For bass king Ray Brown’s 85th birthday anniversary, here’s a piece that ran on the http://www.jazz.com website a couple of years, incorporating the proceedings of a 1996 WKCR encounter on which he joined me in the studio with Christian McBride. The introduction draws deeply on the obituary I wrote for DownBeat when Brown passed on July 2, 2002. After reading the WKCR interview, feel free to read the transcripts of my conversations with McBride, Geoff Keezer, Ron Carter, Monty Alexander, Herb Ellis, John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton, Benny Green, Quincy Jones, and Ed Thigpen, all of whom generously agreed to speak with me for the DownBeat piece.
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Ray Brown’s supple sound, elemental beat, harmonic wizardry, and ability to create striking melodic lines at any tempo made him the definitive bassist of modern jazz. During his 58 years as a professional musician, he played with virtually every consequential figure on the scene. In the first stage of his career, he played on the first Gillespie-Parker combo recordings (“Shaw Nuff”), later making such influential sides as “One Bass Hit,” “Two Bass Hit” and “Ray’s Idea” with Gillespie’s seminal big band in 1946. He joined fellow Gillespians John Lewis, Milt Jackson and Kenny Clarke in the first iteration of the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1951, at which point he had been touring regularly since 1948 with singer Ella Fitzgerald, his first wife, and with Jazz at the Philharmonic. Indeed, Brown’s relationship with Norman Granz led to numerous sideman appearances for Verve and Pablo until the latter 1980’s. A short list includes recordings with Louis Armstrong, Gillespie, Parker, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, Phineas Newborn, Jimmy Rowles, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.
Many of those recordings found Brown in a rhythm section with pianist Oscar Peterson, whom he met on Peterson’s first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Montreal in 1949, and whose trio—first with guitarists Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis, and subsequently with drummer Ed Thigpen—he famously anchored from 1952 to 1966. In 1966, Brown came off the road, and settled in Los Angeles, functioning simulaneously as a musician and businessman. Over the next two decades he managed such artists as Quincy Jones and the Modern Jazz Quartet, contracted for the studios, co-founded the L.A. Four, co-owned a nightclub called Club Loa, and continued to freelance extensively.
In the mid-’80s, Brown returned to the road with pianist Gene Harris and drummer Jeff Hamilton. The trio recorded a series of albums for Concord and Paddle-Wheel, evolving an ensemble sound that blended harmonic sophistication with grits-and-gravy blues imperatives. Under contract to Telarc during the ’90s, Brown continued to challenge himself, sustaining trio excellence with such hand-picked young talent as pianists Benny Green and Geoff Keezer and drummers Greg Hutchinson and Karriem Riggins, and organizing Super Bass in 1996.
“When Ray laid the rhythm down, it was like a Mack Truck with a Rolls-Royce engine,” Monty Alexander told me in a tribute piece that Downbeat ran after his death. “He was the greatest support player, yet he wasn’t about to be a nameless character in the background, just doing the pedestrian work.”
“Ray gave me confidence,” Peterson remarked. “I never had to wonder and worry about where things were going harmonically or rhythmically. He listened to each performance that everyone gave, and adjusted his playing to you on different nights, which not a lot of bassists do. He would walk different lines behind me, change the harmonic pattern, just to see what I would do.”
“If you isolated Ray’s basslines and superimposed them over the chords in, say, a higher register, you’d find he was creating beautiful contrapuntal melodies all the time,” Keezer said. “I felt I had complete freedom to go whatever direction I wanted — and I took it pretty far out.”
“Ray’s approach to teaching wasn’t ‘Try this scale on this chord,’ Clayton stated. “Instead he would say, ‘Check out what Oscar Pettiford did on this record, or what Israel Crosby did with this bassline from Ahmad Jamal.’ He turned me on to Eddie Gomez, Richard Davis and Scott LaFaro. People forget that Ray Brown played Bebop, and when it hit, people thought it came from outer space; more jazz lovers could not relate to it than could. And Ray continued to search and stretch and experiment. His later arrangements involved more unpredictable voicings, chord changes and melodic movement than things he did five and ten years before.”
“He saw at an early age with Norman Granz in JATP how to run a business and take care of the musicians,” Jeff Hamilton noted. “He related that Norman once pulled the entire tour off of an airplane because, even though he’d bought a ticket for it, they wouldn’t allow his bass on board. Ray’s pride and sense of self-worth influenced his business techniques. ‘Well, if you don’t want me for this amount, you must not want me very much.’ They would inevitably call back. Ray said, ‘No, that was the amount you offered two weeks ago; now the amount is this.’ That kind of self-confidence came through every part of Ray Brown’s personality, musically and doing business off the bandstand.”
“After he moved to Los Angeles, we started working a lot together,” said Quincy Jones. “We got closer and closer. After a while, Ray started to take care of booking gigs and travel. He was an astute businessman. Old school played everything. We all played chitlin’ circuits. And you didn’t sit around whining about what you had to play, man. You played it, and tried to make it all sound good. That’s what I loved about Ray. That’s where I think our chord struck, in being very curious about what the business side of it was and not wanting to be a victim. We wanted to be more in charge of our own destinies.
“A man never plays more or less than they are as a human being, and Ray was a very confident, take-charge person. He played bass like that and lived like that. He ate 17 different dishes like that. Wherever we were, whatever was good, Ray knew what it was. He’d probably eat a 249-pound catfish if he tried! To me, he was the absolute symbol that if you empty your cup every time and learn to make it a habit, it always comes back twice as full. Give it up every time, man. Don’t save nothin’. I learned more and more about that from him all the time. In everything.”
On the final night of Super Bass’ debut gig at the Blue Note in 1996, Brown and McBride joined me on New York’s WKCR for a discussion about his life and times. An edited version appears below.
[MUSIC: Ray Brown/Basie/Roker, “One” (1975); Ray Brown Trio, “Con Alma” (1993); Ray Brown with Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, “One Bass Hit” (1946)]
I’d like to get things started by giving Ray Brown a bit of the third degree on his early years in music. Hearing Count Basie and Ray Brown together puts you in touch with two-thirds of your deepest musical roots, because when you were 11 years old or so, you got to hear the Basie band on a fairly regular basis, didn’t you.
Oh yeah. I went down there every day…
This was at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh. You sat under the piano, right near Walter Page.
Right, in Pittsburgh.
How did you find out that this was happening, and what was the cause of your interest at this time?
Oh, I knew everything about music. We had a lot of music in Pittsburgh. We had two theaters that had live shows 52 weeks a year. We had jam sessions at the union every night of the week, and the guys from the theaters came down there and jammed with the local guysThere was a big band in each theater, and a big band played a concert once a week in Pittsburgh. There was a ton of music.
What was the source of your being inclined to it? Was music in your family? Were your parents musicians?
No, they weren’t musicians, but they loved music. When I was a little kid my father wanted me to be a piano player, and he loved Fats Waller. We used to sit up and listen to Fats Waller, and he’d say, “Listen to that left hand; listen to that guy play.” Of course, Fats Waller was fantastic, one of the best of all time. Then he came in with another record and he said, “Yeah, I got another guy I like; you’d better listen to this guy.” Then he put this record on, and it was Art Tatum. So you get pointed in the right direction.
Did you have private teachers?
Yeah, I had piano teachers. The first one was kind of uppity. She would pass me in the street… I’d be playing marbles, and she’d stop the car and pick me up and say, “All right, let’s go.” I had to go home and wash up and come in there. She’d inspect my nails. She was a very proper… I told my mother I didn’t like that piano teacher. So my mother said, “Well, what do you want to do?” I said, “Well, there’s a couple of ladies… There’s a lady named Ruby Young I want to study with.” Ruby Young had her own band. There were two bands in Pittsburgh at that time led by women. One was Gertrude Long and her Nighthawks, and this was Ruby Young and her band. So Ruby was teaching lessons.
How old were you when you started playing?
Oh, God. Young. 10, 11, somewhere around there. But anyway, I took my first lesson with Ruby Young, and after the lesson I said, “Can you play some jazz for me?”—and she struck out then! I told my mother, “Now, that’s it.” She just sat up and played some stride and everything, and then I was very happy. This is what I wanted to do and this is what I wanted to hear.
I gather you lived next door to a trombone player who played with Gertrude Long’s Nighthawks.
Right. I used to go over and sit on the floor while they were rehearsed. I was around music all the time. And my father liked Fats Waller so much that when my folks gave parties, he hired a guy who looked like Fats Waller, who played very little piano, he sang a little bit, but he wore tails and a top hat just like Fats Waller, and my father would tell all the guests, “After you get a few drinks, he sounds real good.” [LAUGHS] This guy would imitate Fats Waller, singing “Your Feet’s Too Big,” sang all those songs, and he played the piano. My father couldn’t get Fats Waller, but that was the best thing he could do. So there was music all the time in my house.
So come 1937 with the Basie band sort of on their workshop month preparing for their sojourn in the north, you were there regularly.
That’s right. He had Sweets and Buck Clayton and Dickie Wells. All those guys were in the band. Jo Jones, Walter Page, Freddie Green. So I met all these guys when I was a kid.
Do you remember the interaction, things you asked them, what they said to you?
No. I just remember sitting there listening. So that record has two people who were very-very influential to me, Dizzy Gillespie (who we don’t even have to talk about) and Count Basie.
But you weren’t playing the bass at all in 1937 when you saw Walter Page.
No, I wasn’t playing the bass at all.
That happened when you heard Jimmy Blanton, I gather.
Well, it didn’t happen right away, but I was aware of Jimmy Blanton, and then when I started messing around with the bass it became very prominent.
How did it come about that you made the transition from being a piano player to a bass player?
Well, it was very simple. I went to junior high school, and I signed up for orchestra, and they had about, I don’t know, 28 piano players and they had 3 basses and only 2 bass players. So every day, there was a bass laying on the floor, doing nothing. And I’m sitting over there waiting for my 15 minutes a week to sit down to the piano. It’s difficult for teenagers to sit around all day and not do anything and stay out of trouble. So I asked the teacher, “Hey, if I was playing that bass, I could play every day.” He said, “That’s right. We’re looking for another bass player.” I said, “Okay, you’ve got one.” And that was it.
Was there a good teacher there?
No-no. I just played it. Just figured it out. The schoolteacher showed me what… He had to show everybody every instrument. He tuned up everybody’s instrument and he showed you, gave you five minutes maybe, and then you were on your own. But I was bringing these things home; I was practicing with the records. And I luckily played a lot with Duke Ellington, because the guy who was on that record sounded best to me. So I played with that record all the time. Any Duke Ellington record.
So Jimmy Blanton was the guy you played along with.
When did you start gigging on the bass?
When I got to high school, a guy who I used to deliver papers to named Henry Foster was looking for some guys, and I said, “Hey, I play the bass and my friend plays the piano” — a guy named Walt Harper. He hired both of us, and we started working with them on Friday and Saturday and Sunday, making $3 a night. That was a lot of money then. There were no taxes either.
What type of places would you play, and who was coming to hear you?
Just local people. I don’t know… A lot of that stuff is dim now in terms of me giving you accuracy about the people showing up. All I can remember is playing and learning the tunes.
Was it piano-bass-and-drums…
Piano, bass and drums and saxophone.
Do you remember what kind of repertoire you were playing at the time? Did you ever have room for features for yourself?
Not really, no. But we played just the tunes of the day. “Tea For Two” and “Satchmouth Baby” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”
And all this time you’re still going to the theaters to hear the big bands…
Oh yeah. Well, when I got to high school we started playing hookey to hear… We were listening to Lester Young, Bud Powell with Cootie Williams, Oscar Pettiford with Charlie Barnet, way before he ever joined Duke Ellington.
In Pittsburgh what was the top level of bass playing you could hear when you were coming up?
I guess the top bass players were a guy named Bass McMahon, who wound up playing with Eckstine’s band. Then a guy who wound up here in New York, who they called Crusher, named Carl Pruitt, and he was with Roy Eldridge’s band. They were the top guys in Pittsburgh.
Hearing Roy Eldridge’s name, and he being from the Pittsburgh area, makes me want to ask you which of the many famous musicians who emerged from Pittsburgh were you in contact with, were your peers when you were coming up.
There’s more famous people out of Pittsburgh, I think, than any place in the world, which is just ahead of maybe Philadelphia and Detroit. You go back to Earl Hines and Roy Eldridge and Maxine Sullivan and Billy Strayhorn and Billy Eckstine, and come up to Art Blakey and Erroll Garner and Stanley Turrentine and Tommy Turrentine, Mary Lou Williams, George Benson… It’s a long list. Dakota Staton. Henry Mancini. Pittsburgh had zillions of bad dudes come out of there! A lot of people came out of Pittsburgh. So there was a lot of music in Pittsburgh. I think in towns (Philadelphia was like that, Detroit was like that) where there’s a lot of music going on, I think it inspires young people to get into it.
<Now, the only guy I ever had any contact with (I didn’t know Roy or Eckstine or any of those people) was Erroll Garner, who was a few years older than us, but we used to play hookey, go over to his house and listen to him play the piano. He used to come by, this little band that we worked with… He lived around the corner, and on Sunday night we played this North Side Elks; he’d slip in there around 11:30 and come in there and jam with us. It was a lot of fun when he showed up.
Was he playing the same then as later…
Well, he swung the same way. But he was playing more like Fats Waller then.
Did you get to see Jimmy Blanton play in person? Do you remember that experience?
I saw him at the theater, yes. The problems with the bass back in 1940-41, which is when Blanton was very prominent (or any other bass player), there were no amplifiers. There was a microphone in front of the band, and the saxophone player came up and played solos off it, the singers sang, and the leader would make announcements on it. I mean, there was just one microphone up there. Until Duke Ellington showed up and had a special mike on Jimmy Blanton standing in front of the band, you never heard the bass that well. I mean, you heard the guy playing, but you couldn’t do anything fast on bass because nobody would be able to hear it. So Blanton was an oddity in the first place, and a lot of people didn’t understand it. They said, “Why does Duke Ellington have this guy up there playing all them bass solos?” “Hah! Yeah, sure.”
From you, a quick evaluation how Jimmy Blanton changed the face of the bass.
Oh, he just changed it. From black to white. That big a change. Just picking it up, he was different. I mean, he had the best sound you ever heard. He played the best lines. He played the best solos. He did everything! And everybody was into Jimmy Blanton. I mean, I delivered newspapers to Carl Pruitt’s house, and I don’t care when I went by his house; he was playing those records and practicing with the records just like everybody else. This must have been done around the world. Everybody said, “What?” They heard a guy play a bass like that… PSHEW!
