughs] and that was the kind of attitude.
I also remember Shelly Manne came in, and he came in without Leroy Vinnegar, and we got him. Leroy had a certain kind of feel. They came in without Leroy; we took it to them.
EI: I’m gonna ask one of these dumb college questions to you, Bob, and if you don’t have anything good to say to it, that’s fine. When you were listening to Israel Crosby with Ahmad Jamal and Ray Brown with Oscar Peterson: those are two different feels, two different beats, and they’re both great, but what would you say about how they’re different?
BC: Ray was time and notes. Israel played melodies.
Monty Alexander and I worked a long time together. We both play by ear. If Monty was playing an Oscar feel, I did the Ray Brown thing. If he wanted to do his Ahmad Jamal bit, I did my Israel Crosby thing. When I changed to the Israel Crosby thing, I didn’t have to play the root all the time, it gave me a chance to think out of the box again.
I really listened to and watched Israel a lot. It wasn’t my time feel, but what he played was outstanding, and I understood the difference in the two. Ray Brown’s thing was like a Mack truck coming through. When they hit it, you had to move. You had to get out of the way because they’d run over you. It was so powerful and it was that strong.
I watched Ed Thigpen with the trio. Ray and Oscar had more of the same feel; Ed Thigpen was a little more laid back. It was like being drug under a car [laughs]. I mean, Ed was able to stay there, but I knew there was a difference in the feel, and it was hard to match what those two guys were doing because their thing was so strong and so outstanding. I don’t know a drummer that could really hold back unless you had that same kind of groove. They would just take you and you were gone. He did a great job, but I could see him losing hair with that kind of thing because it was hard.
EI: They were a little on top of the beat. Did Thigpen sort of have to try to keep them in check, just with the beat?
BC: Right. And it was hard to do because they were gone. It could start here [claps a fast tempo] and by the time they were through, you didn’t know where it was, but it felt so good. I know that Ed would be holding on because that wasn’t his feel; not that he played bad with any of it.
I talk to students about different kinds of feels. My thing is the more on top of the beat – not speeding up; I’m aware of that, but more on top of the beat feels better for me.
Again, I’m a good listener for when I’m playing with other people. I won’t push. I let them do where they’re going. All I want to do: I’m gonna stick it. That’s my thing. Wherever you want to count it off, it’s okay, but I’m gonna give you that extra little thing because that’s what I feel. That’s what feels good to me without changing what you do.
I did Sesame Street for 30-some years.
EI: You’re wearing the sweatshirt.
BC: Yeah. Oh, I have a million of them. In doing it, all of these things have been a learning experience. There were three of us. There was Joe Raposo, who was the musical director for the show, and the drummer named Danny Epstein. Here are three guys – we were like misfits because we each came from a different place. When I heard Joe play, he played “Klump, klump, klump, klump [quarter notes].” I’m used to playing with a McCoy Tyner or people like that who comp and who have a whole different feel. Joe didn’t play like that. Danny Epstein was a percussionist more than a drummer, but he had a good feel. I used to say, he lived in Forest Hills and we’d play rock and I’d say, “Danny, you’re playing Forest Hills Rock,” just to tease him, but he had a great feel.
When I heard Joe play, I said, “Look. I don’t want to change anything that he’s doing. I don’t want to change the way he plays.” He’s playing the bass part, so that didn’t leave me a lot of room, but I could hear what he was doing, so I couldn’t put him down for it. I said, “What I’m gonna do: I’m gonna make it feel so good to him, he’s gonna stick his left hand in his pocket.” I ended up doing that. He stuck the left hand in his pocket because I was laying it down so he didn’t have to. He knew we were doubling each other. I didn’t have to do it, but I didn’t say anything to him. I didn’t ask him to change anything. As we started to get familiar, you know, with the trio, as you learn each other, you just start to add things. We would sit and play and laugh all day. It was fun. It was not like work.
EI: Steve Little was in there too, sometimes, right?
BC: Yeah. Ed Shaughnessy was the first drummer with the show, but Steve came in after a while.
EI: For my jazz-type questions, I’d love to hear what you have to say about playing with Art Blakey versus Elvin Jones versus Billy Higgins versus Walter Perkins versus all these guys who play the beat in these different places.
BC: Drums are exciting to people; they’re exciting when it’s done right. I used to watch Buddy Rich. Buddy Rich and I spent a lot of time together and that was crazy, because Buddy was nuts! He was crazy, but we would sit down and play. God gave that guy some hands. I’ve never seen anybody play a solo like Buddy Rich, but Buddy’s time feel was not always there. What he liked about me was, I would lock him down. I would lay the beat. What he was doing had a whole different color and texture. He gave me the opportunity: bring it. Bring it. And that’s what I did when we played together and we spent a lot of time together. “I’m gonna lock down. I’m gonna lock you down, but I don’t care where you put the beat.”
Elvin Jones’s thing is exciting, so I don’t want him to change, but I just get under him and I lay the time. For me, I assist drummers because I like to lay it down and give them a chance to do what they do.
EI: Do you attribute your feel to the gospel thing early in life?
BC: As a musician, that was my God-given gift. That was given to me. I didn’t have to change. I don’t have to do anything.
EI: You never had to practice your feel.
BC: At this point, I’m 81. I just sit back and groove with all of these different drummers. I hear what they’re doing. I don’t fight it. I take it. “Is that where you want it? Cool.” But this is what I’m going to bring and it’s gonna feel good. Again, in my mind, that lady in that wheelchair, I’m gonna make her dance tonight. And that was my feeling, playing with Horace Silver, playing with any of those people. That’s my focus. I hear the notes, so I’m not fighting it. I don’t ask you what key. I don’t even care.
EI: I think in another interview, speaking of piano players now, you say McCoy Tyner was particularly helpful to getting the groove going for you.
