One of the great lessons in life was taught by Jesus: “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.” It seems completely against nature, but history has born it out. The greatest servants end up become leaders. Maybe not in ways that you expect, but they are essential in are parts of life.
Sidemen, the ultimate “servants,” may not get the accolades, but all band and small group leaders know how essential they are to making a song sound just right. Here is a list, obviously incomplete, of some of the jazz artists that appear on many important recordings, but never got the accolades. I’ve included artists from the past along with some that you can still catch in concert.
- Chris Griffin:He was the lead trumpet player for Benny Goodman’s big band in the 30s and then Tommy Dorsey’s in the 40s, with no less than Duke Ellington claiming his work with Goodman was the best in the business. His sound made the horns BITE!
- Freddie Green: For 50 years, he strummed his rhythm guitar for Count Basie’s Orchestra to give it its uniquely lightly swing feel. He also graced sessions with Billie Holiday, never taking a solo except for the famous Carnegie Hall concert jam with Benny Goodman and Lester Young.
- Earl Warren:possibly the only sax player for Count Basie’s “Old Testament” Band from 1936-41 that didn’t (or rarely) solo’d, but he kept the silky sound intact, balancing Lester Young, Earl Warren/Buddy Tate and Jack Washington.
- Philly Joe Jones:this drummer is arguably the most recorded one in history, appearing on hundreds of sessions. The ultimate hard bop drummer, he’s graced recordings by Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Hank Mobley and anyone you dare mention.
- John Pisano:still alive, this guitarist served as Joe Pass’s accompanist for years, as well as strumming along for Sergio Mendes and Brazil ’66,not to mention sitting in the chair for Sinatra and Bennett for some of their finest recordings.
- Bill Miller:speaking of Sinatra, pianist Bill Miller made a career as the most deft at handling Sinatra in the studio as well as on stage.
- Harvey Mason:from working with Sinatra, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters or Quincy Jones, Mason is considered the most adaptable, respected and sympathetic of drummers.
- Larry Goldings:this keyboardist seems to show up on just about every album lately, including Madeleine Peyroux , Steve Gadd, Pat Metheny, Norah Jones, Leon Russell. I guarantee that you have an album with him on it
- Anthony Wilson & Russell Malone:Both guitarists are united by the fact that they both team up with Diana Krall’s sessions and gigs, and both have made careers out of being the ultimate six stringed team players. Wilson held the guitar chair for Gerald Wilson’s orchestra for years, and still squeezed in gigs with Paul McCartney, Al Jarreau and Bobby Hutcherson. Malone was with Harry Connick for years, then teamed with Ron Carter to make some sublime chamber jazz.
- Kenny Barron-John Hicks-Tommy Flanagan-Cedar Walton: All four gents became leaders in their own rights, but each was a reliable sideman for years. Barron started out with Dizzy Gillespie before being the heart and soul of Stan Getz, particularly on those lovely duets. John Hicks is possibly the most obscure, serving the piano chair for Della Reese, Johnny Griffin, Betty Carter as well as Freddie Hubbard. Flanagan was Ella Fitzgerald’s pianist for years as well as backing artists like Oscar Pettiford and JJ Johnson. Waldron was in the chair for Art Blakey’s apotheosis of a band, and was always known as the go to guy for guys like Clifford Jordan, Hank Mobley and Lee Morgan.
- Nathan East-he’s desired by leaders ranging from Eric Clapton to Phil Collins and even Pharrell Williams since he held the bass chair for Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra. RIGHT ON!
- BONUS-The Band-Booker T and the MGs, The Funk Brothers, The Wrecking Crew: These four bands were the ultimate backup bands for various artists. The Band began under Ronnie Hawkins before touring with Bob Dylan during his famous “electric” days. Booker T and the MGs was the “house band” for STAX Records, serving up grooves for Otis Redding and Sam & Dave. The Funk Brothers, with James Jamerson on bass, was the team that backed most of the Motown hits in the 60s like “My Girl” and “Heat Wave.” The Wrecking Crew, featuring Leon Russell and Glen Campbell was the LA version of the Funk Brothers, serving as ghost bands for The Byrds and the Monkees as well as serving up sessions for The Mamas and Papas.
- The greatest shall be the least.