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The Cello in Jazz

A small but growing group of musicians are adapting an instrument long associated with classical music to jazz

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Akua Dixon, New York, December 2003 (photo: Alan Nahigian) - The Cello in Jazz
Akua Dixon, New York, December 2003 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

“People often tell me that the cello is their favorite instrument,” Erik Friedlander laments, “and that can be a curse. It puts the cello in the category of the most beautiful instrument, which takes away its ability to be a bit nasty. I feel hemmed in by that. I don’t want to lose the beautiful part, but I want to make choices in whichever direction I want, both in playing and composing.”

Friedlander is one of the leading cellists in jazz today—a narrow niche, to be sure, but one that is growing every year. Friedlander, Tomeka Reid, Akua Dixon, Hank Roberts, Diedre Murray, David Darling, David Eyges, Mark Summer, Ernst Reijseger, Eugene Freisen, Muneer Fennell, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Zela Terry, Tom Cora, and Stephan Braun are all carving out a space in improvised music for an instrument tightly tied to European art music. These contemporary musicians are building on the pioneering efforts of cellists such as Oscar Pettiford, Fred Katz, Abdul Wadud, Ron Carter, Eileen Folson, Calo Scott, Charles McCracken, Joel Freedman, and Harry Babasin. 

All these artists have had to struggle with the dilemma that Friedlander articulates: How do you expand the sounds produced by this instrument, so closely associated with chamber music, to meet the demands of jazz? How can you adapt its famous legato phrasing to create the syncopated rhythms and percussive accents that swing requires? How do you liberate the cello from the notated score so it can solo? How can you get it to make the harsh and discordant noises that certain pieces need? And how do you do all this without sacrificing the classical cello’s sheer beauty and fluidity?

Instead of thinking of the cello as a miniature bass or an overgrown violin, as a midrange substitute for a tenor sax or a trombone, why can’t we think of it as a cello, with its own strengths and weaknesses? How can jazz best use the rich overtones of its bowed phrases and the percussive snap of its plucked phrases, the arco and pizzicato of classical technique? How can it take advantage of long musical lines that never have to stop to take a breath? We’re still learning the answers to those questions as jazz cellists try new things all the time. 

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“I started out thinking of the cello as a kind of tenor sax,” Friedlander confesses, “because they have a similar range. I tried to mimic the phrasing of great saxophone players, and I learned a lot from that, but it became problematic. Playing with some great tenor players made me realize that I would never ever sound like them. It didn’t get me where I wanted to go. I’ve found it more productive to rely on cello techniques: plucking notes, bending notes, sliding, different bowing techniques and the judicious use of vibrato. The more I swing and drive the music, the more the music jumps out.”

Unlike the violin and the double bass, which found permanent places in American string bands, the cello never became a common folkloric instrument, for it has trouble soaring above or digging beneath midrange voices and chordal instruments. But because it served as a bridge between the fiddle and the bass, it had more flexibility than its comrades. It could play vocal-like melodies, it could anchor the bottom, and it could add flesh to the harmony with long, sustaining tones. That very versatility made it a useful complement to small jazz combos, in which a few people have to do a lot of jobs.

It wasn’t a difficult transition to make, for cellists had been utility players for years in the most renowned type of small combo in European art music: the string quartet. In that setting, a cellist had to hold down the bottom without the help of a bassist while being ready to take over the foreground of the melody for several bars before switching to a supportive role again. Soon they were doing the same in jazz, only with more short, punctuated bow strokes and a whole lot more pizzicato. 

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“Sometimes the cello is frustrating,” Hank Roberts says. “It’s hard to play Charlie Parker eighth notes and 16th notes at 200 bpm. But I can do other things. My pizzicato notes and long bowings are things that a horn player might never think of, because they’re tools a horn player doesn’t have. If you have that love for this music and the feeling for the rhythm, then it’s just the technicality of phrasing it on the cello.”

“I played all the saxophones in junior high and high school,” Abdul Wadud says, “but I fell in love with the cello, its range, its tonality, its versatility. It’s close to the human voice, closer than all the other string instruments. Because it fits between the violin and bass, it can do both jobs. My oldest sister was an operatic singer, and the cello emulated that sound of her voice and my experience in hearing it.”

Although the cello has been a relative rarity in jazz, it’s always been there, lurking in the corners. W.C. Handy employed cellist Henry Graves on the composer’s early recordings, most notably on 1917’s “Snakey Blues.” Harry Babasin played cello solos on Dodo Marmarosa’s 1947 recordings. But it was Oscar Pettiford who established the cello as an undeniable jazz instrument. 

