Charles Fambrough, 60, jazz bassist and composer

Charles Fambrough came out of Phila. to play with jazz stars.
Charles Fambrough came out of Phila. to play with jazz stars.
Posted: January 04, 2011

Charles Fambrough, 60, the Philadelphia-area jazz bassist and composer who earned an international reputation over a 40-year career as an elite sideman, performing with Wynton Marsalis, McCoy Tyner, Grover Washington Jr., and many others, died on Saturday, Jan. 1, of a heart attack.

Mr. Fambrough died at his home in Allentown, his daughter Maria said Monday. He suffered from kidney failure and had been on dialysis for five years, she said.

In December, the Philadelphia jazz community paid tribute to Mr. Fambrough at the Clef Club, at an event that he attended with his wife, Dolores. The performers honoring Mr. Fambrough, who was known for the powerful and precise sound of his acoustic bass, included the guitarist Pat Martino, and the bassists Stanley Clarke and Gerald Veasley.

"There are certain musicians that cannot be referred to as musicians because they transcend the craft," Martino said Monday. "Charles was an artist at the highest level. His resume as a sideman was exceptional. When you heard Charles play, no matter where it was, he filled the house. It was a wave that filled the room."

Mr. Fambrough grew up in North and West Philadelphia. He began playing bass at 13, studied for 10 years with Philadelphia Orchestra bassist Neil Courtney, and attended Settlement Music School.

Shortly after graduating from West Philadelphia High School, where he began a lifelong friendship with electric bassist Clarke, Mr. Fambrough began working in pit bands for traveling Broadway shows like Bye Bye Birdie. He landed a job in 1968 with The Mike Douglas Show, the TV talk show syndicated to a national audience from a theater at 16th and Walnut Streets.

From there, Mr. Fambrough worked as a sideman for one A-lister after another. In 1970, he joined Philadelphia sax man Washington's band for 31/2 years.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Fambrough joined Tyner's band and played on three of the Philadelphia piano titan's albums, Focal Point (1976), The Greeting (1978), and Horizon (1980).

In 1980, Mr. Fambrough joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, whose formidable lineup then included both the young trumpeter Marsalis and his older brother Branford on saxophone.

"McCoy showed me how play with endurance," Mr. Fambrough once said. "Art gave me refinement." With Tyner, he said, "he plays so much that you're lucky that you're heard, so you struggle to keep up with him." Blakey, he said, "really taught you how to play behind a horn player, how to develop a rhythm section."

When Wynton Marsalis left Blakey to form his own group, he took Mr. Fambrough with him, and the bassist played on Marsalis' 1982 album Fathers and Sons.

Mr. Fambrough debuted as a leader in 1991 with The Proper Angle, which included guest appearances by the Marsalis brothers. He released his seventh and final album, Live at Zanzibar Blue, in 2002.

"I try to make a melody that you can sing, but once the melody is gone, you have to know what you're doing," Mr. Fambrough told the website All About Jazz in 1997. "If not, it's over. You can't 'hear' it; you have to 'know' it."

Mr. Fambrough lived in Doylestown in the 1990s, turning increasingly toward producing albums after tiring of a life on the road. He moved with his family to Allentown, where he was on the music faculty at Muhlenberg College, about 10 years ago, his daughter said.

In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by daughters Carla, Andrea, and Alycia; a son, Mark; and a granddaughter. Funeral arrangements were pending.


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com.

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