November 5, 2016
Bassist Bob Cranshaw passed on November 2, 2016. He followed the musical path of his idol, Milt Hinton. Milt believed that the bass and the drums provided a “rhythmic service” and Bob lived that philosophy, whether he was playing behind Ella Fitzgerald or Big Bird. Yes, Bob did play behind Big Bird on “Sesame Street” for 27 years. At the same time he was playing with Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, Wes Montgomery, Ella Fitzgerald, or Joe Williams. A steady, hip day gig combined with jazz work at night was heaven for Bob, or as he aptly stated, “I had my cake and ate it too.”
In the Fillius Jazz Archive interview with Bob in 1995, he related his first gig with Sonny Rollins, which occurred when he was 27 years old:
BC: I worked with Sonny, starting I think in 1959 or ‘60. I met Sonny before around Chicago, but I never worked with him. And one day Sonny heard Walter Perkins the drummer and I, who, we came as a package you know. And one day Sonny was doing the Playboy [Jazz] Festival, and he asked Walter Perkins to do it and he said, “Walter, get the bass player who you would like.” So I was hired. We played the festival, it was really a very funny situation ‘cause it was in the afternoon on a Sunday. Sonny Rollins told us to be there I think the concert maybe started at one o’clock or two, I think about two. Sonny said well be there, ready to play at one. I get there, and we don’t see no Sonny. Two o’clock comes, the concert starts, the first group plays, 15, 20 minutes. The second group, 15 or 20 minutes. The third group was a Dixieland band. And we were the fourth group to go on. The Dixieland band played 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour. They’re waiting now for Sonny to come in. The Dixieland band played I think for at least 40 minutes. By that time people were wiped out with hearing the band. They were looking now, they were ready to hear Sonny. Still no Sonny. Come to find out when the people started to really get tired, all of a sudden Sonny comes out. Sonny had probably been in the auditorium since eleven o’clock, just casing everything. But he picked his time to come out. And we just tore the place up. And it was just a trio. Just bass, drums and saxophone. No rehearsal, we just played. And it was a wonderful experience.
When Sonny entered an experimental phase of his career, Bob opted to return to more basic music as an accompanist for singer Joe Williams. As a bonus he was able to watch Joe in the recording studio, where Joe’s bassist of choice was Milt Hinton. Like hundreds of other bassists, he learned music and life lessons from Milt, who was called the “Dean of Jazz Bassists.”
BC: I grew up on Joe Williams. I mean I can say as a young guy, I was young at that time and it was just right for me. Because Joe’s stuff was very structured. But he was such a professional. We would get on the stage and we were swinging. I mean the music felt so good. Every night it was just very consistent. And the trio was Junior Mance and Mickey Roker. And we had a good time with each other but it was a thrill to play with Joe Williams because I just grew up. I mean I became a man with Joe Williams. He gave me that foundation you know and how to greet people, how to be, and not only that he introduced me to some of the most influential people in my life. One was Milt Hinton. Joe Williams did a lot of recordings with Milt Hinton and Jimmy Jones or Hank Jones and Osie Johnson. And I got a chance to sit and just watch these people. Any record date he had I was there. But any time Milt Hinton would record I would follow him around like a puppy. If Milt Hinton had a date, I just wanted to see how Milt Hinton and George Duvivier, how they approached music. And I would ask questions with Joe if they played something. I knew that after they finished recording it, I was going to have to play it. Because this is what we would do in our performances. So it was like catching first hand the master play it, and then I could branch off of what they were playing because they might have used a larger group maybe with horns, where when we got ready to play it we had to do it with a trio. But I was there. I wanted to understand everything about that tune and what I could do. And I would ask Milt Hinton, why did you play this there, well why did you play this F here as opposed to playing it there, what did you hear here. I wanted to know everything that Milt Hinton was doing. And I became, I feel like I’m a Milt Hinton clone in a way, because I enjoy watching Milt, how he carried himself and what a gentleman he is, and how great, I used to walk in and I’d be sitting at a record date, and I’d be like kind of hiding. I just didn’t want to bug him. And I would wait until he came in. And it could be a record date with 50 musicians. When Milt Hinton walked in the door, you felt an energy, you know, it was something like a storm just hit the place. And I enjoyed that feeling. So I said this is what I would like to be. This is the way I would like to carry myself. This is what I would like to become.
Like many jazz musicians, Bob Cranshaw credits the upbeat music that occurred in black churches as part of his early development.
BC: I would just go to different churches in Evanston and I would go to the basement. I wouldn’t go upstairs. I just wanted to hear what was the interplay between what happened with the music, and what rhythms that people had in their feet, and all of that. It would feel like that the roof, you know feel like the floor was going to cave in, ‘cause there was such a great feeling, great energy. And I think as a musician, I’m more drawn to a band with this kind of energy.
Bob achieved his goals as a first call musician and mentor to the next generation of bassists. He eventually arrived at a place where he could pass work on to younger musicians, and played an important role in the musicians’ union, making sure studio and Broadway musicians were getting a fair deal.
In a wonderful bit of serendipity, the Fillius Jazz Archive played a role in a CD release that captured the quartet Bob mentioned here. After Joe Williams’ death in 1999, the Archive took ownership of a trove of reed to reel tapes from Joe’s career. The CD “Havin’ a Good Time” was released on Hyena Records in 2005. The live date, from 1964, captured Joe Williams and Ben Webster, backed up by Mickey Roker, Junior Mance and Bob.
As far as his playing, he pretty much summed it up when he said, “My job is to set up the groove, the pocket. I don’t have to solo. I never made myself a soloist or got into all of that. I never wanted to be a big deal, but if it felt good I was a big deal.”