Born October 13, 1926 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, preeminent jazz bassist Ray Brown passed away on July 2, 2002. His career as one of jazz’s foremost players spanned 58 years and has left a recording legacy of literally thousands of albums. His career began early, as a bebopper with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and continued from that auspicious start at an always remarkable level of excellence. As a member of the famed Oscar Peterson Trio, Brown toured tirelessly for over 15 years. A seemingly endless innovator and unsurpassable improviser, Brown’s contributions to the development of the bass from a predominantly supportive, time-keeping role to a powerful solo instrument remain unquestionable. By the end of his career, Brown had recorded with almost every jazz artist of name, composed many original pieces, led multiple trios, and in many ways, established an entire style of jazz bass.
Unlike the favored sons and daughters of jazz iconography, and for that matter, many other art forms, Ray Brown enjoyed a life of almost continuous success and respect. At the time of his death he was still married, had raised a family, and had garnered significant economic success. Brown accomplished all of this while unflaggingly contributing to the evolution of an art form. Brown didn’t overindulge, refused to accept the stultifying security of an “Elder Statesman” posture, and died peacefully in his sleep at an old age. He neither burned out nor faded away, and perhaps because of this mystifying phenomenon, he will most likely avoid Hollywood’s gilded screen, never to become a tragic, angst-ridden figure of popular fascination. Within the jazz sphere, however, his memory will never fade, not only because of his musical contributions, but also because of the nature of Ray Brown, the man.
Although his stature as an instrumentalist has long been recognized, Brown’s status as a formidable and tireless band-leader deserves equal attention. The last 13 years of Brown’s life were spent recording under the Telarc label, the jazz division of which he was instrumental in founding. During his time at Telarc, Brown recorded numerous albums, working with a wide spectrum of players, particularly younger musicians, many of whom have gone on to establish themselves as stars of the current scene. He initiated a stunning series of concept albums, Some of my Best Friends Are...
, and received a Grammy for Saturday Night at the Blue Note
with the Oscar Peterson Trio.
In honor of Brown’s career, Telarc recently released a double-disc set, Walk On
containing Brown’s final trio recording, as well as a second disc of previously unreleased material compiled by his long-time producer Elaine Martone. After hearing this album, I spoke with Ms. Martone, as well as some of the musicians Brown played with—Monty Alexander, Benny Green, Russell Malone, and Geoff Keezer—about their work with Brown at Telarc.
One can often judge an individual most clearly by the nature of those he calls his friends. The following excerpts reveal the humanism, strength, humor, compassion, and joie de vivre which characterized Brown. Although representing only a small sampling of those touched by Brown, these conversations unearthed an intriguing array of stories, anecdotes, meditations, and insights into the nature of jazz as revealed by some of today’s greatest players. One of the things people consistently mention about Brown is the great capacity he had for story-telling, and his great love of jazz history. Despite the role of jazz journalists, academics and critics, jazz history has been, and still remains, dominantly an oral—and aural—history. As a repository of this history, Brown’s passing represents a great loss. For this reason, if no other, it’s a good time to stop and take a look at Ray Brown the man, and to listen to the stories of his life as remembered by those who were a part of the journey he traveled and are now becoming the keepers of the history. The Ray Brown sound has always been instantly recognizable. As with many listeners, both Benny Green and Monty Alexander clearly recall the first time they heard his music, despite their young ages at the time. Benny Green:
The time I first heard him was also my first hearing of Oscar Peterson in person. This was in 1978 when Oscar and Ray and the great drummer Louie Belson came and played in my hometown in California. I was so moved—I was only fifteen years old at the time—but I was literally moved to tears. The performance was so emotionally profound that it touched me. Even though I perhaps didn’t have a lot of life experience to relate the music to, it really reached me down deep.