Back to the Bass

Dallas-born Harry Babasin was one of jazz's great bass players--and is one of its most forgotten pioneers

There he stands, the anonymous man bookended by two legends, two gods, two immortals. On his right is the man called Bird, with eyes shut and lips clasped around the reed of his alto sax; even in an old photo, you can hear his horn honking, squealing, bleating, blaring. On his left is Chet Baker, the forever-beautiful trumpet player who looked like James Dean and played like Gabriel. Chet is young in that picture, just beginning to make a name on the West Coast jazz scene. In that photo, he is just another kid, another comer; soon enough, they would know his name, his face, his whispered melodies. But just who is that guy in the middle--the would-be accountant, the bespectacled nobody, the dude who looks like he just walked up from the audience to take a drink order?

"A lot of people wonder who he is," says the son of the man in that picture. "But they have no way of finding out his name. Nobody mentions him. Ever." The son laughs as he often does when talking about why his father isn't famous, even though he probably ought to be. Or, if not famous, at least not forgotten.

The son's name is Von Babasin. His father's name was Harry Babasin, and he was a jazz bassist for some 50 years, before his death in 1988 from emphysema. Actually, the Dallas-born Babasin wasn't just abassist, some hump schlepping his instrument from gig to gig, checking his watch and working on the clock. The man they called "The Bear" wasn't some nobody slapping his shit in the shadow of towering giants. Harry Babasin played with the famous and the beloved. He was their peer, their bandmate, their friend. And, if one is to believe the calendar, he played bossa nova when it was still an infant, not a craze credited to Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto, and Antonio Carlos Jobim when the three released Getz/Gilbertoin 1963. Babasin played on and contributed a song ("Noctambulism") to guitarist Laurindo Almeida's Brazilliance Vol. 1--recorded a full decade earlier. Babasin also was the first jazzer to solo on the cello--not a small claim to fame, especially if you know who Oscar Pettiford is.

Harry Babasin, The Bear, has been written out of jazz's history books, but his son is trying to fill in the blanks.
Harry Babasin, The Bear, has been written out of jazz's history books, but his son is trying to fill in the blanks.
Babasin booked the Trade Winds, a suburban L.A. club in 1952. Among his guests were Shorty Rogers (on trumpet), Shelley Manne (drums), and Marty Paich (piano).
Babasin booked the Trade Winds, a suburban L.A. club in 1952. Among his guests were Shorty Rogers (on trumpet), Shelley Manne (drums), and Marty Paich (piano).

Babasin's résumé is filled with the names of men and women who fill pages and pages of the history books. Poor Harry barely warrants a sentence, if he's that lucky. He toured and recorded with the likes of Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Mel Torme, Charlie Barnet, Gene Krupa, Billy Eckstine, Peggy Lee, Dinah Shore, June Christy, and, yeah, Charlie Parker and Chet Baker. The night that photo was taken, June 16, 1952, the two of them were guests in hisclub, the Trade Winds in Inglewood, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. The two of them needed a place to play, and they called Harry. Once, a long time ago, everybody did.

But history has treated Harry Babasin poorly. It has erased him from its memory. In his early jazz encyclopedias, influential critic Leonard Feather gave Babasin a good chunk of space; later, his entry would shrink to the size of a postage stamp--a few words, scant biographical information, little else. It's a hell of a way to treat a "pioneer," as Feather referred to Babasin. But it's to be expected, perhaps: Von Babasin says his father once told Feather, during his playing days, that he wasn't very good. Von believes Feather got his revenge by writing his dad out of jazz's past. But he wasn't the first or last: According to Von, his father produced Julie London's enormous hit "Cry Me a River," but received neither credit nor payment. It was as though he was never there.

Von, himself a 45-year-old jazzer living in Studio City, California, has made it his life's mission to correct that: He has posted a biography of his father to a Web site (www.onoffon.com/harrythebear.html), and only last week, Von sent an e-mail to Casey Monahan, director of the Texas Music Office, hoping to rectify an injustice. The TMO has long listed Harry Babasin as a Texas-born musical pioneer, without mentioning who he was or what he accomplished in his lifetime.

Two years ago, Von also oversaw the release of a three-disc boxed set, The Complete Nocturne Recordings, commemorating the label his father started and owned in the mid-1950s. But it still is an incomplete collection: Von estimates there are more than 500 hours of unreleased music still sitting on the shelf, begging to be restored, remastered, and released. But he can ill afford such a venture: There exists on the market only a handful of his father's recordings, and Von and his mother receive royalty checks barely worth the paper on which they are printed. He did not know till last week that the English label Charly Records rereleased in 1996 the CD "Live" at the Trade Winds, featuring his father with Parker and Baker. And there are labels in Europe and Japan that have released Harry Babasin material, without paying up.

Still, bit by bit, Von and his mother, Barbara, chisel away at history's ignorance of Harry Babasin.

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