Von Babasin is his name, and West Coast jazz is his passion. Not surprising, given that Von’s late father, Harry Babasin, was an innovative jazz musician who helped create the unique sound known as West Coast jazz.
If you aren’t familiar with the name of Harry Babasin, don’t feel bad. He may be “the greatest American jazz musician you’ve never heard of,” according to a 2007 article in the Armenian Reporter Arts & Culture magazine.
Von Babasin hopes to change that. He’s spent years collecting recordings, film clips, articles, photos and other memorabilia for a documentary film about his father and his contribution to West Coast Jazz.
“My aim is to preserve West Coast Jazz,” Babasin says. “My purpose is also to underline the significance of what my father did. But it’s not just about him. It’s also about the whole West Coast jazz community” which he believes was slighted by the rest of the nation.
He is planning to create a museum built around the archives he’s collected over the past several years. In the process, he’s given interviews for numerous articles to promote his father’s legacy including one an online article by the Daily News. A woman connected with the New York Foundation for the Arts read the article, which led to the Foundation accepting fiscal sponsorship to produce a documentary film about his father’s life and career. The film will be called, “Harry’s Babasin’s Jazz in Hollywood.” Von Babasin still has to raise the production budget for the film, but NYFA’s backing lends the task greater legitimacy.
Harry Babasin was a native of Texas who studied cello at North Texas State University and, as a virtuoso bassist, toured with big-band leaders Benny Goodman, Woody Herman and Charlie Barnet. After World War II, Harry moved to Hollywood and became a top studio bassist.
Ever seeking more information for his archives, Von scours the Internet where he’s found quite a number of pieces of information, especially on eBay. He unexpectedly came across an email that contained a publicity bill from the 1940s Danny Kaye movie, “A Song Is Born,” that featured his father and other better known jazz greats such as Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Tommy Dorsey.
That movie was a pivotal moment for Von’s father Harry in a couple of different ways. While he waited between scenes on the movie set, he grabbed a cello that was being used as a prop and began plucking it like a guitar. At the time he didn’t realize he was pioneering what came to be known as piccolo bass, or pizzicato jazz cello. In 1947, the Dodo Marmarosa Trio made the first known recording using pizzicato jazz cello.
“While [Von’s father Harry Babasin] waited between scenes on the movie set, he grabbed a cello that was being used as a prop and began plucking it like a guitar. At the time he didn’t realize he was pioneering what came to be known as piccolo bass, or pizzicato jazz cello.”
And while on the movie set, Babasin met the Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida. The guitarist and Harry, joined by drummer Roy Harte and alto saxophonist Bud Shank, became the Laurindo Almeida Quartet and recorded two albums that are considered the precursors of Bossa Nova, a combination of native Brazilian and American jazz forms. Nearly a decade later, other artists recorded their versions of the style and made the Bossa Nova a household term.
Harry Babasin and Harte teamed up to form an independent label known as Nocturne Records which highlighted many of the top musicians of the time. On the company’s third recording Babasin added a bass and reintroduced the cello as a full-fledged melodic instrument rather than merely a supporting background instrument. The independent recording company sold to the larger Liberty Records in 1955, and Liberty re-released some of Nocturne’s original recordings, hiring Babasin to produce what they named the, “Jazz in Hollywood Series,” later renamed “Jazz Unlimited.”
Harry Babasin continued to develop his work on the cello and used it to front a group named, Harry Babasin and the Jazzpickers. Samples of the music on those albums can be heard on Amazon.com by typing in Harry Babasin or West Coast Jazz.
Von Babasin is no slouch himself when it comes to music. He is a bassist and composer who has his own group, ONOFFON, which has released three CDs that are promoted solely on the Internet. The group was nominated for Artist of the Year in 2005 by the International Online Music Awards which named ONOFFON’s “Bridge to Presage” the Best Album of 2006. Von is also a longtime member of the local musicians union and donates time as an advisor of the board of directors of Los Angeles Music Week, a community-based music outreach program.
Before he turned to music full-time like his father, Von spent eight years as a filmmaker. His credits include working in special effects for Universal on the complete productions of “Airport ‘77,” “Jaws 2,” “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” He was also a screen-credited grip on “La Bamba.” Von credits his grandfather, Russell Schoengarth, as an important influence in getting him interested in filmmaking as Schoengarth was a respected film editor with more than 130 films to his credit.
Although Von left filmmaking to pursue his music career, he still kept his hand in that field, working as a production manager and director for a small independent music video company. But music always played an important role in his life. An even more important role is that of husband and father. He and his wife, Renee, live in Studio City, California and have two sons, Sean, who is 19, and Ian, 16.
Surprisingly, Von’s father didn’t teach him to play an instrument “except by osmosis.”
“My father got his master’s degree in music in the early 1960s. He was a wonderful father, but he wasn’t good at teaching beginning students.”
Describing his father as “anunsung hero of jazz bass,” Von believes that his story has as much star power in jazz that any story can have since his father’s innovations changed the face of jazz and continue to do so.
Von is tireless in his pursuit of information about his father and West Coast Jazz, determined that both attain an appropriate place in the musical history of America.
He puts his quest this way: “I know that what I’m doing is good for the aesthetic nature of the world, in my music, in filmmaking, in ensuring a place in history for my father and his contributions, and in helping to define the artistic movement of West Coast Jazz and all those amazing musicians that took part in our rich American musical culture.”
Thank you Von, for sharing your Story with us.
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