Miles Kington: I used to think my hero could do everything

Even though he wasn't American, and he wasn't black, he was the best bass player anywhere in jazz
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The Independent Online

I had a strange conversation once with a man in a jazz record shop, in the Portobello Road, about his hero, Dexter Gordon.

I had a strange conversation once with a man in a jazz record shop, in the Portobello Road, about his hero, Dexter Gordon.

Dexter Gordon was a tenor saxophonist from America, a very handsome man about six foot five inches tall, who had been very famous in the 1940s and was again in the 1980s when he starred as an actor in 'Round Midnight, getting an Oscar nomination for his role, before he died in 1990. It wasn't his acting that entranced the man I met in the shop, though, or even perhaps his music, so much as the whole Dexter Gordon image.

"I have very strange feelings about Dexter Gordon," he said. "It's not quite that he is a father figure, though it's something like that. I just have a vision that if he opened his big coat and wrapped me in it, I would be safer there than anywhere else in the world. Do you know what I mean?"

I sort of knew what he meant. Dexter was indeed a big man and had a wonderful all-encompassing smile. On the other hand (and I couldn't say this to my chance encounter) I never liked his playing that much. He always phrased behind the beat in a lazy kind of way, which some found enchanting and I found dragging and annoying. Others found his tone like rich chocolate, but I found it muddy.

"Yes," I said, nevertheless. "I know exactly what you mean."

And I did in a curious way, because I have seen people go the same way over other musicians. Bob Dylan, for instance, whom again I don't really care for.

But now the same sort of thing has happened to me. There was a musician who died the other day who meant that much to me. His name was Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, he was Danish and he played the double bass. I play the double bass a bit, enough to realise that NHOP (as people called him for short) was as far ahead of me as space rockets are ahead of scooters. Even though he wasn't American, and he wasn't black, he was the best bass player anywhere in jazz, and when I heard that he had died I had to gasp for breath.

The thing about Pedersen was not just that he was so fast, and swung so much, but that he made the bass sound so much better than everyone else. He made it sound woody, and rich, and deep, and natural. When he played high, he hit every note dead on, and he made it sing like a cello. The man who was the best bass player in the world before him, Ray Brown, used to play with the Oscar Peterson Trio, and when he left this awesome group he told Peterson that he had to hire Pedersen to replace him, because he was the only man in the world who could keep up with him. I saw the trio in action once, and he was right, except that it was as much a question of Oscar trying to keep pace with Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen as anything.

When jazz bass players have to pluck very fast, they use not just the normal plucking finger but the one next to it as well, alternating them for speed. Pedersen trained himself to use all four fingers of his right hand, so that he could play twice as fast again, and pluck as fast as a flamenco guitarist if he had to.

And yet he could play slow and simple and still sound the best in the world. There is a wonderful CD of duets on the Norwegian Gemini label called Elegies, Mostly, between Pedersen and American pianist Dick Hyman, on which at one point they play a Chopin waltz, hinting at it, playing with it, improvising on it, in such a gentle and affectionate manner that I cannot imagine anyone not falling in love with it.

Pedersen was a big bearded Viking of a man, and he once made a record with the brilliant pianist Michel Petrucciani, who had a brittle bone disease and was barely four foot high. I am listening to it now, as I write, and I am thinking what a miracle it was that both jazz musicians were so wonderful, despite being mere Europeans, and I am thinking what great music it is, but above all I am thinking what a waste it was for both of them to die so young, Petrucciani in his 30s and Pedersen at 58. Whenever I listened to Pedersen's masterly and masterful bass playing, I used to think he could do everything he wanted to. Except, it now seems, cheat death.