Published on February 25, 2013 by Casey
Oscar Pettiford (30 September 1922 – 8 September 1960) was an American jazz double bassist, cellist and composer known particularly for his pioneering work in bebop.
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Pettiford was born at Okmulgee, Oklahoma; his mother was Choctaw and his father was half Cherokee and half African American. Like many people with African-American and Native American ancestry, his Native heritage was not generally known except to a few close friends, such as David Amram.
He grew up playing in the family band in which he sang and danced before switching to piano at the age of 12 then to double bass when he was 14. He is quoted as say he did not like the way people were playing the bass so he developed his own way of playing it. Despite being admired by the likes of Milt Hinton at the age of 14, he gave up in 1941 as he did not believe he could make a living. Five months later, he once again met Milt, who persuaded him to return to music.
In 1942 he joined the Charlie Barnet band and in 1943 gained wider public attention after recording with Coleman Hawkins on his “The Man I Love”. Pettiford also recorded with Earl Hines and Ben Webster around this time. He and Dizzy Gillespie led a bop group in 1943. In 1945 Pettiford went with Hawkins to California, where he appeared in The Crimson Canary, a mystery movie known for its jazz soundtrack, which also featured Josh White. He then worked with Duke Ellington from 1945 to 1948 and for Woody Herman in 1949 before working mainly as a leader in the 1950s.
As a leader he inadvertently discovered Cannonball Adderley. After one of his musicians had tricked him into letting Adderley, an unknown music teacher, onto the stand, he had Adderley solo on a demanding piece, on which Adderley performed impressively.
Pettiford is considered the pioneer of the cello as a solo instrument in jazz music. He first played the cello as a practical joke on his band leader (Woody Herman) when he walked off stage during his solo spot and came back, unexpectedly with a cello and played on that. In 1949, after suffering a broken arm, Pettiford found it impossible to play his bass, so he experimented with a cello a friend had lent him. Tuning it in fourths, like a double bass, but one octave higher, Pettiford found it possible to perform during his rehabilitation (during which time his arm was in a sling) and made his first recordings with the instrument in 1950. The cello thus became his secondary instrument, and he continued to perform and record with it throughout the remainder of his career. He died in Copenhagen, Denmark, from a virus closely related to Polio.
He recorded extensively during the 1950s for the Debut, Bethlehem and ABC Paramount labels among others, and for European companies after he moved to Copenhagen in 1958. Along with his contemporary, Charles Mingus, Pettiford stands out as one of the most-recorded bass-playing bandleader/composers in jazz.