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Obituary: Ray Brown, acclaimed jazz bassist from Pittsburgh

Thursday, July 04, 2002

By Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pittsburgh's Ray Brown, widely regarded as jazz's greatest bassist, died in his sleep Tuesday in an Indianapolis hotel room. He was 75.

Ray Brown performs during the All Stars Jazz Night at the 35th Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland, July 13, 2001. (Andree-Noelle Pot/Keystone, Associated Press)

Mr. Brown, who grew up in Oakland and graduated from Schenley High School, played alongside such legends of jazz as Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He was vocalist Ella Fitzgerald's erstwhile musical director -- and her ex-husband, as well.

His widow, Cecelia, said Mr. Brown had played golf earlier Tuesday. "He wasn't ill," she said. "He was in Indianapolis performing at the Jazz Kitchen."

Ray Matthews Brown, whose almost Zen-like approach to playing his instrument produced throbbing, aching music that could hush the house, began his musical career as a pianist. But when he tried to sign up for Schenley High School's orchestra, there were 26 pianists ahead of him.

"Every day, I would go to rehearsal with nothing to do," he recalled many years afterward. "One day, I noticed we had two bass players and three instruments, so I asked the teacher if I would have an opportunity to play every day if I started to play the bass."

Audio Samples

Tony Mowod, executive producer and jazz host at WDUQ 90.5 FM, opened up the station's extensive audio library to give listeners a chance to sample 10 songs from Ray Brown's six decades as a recording artist.

Ray Brown on bass as part of the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra in a 1946 take of "Night in Tunisia" from "Dizzy Gillespie: The Complete RCA Recordings." (RCA 1995)
(470K MP3)

With the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra in a 1947 recording of "Oop-Pop-A-Da" from "Dizzy Gillespie: The Complete RCA Recordings." (RCA 1995)
(470K MP3)

With the Oscar Peterson Trio in a scratchy 1952 version of "Rockin' in Rhythm" from "Oscar Peterson Plays the Duke Ellington Songbook." (Verve 1999)
(441K MP3)

With the Oscar Peterson Trio in 1959 performing "John Hardy's Wife" from "Oscar Peterson Plays the Duke Ellington Songbook." (Verve 1999)
(457K MP3)

With the Ray Brown Trio in a 1989, performing live in Tokyo, "Things Ain't What They Used To Be" from "Black Orpheus." (Evidence 1994)
(466K MP3)

With the Ray Brown Trio and guest Ralph Moore on tenor saxophone, in a 1991 recording of "Bye Bye Blackbird" from "Moore Make Four." (Concord Jazz 1991)
(461K MP3)

With the Ray Brown trio in 1992 covering the pop hit "You Are My Sunshine" from "Three Dimensional." (Concord Jazz 1992)
(470K MP3)

With the Ray Brown Trio and guest bass players John Clayton Jr. and Christian McBride, in a 1996 live recording of "Brown Funk" from "Super Bass." (Telarc 1997)
(466K MP3)

With the trio, Clayton and McBride on the very mellow 1996 "Lullaby of Birdland," also from "Super Bass." (Telarc 1997)
(463K MP3)

With the Ray Brown Trio, in a 2002 performance featuring Herb Ellis on guitar, "Blues for Junior," from Brown's most recent disc "Some of my Best Friends are Guitarists." (Telarc 2002)
(446K MP3)

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Pianist Walt Harper, who performed in a quintet with Mr. Brown while both were students at Schenley, recalled his friend's "incredible dexterity" even as a teen-ager. Once when the group was rehearsing, the Benny Goodman Band happened to be in Pittsburgh, and Goodman's bassist happened along and heard them play.

"I had written an arrangement that featured a solo by Ray," Harper said, "and Goodman's bassist said, 'Oh, my God!' "

The touring musician went back to his own band and told his colleagues he had just heard a youngster who could make a bass sit up and sing.

After graduation, Mr. Brown worked in "territory" bands of the sort that were common before World War II, starting out with the Jimmy Hinsely Sextet and moving on to the Snookum Russell Band. But in 1945, he moved to New York and began an association with Gillespie, Parker and pianist Bud Powell.

