Bassist Bill Crow is one of the “good guys” in the music and the editorial staff at JazzProfiles always finds room on these pages for more about such exemplary musicians.
Every time I think of Bill it reinforces one thing he taught me and that is - above all else, “Jazz in fun.”
Whenever I start to think too much about the music and get overly analytical and theoretical, I remember what I lovingly refer to as THE CROW ADMONITION - relax and enjoy the music - Jazz is fun.
Gene Freehan wrote the following piece in 1963. As of this posting and pending the pandemic, Bill is still performing as a professional musician many decades later.
“RAY BROWN once defined a bassist's greatest assets as "good time, good intonation, and a big sound." While agreeing that this is a solid, workable definition, Bill Crow would add another factor.
"If you have those qualities," he explained, "and don't find out how to relate them to the musicians you're playing with, you'll still not be contributing much to the group. That may seem like a simple-minded statement of something everyone should know, but it's surprising how often poor contact between musicians is the principal difficulty in playing well together.
"Group playing is never a one-plus-one-plus-one relationship. With sensitive players you sound better than you do by yourself — and with the other kind you sound worse."
The 35-year-old bassist, currently with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, continued, "Bass players and drummers especially must get into each others' hip pockets. They must agree on the basic feeling of the music, and they can only do this by listening carefully to each other and adjusting to each other's feeling. My personal tastes run to drummers who play in a medium-volume range with a hearty swing, leaving enough open space for the rest of the music to be heard clearly."
The slim, quietly intense bassist ranged freely over the three decades of musical experience that have contributed to his present position as one of the most solidly respected contemporary jazz musicians. The years have brought him from childhood studies of piano and trumpet and at least another half-dozen instruments, through school bands, a stint in the Army's musical fold, a brief period with society bands, and subsequent hitches with Teddy Charles, Stan Getz, Claude Thornhill, Terry Gibbs, Marian McPartland, Benny Goodman, and the Mulligan sextet, big band, and three editions of the baritonist's quartet.
Recalling his early studies of bass, Crow said, "Though I learned it through the
horror system—standing on a bandstand with musicians you admire with a bass you don't know how to play, and figuring like mad where the next right note might be — I became a much better player after studying for a couple of years with Fred Zimmerman of the New York Philharmonic. He taught me bowing technique and was able to straighten out a highly original and awkward fingering system I had developed while favoring a weak left hand." (He had damaged several tendons in high school going through a glass door that had been slammed in his face. But thanks to a good surgeon in Seattle, Wash., he said, and many years of fingering basses, the hand is fine now.)
Crow's studies with pianist Lennie Tristano, however, were somewhat less than satisfying.
"That was before I started playing bass," he recalled. "I was a valve trombonist at the time. I wasn't comfortable in the almost mystic atmosphere Lennie permitted some of his students to generate around him. He gave me good material to work with, but we just didn't hit a teacher-pupil relationship that meant anything to me. It's very hard to play a wind instrument around a lot of people who are holding their breath all the time. One of my last lessons with Lennie was conducted from the bathtub. He was getting ready for work, listening to my lesson through a crack in the bathroom door. . . . Maybe I sounded better from in there.
"I'm not studying formally at the moment, since I've learned how to set up problems and work out solutions by myself. And I'm still learning, as everyone does, by listening. Everything a musician hears teaches him something, even if it just makes him aware of what he doesn't care for. That's why I've enjoyed New York so much. I've worked with and heard so many different players and figured out my own point of view a little more clearly with each one. That's also why I like traveling now and then. ... I like to hear what's going on in different places." Having played drums and a number of horns "with varying amounts of success," Crow took up the bass in 1950. "I was conned into it by Buzzy Bridgeford when he was playing drums at the Altamont Hotel in Tupper Lake, N.Y. The boss wouldn't pay for a bass player, but he would hire a trombonist, so Buzz aced me into the job. He rented me a bass and begged me to learn how to play it 'just well enough to have the sound there.' Since he was the guy who also taught me about swing, got me my first jazz job in Seattle, and then got me to come to New York, I did what he said — and ended up liking the instrument better than any of the others I'd played."
After that summer, the trombonist-cum-bassist eked out a living for a while as a job printer in the Bronx, working occasional dates around New York, and traveling for a short time as drummer-vocalist-stooge with the musical clown Mike Riley.
Crow's last appearance as a drummer was on a Moore-McCormack Lines cruise to Argentina in 1951.
"I played with a strange jack-of-all-trades band that included society music, Latin tunes, an Irish tenor, a Jewish accordionist, an Italian saxophonist, a fat comedian, funny hats, and everybody singing, doing comedy, Hawaiian dances, kiddie numbers — the works. The time was so hard to get swinging that I'd wind up every night after the gig with a big knot in my stomach, and I'd go up on the top deck where nobody could hear me and scream a few times for relief. But, oh — the things I learned on that job!"
