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Sunday, 12 February 2012

Ray Brown: Holding Up the Bottom of the World


Milt Jackson on vibes, Ray Brown on bass, New York City
: photo by William P. Gottlieb, between 1946 and 1948 (William P. Gottlieb, Music Division, Library of Congress)

On the Art of Ray Brown

It is in the basic nature of some musical instruments to catch the ear. The timbre, range, and facility of the trumpet, for example, make it ideal for solo work. It is equally inherent in other instruments to play a more supportive, background role. This does not make such instruments any less important to the success of a group, however. The string bass, for example, as the bass voice in the rhythm section, has a crucial function in laying the groundwork for both the rhythm and the harmony of a jazz ensemble.

Ray Brown is considered one of the top bassists in jazz during the bebop era precisely because of his abilities in this area. This was certainly not his only contribution to jazz. Brown’s solo work was considered to be inventive and ambitious, while remaining singable and strongly swinging. He composed, and he led recording sessions featuring outstanding jazz musicians. He was important as a teacher and promoter in many jazz musician’s careers. His hybrid cello/bass -- basically a cello with tuning and fingerings that are more familiar to bassists -- was a forerunner of the piccolo bass.

However, those who worked with him agreed that his genius lay in his ability to function as an ideal bass player within an ensemble. His tone quality and accuracy of pitch are legendary among bass players, many of whom claim to be able to recognize his sound from only a few notes on any recording. Bassist Hal Gaynor, for example, said, “He had this clarity of sound, and his intonation! At that time most bass players were playing kind of thumpy. You didn’t have to recognize all the notes so long as you felt the pulse.” Jay Leonhart agrees, “such a huge sound and such accuracy...nobody’s ever played like that since. And many of us have tried.” The “huge” sound Leonhart mentions required unusual physical strength in the hands, to get a sound that was both quite loud and that lasted an unusually long time for a plucked string bass note. As Bill Crow explained, “He developed a lot of the skills that became the standards of the next generation of virtuoso bassists. Like Blanton, Mingus, and Pettiford, Ray developed his technique before the invention of amplifiers and metal strings....He knew how to project his tone, and he pulled the strings percussively, making the bass line powerfully propel the rhythm section and the band.”

Brown attributed his sound to his instrument, which was unusually thick and had a very woody tone, but many musicians have attested to the fact that he could pick up any instrument and make it “sound like Ray.” Oscar Peterson said simply, “He is a walking sound. Ray has a sound that he walks around with that he can’t even describe, within himself. I don’t care what he says....”

Tone quality and accuracy are not the only qualities a good bassist can offer an ensemble, however. The lowest pitch -- the bass note -- has a very important function in harmony, so a bassist who can improvise solid, interesting bass lines, made up of the notes that are the best choices from the harmonic point of view, is a huge asset to a jazz ensemble. To continue quoting from Hal Gaynor, “And there was Ray’s choice of notes. No other bass player I’ve ever heard played quite the lines Ray played, particularly with Oscar [Peterson], because he was very meticulous about harmonic movement and sound. Ray played fantastic lines and phrases, and he plays every note. He doesn’t slide around. Nobody walked the way he did [this refers to a common type of bass line called a “walking bass”] ... and he always listened to who he was playing with and gave him exactly the notes he needed.” Don Thompson agreed, “He played the most perfect notes, as if he’d sat up all night figuring out the best possible line to play....He’s the Bach of bass players.”

The result was a quiet authority of supportive playing that affected the entire ensemble. Roger Kellaway put it this way: “Ray was not a sideman! Ray was a member of the band. Unless you sat back too much, in which case he became the leader of the band.” Oscar Peterson said, “Ask any players who’ve played with him...this is totally unknowing on his part. Totally unconscious...he comes in and just plays the way Ray plays, everything sort of adjusts to it.” Don Thompson agreed, “What he always did was to make the band sound better than it would be without him. Every time, he made everyone sound better than they ever sounded before. In fact, he made everyone better just by showing up.”

Few musicians would ask more of a colleague, and Ray Brown’s life story clearly reflects the fact that many major jazz players felt this way about him.

-- Catherine Schmidt-Jones, via Connexions

Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, John Lewis on piano, Ray Brown on bass, Club Downbeat, New York City: photo by William P. Gottlieb, between 1946 and 1948 (William P. Gottlieb, Music Division, Library of Congress)

Ella Fitzgerald [spouse of Ray Brown from 1947-1952], with Ray Brown (on bass, left) and Dizzy Gillespie (silently admiring, right), Club Downbeat, New York City: photo by William P. Gottlieb, c. September 1947 (William P. Gottlieb, Music Division, Library of Congress)

File:Ray Brown.jpg

Ray Brown (1926-2002): photographer unknown, 2002; image by Palanzana, 27 February 2011

The legendary Ray Brown has long been an inspirational figure for other players who have followed in his wake.

