Bob Cranshaw, Jazz Superhero (1932-2016)


Volume 116, No. 12December, 2016

Todd Bryant Weeks

bob-cranshaw-publicity-shotThe phone rings in Local 802’s Jazz Department. A mellow baritone comes on the line, thrumming with laughter and positive energy. “All right!” the voice calls out. It’s the immediately recognizable signature greeting of Bob Cranshaw. The vibe is contagious, and he has you laughing before you can summon words. “Just checking in. What’s happening? Anything I can do?” he asks. The widow of a prominent jazz pianist has been calling the office all morning, looking for help with her husband’s pension. She’s not easy to deal with, as her impaired memory tends to contravene any attempts by union staff to assist her. “I’m on it,” says the bassist, “She’s my people. I’ll take care of her.”

I wrote those words in December 2012, around the time of Cranshaw’s 80th birthday. Cranshaw, who died on Nov. 2 of bone cancer, had been working with Local 802 for decades. He first joined Local 802 in 1960, then volunteered at the union until being hired as the union’s jazz consultant. In 2012, he was elected to the Executive Board.

Cranshaw had deep roots in the music. He toured with that grand old man of the saxophone, Sonny Rollins, for over 50 years. One of the preeminent electric jazz bassists who developed facility on that instrument early on, he also appeared on Broadway and on television – for 25 years with “Sesame Street” and long tenures with “The Electric Company,” the “David Frost Show” and “Saturday Night Live.” Notably, Cranshaw appeared on more Blue Note recordings than any other jazz bassist, with leaders such as Duke Pearson, Stanley Turrentine, Lee Morgan (he came up with the bass line on “The Sidewinder”), Grant Green, Dexter Gordon, Bobby Hutcherson and Jackie McLean. He had a well-established, ongoing association with the dancer Maurice Hines. Additionally, Bob recorded and toured with the cream of the crop of jazz vocalists including Carmen McCrae, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne. And his pop credits are frankly too numerous to mention here. Up until 2011, he toured internationally with Rollins (now retired), and kept up a regular local schedule of recording, performing and teaching. Cranshaw’s other focus was always advocacy.

“I’ve been fortunate. I’ve done very well by the union – I have a huge pension,” he said to me on a November day in 2012, sitting across the table wearing a stylish flowing shirt and a pair of worn jeans, “And so I want to make sure others know how to get involved.” Cranshaw was active on various union committees for years, and – along with musicians Jimmy Owens, Rufus Reid, Bertha Hope, Keisha St. Joan and others – he was instrumental in working with union leadership to guide the Justice for Jazz Artists campaign, which sought, among other things, to bring pension and other benefits to musicians working in local clubs. This is the group, aided by Benny Powell and Jamil Nassir, that unionized the jazz department at the New School in 1997.

Inset photo: Kate Glicksberg

Inset photo: Kate Glicksberg

“We have to stand up for ourselves,” said Cranshaw, “If we don’t do it, who will?” Bob made a life out of being a chameleon of sorts, musical and otherwise. He was at once a master instrumentalist comfortable in myriad musical settings, an advocate for jazz musicians, a teacher and a statesman. A friend to all, he was never above delivering a bawdy joke (a la Red Foxx). From time to time, he was known to bring homeless musicians to the Jazz Foundation of America to get them some help. And he regularly “adopted” younger players in need of professional and musical guidance. When one met Bob in person, clad as he often was in one of his many “Sesame Street” sweatshirts (“the kids love them,” he used to say), there was always an immediate impression of his personal warmth, his generosity of spirit, and, of course his youthfulness. “Well,” he’d say, when queried about his youthful looks, “I’m still kickin’, but not high.” And then out would come that laugh again, and everybody in the room would look up and begin to laugh, too. The joke about Dorian Gray’s aging portrait became standard with Bob’s friends – with the difference that as Bob aged he retained both his youthfulness and his own, highly moral character.

Once, while attending a lobbying trip in Albany to advocate for tax breaks for jazz venues, he engaged dozens of passersby in small talk as he made his way through the state capitol building. “People kept coming up to me, wanting to shake my hand,” he laughed. “I didn’t know them from Adam. Guess they thought I was some sort of politician.” The reason, as it turned out, was that Cranshaw was wearing his best blue suit that day. With his air of cool self-confidence and his dignified but relaxed bearing, he had been taken for a member of the state legislature. “I’m not cut out to be a politician,” he’d say, “though I do know how to hustle when I need to. Some of these guys are professional hustlers. And they know I see right through ‘em. That’s why they agree to meet with me. They know I know what they’re up to.”

Melbourne R. “Bob” Cranshaw was born Dec. 10, 1932 in Evanston, Illinois, to parents of Madagascan and Native American heritage. His father, Stanley Irvine Cranshaw, was a jazz drummer from the Kansas City, Missouri, area, who moved to the Chicago suburbs to build a life with one Evelyn Brown, who had been born in Evanston. Stanley Cranshaw eventually found work as an electrician, and the couple soon gave birth to Bob and his brother Stanley Jr., who went on to become an exceptional jazz pianist. Bob’s parents later adopted a third child, Emanuel, who grew up to be a highly talented vibraphonist. In 2011, Bob recalled, “My father’s people are American Indian, so that probably contributed to my looking young – along with my mother’s Madagascan background. My paternal grandmother was this gorgeous, beautiful lady – she had really Indian features. I never met my father’s father, but last year my cousin sent me a picture of him and it freaked me out. I looked at the picture and I’m saying ‘Whoa! This guy is right off the reservation!’”

