Mickey Bass, the consummate bassist, composer, arranger and educator, who played with everyone from Art Blakey to Lee Morgan and taught four generations of aspiring jazz musicians, died at his Harlem apartment on Feb. 3. He was 78.
His death was confirmed by his long-time companion. A cause of death was not given.
Right through his last days of life, Bass was actively working on various projects including looking for a venue in Harlem where he could offer music classes and live concerts. He continued his private music and bass instructions on a weekly basis in his apartment. He taught his students theory based on his experience and his authored book “The Diminished Whole Tone Concept: An Advanced Approach to Jazz Improvisation” (2006). In the book’s sleeve he wrote, “This is a book, written by a working musician for musicians…who want to work.”
The book’s concept came about in 1975, when Bass was invited to teach at the then-newly formed Ellington School of the Arts, in Washington, D.C. (1975-’78). As a result, he formed Ellington Jazz Ensemble with soon-to-be jazz stars Wallace Roney, Antoine Roney, Clarence Seary, and Eric Allen. As director of the Ensemble, Bass composed, arranged and orchestrated all the music. In 1977, the Ensemble along with Bass were invited to perform at the White House as part of the inaugural festivities for President Jimmy Carter.
Bass was the curriculum coordinator and music instructor for the education program at Jazzmobile in 1965 and remained an active instructor at the community-based non-profit jazz organization until his transition.
Bass also taught at two elementary schools in East Harlem. As a result he co-authored another book with Dr. Billy Taylor, “An Arts Enrichment Educational Program,” a teaching primer for elementary education, published through Jazzmobile, Inc.
As a prominent composer and arranger Bass was awarded two grants: National Endowment for the Arts, Composer’s Grant, in 1980, for which he wrote for string quartet with jazz rhythm section and percussion. In 2017 he received a composer’s grant from Chamber Music America. Bass, who played piano, bass and flute proficiently, made it clear he was greatly influenced by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
During 2016-’18 Bass was busy leading his popular hard bop quartet the New York Powerhouse. He played from a bebop perspective, a sound which he felt wasn’t being played enough. He felt a personal obligation to keep the bebop tradition alive. In the early 1990s, he hosted a Manhattan cable TV series entitled “New York Art Exclusive,” where he discussed the arts with a jazz focus. A few years ago, he founded bebop tv.com, a jazz-oriented series that he wrote. He also hosted a radio show “Adventures in Jazz,” interviewing guests such as Mary Lou Williams, Randy Weston, and jazz critic and author Leonard Feather.
“Mickey was well respected in the music community, I played with him a few times,” said saxophonist Richard Clay. “Knowing Mickey was a badge of honor.”
In 1966 Downbeat declared him to be “A first rate soloist!” While performing with the organist Jimmy McGriff, Essence Magazine cited him to be “The Heartbeat of the Group.”
Bass recorded three albums with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers; “Child’s Dance” (Prestige, 1972), “Buhaina” (Prestige, 1973) and “Anthenagin” (Prestige, 1973). Blakey liked his sense of rhythm (deep melodic flow)—he knew when to come in and what notes to hit. Bass noted it was a great learning experience for him, “Playing with Art was like being in jazz bootcamp.” He recorded Lee Morgan’s hard bop swinging “Sixth Sense” (Blue Note, 1968). Bass enjoyed being in the bebop mode with Philly Joe Jones on his album “Mean What You Say” (Sonet, 1977).
As a leader Bass recorded “Sentimental Mood” (Chiaroscuro, 1982), “The Co-operation” (Early Bird, 1991) and “Another Way Out” (Early Bird, 1991). Early Bird Records was his independent label founded in 1990. During his prominent career, oftentimes underrated, he was a first call bassist and highly respected by his peers, having played with Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, and Gloria Lynne (music director for 17 years).
Both Wynton and Branford Marsalis played in Bass’ bands, before moving to play with Art Blakey. Mickey’s Compositions are amongst the tunes they cut their chops on, during their tenure with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
His Compositions have been recorded by Hank Mobley, Reuben Wilson, Ramon Morris, George Cables, and on John Hicks’ album “Piece for My Peace.”
Lee Odiss Bass III was born on May 2, 1943, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He learned music at an early age, his mother was a singer and dancer and his maternal grandmother, who performed in minstrel shows and played piano, gave him lessons. In junior high school he took bass lessons from William Lewis and became a member of his high school band where he participated in the All-City High School Orchestra. Following graduation, Bass attended Howard University, majoring in music education. “Mickey and I started playing music together while attending Howard, he was a dear friend and colleague,” said trumpeter Charles Tolliver. “I will miss him terribly.”
His first gig following Howard U. was in New York City at Harlem’s Theresa Hotel with saxophonist Hank Mobley in 1964. He went on to play with Bobby Timmons, Miriam Makeba, Carmen McRae, Bennie Green and Chico Hamilton. Saxophonist Jackie McLean, his former bandleader, asked him to join his staff (he was founder and chairman) as an adjunct professor at the Jackie McLean Institute at the Hartt School of Music at University of Hartford, in Connecticut, where Bass taught from 1982 to 1985. As a committed jazz advocate Bass became chairperson for the National Association of Jazz Educators from 1984-’86. “Mickey had stories about music and every single jazz musician on the planet,” says author and writer Angela Dews. “Only a musician and a romantic would remember all that with such a great love.”
During his illustrious career Bass toured around the world. In his adopted city of NYC and particularly in Harlem, Bass’ live performances were hot tickets. His quartet in 1987 featured tenor saxophonist Carter Jefferson, pianist John Hickes, and drummer Michael Carvin. In 1995, he led the Burn Unit. He later led the New York Powerhouse Ensemble that was a NYC favorite which featured vibraphonist Steve Nelson; alto saxophonist Brent Birkhead; tenor saxophonist Charles Davis Jr.; and drummer Mark Johnson. The New York Times stated, “It is doubtful if there is a jazz group in town that swings as hard as this one.”
Bass will be remembered for his humorous wit, his encyclopedic jazz memory, and of course for his music that allowed him to groove in a trio with Carmen McRae or get into a deep bebop swing with Blakey. He had a strong love for Harlem and wanted nothing more than to “keep our music in the community.”
Bass’ family have made funeral arrangements in his hometown of Pittsburgh. There will be a memorial held at a later date in New York City.