His resonant tone and perfect time made Al McKibbon one of the great bassists of the early Bebop era. He provided support for Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and Thelonious Monk at crucial points in their careers, and worked for each of them throughout his career.
Monk was the pianist in Hawkins's band of 1945 when McKibbon joined:
I went to visit 52nd Street with a friend and Coleman Hawkins, opening at the Downbeat that night, didn't have a bass player. Big Sid Catlett suggested I should put myself forward. "I don't know Hawk and I don't have a bass." But I borrowed a bass and played. So he gave me the job. Miles Davis used to come in and sit on the stand with his trumpet. But he'd never play. He just came in to listen to us play and watch what Monk was doing.
McKibbon played on some of Monk's earliest recordings and later worked with him at Minton's Playhouse, famed as the birthplace of Bebop. He was also the bassist on Monk's last album, made in 1971. At that time the two men toured with the Giants of Jazz, and McKibbon experienced more of the pianist's eccentricities:
In Tokyo we were having suits made, because they do it so fast and all that. Monk had his measured lying in bed. He wouldn't get up for them.
On that tour Monk said about two words. I mean literally maybe two words. He didn't say "Good morning", "Goodnight", "What time?" Nothing. Why, I don't know. He sent word back after the tour was over that the reason he couldn't communicate or play was that Art Blakey and I were so ugly.
Gillespie and McKibbon played a remarkable 11-minute version of "Tin Tin Deo" when the Giants of Jazz played at the Victoria Theatre in London in November 1971. Perhaps the resonance of McKibbon's playing was due to the fact that he played a bass made by Jacob Steiner, the "German Stradivarius", in 1650. But the Steiner was acquired in later life.
McKibbon, whose father played tuba and guitar and whose mother recorded on piano rolls, studied bass and piano at High School in Detroit and began his career playing in local bands. He joined Lucky Millinder's band when it passed through Detroit in 1943 and travelled with it to New York, where he settled. He made his first recordings with Millinder's band, which included several embryo jazz stars. After a year with Tab Smith's group, he joined Coleman Hawkins in October 1945. It must have been due to Hawkins that he gained a place on one of two of the first tours by the Jazz at the Philharmonic, unit in 1945 and 1947 that included Buck Clayton, Hawkins and Lester Young.
In 1947 Dizzy Gillespie's band was on tour with Ella Fitzgerald, by then a big star. The affluent singer began the affair with the band's bassist Ray Brown that was to lead to their marriage. "It was, I think, bad for the band for me to show up in a $400 suit and a big Cadillac and the guys are making $67 a week," Brown told Alyn Shipton. Gillespie had to fire him and, at a time when Gillespie was making history, McKibbon became Brown's replacement.
The Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo had just begun working with Gillespie and McKibbon became his room mate on tour:
We basically spoke pidgin English to communicate but we understood each other primarily through our music. We had no idea we were creating anything new other than just a union of jazz with Pozo's Conga drum. We were not thinking of it as some new genre being invented.
In fact it was the birth of Afro-Cuban jazz, and McKibbon was to stay involved in Latin music for the rest of his career. He played the famous call to arms that opens Gillespie's recording of "Manteca" (the exotic title is in fact the Spanish for "lard"). "Dizzy upset the jazz world with the recording of 'Manteca', but I realize that my entire career in Latin music grew from that date," said McKibbon. "I began to feel that the Cubans were as close as you could come to African culture because they still practised the roots of our music," he said. A string of Latin-inspired recordings with Gillespie followed, including the style-setting "Cubano Be", "Cubano Bop" and " Guarachi Guaro".
After the Gillespie band broke up in 1949 McKibbon freelanced and recorded on the famous "Birth of the Cool" sessions with Miles Davis in 1950. He worked briefly for Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Earl Hines and Johnny Hodges before joining the George Shearing Quintet in 1951. Shearing too was pushing forward in Afro-Cuban jazz and McKibbon further developed his expertise with Latin rhythms.
"Al was laying down as fine a Latin bass line as anyone ever has," said Shearing. "I never had to write a bass part for Al on those Latin numbers." His seven years in the Shearing Quintet were followed by a year in the band of Cal Tjader, another exponent of the genre.
McKibbon settled in Los Angeles and spent most of the Sixties working there in the studios and freelancing. He switched easily between Latin and jazz groups and spent much of his time working on television and recording jingles. In 1992 he travelled to the middle of the Mojave Desert to record with a symphony orchestra playing Beethoven's Ninth amongst the sand dunes. The orchestra stood, in tuxedos, in 120-degree heat during the three days of filming.
McKibbon made his first recording as a leader with the album Tumbao para los congueros di mi vida when he was 80. Typically it mixed jazz with Cuban music.
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