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Ray Brown: The Telarc Years

Franz A. Matzner By

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Ray would make converts of everyone in the room. Simply by doing what he loved and taking care of the gift he was given. —Benny Green
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.

Monty Alexander: ...I was still in Jamaica. I was something like 16 or 17, and...I guess I heard one of Peterson’s records. The thing I noticed more than anything else was the big rhythm in the back. You know, I heard the great, great piano playing, but the thing that captured me and stuck with me the most were these booming, gracious notes in the background.

Asked what accounted for Brown’s endless appeal, both to musicians and audiences alike, the responses were remarkably consistent.

Geoff Keezer: Swing. Absolute big, beautiful, happy swing.

Elaine Martone: ...He had a great bass sound. The notes were warm and round. He was always laying the foundation for whatever was to come, and I think those two things really, really made him great. And the third thing—I could say a million things—the third thing I’d add is that he was constantly innovating. From inventing the music in a way, to what he was doing right at the end of his life. He was never content to play the standards. He was always looking at what’s new, what’s out there, and picking up other influences, be it funk or whatever, he would just start incorporating things into his style. To do that for fifty years, to constantly reinvent yourself—but not in terms of what other people want, but in terms of what will impact your own musical experience—I think that is a remarkable gift.

Russell Malone: ...Every note that Ray Brown played, it fit and it made sense. There was always a logical reason why he played those notes. There was always a sense of purpose to the notes. I think that comes from having developed a relationship with the piano, loving the piano. He played great notes, his solos, everything. I wish that every musician could have gotten a chance to play at least four bars with him just to get a sense of what that feels like. Because it was the real thing, man. I feel so blessed and fortunate that I got a chance to spend time with him.

Benny Green: He loved the piano. Ray loved the piano. He was a huge fan of people like Fats Waller, Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson and Hank Jones, of course Oscar Peterson. Nat Cole, Duke Ellington. He just loved the piano. I was so fortunate to sit and listen to piano music with Ray. He developed a lot of his conceptions of note selection and the shape of his bass line very much as an embrace of the tradition of the left hand of the piano, in the hands of some of those pianists I mentioned.

At some point in the conversation, Ray Brown’s influence on each musician’s career and musical development came up, indicating the lasting effect Brown’s leadership and dedication continues to have on jazz. As Geoff Keezer explains, Ray Brown didn’t set out to be a mentor. He wasn’t there to teach, and he just didn’t see himself in those terms. Nevertheless, as a strong musical model, he came to serve that function. At the very least, his tenacity of spirit, staunch work ethic, and constant interest in new voices helped form the shape of things to come.

Geoff Keezer: I did have a chance to tell Ray the last time I saw him how much I appreciated playing in his group, and how I felt it was the best thing that had happened to my piano playing. Something transferred. Not verbally—via some other mechanism that we don’t have a word for. When you’re in the company of someone, you become influenced. Their experience and their knowledge, it gets transferred somehow...He never set himself up in a teacher-student relationship. It was never about that—he loved to play, and he loved to hire people who would keep him fresh and inspired. And he inspired us too. It definitely went both ways. It wasn’t set up as a school. It wasn’t a school, it was a band, but when you look back on it years later, you say, ‘well, I did learn a lot’.

Russell Malone: Let me tell you, man, I wouldn’t trade that [playing with Brown] for nothin’ in the world.

Monty Alexander: He influenced it [Alexander’s playing] to a great deal. But he also influenced it in the areas of what not to do. And I’ll tell you a lot of what it was. Ray was a very commanding personality...Ray Brown had what I call take-over-itis, okay? I ain’t goin’ for it. I was too ignorant. And I came up with a strong sense of who I am and what I do. When I got on the bandstand I would instantly assert myself, you know? I didn’t have time to listen to him telling me what to do...We [would] get happy right away. So I learned from the beginning: take the good of this great association and just enjoy...And with Ray, what happened—and this is what happens when music is very, very great—it’s because two people are kinda just going down the same road together...

