Pittsburgh Jazz Legends 14: Eddie Safranski

Wednesday, 31 October 2012 06:26 AM Written by 

It's a given Leo Fender introduced the famous solidbody electric bass guitar in 1951. What only hardcore instrument collectors and bass enthusiasts know is that the concept of electric bass began five years earlier, with a New Jersey inventor and a Pittsburgh jazz great too often forgotten: upright bassist Eddie Safranski.

Born here on Christmas Day, 1918, he was playing violin at age 8 before moving over to upright bass.  At 19, he started working locally with Marty Gregor's Orchestra.  His wife, vocalist Irene Kovack Safranski, also hailed from here. In the early 40's Safranski became an early follower of groundbreaking s Duke Ellington bassist Jimmy Blanton, whose articulate, adventurous lines made upright bass more than just part of the rhythm section.

His first major big band job, with Hal McIntyre and his Orchestra, came in 1941. McIntyre was a former Glenn Miller saxophonist, the band backed financially by Miller.  Safranski's up-front aggressive playing gave him special standing and notice.

November, 1943 He's on this transcribed McIntyre instrumental "Who's Got The Ball," never recorded commercially.

Bandleader Stan Kenton saw Safranski with McIntyre in 1945 and hired him away.  Kenton's orchestra was one of the most visible--and controversial--big bands of the postwar era. Despite a few hit records with vocalists, Kenton favored explosive, serious complex, forward-looking instrumentals criticized by other jazz players as bombastic and pretentious. Nonetheless, Safranski became a major musical force in the Kenton band, which became popular in concert halls as opposed to ballrooms.

Safranski was frequently featured by Kenton, making him such a visible part of the band he was even immortalized in the a passage about the Kenton orchestra in the From Here to Eternity author James Jones's postwar novel Some Came Running.

1945: One of Kenton's best-known early instrumentals:  "Painted Rhythm." Safranski is clearly audible driving the band.

1946: Kenton had arranger-composer Pete Rugolo create this showcase for his bassist. The title, "Safranski (Artistry in Bass)" says it all.

The bassist discovered a new device in 1946: an electric pickup mounted in the endpin, the sturdy peg that supported the bass as it stood on a floor.  Invented by ex-Lawrence Welk bassist Everett Hull, this endpin was connected to an amplifier specially designed to handle heavy bass tones.  The "amplified peg" idea evolved into the company's better known brand name: Ampeg.

Safranski became Ampeg's first big-league endorser. According to the 1999 Gregg Hopkins-Bill Moore book Ampeg: The Story Behind the Sound, he received a royalty for every peg pickup and amp sold as he popularized the gear around the country.

Kenton featured Safranski on tunes like "Concerto To End All Concertos."  He became such a visible part of the band he was even immortalized in the postwar James Jones novel Some Came Running. 

1946: Safranski also recorded on his own. This was his group's take on the theme from the Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound.  The musicians include tenor saxophonist Vido Musso, pianist Sanford Gold and drummer Denzel Best.  It, too, has a Kenton flavor.

1946: Safranski in swing mode on saxophonist Willie Smith's recording of  "I Found A New Baby."  Note the top-drawer group of musicians identified on the label.

Safranski left Kenton for Charlie Barnet's orchestra. He briefly worked with Benny Goodman before he, like other big band veterans, settling into New York recording session and work on NBC radio and TV. 

Some of Safranski's NBC work was immortalized in his rhythm section work on the 1958 NBC series The Subject Is Jazz. Pianist Billy Taylor, not yet holding his doctorate, led the show's house band which included Safranski, guitarist Mundell Lowe and drummer Ed Thigpen. This is the final, complete (25 minutes) episode: "The Future of Jazz." Also seen are clarinetist Tony Scott, the sax player. Jimmy Cleveland plays trombone.  The trumpeter is a big band vet named Carl Severinsen, not yet widely known as "Doc."   

1958:  Safranski is prominent both musically and visually in the opening theme.

There's a lot to enjoy in the above clip. Aside from the excellent quality for the time you get to see a young Bill Evans, McDonald native Barry Galbraith, saxophonist Gene Quill and Art Farmer on trumpet playing George Russell's compositions.  Safranski keeps the bass going throughout.

 Eventually the bassist returned to California and died there in 1974 at the young age of 56.

Everyone knows Ray Brown and Paul Chambers have Pittsburgh roots, both s far from the only great bassist to come from here. The late Bobby Boswell and the very active Dwayne Dolphin are proof of that.  Safranski may not be as well remembered as Ray and Paul, but he made his own contributions--with and without the amplifier.



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