Al McKibbon, a bassist who was an early participant in efforts to merge jazz and Latin rhythms, died Friday at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 86.
A key member of pianist George Shearing’s quintet in the 1950s, McKibbon had been in declining health for several months, according to Gary Chen-Stein, a close friend of McKibbon and the owner of the music store Stein on Vine.
McKibbon became interested in Cuban jazz while playing with Dizzy Gillespie’s band in the late 1940s.
“I began to feel that the Cubans were as close as you could come to African culture because they still practiced the roots of our music,” McKibbon wrote in the afterword to “Latin Jazz: the Perfect Combination” (2002) by Raul Fernandez.
McKibbon particularly admired the well-known Cuban musician Machito, who, along with Chano Pozo, performed with the Gillespie band at Carnegie Hall in a September 1947 performance that critic Leonard Feather called “the first serious attempt to combine jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms.”
Fernandez, a professor of Chicano/Latino studies at UC Irvine, said McKibbon frequently went to hear Machito play and “really absorbed the style.”
McKibbon brought his Latin sensibilities to the Shearing quartet from 1951 to 1957.
Shearing, in his autobiography “Lullaby of Birdland,” said that McKibbon was “laying down as fine a Latin bass line as anyone ever has” and that he seemed to have an intuitive sense for the rhythms. “I never had to write a bass part for Al on those Latin numbers,” Shearing wrote.
Born in Chicago, McKibbon grew up in Detroit in a musical family. His father played tuba and guitar, and his brother was a professional guitarist. As a youngster, Al was a dancer in local vaudeville shows.
At his brother’s urging, he decided to learn the bass, which was beginning to replace the tuba as a rhythm section instrument in jazz. While in high school, he started playing in Detroit’s thriving club scene.
During World War II, McKibbon joined Lucky Millinder’s band and moved to New York. He played with leading names in jazz, including saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and established himself as a player with a strong, full tone and a metronomic beat.
After the war, he went on tour with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, with J.C. Heard’s band at the groundbreaking Cafe Society in New York City and with Gillespie’s big band.
He also played on Miles Davis’ seminal “The Complete Birth of the Cool” recordings, arranged by Gil Evans, and was influential in bringing the Latin sound to vibist Cal Tjader’s group.
He found steady work in studio and network bands, including NBC, after moving to Southern California in 1958.
In the early 1970s, McKibbon joined Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and others in the Giants of Jazz group and played on Monk’s last recording in 1971.
He later recorded with Benny Carter, Herbie Nichols and Sammy Davis Jr.
He had continued to work steadily -- most recently at a club in Claremont -- until his health started to decline.
Survivors include his daughter, Allison; and his sister, Geraldine, of Detroit.