Sunday, August 12, 2012

Nabil "Knobby" Totah R.I.P.

From the jazzwestcoastlist :

Subject: Knobby Totah RIP

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Jazz bassist Nabil ("Knobby") Totah passed away on Thursday June 7 in York, PA, after a long illness. He was 82. An elegantly swinging player with a gliding, rich sound, Nabi had an illustrious career in jazz, working and recording with many of the top jazz musicians of his day.

He was born in Ramallah, Palestine, on April 5, 1930, the son of Khalil A. Totah, the headmaster of a Quaker school in Ramallah, and Eva Marshall Totah, an American teacher who met his father while working at the school. She started Nabi on piano studies and then violin, where he showed unusual talent. Nabi's father was a leading educator who urged Arab-Jewish reconciliation, and was active on behalf of justice for Palestinians, both at home and in America. The family emigrated in November, 1944, when Nabi was fourteen years old. Nabi and his father sailed from Egypt to New York in the hold of a Liberty ship in a wartime convoy, and his mother and sisters Sibyl and Joy were on another ship in the convoy. Nabi attended Moses Brown, a Quaker boarding school in Providence, Rhode Island, and after a year at Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa, transferred to Haverford College in Haverford, PA. There he studied political science and was on a diplomatic career path when he discovered and took up the bass, and his world changed. While serving in the Army in Japan (1953-54), he played with the 289th Division Army Band, and at a coffee house in Yokohama, near Tokyo, with pianists Hampton Hawes and the young Toshiko Akiyoshi.

Three days after Totah returned to New York, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker heard him at a jam session and hired him. The famous bassist Oscar Pettiford became a mentor (and later so did Charles Mingus, who called him to play bass when he wanted to play piano). About 1954, Totah met drummer Ray Mosca at a session in Florida. They meshed right away. After Totah got Mosca to join him in composer and pianist Cy Coleman's band, the two soon became a "first call" rhythm section.

From 1955 to 1958, Totah and Mosca played for weekly Monday sessions at Birdland with different headliners, and worked the rest of the week with top pianists such as George Wallington, Hampton Hawes and Sonny Clark. When tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims formed his first quartet, he hired them along with master stride pianist Dave McKenna to go on the road

In 1957, when tenor player Al Cohn joined the group, the band became known as “Zoot and Al” and became very popular. Besides working steadily, Totah was “house bassist” for countless jam sessions in Sims’s apartment, in the building on 37th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues where both were living at the time. Others Totah worked with were drummer Gene Krupa, guitarist Johnny Smith, tenor saxophonists Harry Edison and Stan Getz, pianist Bobby Scott, the Les Elgart Orchestra, as Eddie Costa and Herbie Mann. In the 60s, he worked with Bobby Hackett, Teddy Wilson, Sol Yaged and Slide Hampton’s Octet; in the 70s he played with Benny Goodman, Max Kaminsky, Hazel Scott and tenor saxophonist Lee Konitz. He also led small groups that included Pepper Adams, Attila Zoller, Horace Parlan and Mike Longo.

At the same time, he kept up his classical studies of the bass, with the world-renowned bassist Fred Zimmerman, composer/soloist Alvin Brehm, and Orin O’Brien of the New York Philharmonic. He won several scholarship awards while a member of the National Orchestra Association. He was also a member of and active in Local 802 0f the American Federation of Musicians.Totah made more than twenty recordings, including with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, Herbie Mann, Bobby Hackett, Gene Krupa, Johnny Smith, Bobby Scott, Hazel Scott, Tal Farlow and Lee Konitz. His last was Nabil Totah - More Double Bass, which he produced for the Consolidated Artists label in 1997. It contained material from a 1987 trio album with pianist Mike Longo and drummer Ray Mosca, plus four new tracks including one with guest guitarist Joe Carter, and won high praise.

Totah married Norma Lewis in 1961 in New York, and they had two daughters, Lisa and Samira. To support his family, he went to work for society bandleader Lester Lanin, and was constantly on the road for many years. Highlights were playing for Queen Elizabeth in England, and for the inauguration of several Presidents including Bill Clinton. Totah moved to Bridgeport CT, where he lived until 2011. When he became ill, he moved to York, PA. He died in a hospital after breaking a hip, with complications such as difficulty breathing, pneumonia and other ailments.

He is survived by his daughters Lisa Edmonds of York, PA, and Samira Totah of Santa CruzCA, his sister Joy Totah Hilden, an artist and teacher, of Berkeley, CA., and three granddaughters, Whitney and Myra Edmonds, and Samira’s daughter Carmea. His sister Sibyl Belmont, a classical concert pianist and teacher, died in 1991.

A memorial service will take place on August 20, 2012 at Saint Peter's Lutheran Church, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street in New York, from 7 to 9 p.m.

by Jill McManus

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