Let’s take you from Pittsburgh in a capsulized way to 1944 to New York and hearing Dizzy Gillespie. What were the circumstances of leaving Pittsburgh?
I would have left Pittsburgh before I finished high school, but my mother said if I did she was going to have me picked up by the police. So I had to finish high school. Schenley High School. What happened, really, Cootie Williams’ band was at a big theater downtown with Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots and some dance team, Cook & Brown or something like that. It was a big show. They had Benson & Hedges’ hot record, “Put Me In Your Brass Bed,” or whatever the name is… Anyway, that show was hot. The bass player in that show got picked up by the Army because he didn’t pick up his draft notice. They came and got him from backstage, put him in a truck and drove him off to the Army base. So now they’re looking for a bass player, and they got Crusher, Carl Pruitt, and he finished out the week. But somebody told them about me, and I went down there, and they tried the jacket on me — and Carl Pruitt was too big, the jacket fit me, and they offered me the job. [LAUGHS] So I ran home and told my folks. I said, “I got a job with Cootie Williams’ band.” They said, “You have no job.” You’re going to school. And I cried and rolled over and died a few times. But my mother said, “You’re going to finish school.”
So you had to stay in Pittsburgh a little while more.
Absolutely. If you knew my folks, you would have stayed, too.
So after high school, then what?
As soon as I finished high school, I went on the road. I went to Buffalo with a guy named Jimmy Hinsley in ‘44.
Wasn’t Hank Jones in Buffalo at that time?
Yes, that’s where we met.
I’ve read about you meeting after the show, drinking milkshakes and then going to hear Art Tatum after you were done.
Yes. What happened was, I got a room at the YMCA, and a couple of days after I’d gotten there I was coming down going to someplace I was going. I used to take the stairs down, and you passed a door that was the door to the cafeteria. They had a piano, for some reason, in the cafeteria. And I heard what I thought was this record we had at home of “Begin The Beguine” by Art Tatum, which I knew very well. I played it many times. I knew it practically by heart. And I heard this record playing, and I stood outside the door and I said, “Wow, there’s that Tatum record,” and I sat and listened to it and it played — but when it got to the end there was some more playing! I said, “Whoa!”
I went through the door, and there’s a guy sitting up there playing the piano. I walked over to him and said, “Hey, man, that was that Art Tatum record, ‘Begin The Beguine.’” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Oh yeah!” That was Hank Jones. That’s how we met. So after that, every day I would bring my bass home, and we would go down to the cafeteria and play — every day. We were on different jobs, but we just played together every afternoon.
What sort of things would you play?
Anything he wanted to play, and I followed him.
You were part of the first group of musicians where the general level of knowledge required seemed to be more. How much do you think your piano background helped you in dealing with the music you had to play later on?
Well, the piano has always helped me in music. The bass helps you hear the chord, but the piano then spells it out for you, in case you don’t know what the other notes are. The piano plays all the notes. So between the bass and the piano you have everything.
Let’s get you back on course to New York City. You’re in Buffalo with Jimmy Hinsley, you meet Hank Jones, you’re playing in the cafeteria. The story I hear is that you were on the road with the Snookum Russell band, then you left that band and went to New York City. Snookum Russell was one of those band that had major figures before they became major figures.
Well, everybody in those days… There were a ton of big bands, and when you left school and went on the road, you normally went, in those days, with a big band, and you would play with the big band and then you would get better and you would move up to a better big band. Eventually, you would wind up with one of the major big bands, as you became better. Two guys who were in Snookum Russell’s band just before I joined it were was Fats Navarro and J.J. Johnson. Those are not too bad names!
What kind of music was he playing?
I guess you could call it almost a commercial jazz band. He covered the hits of the day. If Lucky Millinder had a hit with Bull Moose Jackson, “Who Threw The Whiskey In the Well,” we would be doing that. What happened was, I joined Snookum, and then he found out that I knew all of this stuff that Jimmy Blanton and Duke Ellington had done, so he started doing it between the two of us — because he of course loved Duke Ellington. So he started featuring me doing the Blanton stuff. There was a saxophone player in that band named Charles Carman(?) out of Sandusky, Ohio, and this guy was a Lester Young freak. He knew everything Lester Young ever made—every note! When I met him, and we were talking (after he’d been in the band for a little while), he said, “Do you know anything about Prez?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “What do you know about him?” I said, “Well, what do you want to know?” He said, “Do you know any of his solos?” I said, “Call one.”
What you need to know is when I was going to high school we had a club of musicians, and every record that came out, as soon as it came out, you’d buy it (and it cost like 29 cents, a ‘78), you had two days to learn any of the major solos on there, and if you didn’t learn it in two days then nobody would let you in the house, because you had to sing it before you could get in the guy’s house. So you had to learn every solo off of every record.
So I said, “Which one do you want to hear?” He said so-and-so and so-and-so, and then I started singing it to him. I couldn’t get rid of him after that. Now, Lester Young and Slam Stewart had these records with Johnny Guarnieri and Sid Catlett, and we started doing those things—““Sometimes I’m Happy,” all that stuff. So we were covering everything.
So Snookum Russell was a stimulating experience.
But you left. It’s a funny story I’ve heard, there were four or five of you, they were going to leave the band, and they backed out…
Well, we all said we were going to go to New York and try our luck. We had been with Snookum about eight months, and we’re reading Downbeat magazine and reading about Coleman Hawkins and 52nd Street and all these things. We said, “We’ve got to go to New York.” Because you had to go to New York to make it then. You couldn’t make it anyplace else. You had to come to New York. I said, “Well, then, let’s go to New York.” So five of us decided we were going to go to New York. And the night before we were supposed to leave, I started packing, I looked around, and everybody was sitting around. I said, “What’s going on?” One by one, they said, “Naw…” The other four guys backed out. So I started to back out, and then I said, “No, I’m going.” I had talked to an aunt in New York and she said I could stay with her. So I said, “I’m going.”
How did you travel?
On the train. Took two days.
What happened when you got here?
I went to my aunt’s, washed up, she gave me some dinner, and I asked her son, who was my age, “Where is 52nd Street?” He said, “Well, you’ve got to get the subway to get down there.” I said, “Well, as soon as we eat, let’s go down there. I want to see it.” And he took me.
And who was on the Street?
Oh God, I can’t remember every band, but it was frightening. I know the Downbeat, the second club on the right, had Art Tatum and Billie Holiday. Stuff Smith was across the street (I can’t remember the other band). Benny Harris and Don Byas. There was one band that I went to see every night for a month (I didn’t miss a set), which was a trio with Erroll Garner, J.C. Heard and Oscar Pettiford. Never missed a set. Never did miss a set. It was ridiculous. You would have died if you could heard that group, man. Obnoxious. But anyway, the third place there had Coleman Hawkins featured, and Billy Daniels was singing intermissions, and he was being accompanied by a piano player, and it said, “Hank Jones.” So I ran in there, and I asked if Hank Jones was around. They said, “Yeah, he’s back there,” and I went back there, and we sat down and started to talk. While we were talking, “Oh, there’s Dizzy Gillespie coming through the door.” I said, “Oh yeah? Introduce me. I want to meet him.” Because I had heard all his records and stuff. So he called Dizzy, and Dizzy came over, and Hank said, “This is a good friend of mine; he’s a good bass player; he just got in town.” Dizzy looked at me and said, “Can you play?” I said, “Well…” I mean, what are you going to say? Hank said, “Yeah, he can play.” So he said, “You want a job?” And I said, “Yeah!” And he gave me a card and said, “Be at my house tomorrow night 7 o’clock for a rehearsal.” I got up there, and there was four guys in there—Bud Powell, Max Roach, Dizzy and Charlie Parker. Can’t beat that. If you won the lottery tomorrow, it wouldn’t be as good as that.
What happened then?
Well, I had a heart attack first, and then we started to play some music.
What did the music sound like to you? Was it along lines you were thinking about?
Like nothing I’ve ever heard before. They played tempos and keys and songs that I had never heard of, and you’re just standing there watching and trying to keep up. Dizzy and Charlie Parker played so good, it was a frightening experience.
Dizzy Gillespie was famous for showing musicians how to play the music that he developed. Did he do that with you at all?
He did that with all of us. He used to show Max a lot of stuff. They were very meticulous about what they wanted from the drums, especially Dizzy. But if you’d ask him, then he would show you. I know after I had been with him for about three or four weeks, I said, “How am I doing?” He said, “Well, you’re doing pretty good, but you don’t play the right notes.” [LAUGHS] So I said, “What do you mean?” He took me over to the piano and showed me. He said, “Now, this note is right.” Then he played the chord and showed me. He said, “You play this note. It’s right. But that’s not the note I want.” They were using a lot of substitutions. So I would be playing a D, but he would want me to play a B. I didn’t hear that at first, and then after he showed me I started finding out.
A few words about your relationship with and impressions of Charlie Parker.
Charlie Parker was unique. I don’t have to tell anybody in their right mind how well this man played his instrument. But what you don’t realize is, he’s the only guy I ever heard who could cover <b>everything</b>. If you wanted to play “Cherokee” as fast as you could play it, he would eat it alive. If you wanted to play some swing, like “Now’s The Time” or something like that, he would kill that. If you wanted to play a ballad like Bird with Strings, he would eat that up. And then, he was the best blues player you ever heard! He just covered everything. There was nothing he couldn’t do.When you ask me for a few words about Charlie Parker, in a capsule that’s covering it pretty well.
Did he always play fairly short solos? Was the way he plays on records or the various broadcasts with four or five choruses the rule, or did he extend…
He stretched out a few times. But I’ll never forget what he told me. One night somewhere we were playing, and after one of the sets I walked up to him and I said, “Bird, it feels so good when you play, why don’t you play more?” And he looked at me and he said, “Raymond, if I played any more, I’d be practicing. I do my practicing at home.”
A few words about Dizzy Gillespie.
Wow, that’s difficult. I don’t know where to begin. He was responsible for a lot of things that happened to me. And he taught me a lot of things. This is something that we as musicians don’t talk a lot about to people, but we learn many things from our mentors or people who we work for or who we admire or who are in front of us. You don’t even realize how much you’ve learned from them. You carry it with you all your life, and then you pass it along. I just learned a tremendous amount of things from Dizzy Gillespie. Needless to say, he was a magnificent trumpet player, and he was a prolific songwriter, and he was a prolific arranger. But I just keep going back to his knowledge of music. Because in that band, which was a fantastic band that I just talked about… In fact, they picked up Milt Jackson a couple of weeks later. Dizzy organized all the music. He laid all the music down. What can I say? It’s history!
Were you in there at the very beginning of the big band?
He had a big band before, but it didn’t go, and he had to give it up. I joined him when he had given up the big band and was getting ready to start another small band. That’s when I showed up. Then when we came back from California, he told Milt Jackson and I, “Listen, I’m thinking of getting another big band, and if you guys want to stay with me, you let me know.” So we both said, “Absolutely!” Then we opened up on 52nd Street.
What were the early rehearsals like? Is it true that Monk was involved…
Monk was the piano player in that big band before John Lewis.
Was that a similar experience to hearing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 1944 on coming to New York? Did it sound like anything you’d ever heard?
No, not like any big band I’d ever heard. Very exciting. The music, the writing, the approach was all different. The harmonies. The only guy who experimented with harmonies to that extent was Duke Ellington, and he was always ahead of his time.
How did your first and still famous features for the band come to be?
Well, most leaders look at a band and they see who they have there to exploit, who has some talent that they can feature. When he looked at this band, I guess it was Jackson and I, and James Moody who enjoyed a lot of the solo space along with Dizzy. Other guys got solos, but we got a lot of space.
It was a great opportunity to really develop your conception in a variety of ways.
Yeah, but all these things are designated by the leader. It’s like Jimmy Blanton joins Duke Ellington, and six months later he’s standing in front of the band playing solos all night. So Duke Ellington saw something and he was right. He was absolutely right! Here’s a guy who had under his thumb at any given time, Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster and Harry Carney and Ray Nance and Cootie Williams—all those guys! But this was a diamond he had just discovered, and he did something with it.
In talking about Blanton before you were mentioning the difficulties bassists had in big bands because of the lack of amplification. Now, you had to play very fast with Dizzy Gillespie. Did you have amplification by that time? How did you deal with…
Well, I didn’t play fast solos. We were just playing fast tempos.
CHRISTIAN McBRIDE: “Things To Come”! [LAUGHS]
When I was talking about playing fast I was talking about the way Christian McBride plays now. 20-30-40 years ago you wouldn’t have heard all those notes he’s playing. Now you can hear every one of them.
But then, from what I gather, people heard you pretty clearly, and those are some tempos that haven’t been caught up with yet!
We’re not discussing tempos, now. We’re discussing solo lines. That’s a big difference. Nobody dared play anything that fast because you couldn’t hear it. Oscar Pettiford played some magnificent solos, and you didn’t really get to hear him until he joined Duke Ellington.
I’d like to talk you about Coleman Hawkins and your impressions of him. I read a story that you and Hank Jones were trying to work out ways to trick him…
…on “Body and Soul” or something, and he just threw them right back at you.
That’s what I was talking about with all of the great saxophone players, how they differed. For instance, let’s take Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. We were on Jazz at the Philharmonic, and Coleman Hawkins was playing “Body and Soul,” which he had to play whenever he took his saxophone out. Hank Jones and I rehearsed in the daytime, we devised about 15 different sets of changes on “Body and Soul.” And it didn’t make any difference. Whatever we played, he just ate it up! He just turned around, looked at us and said, “Hmm, THBBF,” and would go right through it. We just broke up. But it was good. This guy had a magnificent ear! On the other hand, Lester Young, you could play what you want back there. Doesn’t matter. He’s playing little stories. He makes up melodies of his own, so he’s not interested in the changes. He didn’t miss the change, but then he had his own interpretation of how to do it.
McBRIDE: What about that story you told me about Ben Webster, when you were doing one of those Jazz at the Philharmonics. That one wasn’t as smooth, huh?
Well, but that’s how you learn, though. That’s why I can play songs in all the keys now. He’s kind of responsible for that. They had a ballad medley on Jazz at the Philharmonic, and each guy would walk up… They had ten horns. Each guy would walk up two bars before the other guy finished and tell the rhythm section what he was going to play in what key. So Coleman Hawkins would say, “‘Body and Soul’ in D-flat,” then he’d go out and play. Roy Eldridge would come by and say, “‘The Man I Love,’ E-flat.” It was just like that. Until you get to Ben Webster, and Webster would come up and say, “‘My One And Only Love,’ B-natural.” And we’d be back there scrambling for those changes! So after the show was over, I would be in the back, packing up my bass, and somebody walked up behind me and hit me on my head. I turned around and it was Ben Webster. He said, “You messed up the chords tonight.” I said, “Man, you were playing in B-natural.” He said, “Don’t you have a B on that bass?” Enough said. Christian likes that story!
