Born 100 years ago and raised in Minnesota, Oscar Pettiford changed the sound of American music

A man plays a bass
Oscar Pettiford plays bass at the Aquarium in New York, in about November 1946.
William P. Gottlieb Collection (Library of Congress)

If you've ever learned a band instrument, or know someone who has, chances are you've heard the tune "Blues in the Closet" — a signature of the bebop era.

What you may not know is that its roots go back to north Minneapolis, where one of its creators grew up. And today — Friday, Sept. 30, 2022 — marks exactly 100 years since that jazz pioneer, Oscar Pettiford, was born.

Pettiford got his start on the stages of the Twin Cities, helping create a "Minneapolis sound" long before Prince — a sound that forever changed American music. He played with a who's-who of jazz greats across the U.S. and in Europe, before his untimely death.

"He probably doesn't get the right amount of credit that he should," bassist Christian McBride, host of NPR's "Jazz Night in America" and a six-time Grammy winner, said of Pettiford.

A black and white photo of people playing instruments
Oscar Pettiford, on bass, played with his brother Ira, a trumpeter, at the University of Minnesota's Coffman Union in Minneapolis in 1941, in this photo from the Minnesota Historical Society collections.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

"He was probably the most important bass player of that bebop generation in terms of creating new language for the bass, and playing what Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were playing, on the bass."

Pettiford was born in Oklahoma, the son of Native American and Black families. Oscar, his brother Ira, and their large, musical family soon moved to Minnesota.

MPR News is Reader Funded

Before you keep reading, take a moment to donate to MPR News. Your financial support ensures that factual and trusted news and context remain accessible to all.

"They were traveling musicians, who traveled with different artists, who picked up different skills, who jumped in different bands," said Jamela Pettiford, a singer from St. Paul who still carries the family name. She also teaches theater at Battle Creek Middle School. Oscar was her grandfather's cousin.

"Coming here to Minnesota, looking for a better life, of course hoping for less discrimination — and there was a music scene here. They very much were the Minneapolis sound at the time."

It was Oscar who rose above the rest. Bands passing through town heard his sound, forged in the ferment of a musicians' strike in the early 1940s that all but shut down the recording industry and had musicians making a living with relentless performing and creativity.

Oscar Pettiford remembered the era with another jazz legend — radio host Leigh Kamman —in the early 1950s, captured in a recorded interview still held by the Leigh Kamman Legacy Project.

"I recall one night when you had a big session with Coleman Hawkins," Kamman says in the recording.

"Up in Duluth, Minnesota. Before then, it was Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington."

"And you wound up with the Duke, didn't you, as a member of his rhythm section?"

"Yeah, Duke Ellington, and also Coleman Hawkins."

Asked by Kamman to describe his musical talents, Pettiford said: "Well, basically I'm a bass player. For kicks I play cello, for thought I play piano, and for odd moments I beat on the drums.”

A man in a suit
This undated promotional photo of Oscar Pettiford is datelined New York City, where he was a regular in the post-World War II jazz scene, often backing the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Earl Hines and Coleman Hawkins.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Pettiford left for New York City in the 1940s and became a regular at the legendary Minton's Playhouse, the Harlem incubator of the sound that succeeded the Big Band swing era. He played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. He went on to become a regular with Miles Davis and Milt Jackson.

Pettiford's style would come to sound familiar to any modern ear — featuring virtuoso turns of bass in a small group and propelling the rhythm section to the front of the sound.

Anthony Cox is a well-known Twin Cities bass player and student of the era.

"He had, let's call it that three-dimensional style, that really wasn't examined before," Cox said. "And what I mean by that is that the bass was really starting to outline the harmonies, providing propulsion and time."

But Oscar Pettiford never had the legacy of Miles Davis or even bassist Ron Carter. And there are a couple reasons for that.

First, Pettiford got sick and died literally at the height of his powers. He was only 37 when, by some accounts, he contracted something like polio and died in 1960.

But there's also where he died — in Copenhagen, Denmark. He'd moved to Europe, like many of the jazz greats, in the late 50s — to flee the pernicious racism that even music stars and pioneers couldn't escape.

A woman stands for a photo in an auditorium
Jamela Pettiford says people still ask her family about her grandfather's cousin, legendary jazz bassist Oscar Pettiford, who moved to Minnesota as a child and became part of a legendary family music ensemble in Minneapolis before moving to New York and helping transform American music after World War II.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

"You do start to realize when you don't feel welcome in your own home," said Jamela Pettiford.

Pictures of the era show traveling musicians sleeping in Ira Pettiford's living room in Minneapolis — likely because area hotels wouldn't give Black people a room.

"And it was difficult to perform for audiences where you had to go through the back or you had to sit by the kitchen. And for Blacks, at that time, in Europe, you were welcomed with open arms," Jamela Pettiford said.

And that's where Oscar Pettiford is today, buried in a grave in Denmark. There's even a street named after him in Copenhagen.

There's no such formal recognition in Minnesota. But his family, and fans of his enduring music, remember him still, today, a century after he was born.