The great bassist Bob Cranshaw died on Wednesday, November 2, 2016, at age 83 after a prolonged battle with cancer. Like Sonny Rollins, with whom he played for over 50 years, Melbourne “Bob” Cranshaw’s parents hailed from the West Indies. For Rollins and Cranshaw, island rhythms were stock-in-trade, and “St. Thomas,” “Hold ‘Em Joe,” “Salvador,” “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and other calypsos became concert staples. Here they are with guitarist Bobby Broom, drummer Steve Jordan, and trombonist Clifton Anderson, playing Sonny’s original “Salvador,” at the 2005 Jazz a Juan Festival in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Cranshaw was born in Evanston, Illinois, on December 10, 1932. His father was a choir director, and the resonant bass tones of organs and choirs that young Bob heard at churches in Evanston attracted him to the double bass. After graduating from Roosevelt College in Chicago and serving in the U.S. Army, he moved to New York in 1958, but he was so put off by the city’s dirt and grime that he promptly retreated to Evanston, a neat and tidy suburb bordering Chicago and Lake Michigan. When Rollins’s piano-less trio was booked for the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1959, his Chicago-born drummer Walter Perkins suggested Bob as a fill-in on bass. Sonny’s renown signaled to Bob that he was “moving up” in auditioning for the gig, but he proved equal to the task, and he promptly accepted Sonny’s offer of the permanent job.
Here’s Bob in 1962 with Rollins, Jim Hall, and Ben Riley playing “If Ever I Would Leave You” on Ralph J. Gleason’s Jazz Casual television series. Their reprise of the Lerner and Loewe standard from Camelot at Sonny’s 80th birthday concert in 2010 was a major highlight of the event for this writer.
Cranshaw went on to record a few dozen albums and play hundreds of concerts with Rollins, and he remained awed by the Saxophone Colossus every step of the way. In interviews filmed in recent years by Bret Primack, (dba the Jazz Video Guy), Cranshaw, who played football in college, said that he saw his role as that of an “offensive guard opening holes for Sonny to run through.” In Bob’s view, Rollins was a prodigious “halfback” and “brilliant” virtuoso, while Sonny recognized early on that Bob’s skill at anticipating Sonny’s modulations signaled that they were on the same “wavelength” as players creating music of an extraordinarily spontaneous nature.
A year after joining Rollins, the saxophonist began a legendary eighteen-month hiatus from public performance, so it wasn’t until 1962 that Bob first recorded with Sonny on the landmark album The Bridge. By that time, he’d set out as a freelance with the goal in mind of being a “super-sideman,” and over the years he appeared on hundreds of albums; played in the pit band for numerous Broadway shows; played all of the bass parts for Sesame Street and The Electric Company; toured with Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, and other headliners; and played in the Saturday Night Live house band. Through it all, he didn’t make a single album as a leader, but with occasional allowances for schedule conflicts, he remained a fixture with Rollins. Duke Ellington was renowned for the loyalty he inspired in band members, but even Harry Carney’s near-fifty year long tenure with Duke ranks second to the enduring bond between Cranshaw and Rollins.
While managing to juggle these non-stop assignments, Cranshaw became the most in-demand bassist at Blue Note Records, where he played on some of the best-known jazz albums of all time. These included The Cape Verdean Blues with Horace Silver, and a handful of dates with Lee Morgan, including The Sidewinder, which he discusses and illuminates in this filmed interview. Listen especially for Bob (at 5:10) talking about Lee’s hastily written tune “The Sidewinder,” the challenge its funky nature presented to bebop piano great Barry Harris, and the “pick-up” groove that Lee asked Bob, a self-proclaimed “bass player of few notes,” to create to introduce the tune.
Bob established the electric bass, which he played as if it were acoustic, as a signature element of Rollins’s music. In the twenty-plus times that I’ve seen Sonny in concert, I don’t recall Cranshaw playing anything but electric bass. (The only time I saw Sonny with someone playing acoustic was when Christian McBride appeared as one of his special guests at Rollins’s 80th birthday concert at the Beacon Theater in New York on September 10, 2010.) But here’s Bob playing upright bass on a 2007 concert performance filmed in Vienna. The band includes guitarist Peter Bernstein, drummer Kobie Watkins, and percussionist Sammy Figueroa. The tireless Rollins, here aged 77, is seen playing a 26-minute, two-song encore that includes “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and “Tenor Madness.”
My thoughts are with Sonny Rollins as I write this and immerse myself in these captivating concert performances. Sonny’s awesome energy and colossal authority as a performer can easily lead one to think of him as a transcendent figure who’s unaffected by the quotidian nature of life. But over the past fifteen years, he’s lost his wife Lucille. and he’s been sidelined by a respiratory ailment caused by the toxins he was exposed to on 9/11 at his Tribeca loft near the World Trade Center; he wasn’t evacuated from the area until about 30 hours after the attacks. Now with the death of his close friend and collaborator Bob Cranshaw, I humbly wish that peace be with you, Sonny.