John Lamb has duende. Lots of it.
The late writer George Frazier, who penned jazz essays for Esquire and several Boston newspapers, used it when describing people whose presence made them irresistibly attractive. “So difficult to define, but it is there it is unmistakable, inspiring our awe, quickening our memory,” Frazier wrote.
Now, about St. Petersburg-based Lamb. He’s a magnetic presence on every stage because of his brawny musical style – and his singular way of interacting with his band mates.
When another player is taking a solo, Lamb turns his supporting role into a musical conversation. He leans in close to that musician, using facial expressions, body English and his responding notes to create a call-and-response moment. It underscores the sounds of the moment, and works like a musical magnet for the audience.
Lamb says he started out in the back line of the band, adding his bass notes, keeping the beat. But his approach evolved.
|Nate Najar, John Lamb
“Over the years, I found out that nothing happens without the audience. Nothing happens without two or more people interacting,” he told me. “It’s not about me. It’s about all of us. Whatever level we reach depends on all of us.”
Vero Beach native Lamb, who turned 86 on November 29, worked with pianist Red Garland early in his career. He led his own group in Philadelphia in the 1950s. He was Duke Ellington’s bassist from 1964-67 and also was with the Ellington band for occasional gigs from time to time after that. He’s listed as playing on 17 recordings with Duke.
One classic YouTube video from 1966 shows Ellington, Lamb and drummer Sam Woodyard performing for artist Joan Miró at the Fondation Maeght’s sculpture garden in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the South of France. It happened the morning after Ellington’s band played at the jazz festival in nearby Juan-le-Pins.
The video features the trio performing an E-minor blues. Ellington later named the evolving piece "The Shepherd (Who Watches Over The Night Flock)" in honor of John Garcia Gensel, a Lutheran clergyman who ministered to New York City’s jazz community.
Right after his Ellington years, Lamb moved to St. Petersburg, where he taught music in the Pinellas County School System and at St. Petersburg College. In 2013, he received the Jazz Club of Sarasota’s Satchmo Award for service to jazz.
Lamb says the most-enduring lesson he absorbed from his Ellington years was about attitude. “I learned that if he didn’t feel too good about things for some reason, just look the other way and smile.”
In other words: make the best of your situation and do your best. Tomorrow is another day.