JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Hip cat and music luminary Bill Plummer turns eighty today. Listening to, reading about and attempting to comprehend the diversified musical life of this local treasure and extremely accomplished musician is staggering. You’ll have a couple of chances to celebrate with Plummer in action this week—manning the upright bass during Jazz Night with Pam Drews Phillips’s band on Friday at The Granary (the official Birthday Party), and as a solo pianist on Sunday at the Copper Bar in The Aspens.
Scratching the surface of the names that jump from Plummer’s list of collaborations include Miles Davis (three week 1963 tour that included bandmates Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams), The Rolling Stones (recorded four bass tracks on Exile on Main St.), Nancy Wilson, Willie Nelson, Henry Mancini, Tony Bennett, Tom Waits (Closing Time), Ry Cooder, and Quincy Jones among hundreds. He studied East Indian sitar under Ravi Shankar and Hari Har Rao. We’re still just scratching the surface. Check out Plummer’s full discography here.
Seventy years of performing, recording, touring, teaching and concert production. Where did it all begin?
“My mother played piano and trumpet as my grandfather did, and she taught me piano when I was six. By the time I was ten, I could really play,” Plummer explained. “I started playing bass at age eight and had to stand on a box for my lessons. I can clearly remember carrying the box to the rehearsals while my mother carried the bass. I was also playing baritone sax in the concert bands during junior high, high school and L.A. City College. I studied marimba during this time as well.”
“My mother was good at keeping me on task and my father was a big influence too and his family was musical. When we moved to L.A., the first Sunday paper was Pearl Harbor. We were involved in the overseas shipping business during the war from ’41 on, and I got training in that business while continuing to play concerts.”
Most of Plummer’s early career played out in L.A. Many of those years were spent with saxophonist Tony “Batman” Ortega and his quartet as well as Jazz Corps with Tommy Peltier and Roland Kirk, which later recorded for Mercury. Paul Horn Quintet was also a significant era in which Horn connected Plummer with studio sessions and TV episodes, including several tours with Nancy Wilson. He notes a five-year period studying with principal bassist New York Philharmonic Herman Reinsegan as being the primary influence on his music life.
Later, inspired by odd meters (like “playing in nine”) and studying four years at Indian School of Music, Plummer would form East Indian sitar band The Cosmic Brotherhood which led to his “stereo basses” project, Basses International.
“The Cosmic Brotherhood played for Timothy Leary during several college lecture concerts at UCLA,” Plummer said. “You know, the sitar was showing up on Beatles recordings and that whole era. Those concerts were very fascinating because it was a crazy 14-piece band with three sitars, a tambura, two drummers, and four bass players. It was either absolutely incredibly great or absolutely incredibly horrible (laughs). The Indian-jazz fusion was a big movement at the time.”
Timothy Leary’s talks were on the subject of LSD. Were these concerts pseudo Acid Tests?
“No, they weren’t pseudo, baby. They were the real deal (laughs).”
“Nah, it was just a period and we were all experimenting with these different types of psychedelic drugs. We all learned a tremendous amount about ourselves and our music. I think it had a lot to do with furthering everyone’s careers. Everyone was working night and day, everyday.”
Here are four songs from Bill Plummer and the Cosmic Brotherhood, featuring Bill on sitar, and a peak into late 1960’s East-meets-West psychedelia.
Plummer’s parents had a cabin for decades on Henry’s Lake, so he would visit the Yellowstone Park area to fish every year for sixty years. When he first moved to Wyoming, he landed in Dubois, then Laramie. Eventually, he moved to Victor, Idaho and currently resides in Felt, Idaho. Since moving to the region, he’s also played on local recordings including Jackson Six’s the self-titled album, Aaron Davis’s Rear View Mirror (2008), and late pianist Keith Phillips’s Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (2008).
“Keith was inspired to record that album just from playing with Bill,” Pam Drews Phillips said.
In addition to playing with Phillips’s jazz trio on most Friday nights, Plummer began playing his original piano compositions every Sunday at the Copper Bar.
“These are songs that I’ve written through the years but I’m trying to write a song a week,” Plummer said of his Sunday repertoire. “I try to memorize all of these songs so I don’t read any music. I didn’t realize it when I first started writing songs that I was writing in the later to be called “The Lydian [Chromatic] Concept,” which I learned from David “Buck” Wheat who was my teacher on the George Russell improvisation system. I’m still writing that way. I would like to record these songs once I get my chops up.”
For deeper dive into Bill’s recordings, there are two streaming playlists at BillPlummerBass.com
Happy Birthday, Bill!
Bill Plummer’s 80th Birthday Party is 7-10 p.m. Friday at The Granary featuring Plummer on bass, Pam Drews Phillips on piano/vocals, Chris Moran on guitar, Mike Calabrese on drums, Lawrence Bennett on trumpet, and John Kidwell on trombone.
Bill Plummer performs original piano compositions 6-9 p.m. Sundays at the Copper Bar in The Aspens.
*All of the bass you hear on Tom Wait’s debut album Closing Time is Plummer except the last song.