STLJN Saturday Video Showcase: Paying Tribute to Ray Brown


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This week, let's take a look at some videos previewing the tribute to bassist Ray Brown that will play at Jazz at the Bistro starting next Wednesday, March 16 through Saturday, March 19. The band is led by bassist Christian McBride, who was a protege of Brown's, and includes pianist Benny Green and drummer Greg Hutchinson, who both worked with Brown as up-and-coming musicians during the 1990s.

Unfortunately, there don't seem to be any readily available clips online of the McBride-Green-Hutchinson troika, so instead, we've got four videos of McBride, Green and drummer Karriem Riggins doing a tribute to Brown last September at the Detroit Jazz Festival. These were all shot by an audience member with a camcorder, so they're not broadcast quality, but the audio is more than adequate to convey the trio's sound and overall approach.

Up above, you can see and hear them play “Captain Bill," a blues written by Brown as a tribute to Count Basie. Below, there's a version “Li'l Darlin," which was made famous initially by Basie and later recorded by Brown, and renditions of two more Brown compositions, “Gumbo Hump," which evokes a New Orleans vibe, and “Bass Face," the title track to a 1993 CD of Brown's.

As for the subject of the tribute, though Ray Brown may not be as well known outside the jazz world as seemingly ubiquitous tribute subjects such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk, his stellar career and lasting influence on generations of bassists certainly are worth celebrating.

Ray Brown was born in 1926 in Pittsburgh, and made his first major breakthrough at age 20 when he got a job playing with Dizzy Gillespie. He spent five years with Gillespie during the height of the bebop era, during which time he also met and married Ella Fitzgerald, though the union lasted only until 1952. Brown also appeared during those years in Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, through which he met pianist Oscar Peterson, with whom he would go on to play from 1951 to 1966.

After leaving Peterson, Brown moved to Los Angeles, where he became a manager and promoter as well as a performer. He worked with singers including Frank Sinatra, Billy Eckstine, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, and Nancy Wilson, and composed music and played in orchestras for TV and movies. Brown also managed artists such as the Modern Jazz Quartet and Quincy Jones; produced concerts at the Hollywood Bowl; and wrote jazz bass instruction books, some of which still are used today.

Later in his career, Brown performed and recorded with the The L.A. Four, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, pianist Gene Harris and others as well as with and his own trios. Brown died in 2002, but his big tone, musical versatility, and always-swinging support for his collaborators set a standard for mainstream jazz bassists that still applies today.

For more on Ray Brown, check out this article from a couple of years ago on Jazz.com, in which Christian McBride selects and comments on 12 of his favorite tracks featuring Brown on bass. Also, read this remembrance of a late career gig by the bassist; pore over transcripts of his solos on “Li'l Darlin," “Au Privave“ and “Night Train“; or just check out some of the many videos of Brown's performances that have surfaced on YouTube.

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This story appears courtesy of St. Louis Jazz Notes by Dean Minderman.
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