BC: I felt like, in thinking about with Trane, his group, Elvin created excitement with Trane. McCoy was almost like the bass player. He kept the time, to me. He kept the chordal thing so that whatever the structure, wherever they went, it was cool and it was exciting to hear Coltrane live. You would end up screaming because it felt so good. McCoy’s thing to me – he laid the shit down. He gave them a chance to do what they do. He played solos, he did everything else, but his comping was like an orchestra.
EI: It also, I think, is connected to gospel music. Many of the gospel pianists now play McCoy Tyner phraseology.
BC: I know. With the piano and the organists and the gospel thing, it’s just a whole different scope.
EI: You’re on so many canonical records of the ‘60s. How’d this stuff happen? Did you always rehearse? Did you even know who was going to be on the date when you would show up?
BC: Well, especially with the Blue Note dates, we would have a rehearsal. It was funny because we would get paid for the rehearsals. So many guys were into drugs and different things, so many people were there because they needed that money. I don’t remember if it was 20 bucks or something like that for the rehearsals.
At any rate you didn’t want to miss out on what was happening. You would play the music down, but by the time you got ready to record it a couple of days later, shit changes. Everything changes once you get in the studio; all of the sudden, it’s a whole different number. I just enjoyed. I listened to everybody that was playing. I’m always aware. I’m a team player.
EI: I have a recording of the first night you played with Sonny Rollins. I think this night in Chicago, you also played with Coleman Hawkins, which is on a bootleg somewhere, too.
BC: Yeah. It was the first Playboy Jazz Festival. Let me tell you the story behind it. Walter Perkins called me and said, “Bob, I got a call from Sonny Rollins. He told me to get a bass player for the jazz festival. Do you want to do it?” I said, “Yeah. I’ll do it.” All of the sudden, after I hung the phone up, I started to think. I said, “Oh, shit. I don’t know whether I’m up for that,” because the Wilbur Wares and the Victor Sproles, they were the more experienced bass players in Chicago. And there was no piano. If there had been piano, I would have said, “Yeah,” because I would have felt comfortable. But here, it was just bass and drums. I said, “Aw, man. I may be biting off more than I can chew.” But I followed through.
Sonny told us to be at the place; it was an afternoon concert. He told us to be there a couple hours ahead and set up. We get there and we set up. I hadn’t met Sonny. I heard Sonny play in Chicago, but it was with the Wilbur Wares and the more experienced people when he was there. I didn’t know him.
I remember, the concert started. The guy came to us and said, “Where’s Sonny?” I said, “I have no idea. I haven’t met him yet. I don’t know. Maybe he’s here. I have no idea.” The first group played for about forty minutes. The second group, I remember, went on. They played. The third group – I think, I don’t know whether it was the Four Freshman or something – and then there was a Dixieland band playing before us. Now, these groups are playing. The Dixieland band played twenty minutes, half an hour. We were next, and everybody was waiting for Sonny because Sonny hadn’t been out. When he took a leave of absence, he hadn’t played. This was the first time Sonny was playing in a year or two, so nobody had heard Sonny. The Dixieland band is playing and playing and people are now tired of hearing that.
All of the sudden, Sonny’s there. At that point, we ate it up.
It gave me a chance to learn something about Sonny because Sonny had been there probably a couple hours before we were there. He watched everything that went down. In my mind, he watched it, and he picked his time to go on. At that point, I always said, I learned the method to Sonny’s madness. We played the concert. We finished. Sonny wrote me a letter and said, “I’m going to put a group together. Would you like to be a part?” I said, “Yes,” but then I started to think again. I said, “Oh, shit. I don’t know whether I’m ready for Sonny Rollins. I’ve been dicking around here, but I don’t know whether I’m ready for someone like Sonny Rollins.” He didn’t do it right away. He would write me letters and so forth, and a year later, he put it together.
I guess I’ve been with Sonny for—I don’t know, like a marriage—for 40-some years.
EI: It’s longer than that. It’s over 50 years, Bob.
EI: I’m not sure if these tunes are in the right order or not. The sound is bad, but the music is still great. The first song is “I Want to Be Happy.”
BC: [Listening] We used to play this fast when Sonny would play. We would do it for an hour. Not necessarily this song, but something like that when he came out. I remember being in California and we played at least forty minutes like this. When I got through, I couldn’t bend my fingers [laughs]. I was playing something this morning that I did with Carmen McRae, and it was fast. I said to my wife, “There ain’t no way in hell I could play that fast now, period.” I couldn’t even think that fast. But Sonny stopped really doing that. During that time, he was really playing uptempo.
That bass that I had then was gorgeous. Eldee Young, who was with Ramsey Lewis, found it for me. When I came to New York, I was working at the Blue Angel, playing shows with a guy named Frank Owens on piano. I went in on a Saturday and my bass was gone; somebody stole it. Never saw it again.
EI: That’s terrible, Bob.
When you’re playing this fast, are you feeling it like every quarter note, or more like one beat to a bar, or…know what I mean?
BC: I think I’m thinking probably every quarter note. I know the tune. You’re probably just holding on. I’m hoping I’m gonna make it! [laughs] But I was younger, you know, so I had the stamina. I’m sure Sonny had the stamina. I don’t know whether he would think of playing like that now. Not an easy tempo. Sonny is 83 – he’s a year, two years older than me – and it takes a lot to play this fast. Sometimes I go up to Smoke and I play with Michael LeDonne. He’ll play maybe one or two of these a night and I’m holding on. You’re trying to play some different things, but it’s hard to really be able to think or move. You don’t want to keep repeating yourself, so what do you do? How do you create something different without really getting into some theatrics?
