The Jazzcat

Al McKibbon, another one or our great bass players has died

by on Aug.06, 2005, under Uncategorized

Al McKibbon, whose robust acoustic bass anchored some of the most

advanced and memorable jazz recordings of the 1940s and 1950s, died

July 29 at a hospital in Los Angeles. No cause of death was reported.

He was 86.

For nearly a decade, he was at the center of the heady bebop musical

revolution in New York. Among the first U.S. musicians to master the

complexities of Afro-Cuban music, he provided much of the rhythmic

support for trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's experiments combining Latin

American music and jazz.

“I began to feel that the Cubans were as close as you could come to

African culture because they still practiced the roots of our music,”

McKibbon wrote three years ago in an afterword to Raul Fernandez's book

“Latin Jazz: The Perfect Combination.”

He collaborated on some of the most important recordings of

composer-pianist Thelonious Monk. In 1949 and 1950, he appeared on

several Miles Davis and Gil Evans recordings that resulted in the

celebrated “Birth of the Cool” album. In the 1950s, McKibbon was a

member of pianist George Shearing's popular quintet, and after settling

in Los Angeles, he performed anonymously on many television shows and

theme-song recordings, as well as with an all-star musical roster that

included Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Cannonball Adderley

and Nat “King” Cole.

Alfred Benjamin McKibbon was born Jan. 1, 1919, in Chicago and

grew up in Detroit. He began his career as a vaudeville tap dancer,

switching to bass at his brother's suggestion when the string bass

began to replace the tuba in jazz groups.

After working with Lucky Millinder's traveling big band at a Detroit

nightclub, he joined Millinder full time during a 1944 engagement at

Washington's Howard Theater. Later that year, McKibbon was in New York,

sitting in at Minton's Playhouse, the Harlem club where the bebop

revolution was launched by Monk, Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie


In 1945, he landed one of his most important early jobs while in the

audience of a New York nightclub. When the bass player for tenor

saxophonist Coleman Hawkins did not show up, McKibbon went onstage with

a borrowed instrument; from then on, he never lacked work.

He was part of Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic tours in 1945

and 1946, then joined Gillespie's big band in 1947. A fellow member of

the rhythm section was Cuban conga master Chano Pozo, who taught

McKibbon the intricacies of Cuban rhythms.

“We basically spoke pidgin English to communicate,” McKibbon told Latin

Beat magazine this year, “but we understood each other primarily

through our music.”

Inspired by the infectious, syncopated beat, Gillespie wrote several

Latin-style tunes, including “Manteca” (Cuban slang for “marijuana” at

the time), which featured a solo bass introduction by McKibbon.

“We had no idea we were creating anything new other than just a union

of jazz with Pozo's conga drum,” McKibbon said. “We were not thinking

of the moment as some new genre being invented.”

While working intermittently with Gillespie from 1947 to 1950, McKibbon

also appeared with jazz greats Johnny Hodges, Earl Hines and Count

Basie. In 1947, he performed on “Genius of Modern Music,” the landmark

two-volume work that featured the compositions of the enigmatic Monk.

“Thelonious would come to my house unannounced,” McKibbon told Latin

Beat, “and sit at my table with a matchbox full of pot and a pint of

whiskey and sit there all evening and still be there when I woke up the

next morning. Sometimes he'd stay there for two or three days. I never

knew why, and I never asked.”

From 1951 to 1958, McKibbon was the backbone of Shearing's quintet, but

he left the road to settle in Los Angeles. He joined the NBC studio

orchestra and worked in other ensembles. He performed on the Dean

Martin, Bob Hope and Carol Burnett shows, and played on many TV theme

songs, including “Gunsmoke,” “Green Acres,” “Batman” and “The Odd


He continued to lead his own groups, mostly in California, until the

past few months. He made his first and only recording as a bandleader

when he was 80, performing the quirky tunes of Monk and the lively

Latin jazz he had learned from Pozo and Gillespie more than a

half-century before.

By Matt Schudel


Leave a Reply

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site:

Still not finding what you're looking for? Drop a comment on a post or contact us so we can take care of it!

Visit our friends!

A few highly recommended friends...