Best known as a contributing member of the bebop jazz movement and a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio, jazz bassist Ray Brown performed with jazz giants from Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to his wife Ella Fitzgerald. Despite Fitzgerald’s short-lived marriage to Brown (1947-1953), she remained a lifelong friend and musical associate. A disciple of the 1940s Oscar Pettiford school of jazz bass, Brown developed an individual style renown for its tastefully executed rhythmic lines within the context of ensemble accompaniment. His talent reflects such breadth and diversity that he was the most cited musician in the first edition of the Penguin Guide to Recorded Jazz (1992). Unlike many of the founders of bebop bass, Brown still performed and earned a successful living as a studio musician, record producer, and nightclub owner.
Raymond Matthews Brown was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 13, 1926. He took piano lessons at age eight and gained knowledge of the keyboard through memorizing the recordings of Fats Waller. A member of the high school orchestra, he soon found himself overwhelmed by the number of pianists among his classmates. "There must have been 14 piano players in it. And 12 of them were chicks who could read anything on sight," explained Brown in Jazz Masters of the Forties. In the book Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing, Brown revealed the main reason for ending his study of piano: "I just couldn’t find my way on it. It just didn’t give me what I wanted." Soon afterward, Brown, unable to afford a trombone, switched to bass, an instrument provided by the school’s music department.
Brown’s new musical role model emerged in Duke Ellington’s innovative bassist, Jimmy Blanton. As he told Jack Tracey in Down Beat, "I just began digging into Blanton because I saw he had it covered—there was nobody else. There he was, right in the middle of all those fabulous records the Ellington band was making at the time, and I didn’t see any need to listen to anybody else." As a teenager Brown played local engagements. Despite offers by bandleaders, he followed his mother’s advice and finished high school before performing on the road with regional territory bands. After graduating in 1944, he performed an eight-month stint in Jimmy Hinsley’s band. Around this time, Brown fell under the influence of bassists Leroy "Slam" Stewart and Oscar Pettiford, a prime mover of a modern jazz bass approach. He next joined the territory band of Snookum Russell. Eight months later, while on the road with Russell, Brown followed the suggestion of fellow band members and moved to New York City.
In 1945 Brown arrived in New York City, and during his first night visited Fifty-Second Street—"Swing Street," a mob-controlled thoroughfare lined with various jazz clubs. That evening he encountered pianist Hank Jones, a musical associate, who introduced him to Dizzy Gillespie. That same evening, Gillespie, prompted by Jones’ recommendation, hired Brown without an audition. Attending the band’s rehearsal the next day, Brown—a 19-year-old musician still largely unfamiliar with many of bebop’s innovators—discovered that his fellow band members were Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach. "If I had known those guys any better I would have probably never gone to the rehearsal," admitted Brown in Jazz Journal International. "The only guy I knew something about was Dizzy because some of his records had filtered down through the south where I’d been playing with a territory band." The group’s leader, however, immediately recognized the talent of his young bassist. As Gillespie commented, in his memoir To Be or Not to Bop, "Ray Brown, on bass, played the strongest, most fluid and imaginative bass lines in modern jazz at the time, with the exception of Oscar Pettiford." Shortly afterward, Gillespie added Detroit-born vibraphonist Milt Jackson. In Jazz Masters of the Forties, Brown recounted his early years with Jackson: "We were inseparable. They called us twins."
In 1945 Brown appeared with Gillepsie at Billy Berg’s night club in Hollywood, California, an engagement which, with the exception of a small coterie of bebop followers, failed to generate a favorable response from west coast listeners. In Gillespie’s memoir To Be or Not to Bop, Brown summarized the band’s Hollywood stint: "The music wasn’t received well at all. They didn’t know what we were playing; they didn’t understand it." During the winter of 1946, Gillespie returned to New York and opened at Clark Monroe’s Spotlite on 52nd Street with a band consisting of Brown, Milt Jackson, Stan Levey, Al Haig, and alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt. In To Be or Not to Bop, Brown modestly described his role in the sextet, "I was the least competent guy in the group. And they made something out of me." In May of 1946, the sextet recorded for the Musicraft label, cutting the sides such as "One Bass Hit"—featuring Brown’s bass talents—and "Oop Bop Sh’ Bam,’ and "That’s Earl Brother." On Feb 5, 1946, Brown took part in one of Charlie Parker’s sessions for the Dial label, recording such numbers as "Diggin’ Diz."
