James G. "Jim" Aton
Ryan Summerlin September 25, 2008
Noted jazz musician and Sioux City native James G. “Jim” Aton passed away on Tuesday September 16, 2008 in Lake Tahoe, California. He was 83.
Mr. Aton was a professional jazz musician, singer and composer who enjoyed considerable success and notoriety while performing with some of the giants of the jazz world starting in the 1950s and continuing for four decades.
James Gable Aton was the son of Christian missionaries James Lewis Aton and Florence Gable Aton, and was born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1925. He lived in Sioux City and attended the Sioux City public schools, where he studied piano and violin. He graduated from East High School in 1943. During World War Two Mr. Aton served in the U.S. Merchant Marine in both the Pacific and European theaters, and he subsequently served with the 13th U.S. Air Force in the Philippine Islands.
After leaving the service in 1946, Mr. Aton enrolled at Morningside College to study Music and English, and was a member of the Phi Mu Alpha music fraternity. He later transferred to the University of South Dakota to continue his music studies.
He began performing on string bass at this time with local Sioux City jazz groups including that of the late trumpet player Clarence Kenner. He toured in summer with the Fats Carlson big band out of Sioux Falls. During his performing days in Sioux City Mr. Aton was a member of Local 254 of the American Federation of Musicians.
In 1949, Mr. Aton moved to Chicago to become a full time professional player. Together with his younger brother, pianist Richard “Dick” Aton and fellow-“Sioux Citian” and trumpeter Neil Lambert, he started performing in local clubs in Chicago and Milwaukee.
Mr. Aton’s first big break came in 1950 when he was invited to join the Herbie Fields band in Chicago. During the summer of 1950 the Fields band accompanied singing legend Billie Holiday on a three month East Coast tour that included shows at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem and the Howard Theater in Washington D.C. Other members of the Fields band on the tour included trumpeter Jimmy Nottingham, trombonist Frank Rossolino and pianist Bill Evans.
Mr. Aton’s musical skill during that tour was recognized by Down Beat magazine, which called him an up-and-coming bassist on par with Down Beat All Star Ray Brown. Work with other noted jazz stars followed. Mr. Aton next toured with the Stan Kenton band, and worked around Chicago with singer Lurline Hunter, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and saxophonist Georgie Auld.
He continued his studies on double bass and for a short time was a member of the Chicago Civic Orchestra. In 1955, Mr. Aton moved to Los Angeles where he joined the big band of Jerry Gray, with whom he made his first recording. He then began playing Hollywood jazz venues with the Bobby Troup Trio and the Paige Cavanaugh Trio. He was the original bassist with the revolutionary piano-less Chico Hamilton Quartet, which also included saxophonist Buddy Collette, guitarist Jim Hall and cellist Fred Katz and which was heard on regular radio broadcasts from Howard Rumsey’s famous club, The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. Beginning in 1956 Mr. Aton became a staff bassist at Gold Star Records in Hollywood, backing hundreds of artists and performing unaccredited on hundreds of television commercials. In 1957, Mr. Aton made several appearances on ABC-TV’s “Stars Of Jazz” program as a member of The Bobby Troup Trio and with singer Mavis Rivers.
He recorded the critically reviewed album “The West Coast of Broadway” on the RCA-Camden label in 1959 with pianist-singer Nancy Malcolm, along with guitarist Al Viola and drummer Mel Lewis, and freelanced in Los Angeles with Pete and Conte Condole and saxophonists Harold Land and Zoot Sims. In 1960 he appeared on the album, “I Sing, I Play, I’m Charlie Cochrane” on the Monument label. At this time Mr. Aton began to study composition and was rewarded for his efforts when pop star Debbie Reynolds recorded his song “Love Is A Thing” on one of her best-selling albums. The project resulted in Mr. Aton’s induction into the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1966.
While on a visit back to Sioux City in the summer of 1960, Mr. Aton was summoned by legendary jazz singer Anita O’Day. Mr. Aton joined her quartet on tour at the famous Band Box Club in Denver. Mr. Aton remained with O’Day as her tour bassist for the next nine years and was a prominent though unnamed figure in her best-selling 2004 memoir “High Times, Hard Times.”
Mr. Aton appeared in three films: “Bop Girl Goes Calypso” (1957) with the Bobby Troup Trio, “Roustabout” (1964) starring Elvis Presley and Barbara Stanwyck, and “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” (1969) With Jane Fonda. In 1969, Mr. Aton relocated to Reno where he led his own six-piece band at Harrah’s Club. At various times the band included trumpet stars Pete and Conte Condoli and saxophonist Med Flory. In 1972, Mr. Aton moved to Lake Tahoe where he enjoyed steady work in the clubs and casinos. He performed as a member of the Earl “Fatha” Hines Quartet there for four years, and also was a first-call bassist with numerous visiting stage shows, including that of The Fifth Dimension.
In later years Mr. Aton worked with small groups or as a single on piano and vocals at numerous venues in Lake Tahoe, Carson City and Reno. Mr. Aton was actively performing as recently as February of this year.
Mr. Aton married June Dvorak and had two daughters: Leslie Snydel of Naperville, Illinois and, Ruth Baumgartner of Iowa City, which ended in divorce. He then met Sandra Sue Dallas in South Lake Tahoe and had his only son James Dallas Aton of Anchorage, Alaska.