From the first night that my dear friend Audrey Genovese of Chicago played a Dexter Gordon record that featured Niels Pedersen on bass, I realized that this musical giant and I might someday have the pleasure and occasion of not just meeting but also playing together.
After hearing this phenomenal talent on bass, I realized that somehow, someday we should meet, thereby giving me the opportunity to also play with him. This vision and thought took place in the early 1970s, when I was fortunate enough to be able to invite him to join my then trio. This came about due to the fact that the bassist I was using at that time could not return to his home country in Europe because he was worried that he would be detained by the Soviet Union, due to his behavior at some embassy function. Norman Granz entered the picture and, with his usual directional thinking, simply said, “Why don’t you use Niels Pedersen?” for an upcoming concert that my group had in one of the then Iron Curtain countries.
Norman contacted Niels and reached an agreement for him to do that one particular concert behind the Curtain, thereby alleviating any chance of political upheaval. I vividly remember Niels stepping in without any fanfare (or rehearsal) for that particular concert. This turned out to be a totally impromptu performance. I selected tunes that I had obtained an OK from Niels about, and believe it or not, we managed to have a wonderful performance that evening, filled with exciting spontaneity and musical searching into each other’s jazz thinking.
After the concert, I immediately thanked Niels and told him how much I enjoyed playing with him, even considering the unexpected spontaneity that we had to work through. The audience seemed to have really enjoyed the evening. The following day I called Norman and apparently was overly excited about the immediate cohesion that took place between Niels and myself the evening before. With his usual ad lib and spontaneous reaction, Norman said, “If it was that good to play with him, why don’t you use him as your regular bassist?” Needless to say, I am happy that this took place, and Niels has remained in my group until his recent unfortunate passing.
Allow me to express my reaction to his playing this way: First and foremost, he never got in my way—but he also had such a great musical perception of what I was trying to do that he served to greatly inspire me from a spontaneous aspect. I came off walking on Cloud 3000 that evening because of Niels’ musical contribution. He had the most phenomenal technique, coupled with incredible harmonic perception, along with impeccable time. I shall never forget that evening.
Almost from that evening on, we became very close friends, not just musically but most certainly personally, for I developed a great admiration for the depth of Niels’ political, geographical and personal understandings. He was a man who had an almost unbelievable wealth of historic cognizance pertaining to European history. He also had a very kindred spirit as a human being, always able to easily make good friends, should he care to do so.
People in general who got to know Niels the man grew to love him apart from his unbelievable musical talent and dexterity on his instrument. I think I can afford to make this kind of evaluation of him, for I have had the good fortune to have played with some of the other great bassists in jazz over time: Sam Jones, Major Holley and, of course, Ray Brown. I used to marvel at the respect and love (and almost musical fear) that I saw in some of jazz’s best bassists whenever they were around Niels.
Niels and Ray became fast friends and had a great love and respect for each other. This may seem odd in that they were basically both operating in the same musical medium. I can now say, though I have been asked numerous times before, which of the two I preferred. I would have been equally happy for whichever of the two were part of my group at the time. I see no reason to go into some of the musical idiosyncrasies of either of these great players, but I can say that individually they have left an indestructible path and indelible guidelines for all of the future bassists of jazz.
One point that I must make here that perhaps is not known by many people, is that Niels could also play the piano (many times sitting in for me in the preconcert sound checks). I know he had a great love for the piano, which we saw when, on a visit to the Bosendorfer piano showroom, he was lovingly impressed with the Bosendorfer grand that I eventually picked out as my own choice.
Over time, I dubbed him (and announced him as) the Viking. He seemed to enjoy this title, and for some reason it stuck to him.
Niels-Henning was a player of unbelievable talent and dexterity, but selfishly speaking, personally, he became my closest friend and brother, and I shall never forget him or his talent. God bless you, Niels, and may you brighten up the musical world in Heaven as you have done on this earth.Originally Published