Track of the Day: ‘The Sidewinder’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Not many people outside of jazz know Bob Cranshaw’s name—though they do know his playing, which I’ll get to in a moment—but if they do, it’s likely as a pioneering electric bassist and sideman with Sonny Rollins. Cranshaw, who died of cancer on Wednesday at age 83, spent more than five decades in the great tenor saxophonist’s band, providing the grounding presence in Rollins’s band from The Bridge in 1962 through his most recent studio album, Sonny, Please.

But the Cranshaw performance that springs to my mind most readily isn’t with Rollins, and it isn’t on the electric bass. It’s just a little four-note tag, but it ties the song together. During a 1963 recording session, trumpeter Lee Morgan in 1963 found himself one song short of an album. He disappeared off into a bathroom, and the other musicians, who knew he had a drug habit, thought he might be shooting up. But after 20 minutes or so, Morgan emerged with the sketch for a fast blues to fill out the session.

He asked Cranshaw to play a pickup—a little riff to kick the tune off—and Cranshaw picked out a quick descending pattern. The band played for more than 10 minutes, including a show-stopping Barry Harris piano solo, but when they neared the finish, Cranshaw panicked and nearly ruined the take. “When we got ready to take the tune out, to play the melody, I forgot what I played at the beginning,” he recalled.

It turned out not to be too hard for the band to stop, listen back, and then splice in a finish. That was a good thing, because the take turned out to be classic. “The Sidewinder” became the title track of the album, a fluke crossover hit—charting on the pop Top 100—and eventually into a jazz standard.

Cranshaw reached an even larger audience, if not great fame or glory, in 1969, when he played bass on the theme to Sesame Street. His lines on the tune, in keeping with his general M.O., are unobtrusively funky. He ended up playing bass for the show’s music for 30 years.

There’s a reason Cranshaw stuck around so long with Rollins, and with Sesame Street. He wasn’t a flashy player, and he liked to be in the background. But his name in the credits of any record is a good omen for the quality of the music, and there’s a long list of such records, with leaders from Grant Green to Jaki Byard and Wayne Shorter to Paul Simon. “I didn’t ask to be a star. I wanted to be a sideman. I wanted to be a super-sideman,” Cranshaw told Ethan Iverson in 2014. He succeeded.

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