During this time, Walter Perkins and I, because we played together so long in Chicago, we would finish our job at The London House; we’d finish early because it was a steakhouse. Then we would go to different clubs. Everybody knew Walter, so when we walked into the club – we’d go to the south side – they know we’re going to sit in. We would come in. They’d see Walter walk in, and I’d be behind him, and we’d go up and maybe play two, maybe three, and tear it up, leave the house standing! Then we’d leave and go to another club and do the same thing. Walter, again, as a drummer, had a good feel. I mean, he wasn’t an outstanding drummer as far as chops, but his feel… he could swing at the drop of a hat. He had groove. It reminded me… Art Blakey had a pocket that was incredible. [listens] Damn. [listens] Yeah, I never heard this before.
EI: I’ll leave it with you.
BC: Thank you. How did you get it?
EI: There are collectors. You know?
BC: Oh, bootlegs.
EI: They trade tapes and that sort of thing. I don’t know how you feel about that.
BC: I know they’re there.
EI: [Announcer introduces in the band; “Oleo” starts] This might have been the first tune. I might have it out of order.
BC: I’m not sure myself.
Sonny and I, over the 50 years, we talked very little.
My wife talked to Sonny. They could be on the phone because he got her into yoga. Sonny was heavy into yoga. They’d sit and talk. They could talk for hours.
EI: You and Sonny never really talked about music?
BC: I think Sonny and I, over the 50 years, may have talked an hour and a half worth [laughs]. I mean, I say that; it’s probably more, but we never got into that much discussion. I listened to him talk to other people. I was around him when he’d talk to his wife, but as far as Sonny and I, one on one…
EI: Did you ever hear Sonny talk about music with anybody?
BC: Yeah. Sonny’s heavy. He’s brilliant. Sonny could have been a surgeon. He could have been a doctor. In fact, Sonny’s brother is a doctor.
Just brilliant as far as his thought of music and what he thinks about how he approaches. Sonny practices. Sonny can practice six hours a day, eight hours a day. I don’t want to listen to six hours of music in a fucking day! I couldn’t do it. I don’t have that. I like to do other things. Music comes through me, but it’s not my all. I put it that way. When I’m playing, I could be sitting in the audience. I could tell what you’re talking about at the table. I’m there, but my body and what I’m hearing is here. It’s like an out of body experience for me.
EI: Listening to Sonny phrase “Oleo” here, I have another sort of dumbass question: Sonny can play really behind the beat sometimes. If you’re fitting in with the drums and the piano, are you also listening to the time of the horn player when you’re playing? Does that affect you?
BC: Yeah. I’m listening to what he’s doing and where he is within the tune, because Sonny can do some things. Sonny can play, and he’s playing in and out of things, but it can become confusing. So, if a guy didn’t know him, he’d say, “Where the fuck are we? Where are we in this tune? Where is he?”
Sonny, the way he can play time in and out of phrases…
Sometimes I’ve heard him with other bass players or other drummers, and they were confused. You hear something; is he really in that place or is he someplace else? My thing was, because I’m really into trying to play the changes in the bottom, I usually stay where I am. I can hear him if he’s in another place. I talk about that with guys in the band, drummers especially: Sonny turned the time around. I’ve seen him turn the time around. Now, where do you go? Do you go with where he is, or do you stay where you are? Sometimes you’re in that position because he’s playing so much stuff until you’re saying, “Should I be there, or should I be there?” Usually, I’m locked down. I’m going. I’m straight ahead. If I hear something else happening, I hear it, so I can go there. If I have to jump into the next bar, or go back, I hear it. It’s coming through me.
Again, I’m listening to the same thing as the guy sitting in the chair. I’m hearing the same thing. I’m on stage playing it but I never think of it in that way. It’s kind of like I’m sitting and I’m listening to it. I know that I’m playing. That’s a God-given gift to me. I’m there, but I’m like in the audience because I’m watching. I can see what they’re doing, and it’s like it’s coming through me. I think, when people ask, that’s probably why I look so young, because I don’t feel like I’m doing anything. It’s not work. It’s not really any work. I’m playing the tune. It’s not work. It’s not any work for me.
EI: Speaking of Sonny and the form and so forth, there’s a very famous “Oleo” on Our Man in Jazz, which is extremely fast, and it morphs into many feels.
BC: That was a rough thing. Not the date in itself, but I’m not a free form player. I like form. I’m more locked into form. Playing free: For me, I always said I’d rather be in bondage. I don’t want to be that free. It took some time for me to make up my mind whether I could really get into it when Sonny started to do that. Sonny’s a master, so it was just another transition for him. He’s checking out something different. At that point, I’m still into changes. I’m trying to make sure I’m playing the right changes to the tune. My head was more there at that time. So, it became a little difficult for me. I don’t know whether I left because Sonny started to get into the free form thing. I left the group for a minute because I didn’t feel that I could be true to what was happening, musically, because I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there yet. I didn’t want to put it down. We’re coming here and listening to Ornette Coleman when Ornette and them started. I’m trying to figure out, “What the hell are they doing?” But what I enjoy with Ornette and what brought my attraction was Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden. That shit was swinging. It felt good to me, so they locked me in with… I’m still trying to figure out what’s happening, but they locked me in.
I remember going with Milt Jackson. Now, here’s [someone] older than me, and another way [of] music; [I was] watching him as he was listening to Ornette Coleman. At that time, Ornette was getting a lot of kudos in all the articles in the paper, “What is the new thing?” Being there with Milt and watching him, he’s a traditionalist. He’s from another school. I’m more into the school with Ornette as far as age [of] guys; Milt is older. Watching him listen to it had to be like watching Coleman Hawkins going to hear Sonny, maybe. You know what I’m saying? They say, “Where in the fuck did this come from? What is he doing? Where is he coming from?” Or, guys listening to Monk after hearing more traditional people. It was kind of some of those transitions for me.
EI: You were right there with Coleman Hawkins and Sonny together on that famous date, where Sonny plays the most avant-garde saxophone imaginable, really.
Paul Bley was there, too.
BC: Bucky Bley!
EI: Bucky Bley – why do you call him that?
