Back to the Bass

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

"It does hurt," Von says of the lack of recognition accorded his father. "The family kinda laughs about it, because we have to, but when I see these books and Stan Getz and Jobim credited for the bossa nova when Dad and Laurindo met in 1953 and experimented with that then. It's frustrating. Everyone thinks Oscar Pettiford was the first to play pizzicato jazz cello. I don't want to feel like I'm trying to steal other people's accomplishments. They were all talented people, and who was the first one to pick up the cello is neither here nor there. But I just want to get him mentioned."

On March 19, 1921, Harry Babasin was born in Dallas only because his mother wanted to have her son in a "classy hospital," Babasin told International Musicianin 1982. Harry's father, Yervant Harry Babasinian, was an Armenian immigrant who had come to Texas in 1915. Soon after arriving, he met Minnette Turner, a music teacher from Vernon, where the family lived. She taught her boy how to play: Harry picked up bassoon, cello, piano, bass, even tuba during his short stint at Texas A&M during the late 1930s. He once told an interviewer he "was a bandleader's dream because I could read music."

After A&M, he enrolled at what was then called North Texas Teachers College in Denton, which is now the University of North Texas. There, he fell in with the jazzers: Herb Ellis, a guitarist out of Farmersville; Dallas-born sax player Jimmy Giuffre, who would go on to join Woody Herman's band in 1949; and Gene Rolands, a Dallas-born multi-instrumentalist and composer whose own résumé includes stints with Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Zoot Simms, and Stan Getz. "We were among the best musicians on campus," Babasin told International Musician, without a trace of humility. Babasin and Ellis left North Texas together: The two had gone to Fort Worth for a performance by the Charlie Fisk Orchestra and told the bandleader they were better than anyone else in the band. Their arrogance was not unwarranted: Babasin and Ellis got jobs with Fisk. But their tenure was short-lived. The band folded three months later, in the middle of the Midwest nowhere.

In 1948, Babasin appeared in Howard Hawks' film A Song is Born. He's behind actress Virginia Mayo, and Mel Powell's at the piano.
In 1948, Babasin appeared in Howard Hawks' film A Song is Born. He's behind actress Virginia Mayo, and Mel Powell's at the piano.
On June 16, 1952, Charlie Parker and Chet Baker played the Trade Winds nightclub with Babasin on bass.
On June 16, 1952, Charlie Parker and Chet Baker played the Trade Winds nightclub with Babasin on bass.

Babasin latched on with the Jimmy Joy Orchestra, a dance band based out of Chicago. But he was itching to escape the Midwest, and he seized his opportunity to move to New York by hooking up with the Bob Strong Orchestra. The move to Manhattan proved monumental: With war raging in Europe, there was a scarcity of bassists, and Babasin had his pick of jobs. He eventually got work with Boyd Raeburn, female trumpet player Billy Rogers, the Dardanelle Trio, and Johnny Richards' band.

It was during his stint with Richards that Babasin met drummer Roy Harte, who would later go on to play on such hits as Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" and Ella Mae Morse's "Cow Cow Boogie." The two became inseparable: When one guy got a job with a band, he demanded the other be hired on as well. By 1946, they both landed in Los Angeles: Babasin had gone out with Benny Goodman's band; Harte, with Lucky Millinder's band, which swung so hard just listening to it could throw out a man's back.

"We couldn't go further without getting wet," Harte says from his office in Los Angeles. "We liked the weather. We'd had enough of snow. We were great friends from the moment we met. He had the musical genius that astounded me, and I had the patience of Job. That was his phrase. He had a Texas temper and temperament, and I overlooked it. A lot of people didn't. One reason why we didn't get well-known was that Harry spoke his mind, and it got in the way. I was just afraid of this big, bear-like guy. He could knock you over with a breath."

Babasin recorded a great deal with his old boss Boyd Raeburn (a 1946 L.A. recording of "Dalvatore Sally" appears on the boxed set Big Band Renaissance, issued in 1995 by the Smithsonian Institute) and Goodman, after the bandleader left Columbia Records for Capitol. As the bassist told International Musician, Goodman was often in the studio once he moved to L.A., trying to build an extensive library for his new label. A year after moving to Hollywood, Babasin met Dodo Marmarosa, one of the greatest pianists of the bop era; he recorded with the likes of Parker (during his legendary Dial period) and Lester Young. In 1947, Babasin joined Marmarosa's trio--but as cellist, not as bassist. He had gotten the idea from Charlie Barnet, who heard him toy with a prop cello on the set of a movie the two were filming. It stuck, and Babasin was the first man to record cello solos in a jazz setting.

"During the ensuing years, while very busy as a bassist in the Hollywood studios, I continued picking the cello in hobby and at sessions," Babasin wrote in the July 10, 1958, issue of Downbeat, "becoming more and more convinced of the possibilities of the pizzicato cello as a jazz solo voice." In 1953, he and Pettiford--Babasin's "long-time friend and idol," he wrote--even recorded some cello duets, which were eventually released on Imperial Records. They are impossible to find today. By the mid-1950s, Babasin would form a band built around nothing but cello, guitar, and bass (and, later, drums); he called his band the Jazzpickers, and he was Chief Jazzpicker.

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