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Carson Smith: 1931-1997
Carson Smith

Born: January 9, 1931 in San Francisco, California
Died: November 2, 1997 in Las Vegas, Nevada

A Supportive Swinging Bassman

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1997

Smith, Carson Carson Smith was a jazz bass player best known for his work with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker in the heydey of so-called Cool Jazz in his native California in the early 1950s.

He began playing double bass as a teenager, and by his early 20s was a highly accomplished and very swinging jazz player. His style was basically self-effacing and supportive rather than attention-seeking and virtuosic, and as such he was able not only to fit into many different contexts with ease, but also to bring his own qualities to them.

Those qualities included a full, rich sonority on the instrument, but the most crucial of them was his ability to lift the music with his buoyant, energised sense of swing. His arrival as a fully rounded musician coincided precisely with the emergence of the new Cool style in the early 1950s, and he was an important element in a number of major bands associated with that popular and influential style.

While bebop had proved too fearsome a prospect for many listeners, Cool jazz offered a modern, sophisticated alternative to the Dixieland revival, but without the fiery complexity of the bop developments, now centred on the east coast. Cool jazz was also, in contrast with bebop, largely a white phenomenon, and thus took on a more accessible aura on social as well as musical grounds for many listeners.

The first key group of the new style emerged at a club called The Haig in Los Angeles, where saxophonist Gerry Mulligan put together a pianoless quartet with Chet Baker on trumpet, Chico Hamilton on drums, and Bob Whitlock on bass. Carson Smith then took over from Whitlock, and the bassist's contribution to the music was a significant one, especially given the added prominence of the instrument in the absence of piano.

It is probably indicative of Smith's temperament and lack of driving ambition that he was the only one of the four musicians who did not go on to become a significant band-leader in his own right, preferring to remain a freelance. Smith is credited as being instrumental in introducing "My Funny Valentine" into the band's set, thereby setting up their biggest hit as a vehicle for Baker's evocative trumpet.

Dissension between the two horn players led to the break-up of the band in 1953, but Smith remained with Baker for two more years, and also worked with a number of other notable musicians, including Clifford Brown (1954) and Billie Holiday (at Carnegie Hall in 1956). He was reunited with Chico Hamilton in the drummer's "chamber jazz" quintet in 1955, and worked intermittently with him in the later part of the decade even after leaving the band in 1957.

He moved to Las Vegas in 1962, and found work readily available on the club and entertainments circuit in the city. He both performed and recorded with trombonist Jack Teagarden that year, and played in big band settings with the likes of Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich and Georgie Auld, with whom he toured Japan in 1964. Thereafter, though, he was content to play in the show and club bands of his adopted home, where he remained active until his death. The relative obscurity of that ethos has unjustly diminished his standing as a significant jazz artist on his instrument.

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