Jazz Master of the Month: Paul Laurence Dunbar Chambers, Jr.
Paul Laurence Dunbar Chambers, Jr was a prolific bassist who recorded over one dozen projects as a leader, but has become most widely appreciated as a sideman who performed with John Coltrane, trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Wynton Kelly.
Chambers was born April 22, 1935 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and was raised in Detroit, Michigan.
A consistently inspired bassist, Chambers was one of the first Jazz bassists (other than Slam Stewart) to perform beautifully constructed “arco” or bowed bass solos. His emphasis on excellent time keeping and extraordinary melodic sense made him a widely sought-after session musician in the New York area during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.
Chambers played the baritone horn in school parades, and later studied tuba but became slightly disinterested after having to carry those instruments around. He also played baritone sax. His formal bass interest began when he started studying in 1952 with an excellent bassist who was a member of the Detroit Symphony. By the time he was invited to leave Detroit for New York by tenor saxophonist Paul Qunichette and his ensemble, Chambers was an accomplished multi-instrumentalist.
In New York, Chambers began performing with trombonist JJ Johnson, Thad Jones, Barry Harris, Kai Winding, Benny Green and others. He joined the Miles Davis group in 1955 and stayed with the group for almost ten years. His performance on the best selling Jazz recording in history, Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue,” captures one of Chambers’ classic bass statements: his performance of the opening duet “So What” with pianist Bill Evans has become a jazz band standard immemorial.
Playing on John Coltrane Giant Steps, Oliver Nelsons “Blues & the Abstract Truth, and Thelonious Monks “Brilliant Corners,” further exemplifies the appreciation that other musicians had for Chambers’ musical contributions. John Coltrane fondly called him “Mr. PC”. Drummer Max Roach wrote a drum solo in his honor titled “Five for Paul” and Sonny Rollins affectionately wrote “Paul’s Pal” in his honor.
Chambers’ short 13-year recorded history is one of the most studied in jazz bass history. Chambers appears on over 1,600 album releases. He recorded over 14 albums with John Coltrane alone, further exemplifying his accurate intonation and ability to play a wide range of styles.
Chambers’ fellow musicians have said much in the way of praise for his excellence:
“Paul Chambers was a great genius of the bass. He was incredible, you know. Some of the things he did weren't really touched by anybody. Just things that he could do, nobody really knew what it was he was doing. He was fantastic." — Herbie Hancock
"One of the greatest bass players in jazz. His playing is beyond what I could say about it. The bass is such an important instrument, and has so much to do with a group and (how) a soloist can best function that I feel very fortunate to have had him on my recordings and to have been able to work with him in Miles' band so long." — John Coltrane
“The first guy who was really distinctive to me — when I was 19 or so — was Paul Chambers, who I heard on all those Prestige and Riverside records. There’s an underrated player! He had a way of playing chromatic notes in his bass lines that was just unreal. He would go up into the high register and then skip down, tying it together… He had this great sound, and this great time.” — Charlie Haden
Chambers was hospitalized in 1968 with what was thought to be a severe case of the Hong Kong Flu. Tests revealed that he had Tuberculosis. His organ functions deteriorated sending him into an 18-day coma before his death on January 4, 1969 in New York City. It is believed that his addictions to heroin and alcoholism contributed to his health problems. Four members of the famed Miles Davis Quintet died before the age of 51 and only one (drummer Jimmy Cobb) lived past the age of 65. Chambers was 34 at the time of his death; the first and youngest of the quintet members to pass away. His star shone brightly in a burst of success but flamed out quickly. His music and his influence live on.
Paul Chambers was elected to the Downbeat hall of Fame in 2011 and is also honored in the American Jazz Hall of Fame.