October 30, 2014 7:01 AM EDT

“Cream was a jazz trio,” rock bassist Jack Bruce liked to say of the influential 1960s band he fronted alongside guitar god Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker. “Only we never told Eric.”

A classically trained musician, Bruce, who died Oct. 25 at 71, played the bass guitar as few rock musicians had before–his bass lines slithering up and down melodic grooves rather than following the rhythmic plod of early-’60s pop. After stints with Manfred Mann and John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Bruce teamed up with Baker and Clapton in 1966.

In its two years, Cream pushed the boundaries of live rock with extended blues riffs, wah-wah freak-outs and stadium tours. The band may be remembered chiefly for Clapton’s virtuosic guitar playing, but Bruce was its vocalist and chief songwriter and the pioneer of its jazz-blues-rock sound.

Cream went sour after Bruce fell out with Baker, and the bassist moved into more experimental jazz fusion and away from the mainstream. But his fluency with his instrument inspired a generation of musicians, from Sting to Rush’s Geddy Lee. And when the band reunited briefly in 2005, Bruce made a triumphant return to rock ‘n’ roll, reminding the world that he and his jazz trio were still the cream of the crop.

This appears in the November 10, 2014 issue of TIME.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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