Listen: PKG: Oscar Pettiford centenary (Nelson)

MPR’s Tim Nelson profiles jazz pioneer Oscar Pettiford. Born 100 years ago and raised in Minnesota, Pettiford changed the sound of American music. He got his start on the stages of the Twin Cities, helping create a "Minneapolis sound" long before Prince. Pettiford’s innovations made him one of the most influential bass players of the bebop era. A century after his birth, that legacy endures.


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SPEAKER: Today marks a special day for a Minnesota musician who helped shape modern American music, creating what we now know as the Minneapolis sound. And it's not Prince. It's Oscar Pettiford, who was born 100 years ago today, the son of Native American and Black families in Oklahoma.

Oscar and his brother Ira were part of a large musical family that moved to Minnesota and is still a familiar presence in the Twin Cities decades after Oscar left for New York and lasting fame as a jazz pioneer. Tim Nelson has this remembrance.


If you or your kid have ever learned a band instrument, chances are you've heard this tune, a signature of the bebop era known as Blues in the Closet.

What you may not have known is that its roots were in North Minneapolis where Oscar Pettiford was a teenage piano player, then bassist in the family band that was a staple on Minneapolis stages in the run up to World War II.

JAMELA PETTIFORD: Our family came up from the Oklahoma Tennessee area.

TIM NELSON: That's Jamela Pettiford, a singer from St. Paul who still carries the family name. She also teaches theater at Battle Creek Middle school. Oscar was her grandfather's cousin and part of the family enterprise.

JAMELA PETTIFORD: They were traveling musicians, who traveled with different artists, who picked up different skills, who jumped in different bands, and then coming here to Minnesota looking for a better life. And there was a music scene here. They very much were the Minneapolis sound at the time.

TIM NELSON: But it was Oscar who rose above the rest. Bands passing through town heard his sound forged in the ferment of a musician's strike in the early '40s that all but shut down the recording industry and had musicians making a living with relentless performing and creativity.

Oscar Pettiford remembered the era with another jazz legend, radio host Leigh Kamman in the early '50s captured in a recorded interview still held by the Leigh Kamman Legacy Project.

LEIGH KAMMAN: I recall one night when you had a big session with Coleman Hawkins.

OSCAR PETTIFORD: Up in Duluth, Minnesota. Before then, it was Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.

LEIGH KAMMAN: And you wound up with a Duke, didn't you? As a member of his rhythm section.

OSCAR PETTIFORD: Yeah, Duke Ellington and also Coleman Hawkins.

TIM NELSON: Pettiford left Minnesota for New York City in the '40s and became a regular at the legendary Minton's Playhouse, the Harlem incubator of the sound that succeeded the big band swing era. He played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. He went on to become a regular with Miles Davis and Milt Jackson.

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE: He probably doesn't get the right amount of credit that he should.

TIM NELSON: Bassist Christian McBride is host of NPR's Jazz Night in America and a six-time Grammy winner.

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE: He was probably the most important bass player of that bebop generation in terms of creating new language for the bass and playing what Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were playing on the bass.

TIM NELSON: It's a language that would come to sound familiar to any modern ear featuring virtuoso turns of bass and a small group and propelling the rhythm section to the front of the sound. Anthony Cox is a well-known Twin Cities bass player and student of the era.

ANTHONY COX: He had, let's call it, a three-dimensional style that really wasn't examined before. And what I mean by that is that the bass was starting to really outline the harmonies, providing propulsion or time.

TIM NELSON: But Oscar Pettiford never had the legacy or the legend of Miles Davis or even bassist Ron Carter. And there's a couple reasons for that. First, Pettiford got sick and died literally at the height of his powers.

He was only 37 when, by some accounts, he contracted something like polio and died in 1960. But it's also where he died, in Copenhagen, Denmark. He'd moved to Europe, like many of the Jazz greats in the late '50s, to flee the pernicious racism that even music stars and pioneers couldn't escape.

JAMELA PETTIFORD: You do start to realize when you don't feel welcome in your own home.

TIM NELSON: Again, that's Jamela Pettiford. Pictures of the era show traveling musicians sleeping in Ira Pettiford's living room in Minneapolis likely because area hotels wouldn't give Black people a room.

JAMELA PETTIFORD: And it was difficult to perform for audiences where you had to go through the back or you had to sit by the kitchen. And four Blacks at that time in Europe, you were welcomed with open arms.

TIM NELSON: And that's where Oscar Pettiford is today, buried in a grave in Denmark. There's even a street named after him in Copenhagen. There's no such formal recognition in Minnesota. But his family and fans of his enduring music remember him still today, a century after he was born. Tim Nelson, NPR News.


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