BC: That’s his name. He’s from Canada. It was different for me. It wasn’t easy for me to do. But again, playing by ear, I didn’t go in with any preconceived anything. What I hear, that’s where I’m going.
EI: You know, I think the most famous solo on that record is actually Paul Bley’s solo on “All The Things You Are.” Has anyone ever said that to you? Do you know that’s a famous solo?
EI: It’s really out!
BC: Yeah, it’s out, but we had a good time. My thing was, “This is the way he plays, so get used to it. Try to see how you fit, or what can you make fit with what he’s doing because he knows what he’s doing.” It wasn’t like he was strange. He knew!
EI: Actually, you’re on one of his better later records, Bebopbebopbebopbebop, with Keith Copeland. It’s a nice record.
BC: Yeah. I kind of remember it.
EI: Let’s go back to Sonny and Chicago listen to “Without A Song.” This is the moment there’s a little cadenza and then Sonny changes key and you’re right with him. [listens] I think you’re in Eb here, right? Do you have perfect pitch, Bob?
BC: No. I think I have relative pitch. When I hear something, I’m close.
Sonny said after he changed, when he did that, I became his bass player. That’s his thing.
EI: So, he told you about this?
BC: Well, I didn’t remember it, but in articles, Sonny said when he changed keys and I went with him, I became his bass player because he felt like he could do whatever he wanted to do and I was there. I’m a supportive player. I don’t have to be the star of anything. I just like playing with people. [listens] I like this tune.
EI: I do, too.
BC: When Jim Hall came with the band was nice. I had never played with just guitar. How difficult it had to be for Jim when Sonny started to go through the different things like Our Man in Jazz. With all of those things, it kind of left Jim Hall out in the cold because that wasn’t his kind of playing.
[listens] He’s a master, Sonny is, with the horn in his mouth. The stuff that he plays, sometimes I have to block some of it because I’m trying to remember it because I want to play some of this shit. It’s like he’s looking at you and he sees you trying to figure out what’s happening, so he plays some other shit that makes you forget. That’s the kind of player… that just seems to be his mode, his operation. I’m sitting there and I’m saying, “Damn! I heard what he played. That’s great. I want to play it. I want to remember it.” But he plays it, you hear it, and then he does the eraser. He plays so much other shit that you forget what he played. Unless you’re listening to something like this, you don’t know what’s happening. [listens]
EI: Picked up the bow there for a moment. [listens and there’s the surprise modulation] There it is! That’s really hard to hear that. I couldn’t have heard that.
BC: Another experience that I’ve had like Sonny’s – I did a CD with Erroll Garner and Grady Tate. His last CD. The same kind of experience, like Sonny, played standards. He played a tune; it was his tune. He said, “Okay, Bob. I’m just gonna play a little of it so you can hear it.” He played the tune down. “Okay, now we’ll make a take. Take one!” He turned back to the piano and put his hands down for an intro. He was in another key. He had no idea. He played by ear. Grady and I looked at each other. I heard it, so I didn’t panic, but the two of us are looking there and we’re laughing because how in the hell… two second ago, he just played the tune in one key, and the guy says, “Now we’re gonna make a take,” and he turns to the piano and he’s already… wherever his hands were, that’s where it was. He had no idea. He couldn’t read shit.
EI: What a hell of a player, though.
BC: To think of that kind of gift.
EI: Do you think he was joking with you?
BC: Nope. He did it a few times. No. Wherever he turns, wherever his hands hit, he’d play there. Most of the time he’d play an intro, he’s not even sure what he’s gonna play. He’s playing something and he’s searching to see what tune. We had no idea. We watched and we just laughed. First of all, we came in the studio, and we were all short, so we were all the same size [laughs]. We went off on that because it was just funny with all of these short guys. It was the same kind of experience. He played. He just…played.
EI: This may be a good segue to talking about some records. I have selected stuff from your discography. I just thought we could talk through things, see if something shakes out from the years, a comment about the session or the musicians. You can almost think of it like word association, you know? If this isn’t pleasurable for you, you tell me and we’ll stop.
BC: No, no, it’s all good.
EI: A lot of the first records were with the MJT+3.
BC: Walter Perkins was kind of the leader, but then we didn’t one person to be out front. It was kind of a co-op group.
EI: You guys made a few records. You must have played out a fair amount, too?
BC: We worked with Eddie Higgins, Walter and I, for three nights at the Cloister, and then we worked another three nights with the MJT at a club on the south side. So, it was a lot. We were able to do a lot. We had a good time.
I’m telling you, I can play the blues, but I can’t cry the blues, because I never went through any of those things that most musicians go through; I never went through it. It was one of the reasons why I do a lot of things at the union. It all paid off for me. It’s not good for everybody. I tell kids when they come in to join, that kind of thing may not be good. I don’t think it’s as great at this time because there’s not enough work to ask a guy to have to pay this into the pension when there’s not that kind of work out there, but it’s paid off for me with a huge pension. That part of the system worked for me.
EI: You were in the union in Chicago back then with the MJT?
A weird thing happened: I was in the union. I played a job with my brother and a saxophonist, Junior MacDonald, who was a great player. He took a deposit for a job we played up in Waukegan. He took a deposit and then he went to Lexington; he went for the cure a couple days later. Now, he’s got a deposit for money for the thing, but he didn’t make it. He sent another guy. My brother was not in the union. There were a couple guys who were not in the union. When we got to the job, it was in the union hall in Waukegan. When we started, I said, “Look. I’m in the union. Not everybody is in the union. Am I going to be penalized for playing this job? I was hired and asked to be here, so I’m here.” They said, “Okay. All right.” And it wasn’t all right. So, the union in Chicago wanted to fine me, and they put me out of the union and knocked me out of a job with Ahmad Jamal, because Israel Crosby was leaving Ahmad Jamal. Let’s see, I don’t know whether he was going with George Shearing, but Israel was leaving and Vernel was leaving. Walter Perkins went with Ahmad and he was bringing me in on the gig and I couldn’t do it because I wasn’t in the union.