In 1946 Gillespie formed his second big band, using the same six-member line-up. On February 22, 1946, Brown appeared with Gillespie’s big band for a RCA/Victor session organized by pianist and jazz critic Leonard Feather. As Feather wrote in his work Inside Jazz, "Victor wanted an all-star group featuring some of the Esquire winners, so we used J.C. Heard on drums and Don Byas on tenor, along with Dizzy’s own men—Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, and Al Haig—and the new guitarist from Cleveland, Bill de Arango." The date produced the numbers "52nd Street Theme," "Night in Tunisia," "OI’Man Rebop," and "Anthropology." Between May and July of 1946, Brown appeared on such Gillespie recordings as "Our Delight," "Things to Come," and "Rays Idea" (co-written with Gil Fuller). In November of the same year, he cut the classic Gillespie side "Emanon."
In 1947 Gillespie assembled a smaller group inside his big band which included Brown, Milt Jackson, pianist John Lewis and drummer Kenny Clarke. As Jackson told Whitney Baillett, in American Musicians II, "We’d play and let the band have a rest. I guess it was Dizzy’s idea." Attending an August 1947 Gillespie big band session Brown’s bass is heard on such numbers as "Ow!," "Oop-Pop-A-Da," and John Lewis’ "Two Bass Hit" which Brown’s bass is heard driving the band and, at the composition’s close, soloing with force and a controlled sense of melody. On December 10, 1947, Brown married vocalist Ella Fitzgerald in Ohio and moved into a residence on Ditmars Boulevard in the East Elmhurst section of Queens, New York. Soon afterward, the couple adopted a son, Ray Jr.
After leaving Gillespie’s band in 1947, Brown and performed with Fitzgerald on Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic tours and various record dates. "When I left Dizzy," commented Brown in Ella Fitzgerald, "the band was getting ready to go to Europe, and I couldn’t. I’d just gotten married to Ella Fitzgerald. At that time I was in a bit of a curl between her and wanting to be with her as well. She wanted me to travel with her trio; she had Hank Jones playing piano. So I finally decided I was going to stay in New York." During a concert series in September 1949, Brown performed when Canadian-born pianist Oscar Peterson made his debut with the tour (according to Brown, he had already performed with Peterson at informal Canadian jam sessions). In 1950 Brown and Peterson performed as a duo, and for the next several years, were also billed on various tours.
In 1950 Brown recorded with Charlie Parker and, between 1950 and 1952, appeared with the Milt Jackson Quartet. The quartet’s pianist John Lewis recounted in The Great Jazz Pianists, "We were all friends and would play together when Dizzy’s band wasn’t working." At another Parker session in August 1951, Brown found himself in the company of such sidemen as trumpeter Red Rodney, John Lewis, and drummer Kenny Clarke. Together they backed Parker on sides which included "Swedish Schnapps," "Si Si," "Back Home Blues," and "Lover Man." A few months later, Brown appeared with the Milt Jackson Quartet, and on March 25, 1952 Brown attended a Charlie Parker big band recording session in Hollywood, California.
In 1952 Brown and guitarist Irving Ashby became the founding members of the Oscar Peterson Trio. Ashby’s replacement, Barney Kessel, performed with the trio a year before Peterson recruited guitarist Herb Ellis who, along with Brown on bass, formed one of the most famed jazz trios of the 1950s. "Herb and I rehearsed all the time," stated Brown in Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing. "For a trio that didn’t have any drums, we had it all. Herb and I roomed together and we played everyday. Not just the gig. We played golf in the morning and guitar and bass in the afternoon, and then we would shower, take a nap, go to dinner, and go to the gig. We had it all." Under Peterson’s leadership, Brown and Ellis underwent a challenging musical regimen. In Jazz Journal International, Brown revealed his admiration for Peterson’s reputation as a difficult task master: "If you are not intimidated by absolute professionalism, then you have no problem. Sure he’ll throw you a curve from time to time by calling unscheduled numbers or unexpectedly doubling the tempos, but if you’re not good enough to handle that, you shouldn’t be with Oscar anyway."
