Booker Collins

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The role of a jazz bassist has evolved through the history of the music and could be generalized as an increase in input into the music above and beyond just timekeeping. It is true that perhaps some…
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The role of a jazz bassist has evolved through the history of the music and could be generalized as an increase in input into the music above and beyond just timekeeping. It is true that perhaps some bassists get carried away, hiring other bassists to back them up while they play solos. Or perhaps that's what they all should be doing. Listeners who agree with the latter musical dogma, or simply enjoy a lively bassist, can count in Booker Collins as an early example of mucho rather than macho bass. By the mid-'30s, when he was keeping very good company indeed in the groups of the fine pianist Mary Lou Williams, a typical Collins performance would have a remarkable stature when contrasted with what other bassists were playing in similar groups. In fact, considering that the bassist in question hailed from Roswell, NM, it is no doubt acceptable to describe him as an alien among his contemporary rhythm section players. Collins was indeed a westerner, emerging from the New Mexico Military Institute to play in Bat Brown's Band, an aptly named territorial band for a territory whose night skies were dotted with the creatures. Trombonist Bert Johnson was another playing partner of Collins, both of them going for a fattened midsection as if preparing for film roles as bouncers. He was only 16 when he was cutting sides with Williams, part of a busy and sometimes even thriving Chicago recording scene in which jazz, rhythm & blues, and just plain blues players mingled and collaborated for independent label releases. In 1934, his break came when he got into the band of Andy Kirk and he stayed in this active group for the next decade, often playing alongside his old pal Williams in the rhythm section. Kirk was actually adding an instrument to his lineup as well as a player: The hiring represented the bandleader's decision to add double bass to the rhythm section, leaving the tuba in the closet to collect whatever tubas collect. Most bassists of Collins' generation doubled on the horn and he was no exception. Knowing what tubas collect firsthand, he was probably happy to leave it behind when the Kirk band hit the road. The bassist's final job of note was with Chicago guitarist and drummer Floyd Smith's trio, a stint that lasted from 1946 until the early '50s, when this great bass man finally laid his big instrument down in terms of full-time playing; he made a few appearances at festival occasions in the ensuing decades and was also in Chicago recording studios in the late '50s cutting sides for independent labels. Perhaps figuring that it was insane to stay out of the music business, he joined a combo called the Shades of Rhythm to backup blues singer Mad Man Jones on the demanding "Come Here." Collins had been involved with this group, whose personnel shifted like the tide along the Chicago lakeside, since 1952 when he was part of a version that took the risk of cutting sides for the Chance label.