Back to the Bass

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

Released in 1948, director Howard Hawks' screwball comedy-cum-musical A Song is Born, featured a host of jazz all-stars alongside stars Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. Babasin appeared along with Goodman, Barnet, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet, and myriad other jazz all-stars. The movie was perhaps the most significant event of Babasin's life: Not only had he picked up the cello at Barnet's insistence, but he also met the Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida, with whom he would cut the first bossa nova recordings a few years later. Almeida was, at the time, nothing but an extra. But by 1962, Downbeatwas referring to Babasin and Almeida as the fathers of bossa nova--the first men to experiment with grafting "the Brazilian baiao rhythm and modern jazz." The magazine called the music Babasin's "brainchild."

But that was a few years off--after the studio gigs, the TV work, the movies. In Hollywood, Babasin started picking up studio work, backing up the likes of Dinah Shore, Frank DeVol (who made his name composing themes for such television shows as The Brady Bunchand My Three Sons), and Mel Torme. (One dynamite 1949 recording with Torme, "The Four Winds and the Seven Seas," can be found on Rhino Records' 1996 The Mel Torme Collectionboxed set.) By the early 1950s, Babasin began running regular jam sessions at the Trade Winds, described in Ted Gioia's book West Coast Jazzas "a fairly undistinguished suburban nightspot with a pseudo-Polynesian décor."

Everyone stopped at the Trade Winds; it became the West Coast Birdland, a home-away-from for the boys from New York City. Drummer Bob Andrews was wise enough to record as many of the gigs as possible. Without him, there would be no document of the night of June 16, 1952, when Charlie Parker and Chet Baker stopped in. Released finally in 1991, the "Live" at the Trade WindsCD (also known as Inglewood Jam, depending upon the label), is a thrilling listen--the sound of legends and soon-to-be heroes flying without a net, playing only for themselves.

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).

"When we first met Bird, we were working club dates in New York," Roy Harte says. "Charlie was at the Downbeat on 52nd Street, Diz was playing with Bird, and we got to sit in. They liked us. We were two young white fellas that played a little black. It was very exciting. Those guys came into town and changed everything. At the Trade Winds, Harry had the job of hosting the jam sessions every Monday night. It was their slowest day, and he picked the men to play. All our friends that were traveling didn't have a place to play, so they called us, and we told them they could play. We tried to tape it as much as possible, which is how the "Live" at the Trade Winds CD came about. It was exciting. It was Chettie Baker's first job. I mean, on that album with Charlie Parker, that's his first record! Many other firsts happened out of the Trade Winds, and that was all Harry's doing. He was quite a force in Hollywood jazz."

In June 1952, Roy Harte and partner Remo Belli, another drummer, opened Drum City on Santa Monica Boulevard; out of that space, he also ran his own label, Pacific Jazz, and gave office space to the West Coast editor of Downbeatmagazine. Two years later, Harte and old pal Babasin formed their own label, Nocturne Records: Harte ran the business, while Babasin was the label's musical director (he would appear on most of the label's recordings).

Babasin told Down Beatthat year that a "new school of jazz" had taken hold in Hollywood, and he wanted to record his friends--capture their magic, before it evaporated like the morning fog that rolled in from Santa Monica. He gave albums to men who had never before been bandleaders--among them trombonist Herbie Harper, flautist and sax player Bud Shank, horn player Bob Enevoldsen, and pianist Jimmy Rowles--and he allowed them the ultimate freedom: Record what you want, and own what you record. Nocturne would release the albums as part of its "Jazz in Hollywood" series, but the artists had control of the masters. Such an arrangement was almost unheard of at the time. And such an arrangement killed Nocturne: The label lasted only one year. Babasin declared bankruptcy, sold his home in the Hollywood Hills, and moved to the suburbs.

"But still Harry and I kept recording, even though it didn't get released," Harte says. "What you get on that Nocturne Recordingspackage is what was released, and the rest is still on the shelves. We had more fun playing it and recording it than we did releasing it. It was too much trouble dealing with the major companies."

Babasin kept working throughout the 1950s--recording and releasing one album with the Jazzpickers, which has been reissued on CD, though actually attaining a copy is damned near impossible--and the 1960s, but his heyday had come and gone. Rock and roll was all the rage on the West Coast; jazzers, especially those who had come of age during the eras of swing and bop, were left to sink in the La Brea Tar Pits, with all the other dinosaurs. In 1974, Babasin found a new home as director of the Los Angeles Theaseum and its Jazz Chronicles workshop, a non-profit archive of West Coast jazz history, Von explains. Babasin wouldn't play much after that; instead, he tried to cajole old jazzers out of retirement while using National Endowment for the Arts grants to clean up vestigial jazz recordings that were beginning to crumble into dust.

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