Ten great New Orleans bass players
By Gary Graff
April 27, 2018
You can’t talk about music without talking about New Orleans — and vice versa. The Crescent City is credited with birthing jazz and doing its part for the blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and at the bottom of it all, of course, have been great bass players. Most have labored in the background and few have established mainstream names for themselves, but those in the know give props to all the great low end that has come out of the low-lying burgh. With the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival upon us, we thought it was a good time to survey, in alphabetical order, 10 of the best bassists New Orleans has produced…
Theodore “Steve” Brown
Though Brown and his brother, trombonist Tom Brown, were part of the first wave of New Orleans jazz musicians to journey north — in their case to Chicago — his playing style, both slap and bowed, was all N’Awlins and came to prominence, appropriately enough, during the early ‘20s with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Brown also worked with the Jean Goldkettle Orchestra and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra before moving to Detroit around 1930, where he remained until his death in 1965.
A distant relative of the Marsalis family, Braud moved to New Orleans from St. James Parish during his teens, leading his own trio before moving to Chicago and then New York, where he took up the bass chair for Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and was credited with developing the walking style of playing. He also performed with Hot Lips Page, Sidney Bechet, Kaiser Marshall, the Kid Ory Band and Barbara Dane before his death during 1966 in Los Angeles.
Starting with his time in Dave Bartholomew’s band after World War II, the late Fields became a Crescent City fixture and house bassist for producer Cosimo Matassa at his J&M Studios, playing on recordings by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Professor Longhair, Huey “Piano” Smith, Ray Charles and more, as well as logging time in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. And if your television went on the fritz, Fields was the man to call, working as a repairman to augment his music income.
Papa John Joseph
One of New Orleans’ earliest bass heroes, Joseph moved to the city from St. James Parish to play with Buddy Bolden, Claiborne Williams and the Original Tuxedo Band. He took a break from music to work as a barber but reengaged later in life, ultimately dying on stage on January 22, 1965 at the age of 87 following a rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In.”
Walter Payton Jr.
Nobody knows how he ran with a football, but the late Payton was part of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and played on Lee Dorsey’s “Working In The Coal Mine.” His resume also included work with Harry Connick Jr., Aaron Neville, Nancy Wilson, Champion Jack Dupree and many more, as well as 25 years teaching in the New Orleans public school system. Payton also played on the 2001 Louis Armstrong tribute album Dear Louis by his son, trumpeter Nicholas Payton.
George Porter, Jr.
The dean of contemporary New Orleans players is best known for his work with the Meters but also boasts a lengthy resume that includes Dr. John, the Soul Rebels Brass Band, John Scofield’s Piety Band, 7 Walkers, Jimmy Buffett, the Metermen and many others. Porter is still going strong at 70, playing in ensembles and as a solo act.
Scanlan’s versatility has been well documented in his work with the Radiators, a Louisiana Music Hall of Fame ensemble that far surpasses the simple title of “jam band.” Scanlan was also a member of the New Orleans Suspects and has recorded with the likes of Martin Simpson, Jessica Radcliffe and Boogie Bill Webb. He’s a pretty fair photographer, too, and his work has graced album packages for the Radiators and others.
A member of the Astral Project, Singleton has also led ensembles such as the James Singleton Trio, the James Singleton Orchestra and 3 Now 4. His recording credits include Chet Baker, James Booker, Charlie Rich, Zachary Richard, Alvin “Red” Tyler and others. He moved from New Orleans to Los Angeles after Hurricane Katrina but returned to the Crescent City during December of 2008.
Though born in Chicago and now residing in Atlanta, Veal learned his musical chops in New Orleans from Ellis Marsalis and later studied bass trombone at Southern University. He’s been a regular with Ellis, Wynton and Branford Marsalis and has logged time with Harry Connick Jr., Marcus Roberts, Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Dianne Reeves and many more.
Chester “Little Bear” Zardis
The late Zardis studied with Billy Marrero and then, after being sent to a juvenile detention home, with Louis Armstrong. The slap bass master began working both as a bassist and a tubist as a teenager, developing a first-call reputation Kid Rena. A.J. Piron, Duke Dejan’s Dixie Rhythm Band and others, and later as a fixture at Preservation Hall. You can get a good look at Zardis in documentaries such as Chester Zardis: Spirit of New Orleans, Liberty Street Blues and Three Men of Jazz.