Bill Yancey, 70
Bassist toured with Fitzgerald, Ellington
January 27, 2004
By Li Fellers, Tribune staff reporter.Bill Yancey, a respected and beloved figure on the Chicago jazz scene for 50 years, traveled the world with his bass, touring with Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington in the 1950s and 1960s.
His soulful playing can be heard on many recordings, including those of Fitzgerald, Floyd McDaniel and Dave Clark.
"He thought music was the language everybody could understand. It didn't matter what nationality or what race you were, you could feel it," said his daughter, Wendy Yancey Garrett.
Mr. Yancey, 70, of Chicago, died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm Wednesday, Jan. 21, in his home.
A Kansas City native, Mr. Yancey moved to Chicago when he was 8 [son of Ed & Cora Yancey]. His love of music began in high school. He first tried the tuba, but soon discovered the bass.
Mr. Yancey played Chicago's clubs and dance halls, gaining a reputation as a top bass player. Within a few years, he was touring Japan and Europe with Fitzgerald.
"When he played, he was lost in the music, almost like in a trance," his daughter said. "He bobbed his head to the beat. It was like the music was coming from his head."
He married in 1960 and divorced in 1976. The couple had two children. He was a doting father who saw his children everyday, his daughter said.
"Even as small children we had to do homework to Billie Holiday," his daughter said. "He thought that type of music was good concentration music."
Mr. Yancey was also an inventor. For years he was perfecting a baseball pitching target that he patented in the U.S., Canada and Japan, his daughter said.
"He was a jokester. He had jokes for everything," she said. He often distributed to friends photocopies of jokes he heard because "it made people happy. It made them laugh," she said.
Mr. Yancey was known for helping friends and acquaintances. Gina Gibson was at the start of her singing career when she met Mr. Yancey in 1976.
"He was a hotshot musician and it was like, `Hey, I knew Bill Yancey,'" said Gibson. Mr. Yancey was instrumental in introducing Gibson to the Chicago jazz scene by allowing her to sing whenever he performed.
Mr. Yancey, who always wore a suit and tie, was also known for an unlikely trait amongst musicians: punctuality. "We played together for at least 50 years, and he was never late for one of my jobs. He might have gotten there 5 minutes before, but never late," said musician and friend Jimmy Ellis.
"I've never known him to not do music," Ellis said. "He played music his whole life. That was his forte. That's what he wanted to do. He never made a lot of money, but he loved what he was doing. He was one of the giants as far as I'm concerned and he never got his due."
But Mr. Yancey was never bitter. He loved playing for the world that he was able to see through it.
"He would always tell me that music would get him to places that he wouldn't be able to get into," said his daughter. "It opened a lot of doors."
Mr. Yancey was still playing several times a week in area clubs.
"This was his passion and he was able to do it for over 50 years," his daughter said.