By 1953 Brown and Fitzgerald ended their marriage. As Stuart Nicholson noted his book Ella Fitzgerald, "Ray remained adamant that he would pursue his career with Oscar Peterson, and the couple had begun to see less and less of each other. Finally, they decided to bring their marriage to and end and filed for a ‘quickie’ divorce." The divorce was finalized on August 28, 1953 in Juarez, Mexico. Fitzgerald maintained custody of Ray Jr., yet she and Brown remained friends. In November 1953 they, along with Oscar Peterson, appeared at a concert in Japan.
In 1958 Peterson replaced Ellis with drummer Gene Gammage, who stayed with the trio a few months until Peterson recruited drummer Edmund Thigpen. Fortunately, Brown was able to stay with the trio and earn a comfortable living. However, by the early 1960s, the group also proved demanding in its performance schedule. As Brown explained in Jazz Journal International, "Some of the tours were really punishing—we’d come to Europe and do 62 one-nighters in 65 days." After his 15-year membership in the Oscar Peterson Trio, Brown left the group in 1965, and settled in Hollywood, where he worked in the areas of publishing, management, and record production. In 1974 he co-founded the L.A. Four with saxophonist Bud Shank, Brazilian guitarist Luarindo Almeida, and drummer Shelly Manne (later replaced by Jeff Hamilton). One of Brown’s exemplary studio dates emerged in the 1974 album Dizzy Gillespie Big 4.
By 1976 Brown appeared four days a week on the Merv Griffin Show. A year later, after two decades of appearing as a sideman on the Contemporary label, Brown recorded the solo effort Something for Lester, placing him in the company of pianist Cedar Walton and drummer Elvin Jones. In Down Beat Zan Stewart gave the album the magazine’s highest rating (five stars), and commented, "Walton and Jones are apropos partnersin sound for the superlative bassist… Ray’s imparts the line to ‘Georgia’—what glorious tone he possesses! It continually overwhelms the listener, as does his superb intonation, for Brown is always at the center of each note."
In a 1980 Jazz Journal International interview, Brown told Mike Hennessey, "I’m very fortunate. I’m still able to travel and play various countries and still be liked by the public. I’m able to play what I like to play and as long as people want to listen, that’s fine with me." During the 1980s, Brown recorded solo albums for the Concord label as well as releases by the L.A. Four, and numerous guest sessions with pianist Gene Harris. Since his first appearance on Telarc Records in 1989, his albums for the company include the 1994 trio LP (with pianist Benny Green and drummer Jeff Hamilton) Bass Face, Live at Kuumbwa, the 1995 work Seven Steps to Heaven (with Green and drummer Greg Hutchinson), and the 1997 release Super Bass. Brown still performs both as a leader and accompanist at festivals and concert dates. "During the past decades Brown’s sound and skill have remained undimmed, "wrote Thomas Owens, in his 1995 book Bebop: The Music and Its Players. "He is an agile, inventive, and often humorous soloist. His arco [bow] technique is excellent, though he seldom reveals it. But he shines most brilliantly as an accompanist. Examples of his beautiful lines are legion." Interviewed in The Guitar Player Book, Herb Ellis also lauded the talents of his former music partner: "[Ray Brown] is in a class all by himself. There is no other bassist in the world for me, and a lot of players feel the same way. On most instruments, when you get to the top echelon it breaks down to personal taste, but I tell you, there are a lot of guys on his tail, but Ray has it all locked up."
Ray did a great deal to revive the careers of Ernestine Anderson and Gene Harris, and recorded extensively for Pablo and Concord. The Ray Brown Trio featured pianists Gene Harris, Benny Green, and Geoff Keezer, along with drummers Jeff Hamilton and Greg Hutchison, and recorded for Concord and Telarc. He continued touring up until crossed over in his sleep while napping before a show in Indianapolis on July 2, 2002. His last batch of sessions, working as a trio with pianist Monty Alexander and guitarist Russell Malone, were released that fall.
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