With Gillespie's big band, he recorded such seminal hits as "Emanon" and "Night in Tunisia."

In 1947, around the time he married Fitzgerald, Esquire Magazine's poll of jazz critics selected an "All-American" jazz band. Esquire chose musicians who would dominate the jazz scene for the next 30 years: Miles Davis, Sonny Stitts, Milt Jackson, Sarah Vaughn and two Pittsburghers, pianist Dodo Marmarosa and Mr. Brown.

Throughout his career, Mr. Brown returned here for performances. Two years ago, he and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine were featured in the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of "Indigo in Motion," which focused on the music of composer/pianist Billy Strayhorn and the legendary songstress Lena Horne. Earlier this year, he and his trio performed five sold-out concerts at the Manchester Craftmen's Guild.

Often called "Uncle Ray" by fellow beboppers, Mr. Brown was a "mentor for every musician regardless of their instrument," said Marty Ashby, executive producer of the Guild jazz program. "I learned so much about life, music and business from him.

". . . He just played on a different level ... He was a bebopper, but he understood less was more."

"I think I developed a few techniques over the years," Mr. Brown said in a 1998 interview with the Post-Gazette. "But it didn't come overnight. I had to work at it.

"I meet young players all over the world, and they have great chops: They can improvise and play with incredible technique. But when you ask them to keep time, they can't do it. Maybe time-keeping is a lost art."

"Ray wasn't a child prodigy, but he had a musical facility at a very young age," said Pittsburgh-born trombonist Grover Mitchell, who also directs the Count Basie Orchestra. "Aside from Oscar Petitford, he was the definitive bebop bassist. Ray understood what Dizzy and Charlie Parker were doing. A lot of drummers and bass players were fumbling. But Ray really understood the language of bebop."

"Ray was pivotal in this music," added jazz writer/producer Orrin Keepnews of San Francisco. "He was important to Gillespie and the entire bebop movement."

After leaving Gillespie, Mr. Brown formed his own trio with Hank Jones and Charlie Smith.

In 1951, he became a regular member of Norman Grantz and Jazz at the Philharmonic. The association lasted for nearly 18 years. He also recorded with the Milt Jackson Quartet, forerunner of the Modern Jazz Quartet. It was around that time that he began to perform with Peterson, the Canadian-born pianist. Their trio, which also included guitarist Herb Ellis, permanently altered the dynamics of the small ensemble, setting into motion what many consider the paradigm for modern trios. Mr. Brown remained with Peterson until 1966.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Brown composed the Grammy Award-winning "Gravy Waltz." The tune became the theme song of the Steve Allen Show.

WDUQ tributes

WDUQ will air two archival shows featuring legendary jazz bassist Ray Brown this weekend. An appearance by Brown on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz will air Saturday July 6 at 1 p.m. On Sunday July 7 Brown will be featured on Jazz Profiles from NPR at 2 p.m. WDUQ may be heard on the radio at 90.5 FM and on the Internet as a streaming audio feed at www.wduq.org. You will need RealAudio Player to listen to the show online.


After leaving Peterson, Mr. Brown moved to California and appeared regularly on the "Merv Griffin Show." He also was the bassist for many Frank Sinatra TV specials and was former director of the Monterey Jazz Festival.

"When he came to the West Coast, he stabilized the jazz scene" there, said Keepnews. "He was a pioneer who lived long enough to become an elder statesman."

In 1989, he recorded "After Hours" with Andre Previn and Mundell Lowe for the Cleveland-based Telarc label. The album began a series for Telarc, "Live at Starbucks" and "Superbass 2," which matched Mr. Brown with fellow bassists Christian McBride and John Clayton.

Mr. Brown lived in Sherman Oaks, outside Los Angeles, with Cecilia, whom he married two years after he and Fitzgerald divorced in 1952. He and Fitzgerald adopted a son, Ray Jr., who now lives in Hawaii.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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