November 9, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – Bassist Bob Cranshaw, a stalwart American Federation of Musicians member whose career stretched from playing with jazz legends Sonny Rollins and Ella Fitzgerald to the Sesame Street studio band, died Nov. 2 at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.
Born in Chicago, Cranshaw grew up in a musical family in the suburb of Evanston. He began playing professionally in Chicago in his mid-20s, and moved to New York in 1960. He quickly established himself in the city’s jazz scene, playing with Rollins, Fitzgerald, and Grant Green and Wes Montgomery, arguably the two most revered jazz guitarists of the ’60s. He also worked as a session musician for the legendary Blue Note label, playing on more records than any other bassist in the label’s history, among them three by Horace Silver, Green’s landmark Idle Moments, and Lee Morgan’s 1964 soul-jazz hit, “The Sidewinder.” Eventually, he would play on more than 3,000 records, including more than 20 with Rollins and Paul Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon in 1973.
In a “Jazz Mentors” workshop AFM Local 802 held at its Manhattan union hall in March, Cranshaw said that he had been able “to establish a name” by working as a sideman with masters like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, but worried that players coming up today don’t have the same chances to do that.
“I didn’t ask to be a star. I wanted to be a sideman. I wanted to be a super-sideman,” he told an interviewer in 2014. He said he’d told Blue Note’s musical director that he didn’t want to hog the record dates, that there were a lot of other great bass players out there, but that he wound up getting most of them because he was reliable: He showed up on time, sober, and ready to work with what the bandleader wanted—or to create something of his own, as he did with the bassline to “The Sidewinder.”
Cranshaw, though his first love is jazz, advised younger musicians at the workshop to “be open to everything.” Beginning in the late 1960s, he branched out into working in Broadway pit orchestras and television studio bands. When he played in the 1970s rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar, he said, “the young guys taught me how to play rock, and I taught them how to play jazz.” He played in the Saturday Night Live studio band in the late ’70s, and spent more than 25 years in the Sesame Street band, including the recording of Kermit the Frog’s theme song, “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”
Increasingly active in Local 802 over the last three decades, Cranshaw became the union’s jazz consultant, and was elected to its executive board in 2012. “Bob was among the warmest and most supportive musicians we have ever known,” Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi said in a statement Nov. 5. “His contribution to the music community, his tireless advocacy on behalf of our union, and his generous mentorship and willingness to speak out against injustice and exploitation in our industry will not be forgotten.” He also remembered Cranshaw as “a visionary artist, union brother, and a dear friend,” who had the “ability to both elevate music as a collaborator and enhance the lives of everyone around him.”
“I want to fight on behalf of the young guys,” Cranshaw told the union’s March workshop. “Use me up. I don’t have a lot of time left. Get it.”