Profile: Paul Chambers (1935-1969)

Paul Laurence Dunbar Chambers, Jr. was a jazz double bassist. A fixture of rhythm sections during the 1950s and 1960s, his importance in the development of jazz bass can be measured not only by the extent of his work in this short period, but also by his impeccable timekeeping and intonation, and virtuosic improvisations.  He was also known for his bowed solos. Chambers recorded about a dozen albums as a leader or co-leader, and as a sideman, notably as the anchor of trumpeter Miles Davis’s “first great quintet” (1955–63) and with pianist Wynton Kelly (1963–68).

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Biography

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 22, 1935, to Paul Lawrence Chambers and Margaret Echos. He was brought up in Detroit, Michigan following the death of his mother.  He began playing music with several of his schoolmates on the baritone horn. Later he took up the tuba. “I got along pretty well, but it’s quite a job to carry it around in those long parades, and I didn’t like the instrument that much”

Bass playing

Chambers became a string bassist around 1949. His formal bass training began in earnest in 1952, when he began taking lessons with a bassist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Chambers did some classical playing himself, with a rehearsal group called the Detroit String Band. He studied at Cass Technical High School intermittently from 1952 to 1955, and played in Cass’ symphony, and in various other student groups, in one of which he played baritone saxophone.

When he left for New York City at the invitation of tenor saxophonist Paul Quinichette, he had a working knowledge of many instruments.  Jazz bass players were largely limited to timekeeping with drums, until Duke Ellington’s bassist Jimmy Blantonbegan a transformation in the instrument’s role at the end of the 1930s. Chambers was about 15 years old when he started to listen to Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, his first jazz influences. Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown were the first bassists he admired, and these were followed by Percy Heath, Milt Hinton and Wendell Marshall for their rhythm section work, and Charles Mingus and George Duvivier for their technical prowess and for their efforts in broadening the scope of jazz bass. Blanton was his all-time favorite.

First performance on bass

From 1954 on through 1955, he gained significance touring with such musicians as Bennie Green, Quinichette, George Wallington, J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding. In 1955 he joined the Miles Davis quintet and stayed with the group until 1963. He appeared on many classic albums, including Kind of BlueOne of Chambers’s most noted performances was on that album’s first track, “So What”, which opens with a brief duet featuring Chambers and pianist Bill Evans. From 1963 until 1968 Chambers played with the Wynton Kelly Trio. He freelanced frequently as a sideman for other important names in jazz throughout his career.

Personal life

During the course of his lifetime, Paul Chambers developed addictions to both alcohol and heroin. He was hospitalized at the end of 1968 with what was thought to be a severe case of influenza, but tests revealed that he in fact had tuberculosis. As his organ functions deteriorated, Chambers lapsed into a coma for 18 days. It is believed that his addictions to heroin and alcohol contributed to his health problems. On January 4, 1969 he died of tuberculosis aged 33.

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