Remembering Jess Oliver

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By Chris Jisi
Jess Oliver
Chris Jisi (right) talks shop with Jess Oliver in his Long Island workshop.

Although I didn’t get to meet Jess Oliver until the December of his remarkable life, when I traveled to his charming home and storied basement on suburban Long Island for BP’s March ’11 Ampeg B-15 cover story I felt an immediate kinship with him. Like my grandparents, uncle, and father, here was a musician from a special era in New York City. This was the post-war period, before the musicians union gave in to venues wanting to play recorded music—there were live bands and gigs everywhere, at every hotel, club, and gathering hole across the five boroughs. I could hear it in Jess’s accent and lingo, I could see it in his eyes, and of course he recounted some of his combo tales. What an amazing time to be in Manhattan’s music scene, with bebop, classical, Afro-Cuban, Broadway, rhythm & blues, and the burgeoning rock & roll all accessible and intertwining around every concrete corner. Unlike most musicians back then, however, Jess wasn’t just witnessing this surging wave, he was key in helping its sonic transformation. True, he was blessed with an acute engineering and electronics aptitude, but every brilliant design idea he got had a musical motive, from his first getting hired by Ampeg when he visited their Times Square shop in need of amplification for his upright, to his historic installation of reverb in a guitar amp, his key role in the creation of the Ampeg Baby Bass, and his most perfect package, the Ampeg B-15, which gave the bass guitar its first true, big-toned voice. And what could be more musical then getting to interact with customers like Charles Mingus, Milt Hinton, Oscar Pettiford, Gary Karr, and Bobby Rodriguez?
    As I sat in his basement that memorable day marveling at all of his inventions (including his cool post-Ampeg Oliver amps) what I really envied were the folks who got to know Jess the man over the years; such as my colleagues that day, Chrys Johnson and Dino Monoxelos of Ampeg, his fellow sound savants Dennis Kager and Mark Gandenberger, and my friend, 12-string bassist Tony Senatore. Tony, who snapped the picture of Jess’s car with its unique roof covered in Ampeg blue Tolex that hangs in Oliver’s basement stairway, recalls, “That was when I first met Jess. He saw the photo on my website, called me and said, ‘Thanks for the plug!’ He fixed my upright and made it playable when no one could. He was an innovative genius, a musical MacGyver who could fix anything with what he had on hand. He built a magnetic pickup for my Baby Bass and fashioned a new end pin out of thin air, from parts laying around his shop. Best of all, he was humble, and without question the most ethical man I ever dealt with. Even though it never needed work of any kind—which was a testament to its ingenious and reliable design—I frequently brought my 1965 Ampeg B-15 to Jess to make sure it was functioning properly. I felt privileged to have the opportunity to bring it right to the source; like bringing your Ferrari 250 to Enzo Ferrari for maintenance, having Steve Jobs install new software on your MacBook, or having Antonio Stradivari himself scrutinize your 1697 Molitor Stradivarius! I use my B-15 as a conduit to tap into all that I hold sacred in music: Jamerson, the ’60s, and the Motown sound. I was delighted when Jess used it in a similar way; the mere sight of it, functioning as efficiently as the day he created it brought him back to his cherished youth, and the inevitable realization that he had created perhaps the finest bass amplifier ever built.” Well said Tony, and thanks Jess for your enormous contributions to music and your humanity, it was an honor and privilege to meet you.

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