He came to a realization of his musical gifts early on. While studying piano as a young boy, he found he could play back anything the teacher demonstrated. She thought he was reading. “Once I heard it,” he recalled, “it was over.”

“When I was three or four years old,” said Cranshaw, “my parents enrolled me in a program for special kids at Northwestern University. And I knew I could grab any instrument. I had a clarinet at home and within two weeks, I could play tunes on it. I had a bandilla-type guitar, same thing – 15, 20 minutes, I had it. Gone.” Cranshaw had wanted to play the drums like his father, but imagined a classical trajectory for himself and so learned all the orchestral percussion instruments before high school. But there was jazz in the home, and as his brothers began to excel on their individual instruments, Bob decided that rather than compete with his father on drums, he would switch to bass. He had other reasons. “If you played on the weekends, the girls were there.” He winked. “I liked that idea also.”

By the time he was in high school at Evanston Township, he was one of multiple bass players in the school’s acclaimed orchestra, and was beginning to appear regularly at local dances and parties. He had been able to get by on sheer talent up to a point, but the demands of the instrument, and the music, were such that he soon found himself at a crossroads.

“There were eight double bass players in the orchestra,” he remembered, “and I was the eighth. There were seven girls ahead of me. We had a passage that the director wanted everybody to play alone. So the first couple of people said, you know, ‘I don’t want to try it, I would rather work on it a while.’ Others gave it a shot. So he went on down the line. By the time he got to me, I had heard it. He asked me, ‘You want to play it?’ I already knew it. I played it down. So, he moved me up to the third spot. Now the challenge is on me, ‘cause I’ve gotta be worthy of being in that third chair. I gotta produce.”

Bob as a young man.

Bob as a young man.

By his mid-20s, Cranshaw had finished college (Bradley University), served in the military (Korea), and was working for the Department of Sanitation in his native Evanston. But he was also poised to begin a musical relationship that would thrust him into the limelight in Chicago, and eventually the big time in New York City and beyond. In the early 1950s, Cranshaw had met drummer Walter Perkins while in basic training at Camp Roberts, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles. By 1957, now back in Chicago, they had formed the group MJT + 3, a quintet which included trumpeter Willie Thomas, alto saxophonist/flutist Frank Strozier and the young pianist Muhal Richard Abrams from Chicago’s famous Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. (Abrams was later replaced in the band by Harold Mabern).

“We did a couple of albums in the early 1960s that were incredible,” Cranshaw remembered. “At that time, Ahmad Jamal was already on his way: he was the big group as far as name recognition. But Ramsey Lewis and our group were the younger groups coming up. I was working in the clubs seven nights a week.”

Cranshaw’s first New York sojourn was short lived. He got a call from saxophonist Cannonball Adderley to come to the Big Apple. But the bassist didn’t like what he found. “New York was so dirty,” he said, laughing at the memory. “In Chicago, we have alleys where we keep the garbage. So I came here and I saw all this garbage out on the street. And I said, ‘Thank you, no.’ See, I’m really a small-town guy. I stayed for three days, then went back home.” Perkins and Cranshaw were eventually hired to accompany vocalist Carmen McCrae. The band toured out of New York, and Bob got acclimated to city life. Towards the end of his stint with McCrae, he was asked by Perkins to appear as part of a trio with Sonny Rollins at the 1959 Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago. “I said ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,’” remembered Bob. “And then I thought about it and said, ‘Oh man, am I stepping into something I’m not ready for?’ No pianist, you know. But I’d already accepted the gig. “So we go to the festival in the afternoon. It was at the Chicago Stadium and, of course, as these things go, I’d never actually met Sonny. Sonny told us to be there a couple of hours ahead to set up, so we get to the stadium and the concert starts at 3 p.m. I still haven’t met the man; we don’t know what we’re going to play. We were supposed to be the fourth group on. The first group went on, second group, third group. All of a sudden, it’s time for us to go on. People are saying ‘Where’s Sonny?’” Unbeknownst to Cranshaw, Rollins had been hiding backstage, checking out his competition, which included Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Peterson and Nina Simone. Cranshaw continued: “So the fifth group goes on, sixth group. By that time most of the people at the festival were waiting to hear Sonny. But see, he had picked his time. Suddenly he appears from the wings. We said hello. We went out there, no set list, nothing. 68,000 people. We tore it up.” After the festival, Rollins asked Cranshaw if he wanted to be a permanent member of the group. Cranshaw’s answer was brief. “I said, ‘I do.’”