McBRIDE: I’m sure we’ve all been through that a couple of times!
But it’s good for somebody to bring that to your attention. All it does is, it improves you as a musician.
All those saxophonists had very different sounds and different approaches to projecting sound. Ben Webster, for instance.
Oh yeah. That may be the best saxophone sound I ever heard in my life, just the sound he made coming out of that horn.
You once described it, I think, as he and Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges had the most mature sounds that you had heard.
Well, Charlie Parker used to call Johnny Hodges the Lily Pons of the saxophone. Now, Lily Pons was a famous opera singer; what a beautiful voice. That’s what Bird called Rabbit, the Lily Pons of the saxophone.
Staying on various personalities, Hank Jones was obviously very important to you at that time.
We call him “Mr. Piano.” There’s just not a lot of people around who are that prolific on that instrument as he is. He plays everything well. I mean, he’s sort of like I said about Charlie Parker; this guy just does it all. Magnificent player. Wouldn’t you say so, Christian?
McBRIDE: Oh, definitely. I’d like to ask Ray about the short movie clip of Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, Jivin’ in Bebop? You were saying how Duke used to put Jimmy Blanton in front of the band, and Dizzy does that to you on the video where you guys play “One Bass Hit.”
Oh yeah. Well, they didn’t have to put me up front, but I guess if you’re featured on a tune, doing this movie the tendency was to bring the soloist up front. It was unusual for the time, but they did it even with a bass player.
McBRIDE: Every note you played came through crystal-clear.
Such as it was.
I’d like to talk to you about some of the drummers you’ve played with, since bass and drums are so interlocked. First of all, Kenny Clarke, a fellow Pittsburgher.
That’s right. I didn’t name him, but I left out a lot of people. Kenny Clarke was a special drummer. I never will forget, I would come to work on 52nd Street… Because he was in that first rhythm section, Monk, myself and Kenny Clarke. He said, “Now, I want you to stand behind the bass drum, because I want your bass notes to go through the bass drum so it doesn’t come out BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. It will sound almost like a bass coming out of there. And he would come down early and have a damp cloth and wipe down his bass drum and tune it, and then tell me exactly where he wanted me to stand, because he said that makes the rhythm section sound better. Most guys aren’t that meticulous about music. He was special. And he could swing. That’s another thing about those Pittsburgh drummers. Art Blakey, PSHEW! Boy, those guys had some beat. They had a beat, man.
<But we were talking about Hank Jones. We did a session, and I challenged him on this… I said, “Do you ever remember a song that Fats Waller used to sing called ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’?” He said, “Hell, yeah, I knew that tune. I grew up with that.” I said, “Well, let’s play it.” And we played it on this record date. So this is just for Hank Jones. I hope he’s listening, because he’ll fall out.
[MUSIC: RB/HJ, “Your Feet’s Too Big” (1976); RB/HJ/Bags, “Nancy” (1964); OP/RB/Ella, “Street of Dreams”]
That was Ray Brown’s selection of music with your first wife, Ella Fitzgerald.
Well, there’s been so much since she passed away. They’ve done so much. I’ve heard it on the radios everywhere we’ve gone, Europe and the United States. We’ve just lost one of the best ones. A magnificent woman and a magnificent singer. One of the best who ever did it. I have great memories just for the fact that… The first trumpet player, and one of the best of all time, Mr. Louis Armstrong, he and Ella did a lot of stuff together, and I was fortunate to be on a lot of that stuff. But I’ve been overly blessed to play with all the way back to Louis Armstrong and all the way up to guys like Christian McBride now. And I’m just elated to still be able to go up on the bandstand and play. It’s a great feeling! And to have gone through all of those people I’ve played with. All of those saxophone players, Prez and Hawk and Ben and Sonny Rollins, Johnny Hodges and Bird and Cannonball. Sweets and Roy and Fats and Dizzy…Clark Terry. I can’t name everybody. All the piano players I’ve played with, all the guitar players, and all the drummers. Just I’ve worked with almost everybody in this business, and that’s a blessing. can’t describe it. It’s just too overwhelming.
Just a few words on how This One’s For Blanton came to be.
Well, I made maybe half-a-dozen sessions with Ellington, whom I had always wanted to play with ever since I was knee-high to a duck. But Norman Granz said to me, “You and Duke ought to do some things like he and Blanton did.” I said, “Oh, I don’t know about that!” But I said, “Well, let’s talk about it.” He tried for years to get us together. We were just in different places all the time. Duke was busy and he was someplace, and I was busy someplace. Of course, this was the last record he made before he passed, and I was fortunate enough to get in the studio with him. The second session we did, he was pretty sick. He had a fever. But he came in and played magnificently.
REMARKS ABOUT RAY BROWN:
TP: Talk about Ray Brown’s legacy in the music, in a synoptic way.
CHRISTIAN McBRIDE: If I can make this as simple and poignant as possible, I would have to say that Ray Brown was to the bass what Charlie Parker was to the saxophone. He revolutionized the instrument. He took what Jimmy Blanton started to an entirely new level.
Ray Brown was arguably the very first bass player to revolutionize note lengths. Most bass players before Ray Brown played very short, choppy notes, and Ray Brown revolutionized the sound of the bass in that his notes were very long. Every note got its full value. A quarter note was actually a quarter note. A half note was actually a half note. A whole note was actually a whole note. How Ray Brown came across playing that way during a time when nobody did, it will always be beyond me, but I guess being in the company of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, and the man who I’m with now, Roy Haynes, I’m sure greatness and innovative ideas would run rampant.
TP: When did he build his technique? Did you ever get that from him?
McBRIDE: Well, he always had that technique. But I never really got a chance to talk much to him about any of his teachers or his early studies. But Ray always talked about Jimmy Blanton. That was his main man. That’s what made him want to play bass. And it’s quite amazing that Ray Brown… When Jimmy Blanton hit the scene, that was really only seven years before Ray Brown hit the scene. So there really wasn’t that large of a gap in age difference between the two of them. That just proves how much of a sponge Ray was, to be able to pick up what Jimmy Blanton did. And not to slight all the other bass players who were around then, like Milt Hinton, of course, or his fellow beboppers, like Al McKibbon and Nelson Boyd and Tommy Potter and Curley Russell. But Ray, in most people’s eyes, was head and shoulders above the rest.
And his intonation was impeccable. That was another one of his calling cards throughout his entire career. Every note was always perfectly in tune.
TP: I guess there was a hand-in-glove type of thing going on between he and Oscar Pettiford.
McBRIDE: Absolutely. Ray talked a lot about Oscar, too. But even talking to a lot of guys who were there, like Roy Haynes or Hank Jones… Needless to say, Oscar Pettiford was a revolutionary in his own right, not just bass playing, but playing the cello and being able to play all those wonderfully melodic lines that Charlie Parker and Dizzy were playing, and incorporate that into the bass. But his sound, the way he played his notes, still came from an older style. Oscar Pettiford’s notes were still kind of on the short side, and Ray Brown elongated them. The bass had much more of a forward motion with the notes ringing out that much. They almost ran into each other, his notes were so resonant.
TP: How did his sound evolve over the years? This is someone, it seems quite evident, who kept his curiosity, and particularly in the last ten years nurtured young musicians.
McBRIDE: I think the fact that Ray Brown never stopped playing… I mean, even after he left Oscar Peterson’s company and moved to Los Angeles in the ’60s and started working on a lot of television and film, the “Merv Griffin Show” and whatnot, he never got away from the groove and the swing. He played that style every day all of his life, and of course, when you do something like that every day, you can only get better and develop. He never lost focus of his strength. All during the time when people would think that being in Los Angeles and working on film scores and doing a lot of things that weren’t very jazz friendly, he might lose his chops. But he never did. I think the fact that he was able to stay so active during his time in L.A., when he really wasn’t traveling a lot, going on the road with other bands… When he decided to start a trio again and go back on the road, people realized, “Oh my gosh, he sounds better than ever.”
TP: I’m looking my file of the interview, and he told the story that in junior high school he signed up for orchestra, and there were 28 piano players and 2 bass players, and there was a bass lying on the floor, so he asked the teacher if he could play it, and the teacher said he could. He said he just figured it out himself without a teacher.
McBRIDE: I totally believe it. I never heard him mention having a private teacher. That’s testament to the man’s genius.
TP: Talk about your personal relationship. Of all the young musicians, you and John Clayton might have been the closest to him.
McBRIDE: I can only say that a lot of musicians tend to call older guys “Dad” in a very loose manner. But Ray Brown was not only a father figure to me, but I know he was to John as well as Benny Green and Diana Krall, or even people like Dee Dee Bridgewater.
One thing I loved about Ray more than anything else was that he took a very simplistic view toward life. Ray was not into over-conceptualizing. He was always able to get right to the crux of the matter without doing a lot of dancing around any type of subject. That’s the way he approached his music. You watch a lot of musicians, and sometimes we have a tendency to do that, to over-think, to always want to try to get to that next level by thinking it out and a lot of trial-and-error. Meanwhile, Ray had this ability to see it and go for it. I’ll give you a perfect example. Ray and I were talking about playing with the bow one time, and of course, traditionally there’s a way you hold the French bow and a way you hold the German bow. I was talking to Ray about that one time, and Ray said, “I don’t see what the big deal is; it’s nothing but hair.” He said, “If you hold it with your fist, you’re still going to do an up bow and a down bow, and it’s still going to sound okay.” I said, “wow, I’ve never heard anybody quite put it like that, Ray.”
TP: He wasn’t joking, though.
McBRIDE: He wasn’t joking. He was dead-serious.
TP: So it was a totally pragmatic thing for him.
McBRIDE: Totally. And he lived his life like that. He was always able to get right to the crux of the matter, and not being evil or being indignant; that’s just how he felt. He was able to get right to the core of the matter.
TP: He was a very standup guy also, I gather. Someone you didn’t want to cross in any manner.
McBRIDE: Absolutely not. He was a very astute businessman, too. He had that jazz club in L.A. for a long time, the Loa, and of course, he managed the MJQ for a while, and he also managed Quincy Jones for a while, when Quincy was really starting to heat up in Los Angeles, writing for Sanford and Son and Ironside and all those shows. So this man had it together on both sides of the fence.
TP: Would you describe for the 8-millionth time how you met?
McBRIDE: I met Ray Brown at the Knickerbocker. He was in town playing at the Blue Note with his trio, which at the time was Gene Harris and Jeff Hamilton. Mary Ann Topper, who was manager to Benny Green and I at the time… I was playing in Benny’s trio at the time. Mary Ann said, “Listen, Ray has got to hear you guys. There’s no way in the world he wouldn’t dig you guys.” So Benny and I were playing at the Knickerbocker, and Mary Ann got Ray to come over. Needless to say, Benny Green and I were scared out of our wits. I think a lot of times… I know some guys are different, but a lot of musicians, the last thing they want to do if they’ve been playing all night is go hear somebody else play. They just kind of want to chill out, have a drink, and be cool and just vibe with the cats. So Ray comes over, and we could tell he was tired, but he sat down and listened to us, and gave us some really nice words of wisdom, not anything too over the top, but he said, “You guys sound great; keep it up; you guys have really got it together; come see me play tomorrow night.” So Benny and I went and saw Ray; it was his last night, a Sunday night. Much to our surprise, he acknowledged us from the stage. He said, “Last night I went to this club around the corner, the Knickerbocker, and I heard these two young men, and they were swingin’ like dawgs.” I’ll never forget, those were his exact words, “swingin’ like dawgs.” He asked us to stand up in the audience. And about eight months later, Benny became Ray’s pianist, took Gene Harris’ place, and about four months after that, almost a year after we met, he started the new version of Super-Bass with John Clayton and myself.
TP: What was it like playing with him?
McBRIDE: All I can say is, I always wanted to know what a drummer felt like, playing with a really, really great bass player. I always used to hear Billy Higgins say that when he played with Sam Jones, the drums played themselves. He was like, “I don’t have to do anything; I can just put my stick right up on the cymbal, and it sounds good, because Sam is just laying it down.” When I got to stand next to Ray Brown and hear him walk…I mean, feel him walk… I mean, physically the stage moved. “Man, I’ve never felt perpetual motion like this!” I was supposed to solo on top while he was walking, but I just couldn’t do it, because I was so amazed at the energy and force his bass lines created. I was stuck for a minute.
TP: What do you think Ray Brown’s legacy is going to be in the music?
McBRIDE: That he was able to make the most simple musical statements with such ease… Like I said before, his music was like his whole outlook on life. It was very direct and to the point, and it felt really good ,and I don’t think there will ever be another bass player that will be able to physically move a band quite like Ray Brown did.
TP: Why is that?
McBRIDE: I don’t know. To kind of follow on Ray’s simplistic viewpoint, I really believe there are some guys who are just born with it and some guys who aren’t.
TP: Are you talking about a specific quality or his essence?
McBRIDE: I’m talking about a specific quality. Because you would think that, the way Ray Brown plays, there would be a lot of other guys who would kind of… Because it’s a very simple style to figure out. But nobody has really quite done it like Ray Brown. You listen to somebody like Miles Davis. Miles Davis has a very singular style that’s very easy to figure out, and you can analyze it for days and years and decades, but nobody will ever be able to quite do it like that. It’s the same thing with Ray Brown.
GEOFFREY KEEZER: You’re never prepared for something like this, since he wasn’t ill, really. It kind of took us all by surprise.
TP: He had a sort of indestructible vibe to him, didn’t he.
KEEZER: That’s a good way of putting it. I think it was the quality of his generation. Art Blakey was like that, too.
One thing that I could say that seems to be consistent from that era, whether it be Art Blakey or Ray Brown or Roy Haynes or Art Taylor or…not so much Hank Jones… Generally, they really hit hard! Every single time they play, it’s as if it could be the last time they ever play music. I always felt that these musicians always gave 150% every single time. That’s a quality which I think doesn’t always migrate to younger players. I think there’s something in the way these older people lived, there’s something that they survived early in their life that gave them this kind of warrior quality. I think things are just generally easier. It’s easier to live now. We’re not dealing with the same things that they were dealing with. We don’t have segregation, among other things…
TP: Not so many gangsters now either.
KEEZER: Yeah. I remember one conversation, I don’t remember where, but I was in a dressing room with three generations of bass players. It was Milt Hinton, Ray and Christian McBride. The conversation went something like this. McBride was complaining about the hotel or something that we were staying in, and then Ray said something to the effect that when he was young they stayed in real fleabag hotels, with bugs in the bed, just really bad conditions. Then Milt Hinton jumped in and said, “Yeah, at least you had a hotel. When we were young, we stayed in a hole!”
