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Jeff Chambers, Beloved Bassist, Dies at 66

Prostate cancer claims an esteemed Bay Area player

Jeff Chambers
Jeff Chambers at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay, CA, July 8, 2018
(photo: © Brian McMillen/www.brianmcmillenphotography.com)

Jeff Chambers, a bassist who was regarded as one of the finest in the United States and an institution on the West Coast, died May 18 at a hospice center in El Cerrito, California. He was 66.

His death was announced by SFJAZZ on its social media accounts and confirmed by his sister, Donna “Dee Dee” Chambers. Cause of death was prostate cancer, with which Chambers had been diagnosed in 2017.

Chambers’ acclaim as a player was directly proportional to his accomplishment. His résumé included accompanying work with Buddy Montgomery, Dizzy Gillespie, David “Fathead” Newman, Eddie Harris, Ahmad Jamal, Joe Henderson, Kenny Burrell, and dozens of others. He had over 40 recording credits—although none of them found him in the lead of a session. Rather, Chambers chose to base his reputation on being “the best sideman anyone could hire,” as AllAboutJazz.com put it in a 2019 profile.

“He could play any style, any genre,” said vocalist Jackie Ryan, a longtime friend and colleague of Chambers. “He was a real natural musician, an old-school musician: He played with his ears, and he knew the standards inside and out. He came from a really organic place.”

Moving to Oakland, California in 1978 along with his mentor and employer Montgomery, Chambers was a denizen of the San Francisco Bay Area for four decades. Although a two-year stint in New York was unsuccessful for the bassist, he had much better luck in California, forging a national and international reputation that enabled him to play with a multitude of greats.

“I’ve had a wonderful life,” he told AAJ interviewer Arthur R. George. “I’ve been around the world three times. My bucket list is small. I have no regrets.”

Jeffrey Daniel Chambers was born April 2, 1955 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Floyd and Gladys L. Chambers, and graduated from Rufus King High School. He attended the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, where he studied both acoustic and electric bass under professor Manty Ellis and won two intercollegiate jazz ensemble awards.

He also began performing with Buddy Montgomery, the vibraphonist and youngest of jazz’s legendary Montgomery Brothers, who then lived in Milwaukee. When he went on tour in 1978, Chambers left the Wisconsin Conservatory to enroll at what he ever after called “the University of Buddy Montgomery.”

When Montgomery resettled in the Bay Area, Chambers did the same, living in Oakland. At the time, the area included such players as Eddie Henderson, Johnny Coles, Bobby Hutcherson, George Cables, and Eddie Marshall, among others; Chambers worked with all of them, as well as countless other local musicians and national artists who toured through San Francisco and environs. He supported tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse on Epistrophy, Rouse’s 1988 final recording (at Bimbo’s 365 in San Francisco); worked with Dizzy Gillespie in Berkeley in 1991 and Benny Carter in Oakland in 1994; and played on Eddie Harris’ final studio recording, 1996’s Dancing by a Rainbow.

His most frequent collaborations in recent years were with vocalists Marlena Shaw and Jackie Ryan, and in an ongoing duo with pianist Larry Vuckovich. It was only in his last years that Chambers began working regularly with a trio of his own.

Chambers was a mainstay of the Concord, Monterey, and San Francisco Jazz Festivals. He was also a strong presence in musical education in California, teaching at various points at the University of the Pacific, San Francisco State University, Fresno State University, The Jazz School, Dominican University of California, and throughout the public school system.

Chambers’ health became an issue in 2015, when doctors found elevated PSA levels in his system; two years later, he was diagnosed with stage-four prostate cancer. Distrusting of the U.S. medical system, Chambers began crossing the Mexican border to explore alternative treatments in Tijuana. Initially, the treatments yielded positive results; according to his sister, Chambers went to Mexico in a wheelchair and returned walking with a cane. Where doctors had first given him weeks to live, he extended his life by four years.

Chambers was predeceased by his father, Floyd Chambers. In addition to his sister Dee Dee, he is survived by his mother, Gladys L. Chambers; a son, Aki Chambers; two daughters, Jasmine Hale and Jana Bates; four brothers, David, Vincent, Michael, and Richard Chambers; two other sisters, Jacqueline Chambers Howard and Jacquede Chambers Moore; four grandchildren; 17 nieces and nephews; several great-nieces and nephews; and Molly Holm, a close family friend.

The family will hold a private memorial service in Milwaukee.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.