The Troy Street Observer

September 2, 1957: The Colorful Strings of Jimmy Woode

Cover of The Colorful Strings of Jimmy Woode
The Colorful Strings of Jimmy Woode, Argo LP 630, 1957

Jimmy Woode played the bass for over 50 years, but he isn’t as well known to American audiences as he should be. The reason is, he spent about 40 of those years as an expatriate in Europe. His stateside career was short in comparison.

The Philadelphia-born Woode arrived in Boston in 1946 following his discharge from the army, to study at Boston University’s School of Music, then at the Boston Conservatory. By 1948 he was with Clarence Jackson and His Notes of Rhythm, and in 1949 he was in a short-lived quartet with Jaki Byard, Ray Perry, and Alan Dawson. (Now that must have been interesting.)

Woode left Boston for a time in 1950–51, on the road with Flip Phillips and Bill Harris, but by late 1951 he was at Storyville as the house bassist, playing with Sidney Bechet, Teddy Wilson, and Charlie Parker, and backing singers like Ethel Waters, Lee Wiley, and Billie Holiday. He was also Wein’s bassist of choice for the summer Storyvilles in the early fifties. Two Storyville Records sessions highlight his versatility. One was Jazz at Storyville with the New Orleans master Bechet, the other Serge Chaloff and Boots Mussulli.

In 1954 Woode worked in a duo with Jaki Byard and a trio with Dean Earl, and he continued to accompany the biggest stars in jazz, including Parker again, Ella Fitzgerald, and Miles Davis.

In February 1955, Duke Ellington was at Storyville and he needed a substitute bassist right away. Woode got the job, and he remained with Ellington until April 1960. He had memorable moments with the Duke. Everyone remembers that Paul Gonsalves played all those choruses at Newport in 1956, but not everyone remembers it was Woode and Sam Woodyard who laid down the beat for him.

September 2, 1957 found Woode in a Chicago studio recording his only album as a leader, The Colorful Strings of Jimmy Woode, on the Argo label. Woode brought along fellow Ellingtonians Gonsalves, Woodyard, and Clark Terry to the session, and filled out the group with Chicagoans Porter Kilbert on alto, Mike Simpson on flute, and a young Ramsey Lewis on piano.

In 1960, Woode moved to Europe, where he never lacked for work. In 1961, he became a founding member of the big band led by drummer Kenny Clarke and pianist Francy Boland, and he later toured extensively with the Paris Reunion Band. He returned to the States in about 2000.

Jimmy Woode died on April 23, 2005, in what was a very bad week for the art of jazz bass. Niels-Henning Ørsted-Pedersen died on April 20, and Percy Heath died on April 28. Over 150 years of experience were lost in eight days.

Colorful Strings was out of print for years, and was finally released on CD by the Japanese label Universal Music, and by the Spanish Fresh Sounds label as part of a Paul Gonsalves compilation, Cookin’ (FSRCD 472).

Woode composed all the tunes on Colorful Strings except this standard, “The Way You Look Tonight,” on which he also sings. From his liner notes: “As Dave Usher of Argo Records has so kindly put it, ‘This isn’t a vocal, it’s a sing-song.’ …Courageous people, these men at Argo.” Trust me, it’s no sing-song.

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