TP: They’d go to town and black families would board them because there was no hotel.
KEEZER: Yeah. Not having lived it myself, I can only speculate. But I think perhaps life was harder, and I think the music took on this sort of warrior quality. From being with Ray for three years, besides all the musical things I got, I also was able to observe him on a daily basis, just how he handled the business side of things. In contrast to someone like Art Blakey, who was a little bit more chaotic, Ray was really meticulous about business. He would be up at 6 o’clock every morning on the phone; he would call Europe early in the morning; then he would go play golf; then he would be on the phone more in the afternoon. He never had an agent or a manager; he always did everything himself.
TP: Well, he was a manager himself. He managed Quincy Jones and the MJQ, plus he functioned as a contractor for the studios. And did that carry over to the way he organized the band, his approach to setting up sets or repertoire?
KEEZER: There was definitely a quality of attention that he brought to whatever he did. In terms of what he did on stage, Ray was aware of the show-biz side of things, and he was definitely an entertainer as well as a great artist. I think actually some young musicians take the whole thing way too seriously! Of course, you have to take your practice seriously and take the music seriously, but I’ve always felt that it’s also entertainment, and he really understood that side of it.
TP: I think that might be another characteristic of the generation. They played shows. They’d go on a show, and there’d be a dance act, a chorus line, some comedians.
KEEZER: So he was always sensitive to the kind of audience we were playing for, and he would adjust accordingly. If we were playing for an older, gray-haired kind of crowd, he would usually play more kinds of old standards, favorites, swing-oriented things, and if we were playing for a younger crowd he would throw in more Funk. Especially in my last year in the band, we had a lot of guest stars. We would have guest vocalists, somebody like Marlena Shaw or Diana Krall or Kevin Mahogany, or sometimes Stanley Turrentine would play with us. So he was aware of the value of presenting interesting packages.
TP: That’s evident on the “Some of My Best Friends” series.
KEEZER: He was just as adept as a businessman as he was as a musician. Which I think is a good quality to have. And for him, I think it was in balance. For some musicians, they’re all about business, and the playing suffers. The reverse is also true.
TP: Let’s talk about him as a bassist. Talk about the quality of playing with him on a nightly basis, how he played and created basslines under you. The dynamics of operating in a high-level trio with Ray Brown.
KEEZER: I’m so glad that I had a chance to tell him this the last time I saw him, which was at Catalina’s in L.A. about a month ago. With some distance and really being able to hear his trio from the audience as opposed to being in the middle of it, because sometimes when you’re in the middle of it, it’s harder to hear everything that’s going on, because you’re so sort of involved in what you’re doing at the moment… But hearing his new trio and how much Larry Fuller had improved in the couple of years he was with Ray… He went from being a good pianist when he started to being a really exceptional pianist. I had a chance to tell Ray how much I appreciated playing with him every night for three years, and how I thought it was really the best thing I ever did for my piano playing.
TP: Why was that?
KEEZER: Number one, just because we’re playing every night. Number two, because what Ray brought was such a wonderful kind of support. For me, Ray embodied every quality that I like in a bass player. He did everything really perfectly, and he did all the things that you can’t really say to a bass player, but all the things that you just wish they would do! It’s almost like with another bassist, you want to say, “Why can’t you do what Ray does?” but you don’t want to say that. I’m trying to think if I can explain a little bit more clearly.
First of all, his beat was so huge, and he swung really, really hard. Also harmonically speaking, he was so completely aware in every moment of what I was doing, and I felt that he was truly accompanying me. Even though he was the leader and it was his band, I felt like I had complete freedom to go whatever direction I wanted. If you heard some of the records we made, you know I took it further out than any other pianist. I only remember one time when he sort of said something about what I was playing. I started playing the Darth Vader theme in the middle of something, and he leaned over and said, “Jazz, please!” But other than that, I got to do as much as I possibly could, and he was right there with me.
TP: [READS RAY’S QUOTE ON KEEZER]
KEEZER: What I appreciated is that he let it happen. There’s another thing about his bass playing which I always talk about in workshops. That’s his understanding of how to play a walking bassline. Very few people really understand this. What he was doing at all times was playing melodies. And a lot of younger bass players play four notes to the bar, and the notes they choose usually relate to the chords in some way, but the actual notes don’t connect up to any kind of melody. And with Ray, if you isolated just the bassline and superimposed it over the chords, let’s say in a higher register, you’d have a beautiful melody all the time. This is similar to what Bach does. But what that means is that not only was he aware of the chords and being a rhythmic instrument, but he was also creating these melodies all the time underneath everything that I was doing — contrapuntal, in a way. It’s really an advanced level of bass playing. There’s only a couple of guys I can think of off the top of my head who can do that — Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Ray Drummond, and a handful of younger players. It’s a very subtle aspect of playing bass, which hasn’t really migrated well to the younger generation.TP: Can you talk about how your relationship began and evolved?
JOHN CLAYTON: When I was 16 years old, I was getting serious about the bass, and started my first Classical lessons. Also around that time, I heard my first Ray Brown record, with the Oscar Peterson Trio, and my mind was blown. So I mentioned the name to my Classical teacher, and asked, “Have you ever heard of him?” He said, “Sure, I know him; he’s a friend of mine.” My eyes got wide. Then he took out a letter from Ray Brown that said, “Dear Mr. Segal, would you please tell your students about a class I’ll be teaching at UCLA called ‘Workshop in Jazz Bass’?” That was my last Classical lesson with that guy. I paid $65, and I enrolled in the extension course at UCLA.
TP: What was Ray Brown like as a teacher?
CLAYTON: Phenomenal, because he knew the importance of correctly learning the instrument. In the beginning, Ray Brown was self-taught, as are most of us. But then at some point, Ray Brown, while on the road with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson and those kinds of people, started to hook up with principal bass players in major orchestras, and he had lessons in between his gigs on the road.
TP: So he set up a network of teachers for himself, taking advantage of his travels?
CLAYTON: Yes. And he did that really, frankly, in terms of studying and practicing…he did that until he died. He practiced. Ray used to tell me, “A lot of people say, ‘Boy, you’re just so talented and so good,” and he’d say… He’d usually use an expletive and say, “They don’t understand I PRACTICED to get together what I have together. I’m not as talented as most people think. I had to WORK on it.” That was very enlightening.
The course at UCLA then led to me following him around to gigs and studio sessions and all of that sort of thing, basically doing whatever he told me to do.
TP: Once getting past fundamentals, did he teach principles of improvising or playing basslines in a functional situation, that sort of thing?
CLAYTON: He only led me to other people, not himself; how other people would do it. He never talked about, “Try this scale on this chord” or that sort of thing. He never had that approach. Instead he would say, “Check out what Oscar Pettiford did on this record or what Israel Crosby did with this bassline from Ahmad Jamal.” He’s the guy who turned me on to Eddie Davis, Richard Davis and Scott LaFaro.
TP: It seems he kept his ears open to everything happening in the music.
CLAYTON: As long as you were serious about the music and you were doing something that had something, Ray… People forget that Ray Brown played music that people thought came from outer space — Bebop. And when bebop hit, there were more people who could not relate to it — I mean, jazz lovers who could not relate to it — than people who could. So it was a very inside music. That hasn’t changed. That was a part of Ray Brown that was in him all the time. If anyone ever does a thesis on Ray Brown and his music, they’ll see that he continued to search and stretch and experiment. His later arrangements involved a lot more unpredictable chord voicings and chord changes and melodic movement than things he did five and ten years ago.
TP: As a friend and someone who deeply analyzed his playing, what were the essential elements that made Ray Brown be Ray Brown?
CLAYTON: Sound. His bass sound was absolutely separate and distinguishable from every other bass player on earth. Sound, his bass lines and his melodic bass solos. And of course, oops, his drive. Those things to me really set him apart from everybody else.
TP: As you’ve implied, he befriended musicians from many walks of the music and many different generations. But it seems like after the band with Gene Harris and Jeff Hamilton broke up, he made a real choice to go with younger musicians and use them in his touring bands. Maybe that was in part a practical decision, but what’s your take on why he did that?
CLAYTON: Because he wanted to keep the youth in his music. The only practical part of it might be that some of the older musicians that he would ask were busy with their own groups. But also, like you pointed out earlier, he had his ear to the ground, so he was really digging what a lot of these younger musicians were doing. So it sort of also evolved on its own. It goes from Benny Green joining the group, and when Jeff Hamilton finally leaves, then Benny can recommend another one of his friends that plays swinging drums, and next thing you know, you’ve got Greg Hutchinson. All of those guys helped keep Ray up on what was happening in the younger jazz world.
TP: So they stimulated him. He needed that constant stimulation.
CLAYTON: Well, they did stimulate him. I think all artists need that.
TP: It sounds like he got some of that as well from Super Bass.
CLAYTON: That was sure stimulating for me. Ray and I had actually done a Super Bass record together before he put the group together with Christian. It’s on Capri Records. That, of course, kind of set the idea going in our heads. And when Christian McBride came along, then at some point Ray asked what I thought about putting together a Super Bass group with Christian. I said, “Are you kidding? When can we start?” Of course, we all got along so well together, it really became a family trio.
TP: Were there any particular stories or incidents that you can think of that get to his essence?
CLAYTON: There’s one which I told at his funeral, in my eulogy, which really sums up Ray Brown from my perspective. This is in regard to his concern for musicians. When I was following him around to the studios, I got star eyes. I just loved what he did in studios, and was enamored by this whole life of the studio musician, working with all these stars, and I’d see his name stencilled on his equipment, and it all looked so impressive. So I asked him if he could help me become a studio musician when I got out of college, and he hit the ceiling! He cursed and screamed, and told me I didn’t even know how to play the effing bass, and the first thing I needed to do was learn how to play it from top to bottom, and then get on the road and play some music, and then if I want to come back and play this garbage in the studios, it will be here waiting for me. He and I laughed about that a lot in later years, because he was really pissed at the idea that I might get sucked into something that was not helping me to develop as a musician.
TP: He was also a very practical man, wasn’t he? A good businessman, a manager, an entrepreneur.
CLAYTON: I know that for the last twenty years of his life, he did not have a manager. He handled all of his business, he booked all of his concerts; if it was Carnegie Hall or a funky dive someplace, he booked it.
TP: And he handled all the details.
CLAYTON: He did.
TP: I gather his routine was to get up at 6-6:30 every morning, do business, play golf, come back, do more business, practice, take his nap, and if there was a gig, go to the gig.
CLAYTON: That pretty much was it.
TP: A very disciplined man, then.
CLAYTON: He was. It wasn’t always 6, but it was early in the morning. You’re right.
TP: When did you first hear him, and what impact did it make on you when you did hear him?
RON CARTER: The first time I saw him was with the Oscar Peterson Trio with Herb Ellis at the Village Vanguard, right I came to New York in August 1959. Oscar brought his piano in, of course, and that was quite impressive to know a guy could get a gig and bring his own piano. Up to that point, I hadn’t known piano players to have the command to do that.
What I hope his legacy is, Ted, is that bass players remember that the bass player also plays time. I think most of us kind of got away from that part of the process of playing bass with a group. One of his legacies to the bass community is how great his time was and how he always commanded attention by the way he played great time.
But what impressed me at the Vanguard, THEN, was his professional approach to the instrument. I’d seen Wyatt Ruether, Bull Ruether, one of the early bass players who was with Chico Hamilton when I joined the band. He played the bass without a lot of skill level, and while he had the interest, it just didn’t seem to have the command of the instrument that Ray had. Later on, I saw George Duvivier play in New York with Lena Horne and Chico Hamilton, and again, I was impressed by their professional approach to the instrument. I mean, they were playing it like a bass, not like a baseball bat. They used a different combination of notes and great intonation. Those things impressed me with Ray when I first heard him.
TP: Did you become friends with him?
CARTER: Much later. I’m fortunate to say that I saw him when he was last in New York at Birdland with the flute-led quartet. He and I and Sandy Jackson had a great talk. I hadn’t seen him for a while. The last time I’d seen him was at the Blue Note, and he was just thinking about undergoing some knee surgery or hip surgery. He looked in great shape. We had a nice conversation.
TP: But did you ever at any point analyze his playing, or wasn’t it like that.
CARTER: No. When you kind of have your own track in your head, the most you can do is just appreciate people who have found their own track. He was clearly out of the Jimmy Blanton school, but he had his own sense of where to play the time. There was no question he thought that the time belonged right here. He wasn’t afraid to play where he thought the beat was, and he would play it until everyone agreed with it. He just kind of towered over the rhythm section.
TP: And it seemed he got stronger and stronger up to the end of his life.
CARTER: Yeah. I was as stunned as anyone else to know that he passed away, whatever the circumstances, because he seemed so vital and he sounded great that night I heard him at Birdland.
One doesn’t know when their last chance to play the bass is going to be. I’ve been telling my students for a very long time that you’ve got to play the bass like this is your last change to get it right. And he always brought that kind of energy to the instrument. He never fooled around, never spun the bass, he never told jokes. He just played the bass like it was his last chance to do it, and he was going to appreciate the Creator’s intent for him and he was going to do it. That’s that whole mindset that’s escaped some of the bass players, I think, who see the bass as a tool for something other than creating a good level of music within a group. That wasn’t his mentality.
TP: So your main point would be that his impact on the way bass players play grooves and play in time.
CARTER: Absolutely. He made it that way. There’s a record, “For Musicians Only” with Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Herb Ellis, Ray and Stan Levey. It’s a fabulous record of how to play time. This was 1956 or something like that. He just nails it in place, man! What a perfect example of how a bass player who wants to really oversee the rhythm section, making things Stan plays… Perfect example, man.
Herb Ellis’ Written Statement and Remarks
“Ray never met a stranger. He was the friendliest and warmest-hearted man I ever knew, always willing to help any musician, giving lessons and tips for playing not just the bass, but he was able to help anyone become a better player.
His sense of humor is almost as well known as his unbelievable talent. That he was one of the greatest bassists and innovative leaders is a given, changing the role of the bass into more than just a rhythm instrument. His love of music, life, friends — and, of course, golf — are legendary.
I feel so blessed that he was my friend for over fifty years, and that I got to play with him for so many years.
He is missed now, and will always be missed for all who knew and loved him, and will always be in our hearts.
TP: Do you recollect when you first met?
HERB ELLIS: I first met Ray in Boston when I was playing with a group called the Soft Winds.
TP: Did that coincide with your hearing him for the first time in person?
ELLIS: Yes, it did.
TP: What was your impression?
ELLIS: I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe his talent. And fortunately, I got to play with him much of my musical life.
