Pittsburgh Music Story‎ > ‎Jazz‎ > ‎Modern Era‎ > ‎

Paul Chambers

Member of Downbeat Hall of Fame and the Miles Davis Quintet
Played on the Biggest Selling Jazz Record of All Time
Double bassist and composer Paul Chambers during his short 13 year career in the 1950s and early 1960s was one of the most important and most recorded jazz bassists.  His music appears on over 1,600 album releases.  Chambers came to international attention in 1955 at age 19 as the bassist of the new Miles Davis Quintet.  Chambers won the Down Beat Magazine “New Star Award” in 1956.  He took the jazz world by storm in 1956 and 1957 appearing on almost 100 recordings, including Thelonious Monk’s "Brilliant Corners", the Sonny Rollins Quartet’s "Tenor Madness", the first Miles Davis–Gil Evans collaboration "Miles Ahead", and his first solo album the "Whims of Chambers" released on Blue Note    Chambers recorded 15 albums with Miles Davis and was the only member to remain with the quintet through its seven-year span.  

Chambers starred on the 1959 Miles Davis release “Kind of Blue” that is considered by many critics and fans as the greatest jazz recording ever.  With multi-platinum sales of four million it is the number one selling jazz album of all time.  According to writer and bassist Richard Scarr of Bass Player United on that album Paul Chambers created “two of the most instantly recognizable bass lines in all of jazz in the songs ‘All Blues’ and ‘So What‘.  On December 15, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution commemorating the 50th anniversary of "Kind of Blue" honoring it as a jazz masterpiece and national treasure.  

After the Miles Davis Quintet broke up Chambers formed the Paul Chambers Trio in 1963 and did many freelance session recordings. According to the All Music Guide Chambers work is found on 1,619 albums. With his Trio and Quintet he recorded 11 albums. His most acclaimed solo effort is the 1957 ‘Bass on Top’ release. Chambers recorded fourteen albums with John Coltrane starting with his debut album and the all time classic ‘Giant Steps’ from 1959 which included the song written for him "Mr. P.C."  Coltrane's "Blue Train" release with Chambers on bass is the number 7th highest selling jazz album of all time.  Chambers also recorded with Cannonball Aderly, West Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock,  Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Milt Jackson, Hank Jones, and fellow Pittsburgh natives Art Blakey, Sonny Clark, and Stanley Turrentine.  His brilliant career was cut short when he died in 1969 at the young age of 34. 

Many rankings of top jazz bassists place him in the top three of all time.  His impeccable timing, accurate intonation, ability to play a broad range of music styles and skillful improvisations made him a virtuoso player. As a Bebop accompanist he laid down clear walking baselines to support the solo improvisations of his band mates. As a soloist he is remember for his “fluid energy-filled” playing. Along with Slam Steward Chambers was one of the first jazz bassists to use bows in his imaginative bass solos as in his recording of “The Theme’s”. He set a standard that has influenced and inspired all jazz double bass players including Ron Carter and Christian McBride. Paul Chambers was elected to the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 2011 and is also honored by the American Jazz Hall of Fame.

"One of the greatest bass players in jazz.  His playing is beyond what I could say about it.  The bass is such an important instrument, and has so much to do with a group and a soloist can best function that I feel very fortunate to have had him on my recordings and to have been able to work with him in Miles' band so long." - John Coltrane

“Paul Chambers was a great genius of the bass. He was incredible, you know. Some of the things he did weren't really touched by anybody. Just things that he could do, nobody really knew what it was he was doing. He was fantastic." --Herbie Hancock

Learning Music in Pittsburgh and Detroit

Paul Laurence Dunbar Chambers, Jr. was born April 22, 1935, in Pittsburgh, P.A. He was the son of Paul Laurence Chambers and Ann Dunbar Chambers began his music studies as a brass player in Pittsburgh when one of his teachers selected him to learn the baritone horn.  His mother Ann died when he was thirteen.  He moved to Detroit in 1948 to live with his father.  In Detroit he switched to playing Tuba.  He began playing the stand up double bass in 1949.  Beginning in 1952 Chambers studied bass privately from a Detroit Symphony bassist.  He became a member of a rehearsal symphony called the Detroit String Band. He attended Cass Technical High School from 1952 to 1955 where he played with the school’s orchestra. At Cass he also played baritone sax in school ensembles.  He education give him skills in playing brass, reed, and string instruments.

