May 19, 2024


Bass-ic Jazz with
Michael Manson
by Mark Ruffin


Over the last 40 years, bass players from Chicago have had incredible success at reaching national and international status. This is true in pop music, but especially in jazz. No matter if it’s smooth, contemporary, avant-garde or straight-ahead jazz, improvised music seems to be best served in Chicago from the bottom.

Mike Manson is the latest entry.

Seemingly, he exploded onto the scene, from out of nowhere last month when he debuted his album release party at Chicago’s Park West with his super-star friends George Duke and Kirk Whalum. His debut album, “The Bottom Line,” is one of the hottest records at smooth jazz stations across the country.  Manson knows all the bassists who have made it big from Chicago, and the list in formidable. Most of them, naturally became famous backing up others, but eventually found their own niches.

Eldee Young, who became internationally known with Ramsey Lewis in the 60’s, today is a major singing star in the Far East, though he still resides in Chicago. Another is Steve Rodby, who has been the bassist for the Pat Metheny Group for over 20 years, and is today a Grammy-winning producer. If you want to talk acoustic bassists, there’s Richard Davis, Malachi Favors, Cleveland Eaton, Lonnie Plaxico, Kenny Davis and Larry Gray. Among the well known electric bassists are Billy Dickens and Larry Kimpel, whose name seems to be on every other smooth jazz record out of Los Angeles.

There’s a whole slew of examples, but no bigger endorsement of Chicago’s impact on jazz bass playing can be made than the tribute the late Miles Davis made to that city’s musicians. Chicagoans, including a succession of bass players, heavily dominated the last decade of the great trumpeter’s life. These were the Chicago bassists who influenced Manson the most.

Felton Crews began the Chicago era with Miles on his 1981 comeback album, The Man With The Horn, and it ended with Richard Patterson, who was in his band in 1991 when Miles died. In between there was Angus Thomas and Daryl “Munch” Jones, who now plays with the Rolling Stones and was written about extensively in Davis’ autobiography.  All four hung out at a legendary Chicago nightclub called the Bulls, that was the Windy City’s hotbed of contemporary jazz during the 80’s and 90’s.

Patterson, who now plays with David Sanborn, is remembered fondly by Manson and many Chicagoans because he played with, arguably, the two hottest bands of that era, Insight and keyboardist/vocalist, Ghalib Ghallab, who now performs daily at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Manson knows all this history, he just didn’t always have the time to check it out first hand. He was either in church or at school.  “I did, on the q.t., go into the clubs, like the Bulls, and I was influenced so heavily by all the bass players I saw. But my heart was in the church.  “It is oxymoronic,” the bassist said with a laugh. “I played gospel for over 13 years, but I never felt like that was my calling,

My calling was to remain true to who and what I believe in, but to be out there in the world performing music with excellence that will bring glory to His name. “It wasn’t until 1995, when I played my first club. Of course, it was the Bulls , and that night, I had a revelation.

“Not to sound too spiritual, but I found my calling to be a witness to (other jazz musicians) and show them that there’s alternatives to the immoral life that’s associated with being a jazz musician.” Manson is hardly one of those smooth jazz musicians with no grasp of the jazz tradition. The bassist said 90% of what he knows about improvisation came from one of the legendary Chicago jazz professors, Bunky Green, who is now head of the music department at the University of Northern Florida.

By the time Manson got his undergraduate degree in music from Chicago State University and his masters in music from Northwestern, the jazz scene had evolved to where there were a number of very successful national musicians who were deep into church too. Among them, Manson’s guests at his album release party last month, Duke and Whalum.  It was Whalum who gave Manson his first big break in the music business, in 1997, two years after his first club gig, and the year the Bulls closed.

In those two years, Manson had hooked up with two of Chicago’s biggest smooth jazz stars, saxophonist Steve Cole, and keyboardist, Brian Culbertson. Meanwhile, a gospel pianist friend of Manson’s took a job at the church in Nashville where Whalum began researching the genesis of his Grammy nominated album, “The Gospel According To Jazz. Call it an act of God, but Whalum couldn’t find the right bass player with the right attitude, until the pianist mentioned that he knew a jazz and gospel bassist.

The rest is Chicago bass history.

Manson has been Whalum’s bassist ever since, but he’s made other connections too. “It was through Kirk that I met George (Duke), Paul Jackason Jr., Larry Carlton, and other Christian musicians who play jazz and lead a good clean positive life.”