Tommy Potter’s name wouldn’t get much attention in jazz circles these days...unless the gathering were comprised of musicians and jazz fans with high-mileage on their odometers. But there was a time when the mention of his name brought smiles and nods of recognition, along with enthusiastic approval.
As a young person getting acquainted with jazz, I heard the name mentioned by the few jazz DJs with radio programs at the time. Potter was always a supporting bassist to this or that small group leader. The first DJ I heard speak Potter’s name was Sid Torin, known to many as “Symphony Sid,” via his popular late night broadcasts from New York City’s Birdland and Royal Roost night clubs. Charlie (“Yard Bird”) Parker, for whom Birdland was named, played both clubs quite often, and Potter was Parker’s bassist in the late 1940s, as was a young trumpeter named Miles Davis.
Even prior to working with the celebrated Parker, Potter was much into the up-and-coming new music, dubbed be bop, when he was the bassist in Billy Eckstine’s progressive big band, where his band mates were blossoming jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey and Parker. Although he more than held his own on stage and in recording studios with the legends-to-be, he also enjoyed making music with those in the swing-era of jazz, like Earl Hines and Artie Shaw. He was a member of both their bands in the early 1950s.
Tommy Potter became one of the most sought-after jazz bassists of the latter 1940s, and his popularity as a sideman remained constant well into the 1960s. But he stopped playing regularly in the mid ‘60s, and took a nine-to-fiver, as he said, “To be at home with my family. I have a 15-year-old boy, and I want to be around him while he’s growing up.” He continued to play on weekends and odd days, saying, “I’d go back to full time, if it could reward me sufficiently.” That day never came, so Potter continued playing only when it was convenient. He eventually dropped music altogether when he contracted arthritis.
The Tommy Potter story is a rather strange one, in that although born and raised in Philadelphia, and going on to play with jazz greats, he is not celebrated like other jazz musicians who did the same and claim Philly as home. It’s also odd—and somewhat heroic—that although he suffered a massive heart attack at age 16, and was confined to bed for two years, he managed to recover, took up the bass, and ultimately became proficient enough on the instrument to move to New York, where he made music with the aforementioned musicians, and a good number of other jazz stalwarts.
These are a few of the puzzling reasons why Potter’s name is not spoken of more often in enlightened jazz circles—because he was there, just about at the beginning of modern jazz, and active for the next two decades. To be sure, his ability as a sideman helped many jazz musicians to become stars. But to be realistic, not many remember musicians who play supportive roles in jazz, until they break out on their own and unfortunately, Potter never did.
I don’t know why I remember his name over so many others. Maybe it’s because I can still hear Symphony Sid calling Potter’s name as he cited members of the Parker quintet at Birdland. And from time to time, while leafing through my books on jazz, I come across photos of various jazz group leaders—and there’s Tommy Potter in the background, the dutiful sideman, in his support role, peering out from behind the neck of his bass.
Since the name has been in my noggin for many moons, I thought I’d pay my respects to the storied bassist (storied at least in my mind) by writing a column in tribute. Charles Thomas Potter, was born in Philadelphia, September 21, 1918, and passed on in New York City, March I, 1988.
This article is from the November 2013 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.