of Ray Brown
FIRESIDE CHAT WITH 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.
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
Let's touch on that band.
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.
Bud Powell was in that band.
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.
You were one of the headliners of the Jazz at the Philharmonic tours.
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
For a decade and a half you were a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio.
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.
Although the world lost a wonderful master when Milt Jackson passed away
earlier this year, you lost a personal friend.
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.
He will be sorely missed.
BROWN: Oh, absolutely.
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.
BROWN: Yeah, that's right.
Gene's soulful swing paired very well with your writing.
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.
And Benny Green inherited to the position from Gene, and Benny is no slouch.
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.
Your latest trio has Geoff Keezer on piano.
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.
Let's touch on your new release on the Telarc label, CHRISTMAS SONGS WITH
THE RAY BROWN TRIO.
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?
I have. It is a good record.
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?
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
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
Are there any young musicians following the path that you paved that you
find of interest?
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.
You are one of the masters of this music, what does jazz mean to Ray Brown?
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.
Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and is still pissed that the knocked off Big
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