Bass Players to Know: Paul Chambers

Paul Chambers

Name any genre of music and certain bass players immediately come to mind. Rock and roll? Paul McCartney. Blues? Willie Dixon. Funk? Larry Graham. They are the ones who stick out as paving the way, defining the roll of the instrument in that particular music, and creating those classic lines that we can’t help but listen to, learn, and hope to emulate. They establish the standard with their tone and musical approach and become the benchmark that we often compare ourselves to. If you’re unfamiliar with Paul Chambers and his contribution to the world of jazz, then it’s about time you transport yourself to New York in the late 1950s and learn about this incomparable bass player to know.

So Who is Paul Chambers?

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1935, Chambers spent most of his adolescence living with his father in Detroit. He originally took up baritone horn, followed by tuba, and finally the upright bass. During high school, he focused on classical music, playing with the school symphony orchestra and various ensembles. Chambers quickly discovered bebop and began studying jazz and performing around Detroit, where he met Kenny Burrell. His first touring gig was with Paul Quinichette, after which he decided to move to New York City.

After a few short years of playing in New York with artists such as J.J. Johnson, Benny Green, and Jackie McLean, he was introduced to Miles Davis and joined his quintet. Playing alongside Sonny Rollins, Red Garland, and Philly Joe Jones, Chambers became a mainstay in Davis’ band, playing on most of his recordings in the 1950s and early 60s, including Cookin’, Milestones, and Kind of Blue. John Coltrane eventually replaced Rollins in the group, which led to another longstanding musical relationship and the records Blue Train, Soultrane, and Giant Steps, among others. Before his unfortunate death at the age of 33 in 1969, he released a number of solo records in addition to other recorded works with Gil Evans, Lee Morgan, Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery, Wynton Kelly, and many other jazz greats.

Let’s Talk Style

Chambers helped define jazz classics by creating iconic bass grooves, taking a sophisticated approach to walking through changes, and knowing how to interact with the other members of the combo. He established the parts on many Real Book standards, including “All Blues,” “Freddy Freeloader,” and “Giant Steps,” making him one of the most listened-to bassists. As if that weren’t enough, he was one of the few players to integrate bowing into jazz, a technique that had remained mostly in the classical world.

Chambers’ walking lines display a deep knowledge of melody, harmony, and voice leading, particularly in how he always seems to be “one step ahead” by implying the upcoming chord in a progression. He often navigates through changes with the motif of thirds, providing greater harmonic definition to the chord and using the third as a leading tone to the chord if moving in fourths. Combining chromatic and whole step motion, he also creates melody lines to add variety, rather than simply outlining the arpeggio or playing the root and fifth. This lets him land on different chord tones, such as the 2nd, 5th and 7th, and gives a linear approach to the bass lines.

From a rhythmic standpoint, he defines the quarter-note feel of a walking line with the greatest of ease. There’s a sense of motion to his playing, making the listener feel like the band is being pushed along with the momentum of each attack. While the drummer plays with rhythmic subdivisions, driving the ride cymbal and chattering on the snare, Chambers provides the fundamental groove and effortlessly throws in quick triplet fills that explore the range of the instrument.

His ability to fit into the space of the combo, both rhythmically and harmonically, is the result of listening and instinctually knowing where to place notes. Chambers creates a unique bond with the pianist, often Bill Evans, and the two interact and respond to one another in a clever and telepathic manner. They create parts, much in the same way a rock’n’roll rhythm section would, and take turns filling in the gaps and adding colorful variation.

Where Can I Hear Him?

“The Theme” (The Paul Chambers Quintet: Bass On Top)

The Paul Chambers Quintet: Bass On TopA technically challenging and upbeat tune from one of his quintet’s albums, this highlights Chambers’ using of bowing, a technique that had previously been underrepresented in jazz. Kicking off with a catchy, trill-based theme at the head, he jumps into a bowed solo complete with difficult runs and melodic themes. Most of these themes are repeated two to three times, with unique variation to give way to a new phrase. Following the solo, he uses a finger-style walking approach to support the other soloists, later returning to the bow as he “trades fours” with the drummer and finishes the tune with the head.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“So What” (Miles Davis: Kind of Blue)

Miles Davis: Kind of BluePerhaps one of the most iconic bass lines in jazz, the tune begins with interplay between Chambers and pianist, Bill Evans. Evans drops out to give way to Chambers’ performance of the main theme, played with confidence and groove, before he settles into a walking line. An ideal study in modal jazz, Chambers plays creatively with one chord, much in a same way the soloists do, rather than directing the band through a series of changes. Throughout the song, he moves effortlessly around the neck, clearly identifying the harmonic background as the soloist is free to improvise. Every now and then, he breaks away from the traditional walking and plays with a pattern that favors the root and octave. This helps add variety and places greater emphasis on the walking pattern once it returns.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Paul Chambers? Please share with us in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. glenn

    nice article. my favorite player and biggest influence. favorite tracks are My Funny Valentine from Jazz at the Plaza and the uptempo numbers from early Trane albums, like Russian Lullaby or Soft Lights and Sweet Music.

  2. He defined the “roll” of the bass? *eye roll*
    Other than that, nice article.

  3. Al Gates

    Interesting article. I first leaned about Paul Chambers,when in high school. A music teacher, gave me Paul’s self titled album. “Paul Chambers quintet”. The opening track,”Minor run down”. Has a interesting intro. Based on the “All Blues” intro.

  4. I learned from Ron Carter that Paul really hated the way bass was recorded in the studio. Those “Kind of Blue” sessions apparently were very long for Paul, who would come in hours earlier and set up so the bass could be recorded properly and audible. He was not a fan of how drowned out and in-the-background the bass’s role had previously been, literally going into each studio recording with enough time to get the satisfaction he deserved. That rubbed off on Ray Brown, Ron Carter, and many of the other greats of jazz bass.

    • corey shafarman

      Its true. The bass sound from that era is terrible. It makes it hard to transcribe a lot of those lines

  5. A true beacon for all of us bassists.


    Check a 23 year old Paul Laurence Dunbar Chambers jr. on JOHN COLTRANE’S STARDUST. Truely a gifted Artist, mature beyond his years. His playing is excellent. Meticulous.