Nicknamed "the Bear" because of his imposing presence and the way he clawed at his instrument, Harry Babasin was a heavy presence as a creative and innovative bassist. He was also the first to record jazz solos on the cello in 1947. He has also been credited with being among the first jazz players to work in the Brazilian bossa nova style, and being one of the only bassists of his generation to become a bandleader. Some of the others who did, however, left even bigger footprints than the Bear may have, especially Charles Mingus. Like Mingus, Babasin was also a highly regarded record producer of his own short-lived jazz label. He was a Texan by birth and the son of an Armenian dentist and a Texas school music teacher. He studied many different instruments before focusing on the bass. He went to North Texas State University, contributing to this school's excellent reputation for jazz. Other players who have spent time there, swinging merrily in what is otherwise the totally uncool town of Denton, include such players as Herb Ellis, Jimmy Giuffre, Gene Roland, Johnny Smith, and Tommy Reeves. He played with Giuffre, a brilliant reed player who would later make modern jazz history, in the Bill Ware Orchestra in the early '40s. In 1942, he and Ellis checked out the Charlie Fisk Orchestra and were less than satisfied with the rhythm section. With perhaps a touch of arrogance, the pair of hotshots approached the bandleader and told him they could outplay his guys. Fisk kicked out the previous rhythm section after a quick audition. For Babasin, it meant leaving school in order to join the band. Thus began his road days. He toured the United States extensively over the next five years with the groups of Jimmy Joy, Bob Strong, Billie Rogers, Gene Krupa, Charlie Barnet, Boyd Raeburn, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Frank DeVol, Jerry Gray, and others. He relocated to Los Angeles during the job with Barnet in 1945 and wound up joining the Benny Goodman Orchestra, with whom he made many recordings. In the late '40s, Babasin appeared in the Danny Kaye film entitled A Song Is Born, a meeting of jazz aristocracy with Goodman, Barnet, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Mel Powell, Tommy Dorsey, and Louis Bellson all getting screen time. There was something even more important about this experience than Hollywood glitz to Babasin. He met a Brazilian guitarist on the set who was an extra. His name: Laurindo Almeida. Some subsequent jams, which included the two men plus drummer Roy Harte and saxophonist Bud Shank, are among the earliest blends of Brazilian music and American jazz. In 1954, these players recorded two 10" discs that laid the groundwork for what would become bossa nova, getting the jump on Stan Getz and Antonio Carlos Jobim by years.
It must have been a pretty inspiring movie set, because this was also where Babasin first began to practice the art of pizzicato jazz cello. This interest was actually inspired by his own frustration in projecting ideas on the bass on-stage. He tuned the cello in fourths so it could still hold down the normal bass while allowing his soloing up into audible range. He recorded his first cello solos at the end of 1947 with the Dodo Marmarosa Trio, available on the CD Up in Dodo's Room on Jazz Classics. The next step was to actually add a bass player, a move which would give the cellist even more room to solo effectively. Decades later, bassist Ron Carter adopted the same approach when playing cello in his own groups. Babasin recorded fronting his own groups for labels such as World Pacific and Discovery. He also cut a duet cello session with Oscar Pettiford that is surely one of the high points reached with this instrument in jazz, and not just in terms of pitches being bowed and plucked. The cellist continued experimenting with different instrumental combinations that would highlight the cello, including adding vibraphone. Harte was a frequent companion. In 1952, they got together with musical friends such as Shank, Marty Paich, Howard Roberts, and Herbie Harper and decided to start recording and putting out their own sides. The move came about, as could be expected, because of the total lack of interest from record companies. This was the beginning of the Nocturne label. Since the label seemed to be an artistic triumph, it should go without saying that it was impossible for it to even break even. The cellist forged on, starting Harry Babasin & the Jazzpickers, a combination that featured guitar and cello heavily and was good for three highly collectible albums. On one, Buddy Collette was added on flute, while the other featured vibes, Red Norvo, and Terry Gibbs, respectively. In the rocking '60s, Babasin reunited with Barnet, his boss from the old days, and wound up freezing in Alaska backing up Bob Hope, who was entertaining troups. In the '70s, Harte and Babasin started the Los Angeles Theaseum, a non-profit archive of West Coast jazz history. This new library of recordings was transferred to digital format for preservation, and a new series of records was pressed under the Jazz Chronicles label. Babasin's final tour was in 1985 with pianist John Banister, ironically the man who gave him the nickname "the Bear." Soon after, he was diagnosed with emphysema. He claimed that he had played on 1,500 records as a bassist alone, not counting his cello work. ~ Eugene Chadbourne