Before there were the likes of Geddy Lee, Flea and Les Claypool, there was Jack Bruce. Similar to what James Jamerson did for funk and soul, Bruce did for rock and all its offshoots. A jazz bass player at heart, who also had a critical understanding of classical, along with pioneers such as Jamerson, he helped to take bass playing to the next level and drag it into the modern era.
The interesting thing about Bruce was that he started off playing the upright bass, and this understanding of jazz and classical is what, ironically, helped him to become a rock ‘n’ roll icon. As they say, to become a great bass player you have to have a deep understanding of jazz.
After leaving school, Bruce toured Italy, playing the double bass with the Murray Campbell Big Band. Then, in 1962, he became a member of the iconic London-based troupe, Blues Incorporated. Led by Alexis Korner, this is where he would first encounter his perennial frenemy, Ginger Baker.
In 1963, the band broke up and he then joined The Graham Bond Quartet, soon to be The Graham Bond Organisation. They played a wide variety of styles, including bebop, blues and R&B, and it was during this time that Bruce adopted the electric bass. Even then at this early stage in his career, the hostility between Bruce and Baker was unbearable to those around them.
He then had a stint in London’s other iconic band of merry men, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1965, and the lineup featured a young Eric Clapton on guitar, who would soon invite him to form Cream the year after. Following this stint in the Bluesbreakers, Bruce then had a brief tenure as the bassist of Manfred Mann, and enjoyed his first commercial success with the group on the single ‘Pretty Flamingo’.
To get an idea of just how brilliant of a bass player Bruce was, a story from the time of his departure from The Bluesbreakers demonstrates it clearly.
Although John Mayall claimed that Bruce had been lured away from his group solely by the allure of cash, this didn’t matter to Manfred Mann, as they were acutely aware of Bruce’s ability.
The band’s namesake and keyboardist recalled that Bruce played his first gig with the group without any rehearsal and played every song without making a mistake. Mann even asserted that perhaps the chord changes seemed obvious to Bruce due to his perceptive understanding of music.
Then in 1966 Cream was formed. It was Baker who asked Clapton to join his new unnamed group. Clapton agreed on the proviso that he hire Baker as the bassist being a fan of his playing since their brief time in the Bluesbreakers. According to Clapton, Baker was so surprised by the suggestion that he hire his nemesis that he nearly crashed the car they were travelling in.
Regardless, the pair agreed to put their past quarrels behind them and form Cream for the good of the trio’s artistic endeavours. The band would quickly go on to be one of the most iconic bands of all time, a psychedelic power trio, who are rightly hailed as the world’s first supergroup. Tracks such as ‘I Feel Free’, ‘White Room’ and ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ captured the hedonistic spirit of the counterculture and helped to soundtrack the momentous decade that was the ’60s.
After Cream imploded in 1968, Bruce then carried on a prolific career. He collaborated with many musicians from disparate genres such as the avant-garde, world music, third stream classical and hard rock and played with icons such as Rory Gallagher and as a one-time member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band.
A true master of the bass, the amount of icons that have acknowledged his work and cited him as an inspiration is dizzying. Black Sabbath and heavy metal god Geezer Butler definitively regarded him as his “biggest influence and favourite bass player”.
Although Bruce passed away in 2014, Rush bass virtuoso, Geddy Lee, showered some massive praise on him on the band’s website in 2015. In the blog entry, he opined: “(He was) one of the greatest rock bassists to ever live and a true and profound inspiration to countless musicians. He was one of my first bass heroes and was a major influence on my playing and my music.”
Topping off this high praise, former conceptual mastermind and bass player of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters, lamented in the wake of Bruce’s death that he was “probably the most musically gifted bass player who’s ever been.”
Jack Bruce’s status within rock music is unmatched and without his incredible steps in bass playing and songwriting, many of modern bass playing’s most significant blueprints and bass players would not exist. Let the sheer significance of his contributions sink in.
Listen to Jack Bruce talk about his time in Cream below.