Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Letter to Editor of Downbeat Magazine

In the August 2009 issue of Downbeat magazine, Oscar Pettiford was voted into the Downbeat Hall of Fame.  The following is a previously unpublished letter written by Oscar's widow, Jacqueline Pettiford, to the editor of Downbeat Magazine:

Mr. Ed Enright, Editor
Downbeat Magazine
102 N. Haven Road
Elmhurst, lL 60126

July 31,2009

Dear Mr. Enright:

It has been long overdue for the music industry to openly acknowledge the unequaled genius of Oscar Pettiford, and his legacy as one of the MASTERS of America’s classical music: JAZZ. Thank you Downbeat for addressing this miscue by finally inducting O. P. into the Downbeat Hall of Fame.

It was Oscar Pettiford who inherited the role of bringing the jazz bass to prominence as a solo instrument when Jimmy Blanton died. Pettiford encouraged amplification of the jazz bass, strung a cello to bass pitch and introduced this heretofore classic instrument as the bass man’s double, developed both the pizzicato and arco solo styles, and maintained the tradition of the bass in the rhythm section while defining the role of the bass in the spotlight. Equally important, Pettiford pioneered efforts in studio overdubbing.

Also, it was Oscar Pettiford who teamed with Dizzy Gillespie at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, N.Y., and as pioneers of Be-Bop, put it on the “map.” It was also Pettiford who joined Coleman Hawkins for the first bop recordings in 1944. Pettiford, again with Hawkins, brought Be-Bop to the West Coast at Billy Berg’s a full ten months before the arrival of Dizzy and Charlie Parker.

ln the 1950's Pettiford was a major bandleader whose ensembles performed his remarkable orchestrations and compositions. He was more than just a great bassist, he was one of the frontiersmen who gave birth to Modern Jazz, and he persistently experimented with innovative concepts right up until his death in 1960. He was a prolific organizer and writer, having more than 34 recorded compositions to his credit at the age of 37 when he died. Throughout his career, he was deeply committed to imparting his knowledge to others and he should be long remembered as discoverer, leader, encourager, and mentor of new and potential talent in America and Europe during his lifetime.

The son of a full-blooded Native American mother and half-blooded Native American father, Pettiford was exposed at an early age to Indian ceremonial music and dance, and he contended that the importance of the American Indian to jazz has been underestimated if not completely overlooked. He maintained that the 4/4 tempo, which after all is the basic beat of jazz, came directly from the American Indian; that, though it existed in European music, it was not used in the same way; and that African rhythms, supposedly the important ingredient, were of very different rhythmic nature.

Those in the mainstream music industry who profit from the achievements of talented artists have historically ostracized Oscar Pettiford from his rightful rank among the Jazz Masters, primarily because he refused to compromise the integrity of his music for capital gain, while protégés and other bass legends who were products of the Pettiford influence usurped the kudos. Unfortunately, this stigma still prevails since many, including his family - notably son Cello and twin daughters Cellina and Celeste, were unaware of the honor recently bestowed on O.P. by Downbeat.

lt is time now for the music industry and its historians to clearly define the prominent role of Oscar Pettiford in Jazz chronicles for posterity.

Jacqueline Pettiford
Chicago, IL


  1. Hi Phillip, I know this is probably a long shot, since your post is from almost 10 years ago, but I was wondering if you remember where you found this letter, since you mentioned that it had not been published. I teach a jazz history class, and next semester I'm going to unpack a little bit about the Native American influence on jazz, which is not really addressed in textbooks at this point in history. I think it might be interesting to include this letter as a primary source in their reading. Can you help me find the source? Thanks! Emily

  2. Hello Emily,

    I got this letter from a friend, who got it directly from Jackie here in Chicago. Please email me at phillip765@gmail.com and I'll send you his contact information. He'll be glad to answer any questions that you may have about Oscar.