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A Giant of the Jazz BassCopyright © 2002The Scotsman
Ray Brown was one of the greatest bass players in all of jazz history. His magisterial sonority on the double bass, innate lyricism and infallible harmonic judgement all came yoked to arguably his greatest asset of all, a meticulous rhythmic sense which drew on both swing and bop conceptions, and made him one of the most in-demand players in jazz.
From Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie onwards, Brown played with the greatest creative forces in the music. He was also one of the few bass players to succeed as a band leader in his own right, in settings ranging from duets to big bands. In recent years he led a series of dazzling trios featuring some of the best young players in jazz, and all of them regularly attest to just what a profound learning experience it was to work with the master.
He was born Raymond Matthews Brown in Pittsburgh, and took up piano at the age of eight. He was an accomplished pianist by the time he was in high school, but disliked practice. He wanted to play trombone, but his parents could not afford to buy one, so he took up a spare bass in the school orchestra, thinking it would be easier than piano. He has often said that was his first big mistake, but he took quickly to the new instrument.
He acquired his own instrument when his teacher discovered he was using the school bass to play jazz gigs in local clubs. He finished school in 1944, and moved to New York the following year, where he quickly immersed himself in the emerging bebop scene in the city. He linked up with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Max Roach, and became a member of Gillespies seminal big band in 1946.
He was featured regularly with Norman Granzs Jazz at the Philharmonic touring packages from 1947, a role he held for 18 years. He began accompanying his first wife, Ella Fitzgerald, that same year, and was a member of the Milt Jackson Quartet which would shortly metamorphose into the Modern Jazz Quartet. He chose to continue working with his trio, and his place in the new group was taken instead by Percy Heath.
His marriage to the singer ended in 1952, but he remained much in demand. He began a long association with pianist Oscar Peterson in 1950, initially in a duo and then in a trio from 1952. He remained a part of Petersons group until 1966, and added both cello and then a hybrid of the two instruments (which became a forerunner of the piccolo bass) to his armoury.
In addition to his jazz work, Brown was also busy as a studio musician, working on soundtrack music for television and films. After leaving Petersons group in 1966, he moved to Los Angeles, where he continued to both compose and perform in the film and television studios, including playing bass on all of Frank Sinatras television specials.
Browns greatest influence as a young bass player had been Jimmy Blanton, the famous but tragically short-lived bassist with the great Duke Ellington Orchestra of the early Forties. Blanton revolutionised jazz bass playing, and Brown was given the opportunity to recreate Blantons role and repertoire with Duke Ellington in the recording studio in 1972, for Norman Granzs Pablo label.
He continue to lead his own jazz groups after moving to California, including the LA Four with Shelly Manne, Bud Shank and Laurindo Almeida, and the excellent Triple Treat with pianist Monty Alexander and his long-standing band mate in the Oscar Peterson trio, guitarist Herb Ellis.
He worked with trumpeter Quincy Jones on a network television tribute to Duke Ellington, and later managed both Jones and the Modern Jazz Quartet for a time in the 1980s. His recent trios have featured musicians like pianists Benny Green and Geoff Keezer and drummers Greg Hutchinson and Kariem Riggins. His faculties remained entirely undiminished, even at the most fearsomely swinging tempo.
He record a series of discs for the Telarc label in the 1990s, beginning with Some of My Best Friends are The Piano Players in 1994, which matched him up with a number of star players on specific instruments. He won numerous awards and polls over his career, including Grammy Awards and a prestigious American Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Brown was finishing an engagement at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis at the time of his death. He had gone to his hotel room to take a nap after playing golf, and died in his sleep.
He is survived by his second wife, Cecilia, and a son, Ray Brown, Jr.