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Tracks Unwrapped

Jack The Bear

 

 

Looking for the origin of the name 'Jack The Bear' takes us way back beyond the title of Duke Ellington's tune.

One explanation is that Jack The Bear was a character of Black stories and rhymed tales, and crops up in a work-chant used by gandy-dancers (railroad workers laying rails) about "Jack-the-Rabbit/Jack-the-Bear".

 

Jack de rabbit, Jack de bear.
Shake it back, boys, just a hair!


There is reference to two characters from folklore where Jack the Bear, called either Jack or John (and sometimes John the Conqueror), was invisible to the white community. He would arrive suddenly to fix things for folks in distress. He was a hero with Bearmagical powers.

The Urban Dictionary describes Jack The Bear as a lazy person: "You like Jack the Bear, Cletus, you ain't done shit all day." The Probert Dictionary echoes this: 'Like Jack The Bear Just Ain' Nowhere' - Like Jack the Bear just ain't nowhere is Black-American slang for an expression of disappointment, worthlessness.

In contradiction there are other references to 'Jack The Bear' being the opposite - someone or something that goes really fast or well: "We were like 'Jack the Bear' for the first five laps of a run, but then the car would get real tight real quick and just wouldn't turn when I needed it to." (Tim Sauter AP Performance Racing).

Writing in allaboutjazz.com in 2010, Dan Bilawsky quotes Mark Tucker's liner notes for Duke Ellington: The Blanton-Webster Band (Bluebird, 1986), which say that the original Jack The Bear " ... was a Harlem bass-player who, as reed-player Gavin Bushell recently recalled, had a tailor shop at the corner of St. Nicholas and Edgecombe Avenues."

If Ellington named the tune after the tailor, Jack The Bear's future association would be with another bass player - Jimmy Blanton. The website bassplayersunited.com says 'At a recording session on 6th March 1940, Ellington foregrounded Blanton on the day’s recordings by placing him in close proximity to the microphone. This was something he’d previously done with his original bass player, Wellman Braud, in the 1920s, when having a ‘string bassist’ in a band (as opposed to a tuba player) was still regarded as a novelty. Two numbers in particular that he recorded that day showcased both his playing as well as his rich, round tone: ‘Ko-Ko’ and ‘Jack the Bear’. Both of these feature Blanton solos, the latter becoming a concert showpiece for his playing during his tenure with Ellington.'

Dan Bilawsky describes Blanton’s significance: ‘When Ellington first heard Jimmy Blanton play in St. Louis in the fall of 1939, he heard something special in the bassist and appreciated his ability to take the bass beyond a simple timekeeping role and into true soloist territory....... As the song begins, Blanton plays in between the band statements and his facility and the clarity in his playing is a wondrous thing, basically unknown in jazz until this time.’

He goes on to describe how when Ellington enters, Blanton ‘falls in line’ to be followed by Barney Bigard’s clarinet, Cootie Williams's voice-like trumpet, Harry Carney’s saxophone and Tricky Sam Nanton’s muted trombone. Jimmy Blanton steps back in for the last thirty seconds. The track was recorded at a time when Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster were so popular that the recording was also issued under the heading of the 'Blanton-Webster Band'.

 

 

Jack The Bear.

 

 

 

 

The story of Jimmy Blanton is sad, another of those remarkable jazz musicians who went to play with the angels long before his time. He was born in Tennessee in 1918 and started out on the violin. He took up the bass at Tennessee State University and played for Fate Jimmy BlantonMarable during his vacations. Moving to St Louis when he left college, he joined the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra, and then became a member of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra in 1939 at the age of 21.

The website bassplayersunited.com quotes Charlie Haden as saying: ‘Duke Ellington’s band came through St. Louis and played a dance - back then it was dances and not concerts. Afterward Duke went back to the hotel to sleep, and all the musicians went to an after-hours session. This young bass player was playing, and these guys flipped out. They went back and woke up Duke Ellington, and brought him to the session. Duke hired Jimmy on the spot, and the band left St. Louis with two bass players.’

Jimmy Blanton was with Ellington for just two years. Wikipedia says: ‘Blanton made an incalculable contribution in changing the way the double bass was used in jazz. Previously the double bass was rarely used to play anything but quarter notes in ensemble or solos but by soloing on the bass more in a 'horn like' fashion, Blanton began sliding into eighth- and sixteenth-note runs, introducing melodic and harmonic ideas that were totally new to jazz bass playing. His virtuosity put him in a different class from his predecessors, making him the first true master of the jazz bass and demonstrating the instrument's unsuspected potential as a solo instrument.’

In 1941, at the age of 23, Blanton was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The illness forced him to leave Ellington, and his last recording was cut on September 26, 1941 in Hollywood. Blanton died in a sanatorium in California in July 1942.

The website bassplayersunited.com describes Jimmy Blanton as ‘probably the most important and influential bassist of the twentieth century’ and you can read more about him on that website if you click here.

Here are Duke Ellington and Jimmy Blanton playing Pitter Panther Patter recorded in Chicago in 1940, a duet that shows off Jimmy’s bass playing to full effect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now check out what is thought to be a rare solo by Jimmy Blanton playing slap bass. The piece is brief, comes from a radio broadcast and has a few crackles, but it is worth a listen.

 

 

 

 

 

In 1993, director Marshall Herskovitz made a film called Jack The Bear that starred Danny DeVito, Robert J. Steinmiller Jr., Miko Hughes, Gary Sinese and a young Reece Witherspoon. The story concerns a professional clown John Leary (DeVito), whose wife dies in a car accident and he is left to care for his two young sons, Jack and Dylan. John hosts the local late-night show 'Midnight Shriek', entertaining the audience during horror films as "Al Gory." He loves his sons, but because of his drinking and poor attempts at fatherhood, many of his parental duties fall to his son Jack.

The story evolves with a neo-nazi next door neighbour, a suggestion that Dylan has been kidnapped after which Dylan becomes mute, an accidental death, and more which you can read here, but it is probably easier to watch the trailer:

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of the film, Jack is playing his mother's favourite song at the piano and asks his still mute brother what it was. He doesn't appear to remember. Jack, then breaks down crying and tells John that "Nothing is all right." "Then we're going to make it all right," John answers, adding "Daddy's here". Dylan, then, comes over and answers Jack's question - "Jack the Bear."

 

Back to the Ellington number, there are many videos of youth jazz orchestras playing Jack The Bear but for your delectation and delight we have chosen this video by the Big Band del Conservatorio "Manuel de Falla" made at the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires, Argentinia in 2011. There is quite a responsibility on the young bass players in all of the videos, and here, despite the terrible video shots, I quite like the solos which, interestingly are not applauded after every solo, which they are in most other videos.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, I was unaware of this version by the Modern Jazz Quartet recorded in New York in 1988 with Milt Jackson (vibraphone), John Lewis (piano), Connie Kay (drums, percussion) and Percy Heath delivering on bass as you would expect:

 


 

 

It is easy to associate the upright bass with the image of a great bear, just as I have always imagined Adrian Rollini's bass saxophone sounding a bear-like instrument. In the hands of an accomplished bass player, whether a Jack, Jimmy, Michael, Charlie, Calum, Misha, Dave, Jasper, Alison, Andrew, Scott .... it is anything but.

 

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More Tracks Unwrapped:

Lover Man
Flight Of The Foo Birds
Just A Gigolo
Jeeps Blues

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