Pettiford, Oscar (Okmulgee, OK, 30 Sept 1922 - Copenhagen, 8 Sept 1960)


Double bass player, cellist, and bandleader


Of mixed black and American Indian extraction, he was born into a large, musical family and learned many instruments in the family's touring band, which was based in Minneapolis. In 1943 he was engaged as a double bass player for Charlie Barnet's band, with which he traveled to New York in the same year. After working with a quintet led by Roy Eldridge (1943) he found a place in the emerging bop scene, and, with Dizzy Gillespie, led a group at the Onyx Club (winter 1943-4). Personal differences caused this pioneering group to disband, but one year later he and Gillespie recorded together. From 1944 Pettiford played in numerous small bop ensembles and in various big bands, notably those of Duke Ellington (1945-8) and Woody Herman (1949). In the mid-1950s he led his own big band which, though highly regarded for its inventive arrangements and instrumentation, suffered from instability of personnel, owing in part to Pettiford's difficult temperament. He emigrated to Europe in 1958, and in his final years was based in Copenhagen.


Pettiford was the first jazz bass player to adapt and elaborate the innovations of Jimmy Blanton within a bop context, and his ideas and discoveries had a lasting influence on the bop style as a whole. His earliest recorded solos, such as The man I love (1943), were learned by rote by many aspiring bop bass players, though few could approach his penetrating tone and clear projection of ideas. Later, from about 1950, he transferred his solo style to amplified cello, which he played in a bouncy, dexterous style, reminiscent of Charlie Christian. Together with Ray Brown and Charles Mingus, who owed much to his influence, Pettiford was influential in establishing the double bass as a jazz solo instrument equal in importance to the winds.


 J. Bradford Robinson


The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan Reference Ltd 1988