Benny Green: It definitely was one of the most tremendous honors of my life, that Ray cared enough about me to take me under his wing, to just invite me into his musical world, that’s as great a privilege as I’m ever going to know in life. I’m continuing to learn from that experience. It didn’t end with my tenure with the band. Each day that I live and play music, I’m drawing on the inspiration of being around him, and just feeling his joy, his humility...It’s really influenced everything I do, whether I’m playing with bass and drums or playing solo piano, or in a duo situation. So many facets of what Ray represented have touched my whole scope and sensibilities where playing music, and performing, and offering the music to an audience is concerned.

On Ray Brown the musician.

Geoff Keezer: Ray had a very strong concept of the trio. It was rooted in a lot of the big-band that he loved, like Count Basie, some of the sounds of the Oscar Peterson Trio and the Nat Cole Trio, things like that. But he wasn’t the Oscar Peterson Trio, and I didn’t want to sound like that...He gave me free reign to take it as far as I wanted. Which I really appreciated...He never told me what to play. In fact, he gave me clear instructions that he didn’t want me to play like Benny, or Monty, or anyone else that had worked with him. He had a very open mind in that way. Because he held that space open for me, I was really able to develop in a really nice way in the trio.

Elaine Martone: I saw Ray one night in Chicago...the [Bulls] were in the championships so...Ray had to play to about twenty people. But he played with just as much passion and just as much drive to twenty people as to a totally packed house. There was no distinction. He came off, and I felt bad, and I said, ‘I’m sorry the crowd was so bad’ and he said, ‘You know what? You never know who’s in the audience and you never know who you’re going to touch.’ That was just him. He’d been doing this for fifty years!

Russell Malone: Ray Brown had all of [it]. He had sorrow, he had memories all of that. You can hear it in the music. And something else too, man, even the way he addressed the bass. Watching him take the bass out of its case, watching him hold the bass, there was always a sense of purpose to everything he did. When he played that bass—just seeing him hold it—there was a sense of purpose there. It was a very personal thing with him, a very personal connection between him and that instrument.

Benny Green: [T]here are just so many golden moments that I remember where it was just so evident to us on the bandstand—as well as to those in the audience—all at the same time, that this man knew what he was put here to do in life and so enjoyed playing his bass, playing golden notes to support what was going on around him, laying down this time-feel that was like a heartbeat, that everyone could access, whether they were an aficionado, a musician, or someone who’d never even heard this music before. Ray would make converts of everyone in the room. Simply by doing what he loved and taking care of the gift he was given. That’s just so very inspiring for all of us who’ve been around him and it directly informs one’s own sense of direction and responsibility as an artist...Just seeing how the man lived and how he beamed when he was connecting with his instrument.

On Ray Brown the man.

Elaine Martone: He was on the road all the time. He was just an extremely inspired man. He totally loved what he was doing. One time—we were recording a trio album at Sculler’s up in Boston[Note: Live at Scullers with Benny Green and Gregory Hutchinson]—and I was complaining about being on the road and being tired and Ray, who was like twice as old as me, looked at me and said, ‘Elaine, what’s so bad? What did you do today?’ And I answered, ‘Well, I got up. I walked around Harvard square, had some lunch, came back, took a little nap, and now I’m here having dinner with you.’ So he just looks at me and says, ‘Yeah?! And what’s so bad about your life?” I kind of kicked myself in the butt, ‘You know what? What the hell is so bad about my life? What am I, crazy?’

Russell Malone: The thing that was so great about him, Franz, was every time I was ever on the stage with Ray, he always played every note like his life depended on it. In fact, the very last conversation I had with him—he called my house a few days before he died to coordinate some dates around the last record I did with him and Monty Alexander—we got the dates together and then for some reason I just felt like opening up to him and I told him how much I loved him. I told him how I felt about him and I told him how honored I was that I was able to be on the bandstand with him. I told him, ‘Man, you always play every note like your life depends on it.’ And he just laughed—you know that deep guttural laugh of his—and said, “You know, kid, you make the old man feel good.’ He said, ‘You make the old man feel good, and I will see you later on in the fall.’ That was the last conversation I had with him.

