Milt Hinton: Dean of the Jazz Bass

Milt Hinton: Dean of the Jazz Bass

Written by Anne E. Johnson

When Milt Hinton was born in 1910, Mississippi was far from a welcoming place for Black people. Hinton once told a reporter that he saw a lynching when he was a child. His mother, who raised him, moved the family out of poverty and into Chicago in 1919, which by contrast put Hinton in a prime location for opportunity in the world of jazz. Thanks to his determination and his skill on the upright bass, he became one of the greatest masters of that instrument.

His mother and aunts, who all played piano, used to take young Milt to the Vendome Theater in Chicago to hear incredible acts like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Hinton started on violin, then learned bass saxophone and tuba in high school, which gave him a chance to play with Lionel Hampton. His gigging life had begun. When in 1930 he made the fateful choice to learn the double bass, he was on his way to the jazz pantheon.

The first huge break in his career happened in 1936, when Cab Calloway hired him to play bass in his orchestra. Hinton stayed with that band for 15 years, putting him in contact with everyone in the industry. It was the most innovative musicians, like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and multi-instrumentalist and arranger Benny Carter, who inspired him the most.

After Calloway’s big band dissolved in the early 1950s, Hinton supported himself with session work. He was sought after by all the greats, who gave him the nickname The Judge. As his career progressed, he became known as the Dean of the jazz bass. After a long and illustrious career, Milt Hinton died in 2000 at the age of 90.

One of Hinton’s greatest contributions to jazz history was not strictly musical. As an avid photographer, he always brought his camera to rehearsals and gigs. He took tens of thousands of photos of jazz icons in their working environment, creating a valuable archive for posterity.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Milt Hinton.

  1. Track: “Just Plain Blues”
    Album: Just Plain Blues
    Label: Staff Record Co.
    Year: 1949

Just Plain Blues was a 10-inch 78 rpm featuring the “Milt Hinton Orchestra,” one of those monikers that record companies and nightclubs invented to market pick-up ensembles of freelance musicians. This record includes Hinton plus six colleagues.

Among them is pianist Dave Rivera, who composed “Just Plain Blues.” The wonderfully lackadaisical trumpet solo is by Jonah Jones. At around 2:19, Hinton takes a short solo to help the song amble to its conclusion.


  1. Track: “Over the Rainbow”
    Album: Milt Hinton: East Coast Jazz/5
    Label: London Records
    Year: 1955

This album features a Hinton-led quartet with AJ Sciacca on clarinet, Dick Katz on piano, and Osie Johnson on drums. These were top-notch session musicians in the New York scene. The engineer is recording-studio innovator Tom Dowd, who had as much influence in jazz as he did in the rock sphere.

Their version of the Yip Harburg/Harold Arlen classic opens with Hinton meandering into the melody, which he decorates with off-hand figuration, accompanied by a delicate touch from Katz and Johnson. The best moments happen when Katz’s treble notes work in tandem with Hinton’s low register – reaching from one end of the musical rainbow to the other.

“Over the Rainbow”


  1. Track: “Blue Skies”
    Album: Percussion and Bass
    Label: Everest
    Year: 1960

Percussion and Bass is exactly as advertised, an album of duets between Hinton and drummer “Papa” Jo Jones (not to be confused with the younger “Philly” Jo Jones). There are no other players in the studio, so the listening experience can get pretty intense. Basically, you’re witnessing nothing but two fantastic musicians in a room together, jamming.

“Blue Skies” is the popular standard by Irving Berlin, which has been given the jazz treatment countless times. Jones starts out on chimes, of all things, and then Hinton, with the reverb on his mic strong enough to match the chimes’ ring, begins taking apart the melody. The next moment, it turns into a hot Latin adventure riding on a wave of semi-pitched percussion. Hang onto your hat.


  1. Track: “Sophisticated Lady”
    Album: Here Swings the Judge
    Label: Famous Door
    Year: 1964

Several great players join Hinton on the album Here Swings the Judge, including Ben Webster, Frank Webb, and Budd Johnson on saxophone, and Jon Faddis on trumpet. The rich layers of brass sound are a real treat with Hinton’s mellow bass pizzicato.

But the music glows even brighter when not everyone is playing. The subtle and sultry arrangement of “Sophisticated Lady,” one of Duke Ellington’s masterworks, is a duo for Hinton and Webster. Their version captures the essence of this matchless standard.


  1. Track: “Walking Through the Woodyard”
    Album: Bassically with Blue
    Label: Disques Black and Blue
    Year: 1976

Sam Woodyard plays drums and Cliff Smalls is on piano for Bassically with Blue, which Hinton recorded at the Black and Blue Open Air Studio in Nice, France.

Woodyard had spent much of the 1950s and 1960s playing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. “Walking through the Woodyard” was composed by the drummer as part of the sessions for Bassically with Blue although it wasn’t released until the 2003 CD version. Its jumpy, angular melody in the bass sounds like something Ellington would have liked.


  1. Track: “The Judge’s Decision”
    Album: The Judge’s Decision
    Label: Exposure
    Year: 1984

The marketing folks at Exposure Records gave this album a subtitle: Milt Hinton and Another Generation of Swing. The younger musicians were all born in the 1950s or later: Sam Furnace on alto and soprano sax, Kevin Norton on drums, Mike Walters on tenor sax, and Jay D’Amico on piano.

The album opens with the title song, “The Judge’s Decision,” referring to Hinton’s nickname. It’s a pleasing ensemble piece, with some particularly nice turns by D’Amico. Hinton shows the aspect of his playing that got him so much session work: He provides a reliable and responsive foundation for the group.


  1. Track: “King of the Road”
    Album: Hayward and Hinton
    Label: Town Crier
    Year: 1987

It’s good to be reminded that Hinton played many other instruments besides bass. His piano skills were sizeable. Hayward and Hinton is a duo-piano project with Jamaican pianist Lance Hayward, who was 71 at the time. While Hayward made most of his money accompanying R&B stars like Marvin Gaye with his soulful touch at the keyboard, he also had a smooth barrelhouse blues style at the ready, with a touch of boogie-woogie in the left hand.

As with the “Papa” Jo Jones album mentioned above, this is just Hayward and Hinton having at some tunes, raw and wonderful. The two musicians seem to be enjoying their exploration of “King of the Road,” written by country singer Roger Miller, who had a big hit with it in 1965.


  1. Track: “Sometimes I’m Happy”
    Album: Old Man Time
    Label: Chiaroscuro
    Year: 1989

Hinton was winding down his career when he made Old Man Time, a sort of supergroup career retrospective. Top-flight talent like Joe Williams, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Clark Terry, and Dizzy Gillespie came to the studio to get another chance to play with their old friend and colleague.

Here is a delightful rendition of the jazz classic “Sometimes I’m Happy.” Hinton offers up a whimsical solo starting at 2:15.

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