TP: In the Oscar Peterson group, within that trio format, do you recall his role in putting together the voicings and arrangements in the group?
ELLIS: I’ll say that he was the very best. You could take the bass notes he gave you and take them anywhere in the world. He was the epitome of bass players.
TP: John Clayton mentioned to me that when he was on the road, either with Oscar Peterson or the JATP, in different cities he would take lessons with symphonic bass players. Do you remember that?
ELLIS: Yes, I do. And Ray was always willing to give lessons, which was …(?)… to work at being a better bass player.
TP: Do you feel that he evolved very much as a musician during his career as he got older?
ELLIS: Yes, he did. He became better and better. He was getting better right up to the very end of his life. He always was trying to be a better bass player. Not that he needed to, but that’s what he strove for.
TP: When did your association with Ray Brown begin?
MONTY ALEXANDER: It began around 1966 or 1967. I saw him on several occasions, and he saw me as a tiny kid who just wanted to get to know him better. He didn’t hear me play music or anything; I just phoned him and started hanging out with him, and he welcomed me into his social life, and he came to New York, and I remember we met, and I took him to a club with mutual friends of ours, and I was talking about Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones, and I took him to see them play at a little bar. I saw the camaraderie between them, and we hung out and had a lot of laughs. Then I took him to see Coleman Hawkins down at the Half Note, and he saw his old friends… So he liked it, and I ended up being in his company.
Then I saw him in Los Angeles a few months later, when he was doing the “Joey Bishop Show,” which became later the “Merv Griffin Show.” I went to say hello, and he invited me to hang out with him again.
But the real association happened one evening when I went to where he was playing. They were on an intermission, and when the time came to play a tune, just to sign off for the night… Because they weren’t really listening to the music; it was a sort of Hollywood club. The pianist had one drink too many (I won’t call his name), and I said, “Can I sit in?” Ray said, “Yeah.” We started playing. And in a few bars, I could hear his joyful sound, and mine too. It was the beginning of knowing Ray Brown in music. We just played some blues. Then I got off the bandstand, and he asked me if I could join him in (?) that summer, just like that. This was 1968.
TP: When was the last time you played with him?
ALEXANDER: We made what probably was his last recording. He and I and Russell Malone have a release coming in October on Telarc. We were all very happy to be together. We had toured Europe last year, then we made this album, just the trio, and had all these dates in October and November, and next year we were going to tour Europe. We were just happy to be together, and everybody loved the band — and we loved the band.
TP: And you played with him with varying degrees of frequency and consistency between 1969 and early this year, then, on various gigs and recordings.
ALEXANDER: With varying degrees of consistency is a great way to put it. Because for a while, there was a lot of activity, and then I just went off doing what I do, and he started touring more and playing with Gene Harris and a trio. He would have a trio. Before that, Herb Ellis and I and Ray played in a group that everybody called The Triple Threat. We made about five CDs for Concord. We were playing and having a good thing.
TP: Over the 34 years of knowing him well, did you hear him evolve as a musician? Did Ray Brown in 1968 sound different than Ray Brown in 2002? I assume the answer would be yes, but I wonder what the quality of his evolution would be.
ALEXANDER: Ray Brown was like Art Tatum. I’ll tell you why. The first time you hear Art Tatum play, it was so incredible… I mean, his first recordings, whatever he did, to many us that heard it, it was as incredible in his latter days as in the beginning. So it was already beyond words. And Ray Brown was that. Ray Brown was a continuous circle of beyond normal. There was nothing on the planet… And I’m not just saying it out of emotion and sentiment. In my opinion, what he stood for, just when he laid that rhythm down, it was like… I used to conjure up terms to try to explain how it was, and it was a Mack Truck with a Rolls-Royce engine. That’s what it was. I mean, that’s just my little parlance.
To me, the last times I played with him, every time from the beginning there was that sense of excitement that I would get, that I’m playing with this guy who is like a royal duke. He’s a king. He’s not a normal level of bass player. He had something in him that was brilliant, just brilliant.
TP: It seems he would play exactly in the right manner for any situation, and always make his personality shine, and yet never make himself outshine the situation.
ALEXANDER: He was the greatest support player, and yet he was so strong with what he did, and you knew it was him. He wasn’t about to be just a nameless character in the background, just doing the pedestrian work. He was definitely so unique, that sound he got just from those fingers on the strings and what he heard. A musician plays what he hears, and Ray heard this thing. It was just a fat, beautiful tone. I think as the years went by, it wasn’t so much an evolution; it was just a matter of, as you age, you don’t want to pull the strings as hard — so maybe he lowered the strings a little on the fingerboard. Maybe. But I couldn’t prove it. I was always astounded.
TP: Why do you think he went to younger bands in the last 10-12 years of his life?
ALEXANDER: Well, the old guys were fading away also. Whether or not he used young guys is not the point. The point is that there weren’t that many older men that he would lock in with that would have the enthusiasm or spirit or the spirit of swinging that he was all about.
TP: So it was because of his own exceptional energy that he wanted someone to match that and sustain it.
ALEXANDER: Exactly. And you have a better shot when you get a young, growing, fine musician who is also so desirous of matching his strength. Which, by the way, was still leaps and bounds in terms of endurance. Because whenever I saw him playing with anybody, it was like they were trying to keep up with him.
TP: As someone who started off as a student and evolved into a peer, what would you say were the greatest lessons he imparted to you that impacted what you do as a musician?
ALEXANDER: Well, I was never a student. When I got on the bandstand with him, I felt like I was right there shoulder to shoulder. That was my attitude in music from the beginning. I was just so stubborn and ignorant! I would say in many ways his mentoring to me was more about life and attitude than how you play. Because he sensed in me from the beginning that I understood why and what he was, and I would play… When I played with him… And I think Benny and Jeff would say the same thing. We didn’t play with him; we played for him. It was like we played together. At least, that’s what I saw and heard.
TP: So his lessons to you were life lessons.
TP: Comportment and sustaining yourself within this big sharkpit.
ALEXANDER: You said it well. It was about fortitude and straight-ahead, and no matter what, don’t stop. It’s like the way he played. In other words, if the stuff is falling apart, keep on rockin’! That’s what he did. You hear that bass, from the first time you heard it, you knew it was this exceptional thing. He told me, “Man, I got tired of playing out behind all them horn players at Jazz at the Philharmonic.” The horn players would take 50 choruses apiece, no matter who they were. Enough was enough. And as he got older, he didn’t want to do that any more.
TP: I’m sure that kind of pretty formulaic for him after a while. But it would seem like no matter how formulaic the situation, he would never sound…
ALEXANDER: The point is, no matter what he had to put up with, if he had to put up with it, it would never sound like there was any kind of backing-up. He never backed up a thing.
To me, whatever note Ray played was like the first and the last note of his life. He played like his life depended on that note.
I can’t get over the fact that man isn’t alive. Because he was larger than life. Most of us couldn’t consider the fact that the day could come he wouldn’t be alive! This is emotional and personal. He was almost like an uncle, a father, a big brother. But he was so larger-than-life that it’s like… He was a survivor, and he… With all the new technology… Ray didn’t have a cell phone. I mean, he finally got one, but he didn’t use it. He didn’t do email, he didn’t do all this stuff. But yet, he was so busy. Larger than life, man.
BENNY GREEN: If it’s all right with you, since you edit things down, I’m going to err on the side of giving you too much information.
The first time I heard Ray in person was 1978. It was also my first time hearing Oscar Peterson in person. The band was a trio of Oscar, Ray Brown and Louis Bellson at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California. It was 15 or 16, and it was the first time as a child, basically, that I had been moved to laugh out loud and cry tears all in one sitting through the music itself, through the depth of emotion that was being conveyed. That was a lot for me as a kid to be feeling, and that was the level that these gentleman were communicating on. I was overwhelmed with this sense of heritage, which also was a big concept for a young person to be able to understand. But that’s again how clearly and powerfully they conveyed their lives through the music. Ray had his bass turned up quite audibly, and you could just feel the vibrations from Ray’s bass throughout the seating area of this amphitheater. It just resonated. He was speaking the truth, his truth, playing the music he had devoted his life to.
TP: So you fell in love with his sound right then.
GREEN: His sound and his feel. His time was like…I know of no better way to describe it than to say it was akin to a heartbeat, something that organically resonates within the listener as a human being. Oscar was playing all that piano, and yet Ray was just at the bottom of everything, holding everything together and directing traffic, and doing so with such consummate grace. It was really apparent to me as a young person that I was witnessing mastery and just the greatness of the music. Now that Ray has passed, I understand more clearly that that beat and sound I felt and heard is, in fact, a direct connection to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and all of the real pillars of the music who he actually played great music with. Not just made casual record dates with, but he was obviously personally involved with these people, the way I can say I was involved with him and Art Blakey. He had countless just geniuses in his life who were very proud to get to play with him. They weren’t doing him any favors. He is the music. He isn’t just someone who plays it well. He is the real thing. Anyway, I was able to feel that as a kid who hadn’t really lived too much, and that’s how effective the music was.
Moving a few years forward: The first time I got to speak with Ray Brown, I’m pretty sure the year was 1984. I was working with Betty Carter. I must have been 20-21. We were playing a festival in Canada — Edmonton, Alberta. We finished our concert that evening with Betty, and I went to another venue at the festival where Ray had the quartet — I suppose it was co-led — with Milt Jackson, Cedar Walton and Mickey Roker. They played this version of “Misty,” and it was so beautiful. Again, it was the same thing I experienced, where Ray’s bass notes were at the bottom of everything, just affirming this sort of truthfulness, this authenticity to the song. He was really portraying the essence of Erroll Garner’s song.
I was so moved that I finally got up the nerve, as shy I was, to actually speak to Ray, and after they finished their set, I went up to this icon, who even physically was like towering over me, I was so small a guy in those days. I mustered up all my courage, introduced myself, and I asked him if it would be all right to put a musical query to him. He said, “Sure.” I asked him, “What were the changes you were playing in the fifth and sixth bar of the bridge of ‘Misty?'” Ray leaned down, got right up in my face, like almost nose to nose (man, I was petrified), and he stared me down and he said, “The right changes.” I said, “Okay, thank you,” and sort of backed away. Thereafter, I would go see Ray in the next few years with Gene Harris and Mickey Roker, but I was terrified to speak to him. He really dropped something on me when he said those three words, because he completely demystified his whole image to me by saying that. It wasn’t like some magical secret that he held. He was saying to me, “If you want to know what changes I’m playing, go pick up one of a hundred albums where I’ve recorded that song, and learn it!” — just like he did with Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford and Slam Stewart. “Just learn the music. It’s there for you.” He gave me that message with those three words. It’s not about trying to read his mind or figure out this mystic, intangible thing. It’s like the information is there on the records.
TP: He himself had started off as a pianist, and was a huge fan of Tatum. Wynton told me that he sent him the Tatum complete solos, and told Wynton to study the harmonic language. Wynton said, “I did.”
GREEN: He knew Tatum and he told me a few stories about Tatum that I can tell you if you have time.
TP: I remember not long after you joined him, we were on the radio, and you made a comment I thought was very telling. You were very much into Gene Harris and the Three Sounds, and your trio with Christian was very much influenced by that. So here you are replacing Gene Harris, and then I think you said it that Ray Brown was hearing you be a little too respectful, maybe, to the Gene Harris sound, and said, “I didn’t hire you to play like that; I hired you to play like yourself.”
GREEN: True. Which is the exact same thing Betty Carter told me about John Hicks. These great bandleaders have some things in common. As well as having their own unique facets, these people are really about the music, and it’s clearer than ever when they pass on and you look at their legacy. You say, “This is what they were devoted to.” Once the smoke clears and you have a little hindsight, you realize they did everything within their powers to perpetuate their music and pass it on to the next generation, and recruit anyone who ever heard them play to become lovers of this African-American art form. That’s what their life was devoted to. And part of that whole legacy is finding that natural, honest balance between embracing the heritage and all your influences and bringing something to the plate that’s your own at the same time. Otherwise, you’re not really contributing to the music.
TP: Perhaps you could tell the story I related back to you in your own words.
GREEN: The thing is, Ray and Oscar Peterson have a musical language, and they’re like brothers. Oscar’s whole approach to the piano is so largely inspired by Art Tatum and Nat Cole and Hank Jones in particular, and he would say the same… In fact, Oscar told me that every time he sits down to play, he endeavors to pay homage to those three, if at all possible. Ray Brown clearly comes out of Jimmy Blanton, Slam Stewart and Oscar Pettiford, and these people are proud to embrace their influence every time they play, and yet, when you hear Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson play, you know it’s Ray Brown and you know it’s Oscar Peterson. Nothing about it feels derivative. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. You hear the influence, and yet they are just clearly their own men. That’s where it’s at. They’re teaching by example when they play.
So in getting back to what Ray stressed to me: The influence from Gene Harris was an honest one. His music felt good to me. That’s why I’d been soaking up those Three Sounds records and attempting to absorb what he was doing with Ray’s trio. That sort of aligned me with the privileged position of actually getting to play with Ray, because I was honestly pursuing this path that Ray was about. Ray had a certain approach to music and to his trio, where pianists like Hank Jones, Oscar Peterson, Monty Alexander and Gene Harris were just part of a language, a palette that he heard when he put together a trio arrangement. These were musical personalities that became part of the fabric of Ray’s trio sound. So it was natural for me to be pursuing this music, which was infectious to me, which felt good to me, and it also put me in a musical position where, when Ray heard me, he understood beyond any words that I was a young person who was eager to be a part of that heritage. I wasn’t listening to Gene Harris so I could cop the gig. I was doing it because I loved the music. Thankfully, that resonated with Ray. So he heard Christian and I play…
TP: The story Christian told me is he was at the Blue Note that week, you guys were at the Knickerbocker, Mary Ann Topper said, “You’ve got to come hear them,” and maybe on the Saturday night he came over and heard you, invited you to the Blue Note the next night, and then called your name from the bandstand.
GREEN: That’s exactly right. Shortly thereafter, Christian and I were playing with a group that opened up for Ray’s trio in Japan. As soon as we finished our set, Ray grabbed me backstage to say, “Would you be available to record?” Obviously, without batting an eye, I said, “I would love to, Mr. Brown.” So he said, “Give me your information, and I’ll be in touch.” So I wrote down my number, and he called shortly thereafter and invited me to fly to L.A. to record a record date with James Morrison, himself and Jeff Hamilton. That was my first opportunity to play with Ray.
