The acoustic bass (and sometimes the electric one) has long served as a quintessential instrument in jazz. The jazz trio, quartet, or any other size ensemble that doesn’t use a bass player is rare.
With its distinctive look and rumbling lows, the instrument anchors music both rhythmically and harmonically, meaning one could argue that the bass is even more important to a jazz group than the drummer.
While there have been hundreds of accomplished, world-class bassists in the jazz landscape over the past century, a few stand out even among the greats, and in this post we’re going to look at the lives and careers of the most famous jazz bass players.
1. Paul Chambers (1935-1969)
One of the most influential jazz bassists of all time, Paul Chambers was born in Pennsylvania in 1935 but grew up in Detroit playing baritone and tuba.
He began learning the double bass at the end of the 1940s and began working as a sideman to a number of important artists. By 1955, he was a member of the Miles Davis Quintet and played on some very famous jazz albums with giants of the genre including Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and many Wynton Kelly albums.
Chambers worked with names like Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderly, and others in addition to his work with his eponymous quintet.
Coltrane’s tune “Mr. P.C.” was written for Chambers, one of the leading jazz bassists to play solos on the bass with the bow.
2. Ray Brown (1920-2002)
Pittsburgh native Ray Brown was a driving force in Dizzy Gillespie’s band in the 1940s and was known for his huge, swinging sound.
His bass playing with that big band laid the track for the progression of jazz into the bebop style.
He played with too many jazz legends to list, including, Charlie Parker, Kenny Clarke, Milt Jackon, and more but notable among those is his one-time wife, Ella Fitzgerald.
He also played on the landmark 1952 Gene Krupa-Buddy Rich project “The Drum Battle” with Oscar Peterson. He went on to tour extensively with Oscar Peterson for 14 years before focusing on studio work.
He died in 2002 after playing a round of golf before a concert.
3. Sam Jones (1924-1981)
After knocking around in New York in the 1950s playing with various outfits, Sam Jones settled in as Cannonball Adderly’s bassist, where he earned a stellar reputation.
He was renowned for his technical proficiency on the instrument, and along with Adderly drummer Louis Hayes, cultivated a distinct brand as a guy who could stay in the groove.
Chet Baker, Wes Montgomery, Sonny Stitt, and even John Lee Hooker used him on recordings, as did many, many others.
He also acted as bandleader with an assortment of his own groups in which he showed off his formidable composition skills and even played jazz cello.
4. Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987)
Born in Pennsylvania to a jazz drummer, Jaco Pastorius played the electric bass and is hailed by many as the greatest ever to do so.
He’s one of a handful of musicians who reinvented his instrument. Jaco played a Fender Jazz bass from which he’d removed the frets (with a butter knife, by some accounts), which gave his playing a distinct sound.
He went on to do revolutionary things playing things that no one had ever imagined before.
He spent time in the 1970s playing with Weather Report and Pat Metheny and his own band, Word of Mouth.
Despite his brilliance as a player and composer, a bipolar disorder diagnosis crippled his career and he died after being punched during a fight.
5. Esperanza Spalding (1984-)
Oregon-born Esperanza Spalding was a professional violinist before she was a teenager. Growing bored with the violin (and other instruments she taught herself to play), Spalding hit upon the bass and got hooked.
She’s recorded nearly ten solo albums and received vast critical praise. Her first Grammy was for Best New Artist, and she shocked the world by winning over Justin Bieber, Drake, Mumford & Sons, and Florence and the Machine.
She plays acoustic double bass, acoustic bass guitar, and electric bass, and she also sings, even racking up two of those Grammys for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
At age 20, she was an instructor at the Berklee College of Music and later taught at Harvard.
6. Charles Mingus (1922-1979)
Charles Mingus grew up in Southern California in a home where non-religious music was forbidden. Despite that, he discovered jazz and felt drawn to it immediately.
He learned the cello as a boy, then moved to the bass, where he was classically trained and nearly instantly recognized as a prodigy.
He played behind bebop musicians such as Lionel Hampton and Charlie Parker but came into his own as a composer and bandleader.
Many credit Mingus with opening up the possibility of the bass being a solo instrument in jazz rather than only serving as a backing rhythm instrument.
He had a volatile temper that countered his massive output of compositions that only slowed when the effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) caught up to him.
He left behind a considerable body of work that included “Epitaph,” a 4,000-measure, two-hour piece.
7. Ron Carter (1937-)
The iron man of jazz bassists, Ron Carter has played on more than 2,200 recordings throughout his storied career making him the most recorded jazz bassist of all time!
The Detroiter is one of the few who, when you say, “He’s played with everybody,” you mean literally “everybody.”
Among that vast number of recordings are names like Antonio Carlos Jobim, Miles Davis, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock. Oh, and Roberta Flack.
He has also done considerable work with his own jazz groups.
Everyone knows that having Carter on the bass in your rhythm section means having an accomplished, versatile player everyone in the group can depend upon.
8. Stanley Clarke (1951-)
As a founding member (alongside Chick Corea) of the group Return to Forever, Stanley Clarke helped create a space in the jazz world for the electric bass.
A contemporary of Jaco Pastorius, Clarke made new rules for the instrument just like Pastorius did, but not dying early has allowed Clarke to expand the bass’ role even further.
