Don Bagley, a jazz bassist whose thick, meaty time-keeping became the heartbeat of leading West Coast big bands and ensembles of the 1950s and beyond, died July 26. He was 85. [Pictured above: Don Bagley with Julie London in Japan in May 1964]
Bagley spent a good portion of the '50s and '60s in the rhythm section of Stan Kenton's most ferocious orchestras. Kenton's early admiration and appreciation of Bagley's role was evident in September 1952, when the bandleader singled him out at the top of his list on This Is an Orchestra. [Photo of Don Bagley above at the National Guard Armory Auditorium in Charlotte, N.C., in July 1952]
The 10-minute Prologue (This Is An Orchestra!), composed and arranged by Johnny Richards, featured Kenton narrating a manifesto of sorts—explaining what made each musician special and why they formed a new modern sound when combined. The lengthy track eventually appeared on the 12-inch version of Kenton's New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm.
Kenton's rave of Bagley led off the track's showcases...
"Some musicians love the sounds of percussion. They like to melt them with the melody. They have the ability to bring to life strong rhythmic swing and pour it into others. That's a rhythm section. Takes a bass player. Ours? Don Bagley."
Bagley recorded just three leadership albums—Jazz on the Rocks (1957), Basically Bagley (1957) and The Soft Sell (1958). Bagley played and recorded often with Kenton, occasionally recording in breakout groups or with other top West Coast bands, like those led by Shorty Rogers and Les Brown. He also arranged for Julie London (Nice Girls Don't Stay for Breakfast, 1967) and for television and the movies in the '70s and '80s.
Yesterday, I gave Bill Holman a buzz to chat about Bagley and his work on one of Bill's finest albums for Kenton—Kenton Showcase: The Music of Bill Holman, recorded in 1953 and '54. This album (and Bill's Contemporary Concepts) remain among the finest of Kenton's recordings and capture the emotional essence of Los Angeles at the dawn of a new influential era. The music's optimism and excitement about the possibilities of tomorrow are still potent today.
"I remember Don being a very bright guy, very friendly with a great sense of humor. He'd often throw in funny expressions from early vaudeville to make a point. He was a solid bass player, which must have been hard in a band like Kenton’s. The band was tough to move given its enormous sound. Fortunately, [drummer] Stan Levey was in the rhythm section then and was strong enough with Don to keep everyone going. Don and Stan worked well together.
"I wrote Bags on Kenton Showcase specifically for Don. Bags was Don's nickname. The point was to have him out front as the song’s soloist and behind as the section’s time-keeper. Playing both roles at once was pretty tough and demonstrated his power and sensitivity. The entire Showcase album was a joy to write. I was still relying on intuition back then, so maybe my intuition was good [laughs]. [Pictured: Stan Kenton band at Atlantic City in 1953, with Don Bagley seated, second from left]
"As you noted, there was enormous optimism on my part, and I suppose that shows. At that time, Zoot was on the band, and I was feeling very good about everything. Being with Zoot was a treasured time for me. I loved his playing and his personality. He was an eye-opener.
"I had never met anyone like Zoot before. I grew up in Santa Ana, Calif., where things were pretty closed and most kids had a conservative upbringing. Zoot was really a breath of fresh air for me, and that was probably reflected in my approach to the music on Showcase.
"Later, I would always dedicate Fearless Finlay to Zoot, even though he had already left the band when Kenton recorded it in '54. To me, the song and arrangement captured some of the feelings I got from him. I was a comparative beginner with those things on there. The reason the songs are so melodic is I was thinking about jazz tunes and the jazz idiom and expressing what I knew of it. It just came out melodic. [Pictured above, from left: Zoot Sims, Joe Maini and Bill Holman in the early 1950s]
"If you listen carefully to the music [on Showcase], you’ll hear Lester Young in there throughout. I got a lot of my inspiration for those songs and arrangements from Lester, who was my biggest influence. [Photo of Lester Young by Herb Snitzer]
JazzWax tracks: Don Bagley's three leadership dates are hard to come by and are expensive. They can be found here, here and here. Bagley on Stan Kenton's Kenton Showcase: The Music of Bill Holman can be found here.
Other Bagley favorites: Shorty Rogers and His Giants' Modern Sounds (1951), Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray Live at the Civic Auditorium: The Chase and Steeplechase (1952), Bob Flanagan's Togetherness (1959), Ben Webster's The Warm Moods, (1961), John Gray's The New Wave, (1962), and Vic Lewis' Bossa Nova at Home and Away (1963).
JazzWax clips: Here's Don Bagley playing The Bachelor from Basically Bagley, one of his leadership dates for the Dot label, featuring pianist Jimmy Rowles and drummer Shelly Manne...
Here's Shorty Rogers with Don Bagley playing A Mile Down the Highway (September 1950). Dig the reeds in tight unison and Shelly Manne's drums throughout...
Here's Bobby Troup playing Tenderly in Japan in 1964, with Bagley on bass...
And here's Lee Konitz on Bill Holman's arrangements of Lover Man and In Lighter Vein (4:23), the latter being composed by Holman as well...