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Bassist Dennis Irwin Dead at 56

Dennis Irwin, whose bass playing graced more than 500 recordings, died March 10 in New York City after a battle with cancer. He was 56.

Irwin, during his final weeks, received an outpouring of support from fellow musicians, who organized benefit concerts to assist in paying for his medical care. Irwin did not have health insurance. A benefit concert held last night at Jazz at Lincoln Center instead became a tribute, with Tony Bennett, Mose Allison, John Scofield, Joe Lovano and many others scheduled to take part. Scofield and Lovano were among the leaders in whose bands Irwin played.

Irwin was born on November 28, 1951 in Birmingham, Alabama and grew up in Atlanta and Knoxville. His first instrument was the clarinet but after moving to Houston in his teens he played alto sax and sang in R&B bands. At 19, while attending North Texas State University, he switched to upright bass and joined the school’s Two O’Clock Big Band.

In 1974, at the suggestion of pianist Red Garland, with whom he worked, Irwin moved to New York, where his first steady gig was in trumpeter Ted Curson’s group. He then played behind such vocalists as Jackie Paris, Betty Carter, Annie Ross, Ann Hampton Callaway, Tania Maria and Mose Allison. In 1976, he began working with Scofield, whose band also included Lovano-Irwin continued to work with both Lovano and Scofield for many years afterwards. He appeared on Scofield’s albums What We Do, Hand Jive and Groove Elation.

Irwin also had a regular gig with pianist Albert Daily, sax man Carter Jefferson and drummer Adam Nussbaum. In 1977, Irwin became a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, staying with the group for three years. Irwin later worked with Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin and Horace Silver, and with Brazilian musicians including drummers Duduca Fonseca and Portinho. Trumpeter/vocalist Chet Baker was another who called upon Irwin for bass duties.

Originally Published