Oscar Pettiford (Photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress) - Cello in Jazz
Though seen here playing bass, Oscar Pettiford was also one of jazz’s most important cellists. (Photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)

Pettiford—like Babasin and such subsequent figures as Ray Brown, Doug Watkins, Percy Heath, and Dave Holland—was a bassist who decided to add cello as a second instrument. These men altered the way the instrument’s strings were tuned, transitioning from the standard classical tuning in fifth intervals (C-G-D-A) to a tuning in fourths to match the bass (E-A-D-G).

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At first, Pettiford brought the cello out on stage as a kind of comic prop—look, my bass has shrunk!—while touring with Woody Herman. There was also a practical reason for this; the bassist had injured his arm playing baseball and found he could play cello before he could play bass. But he soon fell in love with the instrument’s sound and flexibility. He became so smitten, in fact, that he named his son Cello and his twin daughters Cellina and Celeste. (Cello was pictured on the cover of Pettiford’s final studio album as a leader, 1960’s My Little Cello.)

The higher range of the instrument spurred Pettiford to compose more melodically, with such appealing results as “The Pendulum at Falcon’s Lair,” “Tamalpais Love Song,” and “Tricotism.” These cello-inspired songs debuted on the six albums Pettiford released between 1954 and 1956. Friedlander paid homage to this period by including all three of the above tunes on his 2015 tribute album Oscalypso. “Pendulum” has also been recorded by Charles Mingus, Barry Harris, and George Coleman; “Tamalpais” by Ron Carter and John Zorn; and “Tricotism” by Ray Brown, James Carter, and Monty Alexander.

“Oscar took the cello more seriously than most bassists,” Friedlander argues. “He wrote beautiful music, and it’s still fun to get your hands around the lines he came up with. He was the first great composer to lead a band from the cello.”

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During this same period, drummer Chico Hamilton formed his groundbreaking chamber-jazz quintet with Jim Hall on guitar, Buddy Collette on reeds, Carson Smith on bass, and Fred Katz on cello. Katz had studied with legendary classical cellist Pablo Casals and had played with orchestras. In contrast to Pettiford, he used the classical tuning of fifths and emphasized arco over pizzicato; this lent the European art-music flavor that Hamilton wanted to add to the West Coast jazz his combo played. Katz wasn’t the composer or improviser that Pettiford was, but he was a gifted player and arranger on the six studio albums he made with Hamilton (often with Paul Horn as a second horn). Moreover, he proved that jazz cello wasn’t just a sideline for bassists; it could be a job for those who had grown up playing the instrument.

“Those Chico Hamilton records were part of my brother’s record collection,” Wadud recalls. “They gave me another path, another format, where I could see the cello being useful. I didn’t have a lot of role models at the time, or at least didn’t know them. That had some disadvantages, but there were advantages as well, because the way forward was wide open.”

Akua Dixon started out studying the cello, mostly so she could play with her older sister Gayle, a violinist. By junior high, the two sisters were playing weddings and events anywhere they could get to by subway from their home in the Bronx. By college, they were playing in the pit bands at the Westbury Music Fair and the Apollo Theater, alongside such string-playing peers as Noel Pointer, John Blake, and Maxine Roach (Max’s daughter). 

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“Our first gig at the Apollo was with James Brown,” Dixon remembers. “Our dad only let us do it if we agreed to meet him at the stage door as soon as the gig was over. But that was my first opportunity to play the cello with African-American phrasing, my first chance to hear what it was supposed to sound like. Growing up in the projects, I was kind of a nerd for playing the cello. But after I played with James Brown, I was cool.”

“Growing up in the projects, I was kind of a nerd for playing the cello. But after I played with James Brown, I was cool.” —Akua Dixon

When Max Roach decided he wanted to form a double quartet in 1981, he recruited his daughter Maxine and her friends the Dixon sisters to be three-fourths of the string quartet that would join his regular sax/trumpet/bass/drums quartet. The leader conducted the rehearsals by playing passages on his drum kit and asking the string players to play the same phrasing back to him. It was like going to “boot camp,” Dixon says, but the payoff was undeniable. 

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“We were marching in the civil rights movement,” Dixon explains. “I was born listening to African-American music, feeling the strength of my culture, the rhythm of it, not just the music but the rhythm of how you speak. When I started composing, I was writing down the sounds in my head, and those sounds were the sounds I grew up with. The study of European classical music gave me a way of notating it so other people could play what I was hearing.”