The first thing I remember noticing about the feeling, once I connected with Ray musically, was, one, how easy and buoyant he made the music feel. To me that’s always a measure of musical maturity. Because anyone can be difficult to play with. An absolute beginner can be hard to play with. But to really manifest the attitude of “What can I do to make you feel more comfortable; how can I lead you down this garden path?”, that takes not only experience and seasoning, but also just a certain attitude, a certain willingness to help and support. The other thing I noticed was that this man takes a lot of chances when he plays, and he always lands on his feet. He always lands on one, on the perfect note to ground what’s happening in the ensemble. But he wasn’t just playing some sort of stock bassline. He was all over that bass, and filling and doing all sorts of rhythmic and melodic things, and would always land, BAM, right on ground one to support everything else that was going on.
TP: So he was fearless.
GREEN: Oh, most definitely! He really, really went for it. He went for the jugular every time. He played with such passion. There was more than just testosterone behind his confidence. It was the fact that he knew, through this life devoted to music, that the music was his. It wasn’t something he was trying to get towards. He owned the legacy that had been given to him by all his forefathers, and he wasn’t afraid to stand tall and say that “Jimmy Blanton and Slam Stewart and Oscar Pettiford have left us, and I’ll never be quite like they were.” He was like, “Okay, I am the bass now.”
TP: So it was a fresh experience every night, being on the road with him, no matter how similar the repertoire.
GREEN: Oh, in so many ways. When we finished that record date, he told me the trio was going to be going to Australia soon for a lengthy tour, and that Gene Harris wasn’t going to be able to make the first two or three weeks, and asked me if I’d be interested in playing. I said, “Are you kidding? There’s nothing I’d be more grateful to do.” He said, “Okay, what I’d like you to do, then, is pick up some of our CDs, and why don’t you learn about 10 or 12 of our tunes. I’m not even going to tell you which ones to learn. Just learn the ones you’re most comfortable with, and that will give us something to play.” At that point, I wanted to show Ray more than tell him how much I wanted to play with him. I already owned all the CDs, but for the next few months before that tour came up, all I did was woodshed that music, just sleep with it, practice to it… [END OF SIDE]
When we got together to rehearse in Australia for the first gig of that tour, I told Ray that I knew all the tunes in his book, and we could rehearse and play anything he wanted. So he proceeded to call tunes, and I knew them all. He didn’t say a word, but just kept going through tune after tune after tune. He said, “Okay, we can take a break now,” and he stepped outside to get some air. Later on that day, Jeff Hamilton told me that while they had stepped outside, Ray turned to Jeff and said, “I can’t believe he learned all of that music.” But to me, he didn’t say a word. He was just scoping me out.
When we finished that tour, I said to Ray, “Listen, I know that you have a band right now, but if you ever are at a point where there’s going to be personnel changes, I want you to know that I would be so grateful to get a chance to play with you again.” “All right, I’ll be in touch.” And thankfully, he called me a few weeks later from Australia, to say that Gene was going to be leaving the band soon, and asked me if I wanted to join the trio. I was so excited. So I began playing with him in the early spring of ’92.
One of the first things I noticed about Ray as a professional is that he was always punctual. When there was a lobby call, he would always be downstairs, clean, a few minutes before the time we were actually expected to meet. And to be honest with you, at that point I had a habit of being 10 to 15 minutes late all the time, and thought that was okay. I didn’t understand at that time that when you do that, you’re not even being part of the band. You’re just being a single agent. It’s incredibly selfish, and it ultimately does enter the whole vibe on the bandstand when you do that. Eventually, after the few gigs, I noticed that every time I came downstairs, even if I was only 5 minutes late, instead of 10 or 15, Ray was always down there. So one day I said to him, “I see you’re not of the mindset that the bandleader can afford to be the last one downstairs.” He didn’t even look up. He said, “Nope.” I then realized that it was unprofessional and disrespectful for me to be…that the young kid in the band is having Ray Brown waiting on me. So I got it together. I was never late again. And to this day, I have Ray Brown to thank for that. I know that however long it takes me to get ready, if it takes two or three hours, to allow that much time, and not start getting dressed five minutes before the lobby call.
TP: He was an immaculate businessman, wasn’t he.
GREEN: Completely. But the interesting thing is that he told me there was actually a defining moment in his life when he got that all together. There was a time prior to that defining moment when he was more like the old stereotypical image of a musician who didn’t care, who didn’t take responsibility for business. He hadn’t been paying his taxes for a few years. He was with Jazz At The Philharmonic, and they’d been sending him notices, which he just disregarded, and one day they played a concert with Jazz at the Philharmonic somewhere in the Midwest, and the evening after the show, the curtain went down, and the Feds were there to physically haul him off to jail. Norman Granz, as you know, had a lot of money, and he bailed Ray out right then and there on the spot, so they never took him. He just coughed up the cash and had a talk with Ray. He said he was a changed man from that moment forward.
But obviously, the Ray Brown that you and I knew was so incredibly balanced with the left and right brain. He could be so creative and so plugged into the music all the time, constantly honing the band’s arrangements, staying at the very top of his game and continuing to challenge himself as an instrumentalist. No matter what time we were in, he woke up at the crack of dawn, getting on that phone and fax machine, doing business, booking gigs one or two years down the road. That’s very rare for someone… There are obviously musicians who are great businessmen, and oftentimes, on some level, the music suffers. Sometimes the people have so much talent that they’re able to carry it off, and you don t realize what you could be hearing were they totally putting all their eggs in the basket. But with Ray, God, you could never say, as much as a sharp-shooter he was as his own booking agent and manager, that anything ever, ever suffered in the musical arena.
TP: Do you think that part of that constant imperative to develop as an instrumentalist from the high level he had attained was one reason why, in the last decade of his life, starting with you really, he started using young musicians on a regular basis?
GREEN: With Ray and Art Blakey and Betty Carter, something… Art was doing that from early in his career. But in the case of Betty and Art, there was a period where initially the bandleader was more playing with their peers, and then at some point they really got this bug to have like new young blood in the band, and they really found personal gratification in helping the young musicians, and, with whatever surface idiosyncracies people could observe them as having, their pure love for the music clearly showed. They were passing it on, really kicking their young players in the behind, challenging them, making them reach beyond a superficial comfort zone, and really pull the depth of their untapped reserves of talent out of that. In fact, they instilled that kind of fire in their sidemen, hopefully so that these younger players could go out there and perpetuate the music.
TP: But do you think there was reciprocal benefit he garnered from using young talent? He said that using you or Keezer or Larry Fuller forced him to practice so he could play the way he used to.
GREEN: I can’t say for Geoff or Larry, but I can tell you first hand that Russell Malone and I played a private party for Ray in St. Paul a little over a month ago, and, man, he kicked our tails in the most positive way. This guy is 75 years old, and when he gets on the bandstand, the whole level of musicality is so profoundly elevated. You really get this deep sense that you’re on the bandstand with the same lifeline as Duke Ellington. You feel it. It can’t even be put into words. But you can feel it in your body, you can almost taste it…
TP: Oh, I understand that. What I’m saying is, he thought of his trio as the Ray Brown Trio, not Ray Brown Plus Two. So he’s incorporating the musicality and musical personalities of the people he has in his band.
GREEN: Oh, definitely. When I joined the band and was trying to play like Gene, he said, “Okay, for these first few weeks, we’ll continue playing these arrangements that I wrote specifically for Gene, but the more we play, I’m going to scope out what you do and I’ll start writing new arrangement that embrace your sound and feeling so we can help you develop. He took pleasure in that. Obviously, nobody can play something in a slow bluesy groove like Gene Harris. Nobody can do that. And that certainly includes Benny Green. I would try to, but I wasn’t raised in the Black Baptist church, I didn’t have Gene Harris’ life, and I wasn’t physically built like Gene Harris. Ray knew that. It’s almost not honest to try to force yourself to play like someone you love. That love can come through naturally once you accept it’s there and live in the moment as yourself. So Ray was encouraging me to do my own thing, and he started to write arrangements that incorporated more swift tempos, more linear kind of things that he felt were more suited to what he heard as something that was a more natural part of what I inherently did.
TP: It seems he revisited and reinterpreted a lot of areas from his earlier career with you and Geoff, a lot of bebop tunes that I don’t think were too much of the repertoire with Gene Harris.
GREEN: That makes sense. And I’m sure once Keezer joined the band, he probably opened up that much more harmonically because of what Geoff can do. Not to get anything real specific and narrow anyone’s approach down, but he prided himself on doing that.
Once early on in the band, we did a show, and I ended a couple of tunes with an Ahmad Jamal ending that Ray hadn’t written, just the patented two-note ending that Ahmad plays on most of his trio arrangements in the trio with Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier. Ray didn’t say anything on the bandstand. He came to the dressing room afterwards, and he was livid. He said, “That is not my sound, that is not what we do in this band. Don’t play that any more.” And I didn’t. He was very clear about it. At the time, I felt, “Wow, it’s just two notes; why is it such a big deal.” With the passage of time, I came to see it was a very big deal, because he wasn’t just playing the music, however it might come across. He had a very specific language, something I couldn’t possibly understand as someone who wasn’t even born when Ray was already a past master. So I just respected that this man knew what he wanted. Betty Carter and Art Blakey both were the same way. Certain things weren’t appropriate. They didn’t want their approach to the music to just become sort of homogenous. There was a certain sound and feeling, and when we hear it, there’s things they do and things they don’t do that give us a specific feeling as a listener. So it’s very much a language. A younger person, no matter how talented or intelligent or soulful they may be, is not really going to get that in the way that someone who has lived it all their life who is a veteran of the music knows down deep.
TP: You played with Ray Brown what years?
GREEN: From the early spring of ’92 to the fall of ’96, 4-1/2 years.
Two things I’d like to say I think are very pertinent. One (and I’m sure every other musician who worked with Ray will tell you the same thing) is that I never once asked him a question about music that was uncool to ask. I never asked him a question and got a non-verbal communication that it was something he didn’t want to discuss. Every time I asked Ray a musical question, he would sit with me, look me in the eye, and talk for however long it took. Everything else going on would stop. And he wouldn’t stop talking until he felt that I really understood what it was he had to say. It was never about telling me how to play. It was just about being a better musician, and just bringing this feeling, imparting life experience through the music — never about how to play or a style.
The other thing which I’ve really been feeling strongly about Ray since he passed is how much of an ambassador he was, like Louis and Duke and Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, among others. Sometimes we would play venues, concerts or festivals where the bulk of the audience were real jazz aficionados, and they loved the music, they knew who he was, and they appreciated him. But other times, we would play some places where the crowd would be quite stiff, maybe a money crowd, and they weren’t really passionate about jazz. And I can tell you first-hand that any time we played for that latter type of an audience, by the end of the performance he would have made absolute converts for life out of every single person in the house, where they left loving the music, wholly disarmed, coming up to us and talking, showing their emotions, and showing by example, by doing that, that that’s the level we need to aspire to when we bring the music… That we can’t just be satisfied with playing to impress one another, but any time we have an opportunity to play this music for someone who has never heard it before, whatever our individual approach to the music is, we really need to bring something of an emotional substance that any human being can relate to. I interpreted it that this was his ultimate homage to those great masters that he played with. Because we know that Louis Armstrong did that and we know that Duke did that. You couldn’t help but love this music, no matter what you’d heard about it or what you’d been told or what you’d heard that you didn’t like. When you heard them, you knew this was like something really great and about some love and some life.
TP: You played with him just a couple of weeks before he died.
GREEN: Yes. It was perfect. Lord knows, I didn’t know it was going to be our last time. But everything from the time he entered the room was a lesson, and I remember it vividly. First of all, at the soundcheck, he did what he’d always done. He was showing me a tune that I had heard from Nat Cole’s repertoire but never played, “I Just Can’t See For Looking.” He was ready to leave the bandstand before we played and get comfortable, but I still wasn’t quite secure with the melody, and I asked him to stay and help me out, and he did just that. Whatever it was he wanted to do off the bandstand was on hold, and he stayed up there on stage with me, made sure I had it together, and after he was done he said, “Do you have it now?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “All right,” and then he walked off the bandstand. That’s how he always was, no matter how physically fatigued he might have been. Nothing came before the music.
After the gig, he said one of the most beautiful affirmations to me. He said, “Benny, you don’t have to worry about anything; you just keep playing the piano.” That meant so much to me coming from Ray Brown. Then he sat up with me for about two hours. We didn’t leave the venue. He just sat with me and talked about the music, and talked about the great pianists. He was teaching me. I think back on what he was saying and how he tied his conversation about different pianists all together with the message he was trying to give me about me and the piano. Then I left him for a moment again, not knowing this was the last time I was going to see him, and I went to the piano on stage and started to play, and then he walked over to the stage and just stood there and listened to me play, and talked about the songs I was playing. God, as long as there was music going on, he never wanted to go to bed. I’m so thankful that before we said goodnight I gave Ray a big kiss, and I thanked him for charging my battery, and I told him that no matter how much I might not have understood things he’d said to me in the past at the moment he said them, that they were all inside, and that so many gems he’s given me continue to come up as I play music, and that I’m thankful for what he’s given me. That’s how I left him, and I’m so thankful we had that beautiful closure, because no one was ready for this.
It’s a blessing he was taken so peacefully, so mercifully, doing what he loves. We’ll always remember Ray being strong and vital and taking no prisoners. He never faded.
JEFF HAMILTON: I met Ray in 1976 at the Lighthouse in Los Angeles. He was booking Milt Jackson, and had booked Milt with the Monty Alexander Trio, and came into the club to see how we were doing. That’s the first time I met him. I asked him that night if I could meet with him and ask him some advice on what I should do with my career. I was all of 22 years old. He said, “Sure, we can meet — if you buy lunch.” So that was the beginning of our long friendship. Based on what he heard that night, he kept me in mind, and hired me for the L.A. Four when Shelley Manne left.
TP: I haven’t spoken with a drummer yet about the experience of playing with him. Can you talk about the qualities of his playing that made him distinctly and identifiably Ray Brown, from your perspective behind the kit?
HAMILTON: My first awareness of him was listening to him on an Oscar Peterson Trio record with Ed Thigpen, and wanting immediately to pick up a stick and hit a cymbal with that trio, play along with that groove that the three of them had together. And the more that I listened to it, I kept keying in on Ray more and more, and thinking that I really wanted to play with his quartet notes. The older I got, I realized that it was the intensity in his playing, in his beat and his time and his sound, that was so big and full that it just raised the band and urged them to get into that same groove that he was playing, and invite them into his sound. That’s what I felt as a drummer, that I needed to crawl into that big sound of his and match the sound with the intensity of the drums. It also has a big full sound, and the trio would come out sounding like a big band.
TP: That means in some ways you would match the length of his notes through the way you articulate beats?
