Red Callender, the influential jazz bass player who introduced the legendary Charles Mingus to that instrument, died Sunday in his Saugus home from complications of thyroid cancer. His wife said he was 76.
Callender, who also was a tuba virtuoso, composer and studio musician who played anything from polka to avant-garde jazz, recorded with a virtual who’s who of Jazz for more than 50 years.
He last performed on New Year’s Eve in Santa Monica, said his wife, Mary Lou. The next day, Callender was hospitalized and underwent surgery for the thyroid cancer that had plagued him for several years, she said.
To help defray his medical expenses, the Los Angeles Jazz Society staged a benefit concert in his honor last month.
“I got to say this about him because I’m so proud of him,” said his wife of 21 years shortly after his death. “He was a man capable of doing everything from symphony work to country and Western to gospel to jazz, even some stuff with James Taylor to avant-garde or Dixieland. He never put any kind of music down. I always told him he was the (versatile actor) James Earl Jones of the bass. He always went to a job and did it 100%.”
Born George Sylvester Callender in Haynesville, Va., he studied tuba, bass, trumpet and harmony as a boy and as early as 1933 was playing in bands in New Jersey. He moved to Los Angeles while still a teen-ager and made his recording debut with Louis Armstrong when he was 19. Callender soon went on to play with such other giants of jazz as Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and Benny Goodman.
He also made recordings with Bing Crosby, Art Tatum, Lawrence Welk and Andre Previn.
Although Callender said he never considered himself a teacher, in 1939 a determined 17-year-old boy asked Callender to teach him the bass. Callender charged the teen-ager $2 an hour, and after the lessons they would share ice cream and dreams. That student was Mingus, and he said he wanted to become the best bass player in the world.
Callender owed much of his success to his ability to double on the tuba, he once said.
“At least one-third of my studio career was due to this,” he said. “Often I’d get calls for both instruments or for the tuba only.”
In the 1940s, he was a member of Erroll Garner’s trio while recording with Parker and Gordon and performing with Nat (King) Cole.
As a result of his work in the 1940s, he was credited with a pioneering role in showing that the bass could be both a solo instrument and rhythmic instrument. “He brought out melodic aspects of the bass,” said Times jazz critic Leonard Feather.
Callender was one of the first black musicians to break the color barrier in Hollywood studios in the 1950s, and he went on to perform extensively in television and films.
He often had bit parts as a musician and his music was featured on shows starring Carol Burnett, Danny Kaye, Flip Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jonathan Winters. His 1958 hit, “Primrose Lane,” later became the theme for Henry Fonda’s “Smith Family” television series.
Two years ago, in a review of a Callender birthday celebration performance at the Biltmore Hotel, Feather said the master bassist “reminded us in both rhythm and solo functions that he is a vital part of this city’s jazz history--and, not least, the man who taught Charles Mingus to play the bass.”
Callender got his nickname from his red hair, a product of 18th Century ancestors who had lived in Scotland but later made their way to Barbados in the Caribbean.
In explaining why he titled his 1985 autobiography “Unfinished Dreams,” Callender told Feather: “It’s not that I’m frustrated about anything. To this day, I’m learning about music. Basically, that’s why I’m still playing. I want to be a better musician--that’s the dream.”
Besides his wife, he is survived by three daughters, a son and three grandchildren. A memorial service is pending.