Out of Roach’s double quartet emerged two important jazz string quartets. The Quartette Indigo featured the Dixon sisters plus John Blake on violin and Ron Lawrence on viola; Regina Carter replaced Blake later on. The Uptown String Quartet included Maxine Roach on viola, Diana Monroe and Lesa Terry on violins, and Eileen Folson on cello. On occasion, Lesa’s sister Zela, also trumpeter Clark Terry’s cousin, subbed for Folson.

Meanwhile, two more crucial chamber-jazz groups were forming in the ’80s. The Turtle Island String Quartet featured Darol Anger and David Balakrishnan on violins, Irene Sazer on viola, and Mark Summer on cello. The Arcado String Trio included cellist Hank Roberts, violinist Mark Feldman, and bassist Mark Dresser. 

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“It was a situation where sometimes I was setting the groove, and at other times I was more lyrical,” Roberts recalls. “I like to do both, and the cello is well suited for that. Dresser and I might trade, so I could take over the lower range so he could go up high. Feldman tended to be virtuosic when improvising, and I did too, so sometimes we’d play New Orleans style where everyone’s soloing at once. ”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for cellists, as for any musicians playing unusual instruments in jazz, is to find a bandleader who will give you a job so you can support yourself and develop your skills. For Katz, that was Chico Hamilton. For Diedre Murray (sister of saxophonist David), it was Henry Threadgill. For Tomeka Reid, it was Nicole Mitchell (see the feature in our April issue on their Artifacts trio). For Wadud, it was Julius Hemphill, who met the cellist as a young student at Oberlin and recruited him for Dogon A.D., Hemphill’s 1972 debut album. “Julius and I just grooved off one another,” he explains. “We just clicked.”

After Dogon A.D., Wadud played on a host of other landmark jazz recordings, most notably Arthur Blythe’s Metamorphosis and Anthony Davis’ I’ve Known Rivers. Though health issues forced him to withdraw from public performances from the mid-’90s onward, his impact is still felt today. 

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“I met Abdul when he came from Cleveland to New York,” Dixon recalls. “He was a fantastic cellist. He had his own personal style—more on the free side than on the chordal, harmonic side—which he developed in very interesting ways.”

“Abdul was one of my most powerful influences,” Friedlander agrees. “He had this soulful, Stax-like sound that combined with a desire to be modern, and a personal approach to composing. He played cello like a guitar player and grooved so hard.”

For Friedlander, the big breakthrough came “when I subbed for the trombonist in Dave Douglas’ band. Mark Feldman was already in the group, and to his credit, Dave heard the possibilities of a string band and started writing for it. There’s a lot of chamber jazz that’s boring, but what Dave did was explosive. It wasn’t an effete, delicate, treading-lightly situation; he used rhythm to make the cello as aggressive as his trumpet.”

Erik Friedlander (photo: Alan Nahigian) - Cello in Jazz
Erik Friedlander (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Friedlander made four albums with Douglas, five with Fred Hersch, and more than 20 with John Zorn. That gig established him as a fixture on New York’s “downtown” scene of art-music experimentation and led to more than 25 albums as a leader, including last year’s Sentinel (a trio with drums and electric guitar) and 2019’s Artemisia (a quartet with piano, bass, and drums). 

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“In my twenties, I lived in New York, four blocks away from the original Knitting Factory,” Friedlander recalls, “and I saw Arcado a lot, and they were doing this captivating music. It wasn’t classical, it wasn’t pure jazz, it had rock and world-music influences. They did stuff that still sounds modern today.”

“My favorite thing that anyone ever said to me was, ‘I thought I didn’t like the cello, but I like the way you play it.’”—Erik Friedlander

Arcado’s cellist Hank Roberts soon partnered with alto saxophonist Tim Berne, who used him on five albums, and then with guitarist Bill Frisell, who has used Roberts on 10 albums, including 2019’s Harmony, which features Roberts on both voice and cello. The Hank Roberts Sextet (cello, violin, trombone, clarinet, piano, and drums) released its debut album, Science of Love, in 2021.

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“Whenever Bill and I have played together,” Roberts says, “good things have happened. The guitar and the cello have similar overtone structures. They can both be plucked, and Bill can play lines that sound like a bowed instrument. So you have two instruments that can be different but can also blend.”

Given a chance by sympathetic bandleaders, these cellists have created a role in jazz for their instrument, not by abandoning its classical sound but by adding new possibilities to that sound. As Friedlander says, “My favorite thing that anyone ever said to me was, ‘I thought I didn’t like the cello, but I like the way you play it.’”

Artist’s Choice: A Cello-Centric Oscar Pettiford Playlist

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Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.