HAMILTON: Not so much the length. Just the urgency of how important every note is. The first night that I played with him, I thought, “Well, this is a lot more intense than I thought it was going to be from listening to the records.” When I was able to adjust to that and make that happen, then I thought, “Okay, now I can play with Ray Brown.” Then the first time I played with Ray and Oscar, it was that next level of intensity. I thought, “Man, I’ve got to step this up.” Not so much in nervousness or frantically trying to keep up with them. I don’t mean that. I just mean bringing your intensity to the time and to the music, like you’re in a conversation with two other people and they’re really going after it, and you’re kind of sitting there going, “Uh-huh, uh-huh.” It doesn’t work. So you’ve got to jump in and join the conversation with them.
TP: You did many tours with him where you shared a bandstand night after night for a month or six weeks for a good chunk of the year.
HAMILTON: For 18 years!
TP: Was he a very creative player from night to night?
HAMILTON: I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from night to night. First of all, his stamina from night to night was something that I had never witnessed before. I have played with musicians who wanted to be great every night and were trying to do it, and had that in mind. But I’ve never seen anybody like Ray, be able to get on the bandstand and play like it might be his last night. I don’t know where that came from, but it was such an intensity… I keep going back to that word, because that’s Ray Brown. In every walk of his life, he was very intense. And the need to get up there and really stretch out and try to push us was I think maybe instilled by the days with Dizzy, and playing with Bird, and having that need to play some new music and try to push the arrangement into something else. I think that’s evidenced by looking at the evolution of his own trio. When I go hear those arrangements we did with Gene Harris, and they’ve changed with every trio. They’ve gotten a little more modern, and Ray is at the bottom, changing things around.
TP: That raises another question, which is the level to which playing with you or playing with younger musicians like Benny Green or Geoff Keezer affected his conception. Benny described it that when he first went out with the trio (I guess you were the drummer), he was very much influenced by Gene Harris, Ray knew it, and Benny said that the trio would play those arrangements, he’d scope Benny out, and would try to write new arrangements that suited him. You could hear it, because he played more bebop, modernist material. I’m wondering how you evaluate the presence of younger musicians within his orbit having impacted what he did, if at all.
HAMILTON: Well, he was smart. One of the great things I learned from him was how to make everybody in the band sound as good as they possibly can. So he would go to their strong points, and he’d play music that fit everybody in the band. That was his thought with every personnel change, “how can this person’s influence change this musically, and yet we can all still vibrate together.” So he would arrange things. I think that was probably influenced by Duke Ellington’s writing for personnel in his band.
TP: I’d like to get back to the nature of your relationship, personal or musical. He befriended you when you were 22 and he was 50. Benny described him as being an unfailing mentor. Any time he had a musical question, he would be there to answer and would take as long as necessary. Does that jibe with your earlier relationship?
HAMILTON: When Benny came in, he really took Benny under his wing. When I came in, he looked more to me as “you need to be an equal with me,” and I think he kind of classified me in his generation. There isn’t thirty years between us. And I’ve always kind of been old for my age anyway, and I think he picked up on that. I’ve been pretty mature for my age — and musically.
TP: When you were 20, you were playing with Hampton…
HAMILTON: I’d already played with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with Murray McEachern, and with Lionel Hampton, Monty Alexander and Woody Herman.
TP: So you’d had a full complement of experience by the time you joined him.
HAMILTON: Right. I had some touring under my belt. So he knew he wasn’t getting a kid, and that I’d listened to his music and grown up with his music when those records came out. I didn’t have to wait and get them on CD twenty years later. I talked to him about that. I had a different relationship with Ray, and I think he tried to make me an equal because of the L.A. Four situation. He hired me, and everybody was a leader in that group. Shelley Manne had been an equal part of the L.A. Four, and that’s what he needed. They weren’t trying to make a kid grow into the seat; they needed someone who could come in and do it.
TP: Another common thread everyone has mentioned is that he played always as if it was the last time he was ever going to play. They also mention how deftly he was able to balance his creative life with the practicalities of business. It seems he was incredibly disciplined.
HAMILTON: I think that goes back to him being smart, and being in the right situation with Norman Granz in Jazz at the Philharmonic, and seeing how business could be run in jazz, and what jazz musicians deserve, and having somebody go to bat for them to get what they deserve. That was instilled at an early age. I think he kept that pride factor for what he thought his self-worth was, and for other musicians, and that entered into his business techniques. “Well, if you don’t want me for this amount, you must not want me very much.” And they would inevitably call back. Ray said, “No, that was the amount you offered two weeks ago; now the amount is this.” He kind of played hardball with some of these guys just to get his point across, that you can’t just take advantage of a jazz musician and offer him $50 to come and play for you. So I think there was a combination of the pride and the smarts, and being smart enough to learn from those early days with Jazz at the Philharmonic. He always referred to Norman as taking care of the musicians. He once told a story about Norman Granz pulling the entire tour off of an airplane because they wouldn’t them bring his bass on board — and he had bought a ticket for it. So Norman announced that everybody had to get off the plane, if the bass wasn’t going to go on. The plane took off about 15 minutes later. It’s that kind of thinking of, “Listen, this is what I think my self-worth is, and this is the self-confidence I have in myself,” and that came through every part of Ray Brown’s personality, musically and off the bandstand, in doing business.
TP: John Clayton said that he was constantly practicing all the time, right up to the end. Would you practice together? Oscar Peterson describes him and Ed Thigpen sitting in the room rehearsing harmonic and rhythmic patterns so they could be prepared for anything. Did you do that?
HAMILTON: Not so much. Our arrangements weren’t Oscar-like, so that we had to sit down and digest things together. The other thing is that Ray and I really didn’t have to think too much about what we did. It was a pretty natural hookup. So we’d just look at each other. In fact, I was reminded of this on the 75th birthday tour last July, where there was a guest artist, and Ray just turned, gave me a look, and I knew what he meant. We went into this introduction, and the person said, “How do you guys know to do that? Nobody said anything.” But that’s just sort of what Ray and I had together, and we grew into being able to raise an eyebrow and know that meant an “and-a-4” or some kind of beat we’d played before. Or he’d just say a word, and it would trigger something. I think because of that, we didn’t have to rehearse a lot. He would go to Hawaii for a month every January with his wife, Cecilia, and he would write new arrangements for the trio. He was so excited about coming back and starting about three days of rehearsal in February, before we’d go on the road. But that’s about all we rehearsed. It wasn’t really knock-down, drag-out rehearsals. But he did talk about those Oscar Peterson rehearsals. In fact, he and Herb Ellis roomed together, and start playing those arrangements that sounded so tricky!
TP: Oscar Peterson also described that they’d play the London House, and after the room closed at 4:30, they’d stay til 7 working other things out. So they did the other end of the hang, too, I guess. When you met him, he was still in the middle of his period of being extremely busy in the studios. I’m an East Coaster and a bit younger than you, so I’m not sure how much the L.A. Four was working. Did that mark the beginning of his move back out of the studios towards more hardcore performing?
HAMILTON: That was part of it, I think, but that group was more in the studio, actually, with Laurindo Almeida and Bud Shank, and Carl Jefferson of Concord Records, which was pretty new at that time. I think that’s how that group got off the ground. But I think the actual idea happened in a recording session with Laurindo and Bud. That was partially responsible, but I think, too, he’d been working with Milt Jackson at that time, and kept sneaking out of the studio to do these records at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, and still was playing jazz, still was doing tours during all that Merv Griffin stint. I think that after a while, real jazz players really can’t take the studio that much any more, and are looking to get out when they can. That was a period where his not getting out of the studio was one of the things, but it also made him think about, “I’ve got to get my own trio.” So he would do things with Monty Alexander and Gene Harris and Mickey Roker and with Jackson, and so that got him… All those things got him back in the loop.
TP: So it was a gradual process of weaning himself out of what he’d gotten into. Do you have any particular favorite anecdotes that might get to the essence of who he was to you? Someone told me you would have some golfing stories. Was there an analogue between his his approach to golf and his approach to music?
HAMILTON: Again, intensity! [LAUGHS] Intensity on the golf course. He wanted to play really well, and he wanted everyone else to play as well as they could when he was playing with them, so he would offer comments to help you.
TP: Would they help?
HAMILTON: Of course not! Just like on the bandstand, in the heat of the battle somebody turns to you and says, “Hey, do this now! Try this!” You go, “Uhh…okay, but I’m trying to do everything else at the same time.” But it was all meant well, and we used to laugh about it. He said, “Anybody who opens their mouth on the golf course will get an automatic penalty stroke.”
TP: What was his handicap?
HAMILTON: For a while, he said he was around an 11. Somebody told me he was an 8 at one time. I think when he was in Toronto, with the Oscar Peterson-Thigpen school up there, they were playing every day, and I think he was probably down to an 8 then. But in later years he was around 11. After he had the knee surgery, he started to get his game back, and he was playing an awful lot. I never beat Ray on the golf course.
TP: Was that psychology or talent?
HAMILTON: I think mostly talent, because I didn’t start playing… I was a tennis player for thirty years, and I had elbow surgery from tennis. He was so mad at me, because I had to take time off from the trio to get the surgery! He said, “Why don’t you play golf? You’re not going to blow your ligament off the elbow playing golf.” So I finally did, and then he gave me a set of clubs that he had won at a tournament.
TP: What a practical man!
HAMILTON: Yes! [LAUGHS]
TP: Was he also a practical joker?
HAMILTON: Are you kidding? The funniest one to me is the Oscar Peterson anecdote at Jazz at the Philharmonic, when Oscar went to Norman Granz and asked Ray to be introduced last out of the group. Just to keep peace among the group was the way Oscar presented it to Norman. Norman said, “Oh, really? Because I’ve been announcing you last.” “No-no.” So Oscar goes out first, and sits down at the bench, and Ray’s bass was laying on the floor next to the piano bench. While Norman is announcing Herb Ellis, either Jo Jones or Buddy Rich, Oscar leans down and detunes Ray’s bass. Then “Ladies and gentlemen, Ray Brown!” and Ray Brown came out and picked up the bass. They had already started the introduction to the tune. Ray started to play, and of course he sounded like he was underwater. “And Ella Fitzgerald!” So Ella came out, turned around, and said, “What is going on back there?” Ray just kept tuning up with his left hand and plucking with the right, and said, “Just keep singing; I’ll be there.”
The next time that he got Oscar Peterson… He told him, “I’ll get you.” They were in Japan. Do you know about Pachenko? It’s a game with little round silver balls, like a vertical pinball machine. Ray hit the jackpot, and all these balls drop into a metal tray and make a lot of noise, then you cash them in. Instead of cashing them in, he put the balls in his pocket (he had about 20-25 balls, I guess), and walked right over to the concert hall, and lined the balls up in the piano strings of the piano. And that night, Oscar Peterson was the last musician introduced, and he came out, they’d already started playing, and Oscar played like two chords, and all these balls started bouncing out of the piano. I guess Oscar’s feet came off the floor about two feet!
TP: Did he ever get you on a good one?
HAMILTON: Oh, boy. There are so many funny little jokes. There was one night at the Blue Note… I have a pretty loose grip, and sometimes my sticks will fly out. He used to kid me about it. This night the stick hit him in the chest, and rolled down on the other side of his bass, and off of his bass onto my hi-hat, and rolled onto the snare drum and over to the mounted tom, and then back to the snare drum, and I picked it up and continued playing. He said… Well, I can’t tell you what he said! He said, “How the hell did you do that?!” And I didn’t do anything. Just the stick happened to land where I could pick it up and play. A lot of funny things like that on the bandstand.TP: You met Ray Brown in ’48, and when was the last time you played with him?
OSCAR PETERSON: I guess the last time I played with Ray was when I did a couple of dates in New York with he and Milt Jackson.
TP: That were documented on the Telarc record, “The Very Tall Band”?
PETERSON: Yes, that’s right.
TP: So 50 years of making music with him. He was already an extremely experienced musician when you met him for the first concert, and when your partnership began. Was there any way in which he help show you the ropes or helped you get grounded? The broader question is what impact he had on you as an instrumentalist and musician?
PETERSON: He gave me one thing, and that was confidence. That’s probably the most important thing that a bass player can give anyone that he or she is playing for. When I played with Ray, he gave me confidence, because I never had to wonder and worry about where it was going either harmonically or rhythmically. And if you can reach that plateau with any bass player, you’re in the right place at the right time.
TP: So he never threw you any curve balls.
PETERSON: No, he never did.
TP: And if he gave you a 95-mile-an-hour fastball it was something you could hit.
PETERSON: [LAUGHS] I more than likely would see it coming!
TP: You roomed together. You probably saw more of each other than any other person. What does that level of proximity do for musical communication?
PETERSON: I’ll tell you one thing. It gives you a better insight into the inner weaknesses and strengths of your roommate. I mean that professionally. You can tell just from conversations with them… I knew right away the people that Ray admired musically, and including bass players. I don’t want to mention names, but I knew who he admired and who got to him and who reached him, and I knew the bass players he didn’t care for. So you get to know the innards of a person a lot better. And he knew the pianists that I admired and revered and he also knew the pianists that I did not like. With this kind of information, we had a better insight into what and how to play with each other.
TP: Did you tend to share the same likes and dislikes?
PETERSON: I have to say yes to that.
TP: He was a reasonably proficient pianist.
PETERSON: Ray was what I call a compositional pianist! [LAUGHS] Ray would sit at the piano and would harmonically play what he wanted to play, and would sing the melodic things that he wanted to go over, because he didn’t have that kind of dexterity on the piano. He was a bass player. That wasn’t his instrument. But you could tell that he knew where he was going. In fact, one of my gifts to him one year was to give him a keyboard he could travel with, so he could write tunes on the road.
TP: John Clayton said that at a certain point — and you would know this better than anyone — he started forming a network of symphony bassists in the different cities you would visit, either with the trio or JATP, and would then take private lessons going from city to city. The larger point being that everyone says he practiced and strove to improve incessantly, without letup.
PETERSON: He did. He really worked at it. People think that it was just raw talent, which it is, but it was not the complete talent. But Ray, to be very honest with you, had great respect for what the classical bassists could do with music, because he knew that it was a very difficult instrument to in play in certain aspects as far as being in tune and certainly in time. He was always working to try to perfect these fine points of the instrument.
TP: But it’s correct that he did this rather systematic study with different people in various places.
PETERSON: He did that, and he also did it the other way around. He would do that with classical bassists, because they wanted to get an insight into his playing. So quite frankly, it worked both ways. But he also would hold his own little clinics in his room with different local bassists, as he went from city to city.
TP: In hearing him for fifty years, looking back, what would you say were the qualities of his playing that evolved most noticeably?