EI: The MJT+3 had Frank Strozier, a great player.
BC: Yeah. Incredible player, but the first group of MJT was with a guy named Nicky Hill and Paul Serrano, trumpet, I think, or Bobby Bryant, trumpet player.
EI: I think the future Muhal Richard Abrams was just Richard Abrams at that time. Did he play straight ahead at that time?
BC: Yeah. He did a lot of writing and arranging, but he was more straight ahead at that time.
EI: Then you’re on a record with Max Roach: Max on the Chicago Scene.
BC: With Ramsey Lewis.
EI: I have it listed as: Booker Little, George Coleman, Eddie Baker.
BC: Oh, Eddie Baker? Okay.
EI: Did Max – he sort of came through Chicago and made a record there?
BC: Yeah. He made a record there and at that time, I guess he was looking for a bass player. I was young and I had a family, so I decided not to really put my hopes into coming to New York. We had a good time. I remember recording the record but I don’t even remember anything about it.
EI: Sure. Then, a few years later, like in 1960, you are out in New York making some records. Had you moved here? Were you just visiting?
BC: No, I moved here.
EI: In 1960, about?
BC: Yeah. I came here in ‘59–’60. We came, as a group, with the MJT. We came here with the group.
EI: Oh, the whole group came out here?
BC: The whole group came here. After Ornette left The Five Spot, we went in for a month at The Five Spot after that. Then, the group kind of petered out. It was hard. It was a strange experience because when we came here, we were not accepted. The guys who were here seemed very strange.
EI: You felt like New York musicians didn’t accept your group?
BC: They were not warm. There was just a funny feeling, but it really set me up. Some of the guys that I became really close to once I was here were some of the guys that just seemed kind of, “Eh…” It was like, “Well, we’re from Chicago.” I’m sure you’ve gone through some of it here. “Well, you’re not the New York [guy]. You’re not the ‘in’ guy,” all of those things. At that point, I said, “Okay. They don’t want me? They got me. Somebody is gonna have to move over.” That was my attitude. Somebody just gotta move.
Paul [Chambers] and I were close from Chicago. We knew each other, and Doug Watkins. I knew most of the guys that would come to… we knew. We had a good time with… I knew everybody’s book. I used to tell Paul Chambers, “Paul, you get drunk one more time, I’m gonna take your gig.” I knew all of Miles’ stuff. I knew everything they played. If one of the guys fell out one night, they were in trouble. I used to tease Paul with that all the time because he would start to drink. By the end of the night, maybe he had some problems, but we knew, because all the guys were close, we knew all of the material.
EI: Do you think any of those bassists especially influenced your style as a player?
BC: Well, I guess Ray Brown, probably more, because he was a time player. And Milt Hinton. Milt Hinton was one of the first bass players that I heard. This was before TV. I heard him on the radio. I think he was my biggest influence. When I heard him play, the shit was swinging so hard that the radio was about to jump off the table. I went to my father, and I said, “I want to play that.”
I have a story about Milt when I came to New York. I had been in New York maybe a few months, and I was on 48th and Broadway. I was on my way to rehearsal with somebody and I had a bag on my bass that was raggedy and about to fall off, but I couldn’t afford anything else. I was walking down to the rehearsal and this gentleman dressed with a tie stopped me on the street. He said, “Hi. What’s your name?” I said, “Bob Cranshaw.” He said, “Are you a professional bassist?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “I’m Milt Hinton.” I said, “Oh, shit.” It was like meeting God. Here’s my mentor.
He took me into Manny’s and he bought me a bass case on the spot.
EI: Really? Hadn’t even heard you play a note?
BC: Took me and bought me a bass case right there. He said as a professional, I couldn’t be walking around with a bag like that. What I teach in my method and my thought of music is, I say, “The Milt Hinton Method,” because when I came, I followed Milt around. I used to just go. They were doing a lot of recording. They were recording all day. I would just go to the date and I would sit on the side. I didn’t want to disturb anybody, but just to watch him. What I got from watching him was when – it could be 50 musicians – when The Judge walked into the room, you could feel the energy. Everybody was talking. That was the kind of guy he was. That was the life. He was my biggest, my most wonderful influence, was watching The Judge. When I started to play, when I started to work with Joe Williams and so forth, Milt did all the record dates. He was part of the rhythm section with Osie Johnson and a couple other guys. I would go to the dates and just watch him because I was working with Joe and I was going to have to play the same music the next week. I said, “I might as well get it from the horse’s mouth. Let me get the first thing and then I have a better understanding of what I need to play when we go out on the road with Joe Williams.”
I followed Milt’s career all the way to the point where I used to call him every Sunday. I’d say, “Judge, I just want me blessing,” just to talk to him and so forth. One Sunday I called, and his wife said, “The Judge is at a club meeting.” I’m saying, “He’s almost 90 years old. What kind of club meeting? What could he be into now?” There was a club called the Friendly Fifties that are in New York and I’m a member now. I joined following his thing. It was what guys like Jonah Jones and a bunch of the older guys put together, this club, so that the wives could be more together when they were traveling. These were the early days. I became part of the Friendly Fifties, and I wrote an article for Allegro at the union about all of these famous guys that were part of this club that nobody had any idea it existed.
EI: Of course, you and Milt are consummate studio musicians. Another person I might put in there is George Duvivier. You must have known him, too?
BC: He knew a lot of music. He floored me, too. I enjoyed Milt because we had the same kind of energy, but George Duvivier… I did a record date and there were at least 40 or 50 musicians on this date. They put the music out and it was all in the wrong key. The copyist copied the stuff. This was strings and everything. To sit down and write out your part for all of the music that was there… George Duvivier got up, he looked at the score, and he said, “Okay. Violins, [imitates giving instructions].” He did the whole thing! I said, “What?!” Every part that was written there, George Duvivier transposed everything. He gave everybody their part. That freaked me out. I never knew that he had that kind of ability. We would have been there hours trying to transpose the music. He did it within 15-20 minutes – the whole orchestra.
