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Bassist Earl May Dies at 80

Earl May, a bassist who played with dozens of greats and led his own group, died January 4th of an apparent heart attack. He was 80.

Born in New York in 1927, May’s career began in 1949 at the famed Harlem nightclub Minton’s Playhouse, where he worked with such prominent artists as Carmen McRae and Lester Young. Initially inspired by fellow bassists Oscar Pettiford and Slam Stewart, May became a protégé of Charles Mingus when Dr. Billy Taylor, a pianist in whose band May was playing, suggested that May check him out. While in Taylor’s band, May got a chance to play alongside Coleman Hawkins, and his early Harlem days also found him serving as the musical director for singer Gloria Lynne. He also played behind the famed comedienne Moms Mabley and teamed with drummers Roach and Connie Kay.

As May became more established in the jazz community, he worked more steadily, adding to his resumé gigs with Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Mercer Ellington, the Buddy Rich Big Band, John Coltrane (the Lush Life album), Herbie Mann and many others. In the early ’60s, May switched from acoustic to electric bass and launched his own group, the Earl May Quartet. He also performed or recorded with such artists as Cab Calloway, Doc Cheatham, Ruth Brown, Jon Hendricks, Frank Foster, Dizzy Gillespie and others.

Originally Published