The bassist’s musical philosophy may have been surprising to some. He just played, and rarely asked for a set list, or, for that matter, a lead sheet. “When I’m playing a piece of music, I never ask the key,” Bob told me. “By the time you hit the first note, I know the key. When I’m playing things out, I don’t really think about what key it’s in. Guys get into this sharp and that flat; I don’t even bother myself about it. I hear it, I play it.” The enormously talented songwriter-musical director Joe Raposo, the man behind the music on “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company,” was originally taken aback by Cranshaw’s unorthodox approach. “The first time Joe and I played together,” said Cranshaw, “I knew he was thinking, ‘What the hell is this?’ I’d been accustomed to playing with musicians like McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton – guys who play differently than Broadway people, especially as far as voicing chords is concerned. But Joe Raposo always covered the bass notes with his left hand. I thought, ‘I can’t change his playing.’ My philosophy was, I’m going to make it feel so good to him that he’s gonna put that left hand right in his pocket. And that’s what happened. Once he started to hear me, he changed the way he was playing and we had a ball. Over the years at ‘Sesame Street,’ when Joe would write a lead sheet, he never wrote a bass part. He knew I could hear the bass parts on my own.” He was always on time, always arrived at the airport very early. “I don’t want any fuss,” he would say. “Let everybody else get all bent out of shape over making their plane on time, running late. I’m here already. I’m cool.”

Bob loved football, and in his later years he would make sure his hotel room had all the channels he needed to watch as many games as possible. He would repair to his room, take a bath, practice his bass, watch his football games – and eat yogurt.

IN WASHINGTON: Bob Cranshaw with John Kerry during one of Bob's frequent trips to Washington to advocate for jazz musicians.

IN WASHINGTON: Bob Cranshaw with John Kerry during one of Bob’s frequent trips to Washington to advocate for jazz musicians.

Bob’s advocacy for fellow musicians was prolific. He was a founding member of Local 802’s Jazz Advisory Committee. He worked for the union as its jazz consultant and later as an elected member of the Executive Board. He was the first musician to sign onto the Honorary Advisory Board of the union’s Emergency Relief Fund.

Bob agitated on behalf of jazz musicians at the Texaco Jazz Festival in the early 2000s, which resulted in a union agreement. He met with management of Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2010 and encouraged them to cover more musicians under the union agreement there. He encouraged the owners of Smalls Jazz Club to set up a profit-sharing mechanism related to their audiovisual archive, now known as “Small’s Live.”

Bob was a consistent presence in Local 802’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign. He made multiple trips to Albany and Washington, D.C. to advocate for musicians’ rights. He made appearances at jazz conferences nationwide including IAJE, JEN, and Jazz Connect. He took part in dozens of panel discussions, including 802’s own Jazz Mentors series. And he worked with the Jazz Foundation of America, where he sat on its Honorary Founders Board since its inception in the early 1990s. All the while he kept up a busy touring and recording schedule with Rollins, Hines, singer Charles Aznavour, the Diva Jazz Band, Mike LeDonne, John Colianni, and countless others – well into his 80s.

Cranshaw was always adamant about musicians organizing to make their lives better, and that jazz artists in particular should take advantage of the benefits programs that were already out there, like the AFM pension fund. In the end, it appears that Bob Cranshaw did what he did not just because it was expected of him, but because that vital work had to be done – to him, it was simply the right thing to do.

Which brings us back to the story we started with. What about the widow of that famous pianist? Bob met with her at her Manhattan apartment several times, and then escorted her down to the pension fund offices himself. And true to form, while back on the road, he called in to Local 802 to give word of the results of his efforts. The news was good. “All right!” he said, calling from an airport somewhere in Europe, “I walked her in there and held her hand, and she signed the papers. It’s a done deal. She’ll get the money – about $26,000. It’s there for her now. She’s cool.”

Truly a jazz superhero, and a model human being for so many, Bob Cranshaw has, lamentably, ridden off into the sunset.

He never made any claims to sainthood. He was only human after all. And some of those dirty jokes were just too damn funny to leave out.

As for living (and working) in music, his advice to young people was straightforward:

“Don’t be afraid to play everything, do everything. You can make jazz your dessert, but you don’t have to make it the whole meal.”

He will be missed.


Bob Cranshaw’s earliest recordings, which date from the late 1950s, can be heard on the Vee-Jay label and include the albums “The Young Lions” and Walter Perkins’s “MJT+3.” Next, “The Bridge” is the first of numerous albums highlighting his five-decade collaboration with Sonny Rollins. Some of Bob’s notable contributions on Blue Note albums can be found on Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder,” Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” Grant Green’s “Idle Moments” and Horace Silver’s “Cape Verdean Blues.” McCoy Tyner “Live at Newport” showcases a rare example of Cranshaw performing multiple bass solos. His sensitive accompaniment behind singers is well documented on “Inside Betty Carter” and “Carmen McRae Sings Lover Man,” and his electric bass playing can be heard to great effect on Errol Garner’s “Magician” and Horace Silver’s “In Pursuit of the 27th Man.” Three notable performances captured on video include his appearances with the Sonny Rollins Quartet on “Jazz Casual” (1962), “Jazz At The Philharmonic” (1966) and “100 Gold Fingers: Piano Playhouse” (1990).

–Tony Lannen