Chamber's interest in jazz grew at age 15 when he began listening to Charlie Parker and Bud Powell.  His first influences on the bass were and Oscar Pettiford and Pittsburgh's Ray Brown   His also followed bassists Jimmy Blanton, Percy Heath, Milt Hinton, Wendell Marshall, and Charles Mingus.   

Laurence Chambers wanted his son to be a professional baseball player and frowned on Paul’s desire to become a professional musician.   Angered by his son's hours of practice at home, Laurence threw his son’s school bass down the stairs.  But Paul Chambers stood up to his father to pursue his dreams.

Turning Pro in Detroit and New York

Paul Chambers began playing professionally in small bars in the Hastings Street Area of Detroit.   He quickly advanced to play clubs with Detroit’s leading jazz musicians including guitarist Kenny Burrell, cornetist Thad Jones and pianist Barry Harris.  He studied jazz with pianists Hugh Lawson and Barry Harris.  Chambers performed at the top Detroit jazz clubs the Bluebird Inn Klein’s Show Bar, and the Rouge Lounge. 

Chambers went on tour in with 1955 with saxophonist Paul Quinichette.  Landing in New York he became a member of a band led by trombonists J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding.   Next he accompanied the pianists Benny Green and George Wallington.  Working at Cafe Bohemia he performed with saxophonist Jackie McLean, trumpeter Donald Byrd, and drummer Art Taylor.  

Mile Davis Quintet

On Jackie McLean’s recommendation Miles Davis came to hear Paul Chambers play.  Impressed with the bassist Miles hired Paul Chambers making him a founding member of the Miles Davis Quintet.  Chambers joined the superstar line up of saxophonist Sonny Rollins, pianist Red Garland and drummer Philly Joe Jones.  They played their first gig ever at the Café Bohemia in July of 1955.  John Coltrane became the saxophonist when Sonny Rollins left the quintet in September of 1955.  The Quintet made its first recording on Columbia Records late in 1955.

Solo Recordings

The quick success of the Miles Davis Quintet lead to solo sessions for Chambers.  The "Whims of Chambers" album released on Blue Note in 1956 features performances by Donald Byrd, John Coltrane, Kenny Burrell, Horace Silver and Philly Joe Jones. It includes three of Chambers original compositions: the title cut "Whims of Chambers", "Dear Ann" and "Tales of the Fingers".  

His engaging 1957 mainstream jazz album "Bass on Top", which includes Chambers' original "Chambermates", features guitarist Kenny Burrell and pianist Hank Jones. Coltrane recorded again with Chambers in 1957 on the album "Chambers' Music: A Jazz Delegation from the East" that included the Chambers' original tune "Visitation" 

In 1959 Chambers released the Hard Bop album "Go" with four of his original songs played by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist Cannonball Aderly

Another all star cast of players recorded with Paul Chambers on his 1960 album "1st Bassman". Yusef Lateef, Curtis Fuller, Pittsburgh trumpeter Tommy Turrentine, pianist Wynton Kelly, and drummer Lex Humphries worked the sessions with Chambers. Lateef wrote all of the songs. All Music Guide reviewer Michael G. Nastos highly recommends the album  "This CD and its companion piece Go complement the preceding Blue Note sessions, comprising a small but potent body of work that few bassists have produced in modern jazz. If you are a student or lover of jazz bass, the complete Paul Chambers Vee Jay sessions, of which this is one, belongs in your home.

Living On

Paul Chambers was hospitalized in 1968 with what was thought to be a severe case of the Hong Kong Flu.  Tests revealed that he had Tuberculosis.  His organ functions deteriorated sending him into an 18-day coma before his death on January 4, 1969 in New York City.  It is believed that his addictions to heroin and alcoholism contributed to his health problems.  Four members of the famed Miles Davis Quintet died before the age of 51 and only one lived past the age of 65.  Only age 34 at the time of his death Paul Chambers was the first and youngest of the quintet members to pass away. His star shined brightly in a burst of success but flamed out quickly.  His music and his influence live on.  


The Music of Paul Chambers
Chamber Bowed Bass Solo
Miles Davis and Paul Chambers
Kind of Blue
Miles Davis, Paul Chambers, and Bill Evans
Chambers and Coltrane