EI: Do you mind if I continue with my list? I know this was a long time ago. I’ll just say names here, then you just see if you have a response. I got: Big Soul-Band with Johnny Griffin arranged by Norman Simmons in 1960.
BC: Rough date.
BC: It was rough for me because I became more disciplined after the date. It was terrible for me. It was a lot of young guys on the date. I should have followed Charlie Persip and Clark Terry because they all had pencils and they wrote everything down. I thought, because I was young, I was going to remember everything, all of the changes. I got on the date and I panicked. I didn’t remember shit.
EI: Oh, no.
BC: I never was in that position ever again. I have all my basses – there’s three or four pencils. I didn’t take a pencil and I didn’t write down, “We’re going from here to here to here.” I just assumed that I could remember all of it. When they said, “Take one,” I panicked. That was the only time I thought that I was very, very uncomfortable. I went to the record company and apologized. It was uncomfortable for me.
EI: Interesting. I see Wayne Shorter Second Genesis with Cedar Walton and Blakey.
BC: That was nice. It was enjoyable. We had a good time.
EI: Teddy Wilson Trio?
BC: I went out to do Jazz at the Philharmonic, the last Jazz at the Philharmonic for Ray Brown. I was subbing for Ray. Through that, I met Teddy and that whole group of guys. I was the youngest guy at that point in that group with Jazz at the Phil. So, I was kind of silly. I was young. I just remember I used to go around, when we’d check into a hotel in England and so forth, if you put your shoes out, they would shine them. They had a little hole in the door and they would put them back. I used to, because I was young and just a lot of energy, I used to go and put a black shoe with a brown shoe. I used to mess with the guys. It was Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and all of them. I used to go and just fuck their shoes up. That, I remember. That was a good time. They could play. That’s how I got involved with Teddy and so forth, between Norman Granz. Then, I went with Ella. Right after that, I worked years with Ella.
EI: Duke Pearson seemed like a special relationship.
BC: Yeah. Well, I was part of his band, first of all. When he became musical director for Blue Note, I would do a lot of things, but I had to tell Duke – I wanted to be very honest and we were very close – and I would tell Duke, “Don’t call me for all of the dates. There’s too many great bass players in New York. Other people should also have an opportunity to do some things, so please don’t call me. It’s not like I can’t use the money, but I don’t feel that it’s right.” But I did a lot of Blue Note dates because I was on time. If you said, “Be there at a certain time,” I was there. It was a business for me at that point. There were great bass players that came through; sometimes they were there and sometimes, you know… They could depend upon me. I didn’t put any pressure on any of the record dates. I didn’t ask to be a star. I wanted to be a sideman. I wanted to be a super-sideman. I think that was the relationship: that Duke knew that if he called upon me, I would be there, and I wouldn’t give anybody any problems.
EI: Would it be Duke Pearson’s choice about who was on the records?
BC: Sometimes, yeah, and sometimes, the guys made the choice. It was like a family. They knew that I would come. I didn’t create any scene. I was easy to work with. If this was what you wanted, I was going to try to do it without having a big head. I wasn’t messed up on drugs and so forth. I didn’t get into a lot of that. They didn’t have any problems with me, and the company was full of people that they had to worry about, who were stars. I didn’t offer that.
EI: You played quite a bit with Barry Harris there in those ’62-circa years.
BC: I enjoy playing with Barry, but it was hard for me because we had a different time feel. It was one of the things… guys play together when we get called; we just play. You may have a different feel. I learned a lot about different feels. Barry is more laid back. I gotta lean. I didn’t want to do everything with Barry because I wanted to make sure that our things mesh. I enjoy listening, but it was just harder for me because it’s just not my groove. Playing with Monk – and I was only there for a short time – I enjoyed the experience but it was different groove for me. At that point, I really started to understand, “Everything don’t fit.” It don’t always… Not one fits all.
EI: Who was easier for you to play with? Was McCoy easier for you to play with?
BC: Oh, yeah. That type of playing. Herbie Hancock gave me more places to place my notes. With Barry and Monk things, it was more of a stretch. It’s got a different kind of thing. It was funny: when we played on Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder, it was one of the situations that was really funny. I always think in my mind, “What would have happened on Sidewinder had it been somebody like McCoy?” It could have been a whole different thing.
I remember Barry Harris saying, at the date, Barry saying, “I’ve never been on a hit, so I’m gonna play as funky as I can.” Well, he ain’t a funk kind of player, in saying as far as his sound and his groove is not in that kind of thing. But it came off. He was able to pull it off.
I just remember the date, we laughed. I’m laughing my can off. First of all, “Sidewinder” wasn’t a tune we had really rehearsed. We needed one more tune at the record date. Lee Morgan went into the bathroom. We don’t know whether he’s getting high or… We had no idea. He’s in there for 15 minutes, 20 minutes, and we’re just waiting. We need one more tune to finish the date. When he came out, he put the music down and it was “Sidewinder.“
EI: It’s interesting about Barry Harris. I suppose his left hand is also lower. McCoy’s left hand is a little higher, maybe more room for other notes, but Barry’s a little lower, in that Bud Powell zone.
BC: Right, so it’s harder. I would probably have had a hard time playing with Bud, although it moves.
EI: You played comfortable with Horace and Horace, I feel, also has a left hand that’s down there, too. You even have to double a lot of stuff.
BC: But that was funny because before, I liked the way Horace comped. It was moving, so I wanted to record with him. But when I started to record with him, he wrote all the lines out. I said, “Shit!” because I had to play lines that he [wrote] because he’s playing the same line. I wanted to play with him when it was not that, but I didn’t get that. When he called me, it was always playing the lines, but I enjoyed because I enjoy that kind of feel.