A strong believer in the principle of adaptation, Crow mused, "I wouldn't have learned what I know about bass playing if I hadn't worked with all kinds of bands. Even dull bands can be instructive if you're not stuck on them forever. You find the guy in the band who has the best musical attitude, and you work with him to get something going. Then, when you get Into a better band, you know a little about how to fix things when they go wrong. You don't learn to be a mechanic on a car that never breaks down."
He has no reluctance about naming his early influences. "Jazz hit me right in the middle of the seventh grade," he explained. "I heard Louis, Duke. Red Nichols, and that record of Profoundly Blue by Edmond Hall with Charlie Christian, Israel Crosby, and Meade Lux Lewis through Al Bennest, my school music teacher in Kirkland, Wash. There was also an appliance store in Kirkland where I found 78s by Don Byas, Pres, Louis Jordan, and Nat Cole. I've always felt that Nat was a bigger influence than people realize today.
"Louis Armstrong is pretty much taken for granted now that he's old and a little tarnished, but listen to his records from the 1920s. He started so much — like certain melodic figures and ways of phrasing them — that have become the abc's of the jazz tradition. He invented enough things in those days—and cleaned up the things other people had invented — to keep everybody busy copying him for years and years, just as Bird did later on."
Crow continued to listen to all kinds of jazz on the radio, while he built up a record collection with wages from after-school jobs.
"That mid-1940s Boyd Raeburn band killed me, and so did Claude Thornhill's," he said. "But then I went into the Army, where I played baritone horn in the concert band and drums in the dance band. I picked up the valve trombone there during my infatuation with Chicago jazz and Brad Gowans."
It was during his Army stint that Crow came into contact with modern jazz musicians and where he first found out, among other things, about Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, modern chords, goatees, berets, the hip vernacular, and drape suits from Fox Brothers in Chicago. He has since outgrown his fondness for the last four items but retains an affection for the rest, though he has been known to pine occasionally for the sound of the early Basie band "before he went out and hired all that heavy artillery."
CROW HAS SOME cogent comments about his more recent history. "Working in a record studio," he said, "is a special problem, because the musicians are usually separated either by distance or low, padded walls or both, so they won't 'leak' into each other's mikes. It's not easy to get a good feeling going with a guy who's sitting 40 feet away from you.
"That's why I liked recording at the Village Vanguard, where we cut that Mulligan big-band LP. We were all close together on a small stand. We had control of the room sound after playing there for a couple of weeks, and the band sounded marvelous.
"I hit it off right away with Mel Lewis [at the time, drummer with Mulligan band]; he knew the book and got me into the feel of the band very quickly. Clark Terry and I were new on the band at the start of that gig, and the band was recorded just at the point where we were starting to feel at home. The rest of the band had been together long enough to have developed a strong group spirit. The book was very interesting, the soloists were unusual, and Gerry is very good at getting the most out of a band. It was a beautiful situation. ... I was very proud of us all."
Crow's role in the current Mulligan quartet has opened up doors of perception he values highly. Of his associates in the group, he said, "Bob Brookmeyer never ceases to amaze me. He's my favorite combination of seriousness about music and delight in the outrageous. He never fails to excite my imagination. It's always a rare treat to play with him.
"Gerry, besides his ability to play that unwieldy ox of a horn so well, always has been quite clear about what the structure of the quartet should be — what each instrument is expected to contribute. I've learned a lot from him about the function of the bass line in this particular situation, and he's allowed me considerable freedom to hunt around for new approaches to his music.
"At the moment we have a new LP in the can with a tune on it called Four for Three (four guys playing in 3/4) that is one of the most interesting things Gerry's written lately. Gus Johnson was on drums when we made it, although Dave Bailey is back with us now. We've also been messing around with a thing of Gerry's that seems to keep trying to become a bossa nova, although we find ourselves spending most of our efforts avoiding the heavy-handed abuses of that rhythm that assaults us from every jukebox and radio."
Some months ago, Art Davis said that the bass is now at a point where it can be developed in several directions — more so than any other instrument — because there are more fine performers playing bass now than at any other time.
Crow's reaction: "I wouldn't say more than any other instrument. We have one advantage, in that we haven't been as paralyzed by the influence of a couple of great players the way saxophonists were by Pres and Bird. There have been many great bass players, but nobody has become so fashionable that his conception became the only one. Each guy has developed pretty much his own way.
"But I think that the tendency among young bassists to spread out into new ways of playing has come hand in hand with the spreading out of all the players around them. I agree with Art that there are more good bassists now than there have ever been — that's a very healthy situation."
May 9. 1963