IT WAS HIS silky, rich and unusually powerful baritone on deep-blues ballads that won Billy Eckstine lasting renown, but his contributions to American jazz and pop music went well beyond his achievements as a first-class vocalist. Mr. Eckstine, who died Monday in Pittsburgh at the age of 78, earned a special place among musicians as a big-band leader who blended and showcased the talents of colleagues into the first explosive expressions of bebop. He had elegant taste not only for ballads and clothes but also for performers who would flourish with his encouragement.
People came to know Mr. Eckstine early in this city, where his youth at Armstrong High and later at Howard University led him to the Howard Theater -- the place in Washington for jazz performers. Then there was singing with Earl "Fatha" Hines's band in the 1930s and the early '40s. In 1944 Mr. Eckstine formed his own band, and his cast was to include many of the eventual greats: Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis and Gene Ammons.
Even though jazz broke many a color barrier in those days -- and so did "Mr. B" as he became known on the airwaves -- race placed limits on Billy Eckstine's career. He didn't get the big deals and big dollars that would come to other African Americans who followed his lead onto the national pop charts. Quincy Jones was quoted as saying some years ago in "The Pleasures of Jazz" that if Mr. Eckstine "had been white, the sky would have been the limit. As it was, he didn't have his own radio or TV shows, much less a movie career. He had to fight the system, so things never fell into place."
What Mr. Eckstine did have throughout was his smooth style, his sophisticated taste and keen sense of tone and his worldwide following. Thanks to a legacy of supreme recordings, none of this will be lost.