EI: I see that in Newport ’63, sort of like Playboy ’59, you played with a few people and they ended up being records. One was McCoy Tyner; one was Joe Williams.
BC: Yeah. I was with Joe at the time and somehow we fell into doing a recording, so we just got to play. It was a great day for me and my family because I brought home a lot of money that day [laughs].
EI: Roker is there and I think you guys have a very special relationship, you and Mickey Roker.
BC: Yeah. For me, most of my great relationships have been with the drummers. Walter Perkins was one of the beginnings. Mickey and I. Another drummer, Bobby Thomas, who died just a couple of months ago.
EI: I know him from Billy Taylor.
BC: We worked with Billy together, and then we did the David Frost TV show together, but he died just a couple of months ago.
Each one of the drummers helped me with different things.
Mickey and I just locked down. We were the lock. Mickey is kind of a self-taught drummer, and we started to play with Duke Pearson’s big band. Duke would never play. He was entertaining girls and stuff like that and the band is playing. We were into the music; he was into the ladies. So, there was no piano player. It gave me and Mickey a chance to get tighter because we had it with the band. It was a learning experience, a great learning experience, for me at that time. Mickey and I, we became tight. I heard Mickey when he came to Chicago with Ray Bryant’s trio. I knew all of the music. Arthur Harper was with Ray Bryant, and Arthur would sometimes, the last set, he would get drunk. I was ready to take the gig because I knew the book. I studied everybody’s book so if I had to, if there was ever a call, I was ready.
EI: Sounds like the Duke Pearson Big Band played live quite a bit.
BC: Yeah. We played, like Thad Jones, but we played at the Half Note.
EI: Every Monday or something?
BC: Yeah. It was kind of that scene. Maybe a year or a few months. I remember taking Ella Fitzgerald. I was working with Ella for years. I brought Ella down to hear the band and she had a ball.
A lot of my musical career has been with singers.
EI: I think you played with them all, really.
BC: I played with a bunch of them. I enjoy accompanying. That meant that there was no burden on me. I didn’t have to do certain things. All I had to do was accompany.
EI: It’s also great songs all the time.
BC: Well, I learned a lot of tunes.
EI: Sometimes those straight jazz gigs, it’s horn solo after horn solo, but where’s the song?
BC: That’s what I’m saying: you get drug. I enjoyed playing for singers. I really had a good time working with Carmen. I had a beautiful time working with Joe Williams, Peggy Lee, Sarah; all of these people, I had a wonderful time. Charles Aznavour. All of them. It was a learning experience for me and I got a chance to do what I do.
EI: There’s a famous record, Grant Green, Idle Moments, with Duke Pearson and Al Harewood on drums, another special drummer.
BC: Groove, groove, groove. Got a heavy pocket. It was wonderful working with Grant when we played. He was messed up.
EI: How so?
BC: Well, he was on drugs. He was heavy. So, to catch him right… a lot of those things, more guys were getting high. More guys were on heroin at that time. But Grant, if you caught him at the right time, he could play. He was like a country guy to me, but he could play his butt off. We had a good time. It was nice playing with him. I enjoyed his company.
EI: One of my personal favorite records is more of an experimental record: Grachan Moncor III, Evolution, with Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, Bobby Hutcherson, and a young Tony Williams.
BC: We were just having fun. That was a fun date. It was new for all of us because it was different.
EI: I’m going to toss out some other names. Maybe not records, but just names and see if you have any memories. Jaki Byard?
BC: Great. Great player. I learned a lot from him. Nice energy. Happy. Just a happy player. I felt great being in the presence of guys like that because from the very beginning, they just gave me an opportunity to do what I do without having to go through any bullshit, and it was nice. I wasn’t put through any kind of test to work with him. I’d go and laugh and just had a good time. We always had a good time. I enjoyed being around him.
EI: Jaki sort of had something where he could play the very oldest kind of jazz music and the most modern, right?
BC: Yeah. He could do all of that in one tune. He would go into it. He was great. It’s funny because not that many people know about his playing. I mean, a lot of the players who have passed, who guys have no idea even exist, when you think about it, because I never think of the name. It seems like it’s been so long since he was here, you know?
EI: He was a powerful force.
BC: Yeah, he was.
EI: Quincy Jones?
BC: Had a good time. Quincy and Grady and I did a lot of things together because we were all young guys. We were all growing together. It was nice.
EI: What about Mary Lou Williams? You played quite a bit with her in the ‘70s.
BC: Me and Mickey Roker. I got the gig; I forget who was playing bass with her before. Mickey got me on the gig.
EI: It might have been Buster before you.
BC: No. I was before Buster.
EI: Oh, I see.
BC: I brought Buster into things when he came from California. I used to give a lot of gigs because I enjoyed working and I wasn’t uptight. If a bass player wanted a gig, because there was so many great bass players at the time… Mary Lou, I had a good time with. We worked at the Hickory House here in New York. I remember I had a good time. Worked. Made good money in a nice place to play.
I had a wonderful time with Mary Lou; a great experience.
EI: Was she someone that talked about music a lot or just played?
BC: She talked about music. She knew a lot of music. The lady really knew a lot of music.
EI: One of the reasons she’s so interesting is she was there almost at the beginning, yet always kept learning the newer styles and working with it.
BC: She was great. I had a wonderful time.
EI: Hell of a blues player.
I remember when Mary Lou did a concert at Carnegie Hall and she had Cecil Taylor. I guess it was just going to be her and Cecil Taylor, but Cecil was out, so she called me and Mickey to help her.
She got pissed at us at the end of the gig, because there was no way we could control Cecil Taylor. When he went out, he was gone. There wasn’t nothing we could do about it.
