Jimmy Woode

Prodigious Duke Ellington bassist
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The Independent Online

Although he was out by more than half a century Duke Ellington liked to say, "I was born at the Newport Jazz Festival on 7 July 1956." Jimmy Woode, one of the best of Ellington's succession of prodigious bassists, and Sam Woodyard on drums made up the Ellington band's rhythm section in what had begun as a routine performance. It changed into one of the most extraordinary musical eruptions ever seen at Newport when the rhythm section drove the tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves in an unstoppable performance of 27 improvised choruses on Ellington's "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue".

James Bryant Woode, bassist: born Philadelphia 23 September 1926 (or 1927); married (one daughter); died Lindenwold, New Jersey 23 April 2005.

Although he was out by more than half a century Duke Ellington liked to say, "I was born at the Newport Jazz Festival on 7 July 1956." Jimmy Woode, one of the best of Ellington's succession of prodigious bassists, and Sam Woodyard on drums made up the Ellington band's rhythm section in what had begun as a routine performance. It changed into one of the most extraordinary musical eruptions ever seen at Newport when the rhythm section drove the tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves in an unstoppable performance of 27 improvised choruses on Ellington's "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue".

The audience broiled with enthusiasm. "Within an hour," wrote George Avakian, critics and reporters were buzzing about it. By next morning it was generally conceded to have been one of the most exciting performances ever heard at Newport.

Ellington's flagging career was uplifted and with it Jimmy Woode, his right hand man in the band.

"Jimmy Woode joined us in Boston in 1955 because our regular bassist was sick," said Ellington:

Good bass player, I thought, reading or faking. Then I became aware of his sensitivity. No matter which way we turned melodically or harmonically Jimmy Woode was right on top of it.

Ellington gave Woode the permanent job in late 1955 and the bassist stayed with him through thick and thin until April 1960. "I remember we were in Savannah, Georgia," recalled Woode:

I don't know why we were rehearsing because the band seldom rehearsed, and the police came in and said "You, you, you and you, out!" Off the bandstand. They were white or light - Dave Black was the drummer. A very plush, beautiful club - in fact it was called The Savannah. And Dave was the only white, but there were three blacks that were very light. What can you do?

He was a remarkably skilful player, matched only in his European days by his fellow bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen.

As a teenager Woode studied piano and bass in Boston at Boston University and at the Conservatory of Music and at the Philadelphia Academy. When he was discharged in 1946 after a year in the US Navy he formed a small group in which he played piano. He then concentrated on bass, but occasionally reverted to piano when called upon. He toured with Flip Phillips in 1949 and on his return from a working trip to Sweden in 1950 he accompanied Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. In Boston he worked with the pianist Nat Pierce and then became house bassist at George Wein's Storyville Jazz Club, where he recorded with Sidney Bechet and Billie Holiday in 1953. Before joining Ellington in 1955 he formed a duo with the pianist Jaki Byard for a time and played for Miles Davis.

Leaving Ellington in April 1960, he moved to Sweden, where he became a founder member of the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland band. He moved again to Cologne, where the band was based, in 1964, and later to the Netherlands and, in 1975, to Munich. He built up his reputation with the band until it disbanded in 1973 and also worked long hours in the radio and television studios. He ran his own music publishing company and found regular work accompanying visiting American stars.

In the Eighties he lived in Vienna and then Berne. He was a member of the Paris Reunion Band and was in demand for Ellington conventions all over the world, including one at Oldham in 1988. On a rare working visit to the United States in 1995, he toured with Lionel Hampton's Golden Men of Jazz. He made a 70th (actually 71st or 72nd) birthday tour of Europe in 1998 with a quintet that included his daughter, the singer Shawnn Monteiro.

Confusion surrounds Woode's early years. He never had a birth certificate and his older sisters couldn't agree on whether he was born in 1926 or 1927. His father, also Jimmy Woode, a music teacher and pianist, came to Europe in 1947 with the trumpeter Hot Lips Page and settled in Sweden, playing there for many years. Woode junior followed his father from the US to Sweden, and the two men caused regular confusion amongst jazz historians.

Steve Voce

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