Interview: Bob Whitlock (Part 1)


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Bassist Bob Whitlock is so far off the grid there isn't even a Wikipedia page for him or a tribute site. An original member of the piano-less Gerry Mulligan Quartet in 1952 and '53, Bob helped establish a new way of playing bass in a small group on the West Coast—light, bright and conversational rather than merely keeping time.

In Part 1 of my five-part interview with Bob, 81, the California bassist talks about growing up in Utah and why his family moved to Long Beach, Calif., during World War II...

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?

Bob Whitlock: I was born in Roosevelt, Utah, on January 21, 1931.

JW: Did you have a good time as a kid?

BW: Yeah, I guess so. I was an only child and felt like the Lone Ranger. I had a bunch of relatives but they were a bit clannish.

JW: What do you mean?

BW: If you weren't immediate family—brothers—you didn't rate. Cousins were too distant. It was kind of lonely and weird. When I was 12 years old, we moved to Long Beach, Calif., just after Pearl Harbor. My grandmother on my mother's side had died and left my granddad in a twist. My mother had just gotten her second divorce, so she felt like she was in prison in Utah.

JW: So your grandfather lived in Long Beach?

BW: Yes. When we moved down there, I didn't like it at first. I wasn't comfortable with the strangeness of it compared to the jerkwater town we had left. But we were near the beach, and I liked that. The sunsets were great. When we had lived in Roosevelt, Utah, the whole town was 1,400 people, including the surrounding farms. Roosevelt was in the middle of an Indian reservation.

JW: But you wanted to move, yes?

BW: I did. I had always had these wild dreams about what it would be like to live in a city. Salt Lake was about as big as it got out there. The dreams I had was that the city was a highly sexed place and that teens would bond and do all the things teens did. But when we moved to Long Beach, the kids weren't like that at all. It wasn't that different from Utah, just a lot more people.

JW: How were you first exposed to music?

BW: One of my older cousins was a very versatile guy. He played tenor sax, the baritone and the bass. He had had this little band back in Utah. My mother had played alto sax in the band, and played well for a gal in a hick town. Guy Lombardo was her favorite.

JW: Your cousin's favorite, too?

BW: [Laughs] No. I remember getting into heated arguments with him. He had records by Basie and Ellington, but I wasn't listening carefully yet and simply defended my mother's taste. I had been playing the piano at this point. By the time we moved to California, I had gotten pretty fair on the keyboard. I was playing the organ in church.

JW: Did you continue on the keyboard in California?

BW: No. There was nothing to play. In Long Beach, I began a love affair with the trumpet. I idolized Harry James, Ziggy Elman and the other horn stars. Then I discovered Roy Eldridge. He was brilliant. He could play from the bottom of the horn clear up to the top.

JW: Did you imagine yourself a trumpet player?

BW: Oh yes. I kept hounding my mother to buy me one. But I hadn't even played a trumpet yet, and times were tough then. My mother was a single parent. She worked at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach as a secretary. She was earning 60 cents an hour.

JW: Ever get that horn?

BW: I did. My mother was a wonderful gal and she bought me a cornet. I was into it and got into the orchestra at school. But I had no idea what I was doing. I'd just mash the mouthpiece into my upper lip until it was numb. By the time I got some useful help with a couple of teachers—one taught me a non-pressure method—I couldn't do anything with the trumpet. I had blown out my lip.

JW: What did you do?

BW: I went to a couple of different teachers to try to unwind the damage, but nothing worked. I'd also been dropping in on the guy who owned the music store where my mother had bought the cornet. One day I came in and saw a bass sitting there. He knew I was having a difficult time with the horn. We talked, and he felt sorry for my mom laying out the money and the horn not working out.

JW: What did he do?

BW: He saw that I had an interest in the bass so he offered to trade me the bass or a piano for the cornet. I took the bass. It was portable and looked cool.

JW: How did you learn to play?

BW: There was a brilliant guy named Nick Furjanick who had been a violinist in the orchestra at Woodrow Wilson High School [above]. He was injured in World War II, which limited his career. He gave me lessons. He was brilliant and for years won the state's highest honors. He was a wonderful person. If he saw anything at all in a person, he would go all out for them. He saw potential in my on the bass.

JW: What was your first paying gig?

BW: At the Cinderella Ballroom in Long Beach [above]. It was a big band. I had the opportunity to play because I could read charts. I had become a solid reader in the high school orchestra.

JW: Is Von a nickname or your given name?

BW: Von is my real name. My mother had planned to name me by combining my dad's name and her name. My mom's name was Eva LaVaur Mullins while my dad's name was Lynn Whitlock. So she was going to name me Varlynn until someone told her it was an odd name. Someone suggested a name like Von instead. But Von was a bit strange, too, and most people heard “Bob" when I was introduced, so I began to call myself Bob.

JazzWax tracks: Bob Whitlock's first recording was a live jam session in March 1952 on Out of Nowhere with Chet Baker (tp), Sonny Criss (as), Wardell Gray and Dave Pell (ts), Jerry Mandell (p), Harry Babasin (cello) and Larance Marable (d). You can find it on Chet Baker: Live at the Trade Winds 1952 at Amazon here.

A big JazzWax thanks to Leslie Westbrook.

JazzWax note: For more on how Dave Pell took the famous photo of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet 10-inch album at the top of this post—the first release by Pacific Jazz—go here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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