EI: I must admit, I was so excited. I remember in high school, I thought, “Oh my God! Mary Lou Williams and Cecil Taylor did a record together. I can’t wait to hear this.”
BC: I never heard it because it was so out.
EI: Cecil doesn’t really let up his thing. It’s too bad.
BC: She thought that we would be able to control it, so when we got through, I just remember Mickey saying to Mary Lou. She said, “Well, I thought you all…!” Mickey said to her, “Look…” The only way we could help her with it is, I grab one arm and Mickey grab the other arm and carry him off the stage. There was nothing that we could do musically to be able to help.
EI: She thought that you guys would help.
BC: Yes, she thought we would be able to help whatever, but it was as strange and as new to us as it was to her.
EI: Maybe she thought if there were some good, solid swing from Cranshaw and Roker, he would hear that and change.
BC: But we couldn’t change it. We didn’t know what was happening. I just remember him playing. We took an intermission. He went backstage, and they had a piano backstage at Carnegie Hall. He played through the whole [intermission]. Backstage, he was still playing; it was like he never stopped.
EI: Wow. It sounds like he didn’t talk any of the other musicians about working out how to make this quartet concert more successful.
BC: No. He was into his thing and there was no way out.
BC: It’s humorous to me because we tried to control it while it was happening. It was nutty. I have the CD. I asked Mickey the same thing; he never played it. He had it, but he said no. It wasn’t a happy experience when we were there, so I wouldn’t listen to it.
EI: I got a couple other names here: Dexter Gordon?
BC: Wonderful. A lot of fun. He and Sonny, because they’re big guys – with the horn in their hands, a tenor looks like an alto saxophone. With Sonny, because with his fingers and his big hands and that was the same thing; Dexter was such a tall guy when he played the tenor. You look at it and it looked like an alto saxophone to me because he was so big.
EI: Hank Mobley?
BC: Oh, Hank. Wonderful. Wonderful experience. Hank was such a beautiful guy. Any time you did a record date, Hank was right on. Whatever problems he would have, he was just right on at the date. You never felt any thing but a positive thing from Hank. He wasn’t like a real up guy; he was quiet. We would play but I never really got to know Hank. A lot of the guys that I played with, I didn’t really hang because I had a family. My thing was taking care of my family. I didn’t do a lot of hanging out and so forth. I just never got into those things.
EI: You’re on something like 450 records, Bob.
BC: Yeah, the Japanese say I’m on over 3000-something records.
EI: Oh, really? I see that you played with Duke Ellington just for a little bit. You sat in with Duke or…?
BC: I did a record date because when I was with Ella, Duke’s band was part of the thing Norman Granz hired. So, Duke would play some cuts. I was with Jimmy Jones and Sam Woodyard as the rhythm section at that point for Ella. One day Duke called. I was sitting at home and he was recording in the studio. I never heard it. I don’t even know what it is we did. I went in the studio. His bass player, I think was John Lamb or somebody, was in Philadelphia because Duke was never off. He never gave the guys time off. They were off and the bass player went to Philly and didn’t come back. I went in the studio and Duke had heard me play with Ella, so he knew my playing. I just remember walking in. He gave me some music. It would be like 8 or 12 bars, 24 bars – nothing. Then he might have bridge written in or so forth. So, one of the things that I’ve learned through my experience: don’t ask any questions. There was nothing written. That means you listen and you play what you hear. I didn’t ask a thing. That was one of the first things: no questions asked. He wanted me to play in those bars, but there was nothing written, so all I could do was listen to what the band was playing and play from that. I didn’t ask a thing.
EI: That’s fabulous.
BC: But Duke knew; I’m sure he knew that I could hear it, so… but I didn’t open my mouth. Mum’s the word. I ain’t said shit. Just listen to what’s happening and play what you hear.
EI: What was he like in person, Duke?
BC: Duke was wonderful. He talked about a lot of music. He was just wonderful to watch. He would write. Watching Johnny Hodges and all the guys because when I was with Ella, I was very young. I was like the kid, and they were bringing… I was kind of raised with spending time with Johnny Hodges and all the guys who were older, just watching them and laughing, because I used to hide their shoes, too.
EI: Do you want to say something about transitioning to electric bass?
BC: I just played it. I never thought about it; never studied. I just picked it up. A bass is a bass. That’s my attitude. When playing the electric, I was doing it for TV shows, Sesame Street and so forth, so I started to play it a little bit more.
I was in a car accident when I was doing the David Frost show, so it messed up my back. Any time I was playing the string bass, I had to stop playing because the muscles in my back would tighten up. I still had to work and I still wanted to play, so I said, “Okay, I’ll play the electric.”
But I know that the jazz guys don’t dig the electric, so I gotta make it sound and I gotta make it feel like I’m playing the string bass, because I’m not looking for them to change, so I gotta make it more inviting for them to want to sit down. I know if I bring this in and somebody’s playing this, they’re gonna hear this. There’s no doubt about it. I did the same thing with Sonny. When I started to play the electric with Sonny, he could hear it. Not that he wanted it more. I’m playing the same notes I want to play. I never thought about it. Same thing I’m gonna play here, I’m gonna play here. No different. I didn’t make a difference in my mind. I didn’t go through that. I just wanted it to sound more like a string bass and that’s what I played.
EI: I think you did a remarkable job because it really has the real jazz feel on electric bass, and that’s very rare, as you must know.
BC: Yeah, but that’s the only thing I know [laughs]. It couldn’t be any other way because I don’t know anything else. Again, I didn’t do a head job on me. I knew that it was uncomfortable for guys. I didn’t want to fight them, so I gotta make it as inviting to them as I can. That was the deal.
Sometimes, when I go watch other string bass players, sometimes I hear it and sometimes I can’t hear it. You’re going to hear this electric bass all the time. That was one of the things that I enjoyed about playing it.
EI: Thanks for your time, Bob, and for all this wonderful music your selfless groove helped made happen.