He started as an accordion player before making his way to the bass via the violin and the acoustic bass. He’s since played rock and funk with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Stewart Copeland of the Police, and Victor Wooten.
Clarke won an Emmy for writing the score for the TV show “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” He continues to write, score, and perform in various genres.
9. Scott LaFaro (1936-1961)
Scott LaFaro’s short life started in New York state, where his father was a big band player.
He became most closely identified with the Bill Evans trio, recorded with Stan Getz and Ornette Coleman, and toured with Chet Baker.
LaFaro was known for humming along with his bass as he played it. He was also widely respected for his technique on the bass, which most people called virtuosic.
Early in his short career, he drew comparisons to Paul Chambers.
Before his fatal car accident, his future looked bright as he was poised to become a new giant in the jazz world.
10. Jimmy Blanton (1918-1942)
Jimmy Blanton picked up the bass at Tennessee State University after studying the violin. That experience heavily influenced his bass playing, which influenced generations of jazz players.
Before Blanton, a bass solo was mainly about its rhythm. After all, it’s a part of the rhythm section, right?
But Blanton’s violin training led him to take a more melodic approach to the bass, and his solos reflected that.
Dying at the age of 23 meant Blanton only had about a two-year career.
The fact that he overhauled the way players thought about the bass in this small amount of time is even more remarkable considering how short a time it was.
11. Dave Holland (1942-)
British-born Dave Holland taught himself many stringed instruments before he stumbled onto the double bass. He’d set his sights on the electric bass but soon discovered jazz.
Almost accidentally, he ended up replacing Ron Carter in Miles Davis’ band, leaving Coleman Hawkins to do so.
As a bandleader and sideman, he has spent time racking up credits with artists as diverse as Thelonius Monk and Bonnie Raitt. He is also well respected as a composer.
His discography includes around 200 albums with his groups and with other acts.
12. Walter Page (1900-1957)
Walter Page made a name for himself during a 12-year stint as Count Basie’s bass player.
Growing up in Missouri, Page played with local outfits at a time when the tuba was more common as the lower-register instrument.
By playing the bass instead and not wanting to play the same sort of oom-pah, he turned to the walking bass line that would become an integral part of jazz and swing music.
He didn’t invent the walking bass, but he certainly popularized it.
Aside from his time with Basie, Page acted as a bandleader with several outfits in middle America.
13. Oscar Pettiford (1922-1960)
The son of a Native American mother and an African American father, Oscar Pettiford’s Oklahoma roots involved singing in and playing with the family band.
He went on to play with Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie.
Pettiford added the cello to his arsenal of instruments after he broke his arm and couldn’t play the bass.
He substituted a cello for the lower instrument and eventually worked his way into being a pioneer of jazz cello.
One of his most famous attributions is that he didn’t like how people played the bass, so he decided to develop his own method.
14. Slam Stewart (1914-1987)
As Paul Chambers had done, Slam Stewart sang along with his own playing when he used a bow for solos. This created an unusual sound that was readily identifiable as coming from Stewart.
Stewart’s given name was Leroy, but the nickname “Slam” arose from his playing.
He sometimes slapped the bass strings when he played, leading fellow players to call the sound a slam, which they then started calling him.
He played with Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and many other big names in jazz while working as an in-demand sideman, but he also recorded several albums with his own group acting as the bandleader.
15. Charlie Haden (1937-2014)
Composing and playing for more than 50 years, Charlie Haden developed a style of playing many consider to be revolutionary.
He’s one of the few bassists who helped change the role of the instrument in jazz.
He moved fluidly between playing accompanying figures and executing more melodic lines on the bass.
He played with the Ornette Coleman Quartet for almost a year before drug addiction problems forced him to bow out to try to get clean. He did and returned to the jazz scene, both playing and composing.
He formed the Liberation Music Orchestra, a group where he worked to play free jazz and create political music.
16. Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (1946-2005)
Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen hailed from Denmark. His virtuoso playing made him a standout in his native Denmark.
When big names came through that part of the world, they often hired him for their shows. As a result, he ended up playing bop with many of the greats.
He played in nightclubs as a teenager and went on to play for more than 400 recordings, many with jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, whose music was notably fast.
Keeping up with walking bass lines at Peterson’s blistering speeds made Pedersen a revered player.
Other big names for whom he played include Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon. He also led his own band, Steeplechase.
17. John Patitucci
And lastly, we have John Patitucci who became a hugely popular jazz bassist in the 1980s and 90s.
He has long played with Chick Corea, playing an acoustic bass and a six-string electric.
Many fellow bass players consider Patitucci to be the leading six-string bass player in the world.
He’s performed or recorded with Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, and Pat Metheny as well as working with many composers for film scores.
Outside of jazz, he has also recorded with Toni Tenille, Warren Zevon, and even Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and he has performed bass concerti with symphonies around the world.
He currently serves on the Berklee College of Music faculty after a ten-year stint as a professor of music at City College of New York.
Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest Jazz Bassists
Every player is different, and every player has something to contribute.
Great jazz bass players that don’t appear on this list are no less important.
However, these 17 constitute a representation of many kinds of jazz, and they each bring something of value to the work they do.