By Matt Schudel/TheWashigntonPost
Bob Cranshaw, a versatile jazz bassist best known for his association with saxophonist Sonny Rollins, whom he accompanied on virtually every concert and album since 1962, died Nov. 2 at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.
The cause was cancer, said his wife, Bobbi Cranshaw.
Mr. Cranshaw never had an album as a leader, but he was on dozens of well-known jazz recordings, including trumpeter Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” in 1964. He toured for several years with singer Ella Fitzgerald and appeared on more recordings on the famous Blue Note jazz label in the 1960s than any other bass player.
With his early classical training and an ability to play in any style, Mr. Cranshaw proved to be so adaptable and dependable that he may have been the only musician who performed, at various times, with Bing Crosby, Paul Simon, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Rod Stewart, Peggy Lee, the “Saturday Night Live” orchestra and the studio band of “Sesame Street.”
“I didn’t ask to be a star,” he said in a 2014 interview with jazz pianist Ethan Iverson on the Do the Math website. “I wanted to be a sideman. I wanted to be a super-sideman.”
Mr. Cranshaw first performed with Rollins in 1959 at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago. It was a demanding job because, at the time, Rollins had a bare-bones lineup, backed by just bass and drums.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,’ ” Mr. Cranshaw recalled years later, in an interview with a publication of the New York musicians’ union. “And then I thought about it and said, ‘Oh man, am I stepping into something I’m not ready for?’ No pianist, you know.”
Rollins was a challenging musician to accompany, sometimes changing tempos or keys without warning. But Mr. Cranshaw followed him at every turn, and the performance was a success.
After Rollins took a two-year hiatus from music, he asked Mr. Cranshaw to join his band, and he appeared on the classic 1962 album “The Bridge,” marking Rollins’s return to the jazz scene after two years of solitary practice on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge.
For the next 50 years, Mr. Cranshaw was the rhythmic and harmonic anchor for the powerful saxophonist, considered by many the most influential jazz musician of his time. He appeared on nearly 25 albums led by Rollins, including the Grammy Award-winning “This Is What I Do” (2000) and “Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert” (2005).
In addition, Mr. Cranshaw spent more than 25 years with “Sesame Street,” recording the TV show’s theme song by Joe Raposo and other tunes associated with the long-running children’s program, including “(It’s Not Easy) Bein’ Green” and “Sing.”
From 1975 to 1980, Mr. Cranshaw was the bass player with the original studio band of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” working alongside keyboardist Paul Shaffer, who later became the director of the band on “The Late Show With David Letterman.” Mr. Cranshaw was a member of the studio band of “The David Frost Show” from 1969 to 1972, working with pianist Billy Taylor, and in the early 1980s, he was the musical director for one of Dick Cavett’s talk shows.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Cranshaw was among the first jazz bassists to adopt the electric bass guitar as his primary instrument. He continued to perform occasionally on the upright bass throughout his life, but back injuries sustained in a car accident initially forced him to switch to the smaller, amplified electric bass.
At first, he faced resistance from jazz purists, who maintained that the electric bass — a backbone of rock music — didn’t fit into the jazz aesthetic. But Mr. Cranshaw brought a rare subtlety to the electric instrument, applying the same touch, musical phrasing and jazz sensibility that he brought to the upright bass.
“A bass is a bass. That’s my attitude,” he said in the interview with Iverson. “I know that the jazz guys don’t dig the electric, so I gotta make it sound and I gotta make it feel like I’m playing the string bass.”
Melbourne Robert Cranshaw was born Dec. 10, 1932, in Chicago. He grew up in a solidly middle-class community in Evanston, Ill., where his father was a choir director.
“I came up in a really lovely neighborhood,” Mr. Cranshaw said in 2014. “As I tell guys, I can play the blues, but I can’t cry the blues because I didn’t come from that kind of thing.”
As a child, Mr. Cranshaw said he often visited church basements in Evanston because he could feel the bass notes of the organ and choirs through the foundation of the building. He gradually realized the bass was his musical calling.
He played in the school orchestra and learned to read music by the time he graduated. He received a bachelor’s degree from Chicago’s Roosevelt University, then served in the Army before beginning his music career in Chicago.
When he moved to New York around 1960, one of the first people he encountered was the eminent bass player Milt Hinton, whom he had long idolized. Hinton took an immediate interest in Mr. Cranshaw’s career, recommended him for recording dates and other jobs.
Among the noteworthy recordings he appeared on were “Idle Moments” (1963) by guitarist Grant Green, “Inner Urge” (1964) with saxophonist Joe Henderson, and “Movin’ Wes” (1964) with guitarist Wes Montgomery. Mr. Cranshaw created the catchy bass line that underscored Morgan’s soul-jazz hit “The Sidewinder” from 1964.
In addition to his studio work, Mr. Cranshaw performed in Broadway pit orchestras and for visiting singers, including Crosby, Lee, Collins and Frank Sinatra. He appeared on several tracks on Simon’s 1973 album “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.”
His first two marriages ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 39 years, Bobbi Curtis Cranshaw of Manhattan; three children from his first marriage; two stepchildren he adopted; and several grandchildren.
Mr. Cranshaw was a central figure in the New York musicians’ union and said he worked so steadily for so long because he managed to avoid drugs and other temptations of the jazz life.
“I did a lot of Blue Note dates because I was on time,” he said. “If you said, ‘Be there at a certain time,’ I was there. It was a business for me at that point. There were great bass players that came through; sometimes they were there and sometimes, you know . . .”