Milt Hinton, Bass-Playing 'Judge,' Dead At 90

Ubiquitous session bassist leaves equally large legacy of memorable photographs.

Renowned bassist Milt Hinton died Tuesday at a New York hospital. He was 90. During his career Hinton played with singers ranging from Billie Holiday to Barbra Streisand, and such bandleaders as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones.

"He had a long legacy," said bassist Richard Davis. "He was a dynamo and an idyllic, caring person as well as my mentor."

Hinton was known affectionately as "the Judge" because, he once recalled, "I'd always be the first guy at recording sessions. Then the producer would arrive and say 'Well, we can start the session now, the Judge is here.' "

Hinton was born June 23, 1910 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and moved to Chicago in 1921. He began his musical career playing violin and learned to play the bass horn, tuba and cello before settling on bass violin.

Hinton began working as a professional musician in the 1920s. During the following decade he played bass with such artists as pianist Art Tatum and violinist Erskine Tate while continuing his music studies at Northwestern University. In 1936 bandleader Cab Calloway heard Hinton play and the next morning asked him to join his band as its youngest member. He remained with Calloway for 15 years.

During those years Hinton gigged with such Calloway sidemen as drummer Cozy Cole, saxophonists Ben Webster and Illinois Jacquet, and Dizzy Gillespie, who became a lifelong friend. He recorded with such musicians as saxophonist Benny Carter, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and singers Ethel Waters and Holiday.

Hinton began his second career — documenting the jazz scene surrounding him through photographs — just before joining Calloway's band. He left more than 60,000 negatives behind, with numerous images featured in magazines and art exhibits. Two books, "Bass Line: The Stories and Photographs of Milt Hinton" and "OverTime: The Jazz Photographs of Milt Hinton," collect his work.

"He was a wonderful photographer," said Dr. Sandra Kraskin, director of the Miskin Gallery at Baruch College, which hosted two exhibitions of Hinton's photographs. "He captured the fleeting moment and situations in which his subjects would not have allowed anyone else to photograph them. Like jazz, the photos are improvisational. He shot them quickly without any preplanning. He was also a wonderful and charming man."

After leaving Calloway in the early 1950s when the group disbanded, Hinton took on New York's free-lance studio scene. He became one of the first full-time African-American studio musicians, securing numerous recording sessions.

"He was one of the people who broke the color line in the New York studio scene but never forgot where he came from," Davis said.

During the '50s he recorded with singers Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Dinah Washington as well as guitarists Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell, and saxophonist Woody Herman. In later years he played on albums by Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, John Lee Hooker, Paul McCartney, Sammy Davis Jr., Bette Midler and Leon Redbone.

Hinton taught at many colleges during his life and held weekly jazz workshops at both Hunter and Baruch Colleges in New York. His many honors included the Living Treasure Award from the Smithsonian Institute, the Eubie Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and the American Jazz Master Fellowship.

"He introduced me to many people who hired him, knowing I was among the generation that would take his place," Davis recalled. "He helped many musicians who had no funds but didn't talk about it. You just sort of heard about them."

"I live in a world where we actually love one another," Hinton once said. "No bass player speaks badly about another. Music is an auditory art. We deal with sound. I respect people, judge them and evaluate them by how they sound."

His wife, daughter and granddaughter survive Hinton.