There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.
This is probably Duke Ellington‘s most famous quote. He also said,
If it sounds good and feels good, then it IS good!
Although my favourite is:
By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was an American composer, pianist, and big band leader who wrote more than 1,000 compositions. In the words of Bob Blumenthal of The Boston Globe,
In the century since his birth, there has been no greater composer, American or otherwise, than Edward Kennedy Ellington.
The history of jazz is a relatively recent one, and Duke Ellington‘s quote about there being only two kinds of music is as true today as it ever was — for every musical genre. Throughout 20th-century jazz, classical and popular music followed their own paths, each influencing the other, and the history of the jazz double bass and its players is as interesting as in the classical world. Many double bassists over the years have developed and influenced today’s jazz playing styles, and one name, known particularly by jazz aficionados, is Eddie Safranski. Pittsburg Music History describes him as…
…one of the most influential and famous bass players in jazz history. He was voted the world’s number 1 bass player in the reader’s polls of Downbeat and Metronome magazine for eight years running from 1946 to 1953. Safranski was a featured soloist with the bands of Stan Kenton, Charlie Barnett and Benny Goodman An innovator he introduced the world to electrified bass as the first to use a stand up bass pickup and bass amplifier. He was fluent in swing, progressive jazz, and bebop.
Edward Safranski was born on December 25, 1918, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and began studying violin at the age of 8. In high school, he changed to double bass and began playing professionally in 1937 at the age of 19 in Pittsburgh with Marty Gregor‘s orchestra. Later that year, he became a member of Herman Middleman‘s orchestra, appearing with them into 1939, wrote arrangements for Artie Shaw‘s band, and toured with Wanda’s Escorts in 1939 and 1940.
From about 1940, Safranski’s bass playing was greatly influenced by the innovations of Duke Ellington’s bassist Jimmy Blanton. Pittsburg Music History states,
Prior to Blanton the double bass was used to play primarily straight on the beat quarter notes. Blanton plucked pizzicato eighth and sixteenth-note runs and introduced completely new melodic and harmonic themes.
Allmusic Guide reports,
Blanton’s bass could dance freely around the band and phrase like a horn.
He was the first true master of jazz bass who turned it into a solo instrument. In 1941 Blanton was forced to stop playing when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and died the following year at the age of 23. Eddie Safranski is credited with carrying on and expanding upon Blanton’s innovations as a featured solo bassist. Safranski joined Hal McIntyre‘s band in 1941, and in 1945 joined Stan Kenton‘s band, with which is he is most associated today.
Safranski was able to play more technically challenging and complex instrumental music in the Stan Kenton orchestra and was the featured soloist who stood in front of the band performing beside its bandleader. Throughout his career, he appeared on over 250 recordings as both sideman and soloist and worked with many of the leading jazz greats of the day, including Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Billy Eckstine, George Shearing, Marian McPartland, the André Previn All-Stars, the Metronome All-Stars, Art Pepper, Ben Webster, and Buddy Rich. He also backed singers such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Tormé, Nat King Cole, Perry Como and Tony Bennett.
Eddie Safranski moved to New York City in 1950, where he worked as a staff musician in radio and television studios. He became a member of Benny Goodman‘s band from 1951 to 1952, and NBC hired him as a staff musician in 1953. He moved to California in the 1960s, where he worked as a sideman in Hollywood recording studios and continued to perform until he died in Los Angeles, California, on 10 January 1974, at the relatively young age of 55.
John Goldsby neatly sums up Eddie Safranski‘s influence and importance:
[He] paved a path for the rest of us by using cutting-edge equipment and technology to showcase his stunning technique and musicality. He probably gets less notice as a jazz player than he deserves because he took himself out of the jazz scene at the peak of his bass-playing powers and chose to embed himself in the comfortable world of the New York studios. Nevertheless, he was an enormously famous bass player — jazz famous.
In the 1940s, the Mutual Music Company, Inc. (1270 Sixth Avenue, New York, N.Y.) published a series of jazz solos for various instruments and piano by some of the leading jazz musicians of the day. Intriguingly for bassists are three offerings, one by Eddie Safranski and two by Herman “Trigger” Alpert (1916 – 2013). Safranski’s Concerto for Bass, subtitled “A modern String Bass Solo with piano accompaniment,” was published in 1942, when he was a member of Hal McIntrye‘s band. The series also includes Hal McIntyre‘s Sax Rears Its Ugly Head for alto saxophone and piano, so it’s likely that both musicians were approached at the same time to write these jazz solos.
Eddie Safranski‘s piece has the rather imposing title of Concerto, which it certainly isn’t, and is a lively and rhythmic one movement piece, probably lasting less than three minutes, which is played pizzicato throughout. The rather grand title may have been used to increase interest and help sales, although many of the other titles are either descriptive or a play on words, with Willie Smith‘s Flour Sax being the most inventive.
Safranski‘s Concerto is in G major, marked Moderate Bounce, and after a syncopated three-bar piano introduction, with a few effective glissandos, the bass launches into a catchy and upbeat melody, which he uses throughout and later embellishes with a few chromatic notes and syncopations. It remains well within the orchestral register, going no higher than octave G. Every note is written, so there is so much need to improvise and would have probably been composed for the classical bassist who wanted to play ‘jazz’. As you would imagine, the music is well written for the double bass, has few challenges but is also effective and accessible. Today its technical challenges would be well suited to the progressing young bassist, and it would be an upbeat recital piece.
Based around simple scale and arpeggio figures, Safranski‘s Concerto for Bass is a fun piece that deserves to be better known in the 21st-century and to keep alive the name of this influential jazz bassist. The piano accompaniment is both independent and supportive, often high to leave the lower register free for the double bass, links the short double bass interjections, and is easily playable by any classical pianist. There is an improvisatory feel to the accompaniment, contrasting the style of the double bass solo, and Eddie Safranski created a work of great character which doesn’t deserve its neglect. Maybe it has been out of print for decades, which would account for its lack of a place in the double bass repertoire, but hopefully, a few high profile performances will give it the kiss of life it needs.
A forgotten musical masterpiece? Not really, but it does link the classical and jazz bass worlds, helps to keep Eddie Safranski‘s name alive into the 21st-century, and is a fun piece and ideal for any audience or occasion.