Geoff Keezer: Another thing I appreciated about Ray is that even though he had lived through some very hard times in America, racially, he didn’t carry any of that baggage with him. He didn’t care if you were white or black, or any other color you can think of. Ray didn’t carry any of that baggage. He was not bitter in anyway. Whatever he had to do internally to heal those wounds, he had done.

Monty Alexander: Ray Brown, as big and as famous and as great as he was, he was just a regular guy. That’s why I loved him.

Benny Green: ...[T]he proof is in the pudding. You hear that. It’s profound and inspiring to other musicians, but accessible to anyone. Yes, there’s a clarity there and a cohesiveness...there are no smoke and mirrors when it comes to Ray’s music. It’s so heartfelt, and as I said before, so honest, that it had a real power and directness to it.

Russell Malone: He loved good food. He always got dessert. I think during my time playing with Ray I might have put on ten pounds. Whenever we were on the road, we always ate and we always got dessert. Always got good meals, and we always sat around and laughed. Man, he told some of the filthiest jokes—they were funny—he had a great sense of humor, man!

That’s what the music is about, man. Ray Brown enjoyed life. He loved the music, but he was also passionate about life...I think as you get older, it starts to get deeper because you start to play your thoughts, you start to play your life. A guy like Ray Brown, he did all of that...it’s so necessary to get to meet people, to get to know people, to smell some flowers, to take some time and look at some trees, to look about at the stars and the sky. All of that’s life, man. If you don’t do that, if you don’t take advantage of these other aspects, then you really have nothing to play about, your music is shallow. I really do believe that. The older I get, the more that has become apparent to me.

On their loss.

Monty Alexander: [Note: Alexander dedicated his latest release, Impressions in Blue to Ray Brown] It’s [about] lingering memories of a man who was very much a part of my life, in a personal way too. And it’s the kind of music we were all about, and it’s a gesture of thanks. I wanted to remember him, and remind the people who know me that he meant so much to me. That our relationship was about happiness and joy, nothing too serious. It was serious business when we did our music, but a very happy outlook about life—we were laughing all the time. That’s what it was about. What can I say? I closed the album with this cowboy song. He and I used to laugh about the westerns and it’s sorta like a ridin’ off into the sunset thing, you know?

Geoff Keezer: He had wonderful stories. I miss those stories. It’s hard.

Elaine Martone: For me, working with him was an honor. Everything we did, it was a privilege and an honor to be in his presence. It really was. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Russell Malone: There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. I think about him everyday. And something else too, Franz. I remember the last time I saw him alive—Benny Green and myself did a gig with him at the Dakota out in Minnesota. Benny and I got to the gig early. It was a private party, a private luncheon for these—rich people. We were standing around just talking and watching the crows and all of a sudden Ray Brown walks into the room—let me tell you something, I still remember it—he had on a black suit, a white shirt and a multi-colored tie. He walked into the room with his right hand in his pocket. He walked into the room and all of a sudden all of the attention seemed to gravitate toward him. Everybody in that room walked up to him, and it was like they were greeting a great king. And that’s the way he carried himself. Always with that quiet dignity. So, after he finished greeting the people, he saw Benny and I and came over and gave us big hugs, got in the middle of us and walked us arm in arm back to the dressing room. I’ll never forget that.

He was something. I kind of tear up when I think about him, man, when I talk about him. ‘Cause he was such a special human being.

Benny Green: I’m just very grateful for the recordings, because that very spirit that he embodied really will continue to live, to inspire, and to bring joy to countless people through the recordings.

Biography and Telarc Discography

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