Today In Jazz

Happy Birthday Ray Nance, Bob Cranshaw!

December 10

Back in the day–and by “day” I mean the history of show business from, say, the dawn of jazz until the 1940s–entertainers were expected to be versatile. If you told jokes, you also needed to do a passable soft shoe. If a hoofer, you had to be able to put over a song. You get the picture, a picture that’s often obscured or overlooked, especially by jazz historians and critics. Ray Nance, born in 1913 in Chicago, is a perfect example of the all-around performer. Yes, we know him as the trumpet player who came aboard the Duke Ellington Orchestra just in time to make a now-immortal dance date in Fargo, ND[1] and soon thereafter wax a timeless solo on ‘Take the A Train.” There’s that Ray Nance, the buoyantly brassy soloist. Then there’s Ray Nance, a sterling jazz violinist….And a third Ray Nance: the singer whose voice was wry and ebullient on such Ellington classics as “Just a Settin’ and a Rockin’,” with its insinuations of irony (not the contemporary kind, just an acknowledgement that he knew he wasn’t Billy Eckstine and he also knew that you knew he wasn’t, so the joke was only on the folks so un-hip that they weren’t aware of it). We’re not finished; Ray Nance was a dancer, too, and a good one. (Keep reading.) Nance began his professional career by fronting a small combo in the Chicago area during the lean years of the Depression. From there, he caught the ear of pianist Earl Hines (who had made Chicaago his second home) and joined Hines’s excellent big band in 1937. After a short stint in Horace Henderson’s orchestra, Duke called, and Ray stayed on the line until 1964. (Was it a coincidence that Nance spent most of his career playing with the smartest, most sophisticated orchestras of his time?) Listen to Nance showing off his trumpet, vocal and comic skills in the Ellington opus, “A Slip of a Lip Can Sink a Ship”, here:
We now direct your cursor to this priceless gem, a 1941 “soundie,” that features the Ellington band doing a decidedly different version of “Take the A Train.” Why is it different? Well, for one thing, Ray Nance doesn’t solo–but he does shimmy down the aisle of a train car that more resembles a Hollywood set for a overland railroad car than the famed New York City subway line:
(You can choose among several such Ellington clips.)

Bassist Bob Cranshaw is born in 1932 in Evanston, IL. Cranshaw, too, is a bit of a throwback: He was an extremely proficient jazz bassist who played with everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Coleman Hawkins, to Jackie McLean and Thelonious Monk–most prominently in the working groups of pianist Duke Pearson and, most famously an almost half-century with saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Cranshaw was one of the first to convert from acoustic to electric bass (although an injury forced him to switch back). Two of his most memorable recordings are  Lee Morgan‘s The Sidewinder and Grant Green‘s Idle Moments, Yet Cranshaw also was a regular performer on Sesame Street and other children’s programs, and he plucked the contrabass in many theater and television orchestras, such as under Dr. Billy Taylor’s orchestral baton on The David Frost Show. In addition, Cranshaw has been a passionate advocate for the rights of musicians. Listen to Cranshaw lie down the groove on one of the most infectious of tunes, “The Sidewinder” here (and extra credit if you can tell us what a “sidewinder” is):