courtesy of Ray Brown



Ray Brown is a bass player. He is the bass player. That should be enough. That is enough. It is a personal honor to present a man who has influenced a generation of bass players, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

RAY BROWN: Oh, boy. You're going back further than I can remember, Fred (laughing). I started out in this business, I guess, playing in a couple of local bands in my hometown of Pittsburgh. From there, I went on the road with a six-piece band and started out in Buffalo, New York. Then from there, I went to a big band. And from there, I went to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

FJ: Let's touch on that band.

RAY BROWN: It couldn't be better. Can you imagine, Fred, walking into a room and finding Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker with their horns? What are you going to say? If you don't have a heart attack, you're going to have more fun than you've ever had in your life. These guys were fantastic. They played so good it was frightening. And I, of course, being young, was in awe of everything that was going on and rightly so. I mean, it was too good to believe.

FJ: Bud Powell was in that band.

RAY BROWN: Yes, that's right, but it only lasted about six months. I heard Bud Powell when I was in high school. We played hooky to see him. When I joined the band with Bird and Dizzy, Bud and Max, Bud didn't seem to be intimidated by the way these guys played. He had his own style, so he belonged in that band. He was a complete player at that time.

FJ: You were one of the headliners of the Jazz at the Philharmonic tours.

RAY BROWN: We saw a lot of this country, which most people don't get to see. The average person lives and dies and does not see all of the United States. I got to see a lot of this country that I hadn't seen. Then we started going to Europe and we started playing all over Europe and then we went to Japan. It was a great opportunity to see the world and play a lot of good music.

FJ: For a decade and a half you were a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio.

RAY BROWN: Oh, yeah, Oscar was a task master, I guess we could call it. He wrote a difficult, demanding music for us to play. We had to do a lot of rehearsals to get it so that it was playable. What it did was make you practice. That's good for any musician to have that kind of pressure. It brings things out of you that might not come out if you don't have to reach for something all the time.

FJ: Although the world lost a wonderful master when Milt Jackson passed away earlier this year, you lost a personal friend.

RAY BROWN: A lot of things standout about Milt. We go back fifty-five years. (Long pause) He was a very good human being and he also would tell things just as they were. He didn't beat around the bush. I think everybody liked that about him. He wouldn't give you any jive. If you had it coming, he gave it to you. I'm not talking about good or bad or whatever, but I'm saying to you he gave it to you just like it was.

FJ: He will be sorely missed.

RAY BROWN: Oh, absolutely.

FJ: When you formed your own trio, you called upon Gene Harris, who was with you for a handful of years. And as you know, Gene has fallen ill.

RAY BROWN: Yeah, that's right.

FJ: Gene's soulful swing paired very well with your writing.

RAY BROWN: Well, I think that I've been learning how to, attempting to learn how to write for a trio. I've sort of taken a page out of Duke Ellington's book. I watched Ellington over the years and it didn't matter who got in that band, he found out what they could do good and then he wrote for them. So they always came out, as we say, smelling like a rose. So that's what I try to do. Of course, I knew Gene's playing. I had heard the Three Sounds, Andy (Simpkins, whom we sadly lost) and Bill (Dowdy) for years. We'd hang out when I was with Oscar Peterson. Gene has a definite, very, very dominant voice. There is no question when you hear a record that has Gene Harris on it about who is playing the piano. I don't sit there and say, "I think that is so and so." It's cut and dry and most musicians, most of us spend our lives trying to get that, to find something that's ours that nobody else has that you can tell right away. It takes a lot of work to get that. Gene had that just by the barrel.

FJ: And Benny Green inherited to the position from Gene, and Benny is no slouch.

RAY BROWN: Absolutely, Fred. Benny has turned into one of the very top pianists around now. Benny's always searching. He's looking for things all the time. He knew that I knew a lot of songs. He liked me to teach him a lot of songs. He'd say, "OK, so how does this song go?" And I would show him. I would make him play it in different keys. I'd say, "You can't play 'Body and Soul' in B flat only. If a singer comes up and wants to sing, she might sing it in G. You have to be ready. Once you learn these songs, you have to be able to transfer them into different keys." I'm quite adept at all of that so.

FJ: Your latest trio has Geoff Keezer on piano.

RAY BROWN: They are young guys and they are very talented. Keezer started out when he was seventeen years old playing with Art Blakey, so he's been around for a while. He's twenty-nine now, so he's been around for quite a while. He's got his own voice already. He's got good chops. He's got great imagination. He knows how to play the piano. He plays classically, so he plays just about anything you want to do. He plays excellent.

FJ: Let's touch on your new release on the Telarc label, CHRISTMAS SONGS WITH THE RAY BROWN TRIO.

RAY BROWN: If you take the average musician who has been around, sooner or later they are going to end up doing a Christmas album (laughing). Yeah, you know, Fred, sooner or later you wind up doing one. I've been resisting doing one for years because I just didn't want to do a regular, what we call B flat Christmas album. I said to the company, I said, "Well, I want to do something different so we will have to put our thinking caps on and come up with something different." We lucked out and came out with what I think is a pretty good album. What makes this album so special is that I've got seven singers doing very popular Christmas songs and they all lend their special talents to the song that they sing. I think it came out very well. Have you heard it, Fred?

FJ: I have. It is a good record.


FJ: I don't think I am going out on a limb here when I say that you are one of the finest accompanists of singers, what are the essential qualities to accompanying a vocalist?

RAY BROWN: Well, several things. First of all, you have to listen. You have to be able to listen. You have got to listen to the singer and give them what they need to sound good. And you need good intonation so they don't have to worry about pitch. It's hard enough to do what they have to do without being bothered with musicians not being in tune, so that's very important. I think you have to know the material very well and it would help to know the lyrics to the song because I think that has a lot to do with the interpretation of it.

FJ: Is there a particular standard that holds a special place in your heart?

RAY BROWN: No, but I think songs rotate around in your brain. I will have a song that I'm in love with for a couple of months and then I'll go to something else. That's just constantly changing. And sometimes I will go back to old one that I haven't heard for a long time. And then, a lot of times, it's who you were listening to play the song. I heard an old record of Art Tatum's not long ago and he was playing "Someone to Watch Over Me." And I hadn't heard that song in a while, so it really kind of turned on a light for me because he played it marvelously. It makes you fall in love with the tune all over again sometimes when you hear a song like that.

FJ: Are there any young musicians following the path that you paved that you find of interest?

RAY BROWN: There's a big pile of them. You see now, Fred, if I leave some off, then I'm in a bad spot. There's just a big pile of good young bass players. I mean, a whole lot of them. John Clayton and Christian (McBride) and I, we have a little group called Superbass. They're like my kids. Christian's a demon too.

FJ: You are one of the masters of this music, what does jazz mean to Ray Brown?

RAY BROWN: Well, jazz is to me, a complete lifestyle. It's bigger than a word. It's a much bigger force than just something that you can say. It's something that you have to feel. It's something that you have to live. I grew up listening to this music. I knew when I first heard it as a small boy that I had to play it. It's never left me. I think that that has to happen to you. You have to love it. It's an undying love. It's not based on money. It's just based on doing it as good as you can do it.

As a postscript to this Fireside Chat, since Ray Brown and I spoke, Gene Harris has passed on. I was, personally, quite saddened with Gene's passing. My warmest condolences go out to the Harris family and to all of the many fans of Gene's gentle swing. I feel lucky to have had an opportunity in my life to have spoken with Gene. And I will treasure our conversation, which I have never published and never will.

Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and is still pissed that the knocked off Big Pussy. Comments? Email Fred.