Playing the bass in a jazz group is often a thankless, almost anonymous job. Carson Smith leapt to fame in the Fifties on the coat tails of the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. He was a key member of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in 1952, and no doubt learnt a lot about composition and arranging from the leader. Because Mulligan was unique in choosing to abandon the piano, the role of the double bass became crucial in supporting the front line, which consisted of his baritone and the trumpet of Chet Baker.
There will always be discussion over whether or not Gerry Mulligan's self-esteem was justified by his enormous contribution to jazz. Even before the succes fou of the quartet he had been unusually arrogant. He hired and fired sidemen with ruthless efficiency and was not averse to taking revenge. When the drummer Frank Isola resigned from his group in Los Angeles to join Stan Getz, Mulligan left the city and drove off for the East with Isola's drum kit still in the boot of his car.
Mulligan was cavalier about rewriting jazz history when it suited him. "Carson Smith was the original bass player," he said of the quartet. In fact Bob Whitlock had preceded Smith in the band by a number of months.
By the time Smith took over from Whitlock the band had already enjoyed huge success with "Bernie's Tune", one of the first jazz records to be a hit with record buyers at large. "Bernie's Tune" also established West Coast jazz in the public eye as a distinct style.
The quartet followed up with other successful originals, but Smith was responsible for creating its next biggest hit. "Being an arranger, a lot of the good ideas in the early quartet were Carson's," said Mulligan. "The idea of doing `My Funny Valentine' with that moving bass line that makes the arrangement was his." "My Funny Valentine" was unique in using the members of the quartet to sing a cappella behind Chet Baker's trumpet.
At the height of the quartet's success, Mulligan was imprisoned at the Sheriff's Honor Farm for three months for drug offences, and Stan Getz replaced him temporarily in the quartet. But there had been difficulties over money. Following the success of "My Funny Valentine" Baker was now a star in his own right. Mulligan refused to give him any more money and the trumpeter left in 1953 to form his own quartet, taking Carson Smith with him.
Baker had severe narcotics problems which dominated his whole life, and his quartet was made stable by its pianist Russ Freeman. But when Baker decided to take the band to Europe in 1955 Freeman and Smith thought the time had come to leave, and they stayed in Los Angeles where they formed a trio.
Whilst with Baker Smith also took on freelance jobs, and one of them in 1954 gave him the opportunity to record with Clifford Brown, one of the most gifted of all the jazz trumpeters. Less than a year later Brown was killed in a car accident at the age of 25. Smith also recorded with Charlie Parker and played with Billie Holiday in her Carnegie Hall concert of 1956. Smith was particularly proud of an album which he recorded with Harpo Marx during this period.
Chico Hamilton had been the original drummer in Mulligan's quartet and in 1955 he asked Carson Smith to join his extraordinary and radical quintet. Mulligan had started a fashion for what might be described as chamber music jazz, and Hamilton followed it up with a vengeance. His quintet consisted of a flautist who doubled on saxophone, cello, guitar, double bass and drums. The music lacked the cutting edge of most jazz, but this gave it an appeal to listeners to classical music. Fred Katz was a conventional cellist and a key member of the group with whom Smith worked very closely. The gentle music which resulted didn't have the success that Mulligan's had had, but none the less it became very popular and the band recorded the soundtrack music for the film The Sweet Smell of Success (1957).
Smith left Hamilton the same year to freelance in Los Angeles, although he returned to the quintet on occasion and recorded with it in 1959. That same year he toured and recorded with Stan Kenton Orchestra, and then joined Charlie Barnet's band.
In 1962 Smith moved to Las Vegas, where the casinos were providing plentiful work for jazz musicians. He joined the sextet led by the trumpeter Charlie Teagarden at the Silver Slipper, which also included the eminent trombonist Bill Harris. The band recorded in 1962 and in 1963 made an album with the vibraphone player Lionel Hampton, who was working at a nearby casino.
In 1964, after touring Japan with the George Auld Orchestra, Carson Smith was reunited with Gerry Mulligan for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. After working with small groups for almost 20 years Buddy Rich relaunched his big band, tagged the Swingin' New Band, in September 1966. Smith was the bassist and played on the remarkable first album which the band recorded live at the Chez Club in Hollywood. The album recharged Rich's career but Smith soon returned to freelancing.
Carson Smith had taken up the bass in junior high school when he was 13. His time and choice of notes marked him as a great player and by the time of his heyday in the Fifties he was one of the best soloists on the instrument. But he was also notable for his sensitive accompaniment work and was a master of the "walking" bass style. He continued to freelance in Las Vegas until shortly before he died.