"I heard Ray Brown often," relates my brother John, a professional musician who has been playing and teaching stand-up bass for many a year. "I met Ray on more than one occasion, and had the great good fortune to study with him for a lucky minute. He had it all, astounding technique, deep swing feel and a huge sound. Ray said if you get a good sound they will hire you and they will pay you well. It worked out that way for Ray at least.

"I picked up a lot from Ray. His story about transcribing was probably the most cogent summation of how to develop a voice that I've run across. He said when he was coming up everybody called him Slam Pettiford because he learned every solo on record by Slam Stewart and Oscar Pettiford, the heavyweights at the time. He'd get to the gig every night and call the tune that had the solo he had been transcribing. He said 'I'd play it note for note like Oscar every night and then after a while I couldn't play it Oscar's way....I had to play it Ray Brown's way.' I did transcribe some of Ray but often found him just too technically demanding."

And here is Ray Brown himself, way back when:

Ray Brown with Dizzy Gillespie: One Bass Hit (1947)


TC said...

Here is a transcription, with the sounds, of Ray Brown's bass part in Bye-Bye Blackbird, from Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson:

Bye-Bye Blackbird (Ray Brown bass part transcription)

And a bit more related atmosphere from my brother, offering a sense of the lineages:

"I loved the Gottlieb photos on the blog, didn't know that they were in the Library of Congress to be searched and browsed. I missed hearing most of [those guys] play, wish I had [had the chance]. I did hear Miles once in the fusion phase and heard Ray Brown often...

"A lot of those players were well before my time. I feel like I have a link with them through Frank Jackson, the piano player I work with every Thursday. Frank had his 86th birthday in December and he's going strong, plays all over town as well as the steady gig I do with him. He was the house pianist at Bop City, the legendary club in the Fillmore in the 40's and 50's where all the players fell by after their gigs to jam after hours. He knew and worked with Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, most of the giants of the music and can tell some great stories as well as playing and singing terrific straight ahead jazz."

Here is John himself at work on bass, at that "steady gig" with Frank Jackson:

Frank Jackson Quartet: Confessin' the Blues (JC solo from 3:25)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

What a truly delightful Sunday morning post! I'd forgotten all about, in the dusty archive of memory, Oscar Peterson Meets Ben Webster. Ray Brown ... absoluting an integral part to that amazing recording.

And John ... wonderful recording. Listening to Frank Jackson reminded me of seeing Charles Brown (with Clifford Jordan) in a small setting in underground Atlanta.

Beautiful. Cheers to John and all.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

"a man who has a sound he walks around with" The video of One Bass Hit attests to this and to Brown's intense concentration--the man looks nowhere but straight ahead as if mesmerized by his own musical talent.

Hazen said...

Great tribute to Ray Brown, and a fascinating essay on the bass. Very much enjoyed the Frank Jackson quartet too. Right before JC’s bass solo, starting about 3:20, Jackson seems to work in a little “Salt Peanuts” riff.

ACravan said...

This is a treat in all ways. Thank you. It's helping (as much as anything can) me to cope with an attack of nerves but replacing the bad sensations with very good ones. Curtis

Conrad DiDiodato said...


you and I seem to be in the same bad place tonight. Until, of course, Tom posted this.

TC said...

A nano-memory of "Salt Peanuts" is definitely worth sprinkling into this pleasant mix of tribute and commentary, for which many thanks.

Ray, in retrospect, might have done well to opt for the unsalted variety. (He died of a stroke the year that last photo was taken.) But -- take it from here --- it's important now and then to at least be able to look back and remember a world in which one was permitted that now forbidden exotic substance.

But were we talking about nostalgia, or salt -- or simply reverence and respect for the days when it was not considered uncool to hit all the notes?

In any case it is an extremely cool thing to hear that jangled nerves can be calmed by a humble blog post. That ain't peanuts.

Here's to intense concentration, indeed.

Many thanks to all from the Clark brothers.



Sorry I didn't get to see/hear this yesterday -- such great notes and quotes ("You didn’t have to recognize all the notes so long as you felt the pulse.”). I met & heard your brother John play once in Sausalito, my then girlfriend's house up on hill under the oak trees, someone on her grand piano, John on his standup bass -- the 4th of July I think it was, all those notes now thought about (if not quite heard) again. . .


pale blue whiteness of sky above sunlit
shoulder of ridge, moon beside branches
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

thought about, plan to make
assault on the figure

that is, what is that which,
now is to which forms

grey white clouds reflected in channel,
pelican flapping toward green of ridge

TC said...


Good memory...

plan to make
assault on the figure

that is, what is that which
is past