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BABASIN, HARRY (1921–1988). Harry (the Bear) Babasin, pioneering jazz cellist, was born in Dallas on March 19, 1921. His father, Yervant Harry Babasinian, was a dentist who had immigrated to Texas from Armenia, and his mother, Minnette Turner, was a Texas native who taught music at the public school in Vernon, Texas.
Babasin grew up in Vernon, where, under the tutelage of his mother, he became intrigued with music at a young age and became proficient on numerous instruments. In high school he played bassoon, bass, cello, and clarinet. He had a short stint at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University) before enrolling at North Texas State Teachers College (now the University of North Texas) in Denton, where he was introduced to jazz. He and his friend Herb Ellis, later a legendary jazz guitarist, often attended concerts and showcases. At one such show in 1942 they saw the Charlie Fisk Orchestra, and, confident in their musicianship, told Fisk afterward that they could outplay any member of his orchestra. When Fisk asked them to prove it, Ellis and Babasin embarked on a staggering bit of showmanship. Impressed, Fisk hired them. A few months later, Babasin joined the Jimmy Joy Orchestra and was based in Chicago while that outfit toured the Midwest. Babasin was eventually featured on more than 1,500 recordings.
In 1943 he joined the Bob Strong Orchestra and headed to New York City. He also worked with various other groups on the scene, including those of Gene Krupa and Boyd Raeburn, with whom he recorded Boyd Meets Stravinsky. He joined up with Charlie Barnet, with whom he moved to California by 1946.
In Los Angeles Babasin worked with Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and Chet Baker. In 1947 he appeared in the movie A Song Is Born, which starred Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. During the filming Babasin began experimenting with playing the cello in the role of the bass. This led to his development of the pizzicato jazz cello, possibly his most significant contribution to jazz. He recorded the first-ever jazz cello tracks with the Dodo Marmarosa Trio in December 3, 1947; they can be heard on the compact disc Up in Dodo's Room. Babasin performed with Woody Herman's Second Herd in 1948 and took part in a live recording session at the Hotel Commodore in New York.
While on the movie set of A Song Is Born, he met a Brazilian musician, Laurindo Almeida, and this association led to another pioneering effort, the first "bossa nova" jazz recordings, in 1954. This fusion of modern jazz with traditional Brazilian rhythms was released on two LPs that were later remastered into a compilation entitled Brazilliance, Volume 1.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Babasin freelanced for radio and television and served as a session player. He and drummer Roy Harte formed their own record company, Nocturne Records, in 1954 and went on to produce ten albums. Babasin also formed his own ensemble, the Jazz Pickers. In 1974 he helped to establish the Los Angeles Theaseum, an archive specializing in the preservation of jazz and other music recordings as well as instruments and other artifacts donated by musicians. Babasin died of emphysema in California on May 21, 1988. He was survived by his wife Barbara and his sons Von and Perry. Von Babasin, also a jazz musician, released a three-CD boxed set, The Complete Nocturne Records, from his father's record label in 1998. The city of Los Angeles honored Babasin's musical contributions in 2002 during Los Angeles Music Week.
Dallas Observer, December 7, 2000. Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler, Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). Harry "the Bear" Babasin (http://www.onoffon.com/harrythebear.html), accessed May 22, 2008. Chuck Kelly, "Talking Jazz with Harry Babasin: An Interview," International Musician, January 1982. Dave Oliphant, Texan Jazz (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Bradley Shreve, "Babasin, Harry," accessed April 25, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbabg.
Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on October 1, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.