PETERSON: First of all, I have to say his concept of time. That’s the essence of all of jazz, I think. Secondly, his harmonic sense from an accompaniment standpoint when he was playing with someone. He knew what to play, where, when he was playing for and with someone.
TP: So he refined those skills, and made them better like fine wine, as it were.
PETERSON: That’s right. Certain things that he would play behind me, or certain things that I played… And it could be the same tune. But certain nights, he could sense… He was a great listener. There’s one of the things. He listened to each performance that everyone gave. But certain nights he’d play a certain way for you. He played differently because you were playing differently! That’s something a lot of bassists do not do.
TP: So along with you, he helped make the trio a creative entity every night, even when you’re in the middle of four sets a night, six nights a week.
PETERSON: Oh, yeah. It was a challenge. He would walk different lines behind me different nights, just to see what would happen. He would go a different way. He didn’t have a set routine harmonically for me. He would change the pattern different nights, just to see what I would do with it.
TP: Did he always have his keen penchant for business? His business skills after moving to Los Angeles are somewhat legendary. Did he always possess this acumen?
PETERSON: I think so. Norman Granz used to tell him, “Why don’t you just be a booking agent and get it over with?” He said, “Pick one or the other. Either be the world’s best player or the world’s best booking agent. Take your choice.
TP: I guess the exceptional thing is that he was the world’s best player and a pretty darn good booking agent.
PETERSON: I’m not going to dispute anything you say or anything Norman said. I think it was Ray’s choice, and he lived his life the way he wanted to.
TP: It sounds like you’ve been able to do the same.
PETERSON: I’m trying.
TP: I know he was managing you and working with you.
QUINCY JONES: He was.
TP: Before we speak about that, may I ask when you first became acquainted?
JONES: Ray Brown? On records, when I was about 13 years old. We used to listen to 78 records at Sherman & Clay, a record store in Seattle. We couldn’t afford to buy them. I’d just discovered music two years before. They had glass booths where you could play the 78s, and didn’t have to buy it. I’d listen all day long — Dial Records, and Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Miles and Slam Stewart. We were working in nightclubs at that age… Because Ray Charles got up there a year later. When I was 14, Ray Charles was working up there, too. He was 16. During the war. Seattle was jumping during the war. It was really jumping. Because it was the last stop before Japan, what they called the Pacific Theater. So we were absolute junkies with all the bands. Everybody. Dizzy’s band…
We were at the Washington Social Club one night, and I saw this guy come in with just a little stingy brim hat, an Italian suit on, and real cool kicks (what we used to call shoes), and he had a trenchcoat on. They said, “That’s Ray Brown, man.” Since we were kids, we were trying to determine who the hell we were. Because in the ’40s, man, music… There were no TV shows. Radio, forget it. And the books, too. So the definition of who you were, you had to just try to figure it out through the people who came through, sailors and so forth… I know I’m making this a long answer here, but this is what happened.
Then I started to see the bands come through, like Basie and Duke and Erskine Hawkins and Louis Armstrong, and then Dizzy’s band came through. I’d sit there, and I knew then I was hooked on 5 saxophones, 3 or 4 trombones, and 4 trumpets and a rhythm section the rest of my life. I’d sit there just mesmerized all night long. How do they play all at once and not play the same note? Not only that, but these brothers are dignified, they are unified, they’ve got wit, they have fun, they’re talented, and they’re doing what they want to do. They had everything. I said, “That’s the kind of man I want to be.”
TP: They were clean, too.
JONES: Oh, clean as a chitlin’! Please, man. And all the girls… They had everything, man! The sailors, they were pretty cool. We used to dress like sailors for a while, when we were 11. But man, when the musicians… I said, “No, that’s it, man, please.” Because they had the music going. And the sounds… It just took over my soul. When I saw Ray Brown… I can’t even express it because it was just so powerful. We didn’t have any connection with anything. There was no MTV or anything else. You’d hear everything on the grapevine, with the guys coming through, like blues bands, they’d say, “Charlie Parker just put some dexedrine in Peg-Leg Bates or Rubberlegs Williams’ coffee or something…” And all the tunes, “Little Willie Leaps” and all the things… Personally, I learned how to write music then. I’d write all the stuff down. We were just like totally obsessed.
TP: You’d take the stuff off the records?
JONES: Yeah. And people would give you copies of it. It would travel around like the Dead Sea Scrolls or something.
TP: It was a true oral tradition then.
JONES: It was! And they were like griots, you know. All the bands. We’d go backstage in our little bebop bags, and try to play grownup and sneak in, because we couldn’t afford to see the bands, and everything was cool when it was Duke and Basie, but then the first time they said, “Where are you going, man?” I said “We’re in the band.” It was Les Brown! “No, you’re not.” [LAUGHS] Or Skinny Ennis or somebody with Gil Evans’ arrangements.
TP: So Ray Brown was one of the people who formed your conception of what music and the life was.
JONES: Yes. See, a skilled writer can say that in one word. It takes me a half-hour. Basie was, too, and Clark Terry was. Those three guys were very important. Ray Charles, Clark Terry, Basie, they were something.
TP: So before you were a professional musician, these are the three people who really affected you…
JONES: We were professional then! We were playing clubs!
TP: But before you got out in the broader world. And you wound up playing and becoming involved with all of them.
JONES: Exactly. But that was the first bite. And just what the lifestyle was about, the intelligence and wit — everything. It just was so addictive. Then I didn’t see Ray for another few years…
TP: You didn’t see him for a number of years.
JONES: Right. But I kept up with him. The grapevine was very strong then about what was happening in New York. Because we had never seen New York; through our imagination was the only thing on 52nd Street and all that stuff. Then finally, I got a scholarship to Boston at the Berklee School in the fall of 1950, which was the Schillinger House then, and Oscar Pettiford played across the street at the Hi-hat. It was just love at first sight. I’d go to the nightclub every night. [b.1933]
TP: So Ray Brown is only seven years older than you, but nonetheless…
JONES: Right! But he was 21 then, and that’s a huge difference. He was big-time. Ray Charles was two-three years older. Anyway, Oscar Pettiford took me to New York while I was in school there, and said, “Would you like to write two arrangements for my record date?” He saw some of the tunes I wrote while I was in school at the Hi-Hat. I lived across the street. Then he said, “I would like you to come down and do a session with me.” Mercer Records. Leonard Feather was the A&R man. That was my first New York minute, and I was like Dracula at the blood bank.
That was the first time I saw New York. I met Mingus… It’s ironic, because you’re talking about bass player, and Oscar introduced me to Mingus and Art Tatum, and then I kind of followed Ray around on 52nd Street. We still hadn’t hooked up, though, you know. Then to make a long story short, in the ’50s, when I was working out in L.A. to do some arrangements for somebody, I went to see Sidney P…Poitier (because we started together almost at the same time, in New York, starving to death together) at the Knickerbocker Hotel, and Ray was… I was going to Sidney’s room (this must have been in ’55 or ’56 or ’57), and Ray was playing golf in the hall. [LAUGHS] He was putting down the hall. That time we hooked up, and it was forever.
One thing led to another, then he did a record date with me in 1959 on my Birth of The Band album, and I was just… They had to put cold water on me just to cool me off. The idea to even have Ray Brown play on your music, it just blew my mind.
TP: Did you follow the Oscar Peterson Trio during those years?
JONES: Oh yeah. I was a Jazz at the Philharmonic junkie.
TP: Talk a little about Ray Brown’s role in JATP and the trio.
JONES: That was equivalent to the Rolling Stones today, or whoever you want to say…about Voodoo or whatever… It was the same thing. They had the crowd screaming, man, and Ella and Oscar Peterson, Nat Cole, Bird, Flip Phillips — everybody. It was incredible. That was our Rock-and-Roll.
TP: I understand. But I’m asking about Ray Brown’s function within that situation. Because I think it was quite a special one.
JONES: Well, at that time he was married to Ella Fitzgerald. That’s a pretty big function, playing all that bass and Ella Fitzgerald’s husband, too. At that time, everything was bigger than life to us. That was probably the most influential thing — that and the big bands — for a whole life. It was not just the music; it was the lifestyle, too. And bebop, with all this freedom and this exploration, of breaking out of the entertainer role for black musicians. I guess that was one of the key things, too. It wasn’t so much about entertainment. It was serious, serious musicians. And we heard the word about Oscar Peterson, and then Ray and he hooked up… I don’t know, just the grapevine was so strong… I know I’m not on a straight line here. I don’t know how to do it.
TP: You’re saying it was no more about entertainers, but it seems Ray Brown was very much an ambassador, as was Oscar Peterson, through their comportment and level of commitment to being on every minute…
JONES: Everybody was like that, Ted. Oscar Peterson. Nat Cole was like that. Earl Hines. Everybody was like that then. That was the tenor of the times.
TP: It was like a different way of being an entertainer.
JONES: They were on another planet. I remember when the Big Band school went into Bebop, and there was a little friction there at first. You know, Pops wasn’t crazy about that. Louis talked about Dizzy playing all that weird stuff. I loved both of them, big bands and bebop. But bebop was my heart. And Ray was the personification of bebop.
TP: But then at JATP, he’d be playing with Prez and Illinois Jacquet, swing guys…
JONES: The best in the world. And that was probably the metamorphosis of swing into bebop. Because Dizzy came out of Cab’s band and Bird came out Jay McShann, and then they converged with Earl Hines, and then Billy Eckstine took ALL of them over then. The whole bebop workshop was going on over there, you know, with Sassy and Art Blakey and J.J. [sic] and Dizzy, Fats, Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, everybody. That was the real melting pot, Billy Eckstine’s band. That was a pure bebop band.
That’s how I learned how to write, when I was really getting into writing. I remember I asked Ray Charles, “How do they play all this stuff and not play the same notes?” I was 13 or 14. And Ray hit a B-flat-7 chord and a C7 on top of it; it was like a B-flat-13 with an augmented fourth. BANG! Why, it just opened up a whole passageway.
TP: So you were heavy into the Jerry Valentine charts.
JONES: All of them. Gil Fuller. Everybody. Everything he played, man. The Cuban stuff. Cuba was BIG then. “Cubana Be, Cubana Bop” and “Manteca.”
TP: They were all playing on top of each other on 52nd Street.
JONES: Chano Pozo. Mario Bauza, man. I worked with him as recently as eight years ago.
TP: Oh, right before he passed you worked with him.
JONES: Yes, indeed. We were at the Montreux together. There was a big band in Montreux.
TP: So ’59 is the first time Ray Brown plays with you, and you meet him around ’55-’56-’57 in the hotel and make that connection. So you like each other…
JONES: Yes. As people we hooked up together, and then musically we hooked up in ’59, and it just never stopped.
TP: Talk about what he was like at a session. Most of these situations would have been sessions rather than live performances or tours.
JONES: Right. But for arrangers it didn’t make any difference. You had to put all the stuff down on paper before you got there, and know who your soloists are and let them stretch. I always loved that, to keep a big band mentality but have a little band sensibility about the solo stuff.
TP: What I specifically want to get at with this question is his manner in his studio.
JONES: A man never plays more or less than they are as a human being. Ray was a very confident person, a take-charge person. He played bass like that and lived like that. He ate 17 different dishes like that. That’s the eatingest sucker… At the eulogy, everybody had their own little focus. Mine was on the eating. Ray could EAT, man. Whoo! We ate everywhere on the planet, man. France, you name it.
TP: What was his favorite meal?
JONES: Oh, whatever was good. Kobe beef and Shabu-Shabu in Japan; and Peking Duck in Hong Kong; foie gras at Lafont; or ham hocks or whatever at Sylvia’s. Wherever we were, what was good, Ray knew what it was.
TP: From downhome haute cuisine to haute haute cuisine.
JONES: That’s right. I started that way and still am. If they’ve got fresh produce and they know what they’re doing, I’m your man. And Ray was, too. But Ray… [LAUGHS] I’ve never seen… We were in Japan once with Mr. Nakashima… He was my manager by then. We took the big band over there in the ’70s or ’80s, and we stayed over after the gig. He took us all to great restaurants… Nakashima was a great promoter over there and a great friend. He said after three days, “I think you guys have eaten up all the kobe beef in Japan.” Ray said, “Man, you’ve been so nice, I think we’re going to stay over three more days.” He said, “Oh, no-no.” He drove us to the airport.
TP: How did you begin the relationship of manager-artist?
JONES: Well, all of these things just sort of evolved. We started doing dates together, and then he came to me… A lot of record dates. Movies. I mean, TONS of movies. Like, remember In Cold Blood? Well, that was Andy Simpkins and Ray played the two killers, Bobby Blake and Scott Wilson. They were the metaphors in the score for the two killers. Richard Brooks… It was amazing, on the way to Ray’s funeral, Richard told me about Rod Steiger leaving us, too. But we did dozens of movies together. We did record dates, we did TV shows, we did the Cosby Show, and we got closer and closer together. After a while, Ray would just say, “Man, I’ll take care of this,” and “I’ll take care of this…” We’d do tours in Japan, he’d get with the promoter and stuff, and we’d just do it. We did a tour with Roberta Flack, one of the best concerts I ever did in my life. All of us… We had 37 musicians at the Greek with Roberta Flack.
TP: I heard a story that Norman Granz once said to Ray Brown, “Why don’t you just become a booking agent and be done with it?”
JONES: He did! Ray had the ability to do that.
TP: What does it take for a musician to be such a creative… I don’t think word “genius” would be misused with Ray Brown. So he’s a creative genius and an extremely gifted businessman…
JONES: An astute businessman. It takes using all of your brain. [LAUGHS] It’s all in there. You just have to use it.
TP: The left side and the right side is there with him.
JONES: That’s right, the left-right brain thinking. There’s a great book out called Six Thinking Hats, and Ray’s was… That’s what it’s about, is using all of your brain. The stuff he uses for booking gigs and travel and all that stuff is using a part that you don’t use when you’re playing the bass.
TP: Did his management activity with you begin after 1966, when he moved to Los Angeles, or had he started to do this before?
JONES: It started around that time, yes. Because I didn’t get out there permanently until ’64 or ’65. I came out to do Cary Grant’s last movie, is when I started to stay — Walk, Don’t Run. I was in a house, and I was like all New Yorkers, talking loud about California, about the palm trees and all this stuff. [LAUGHS] Nobody said anything. And then you have to eat your words, because that Christmas I was out in my backyard, picking some oranges off of a tree at the place I had leased, and I said, “Man, I don’t need three other seasons. This is it.”
TP: Basically you did so much work together, it would be hard for you to pinpoint anything.
JONES: God, it’s just so much, Ted! I think of the things… The Ellington special. One of my passions was to do a special with Duke Ellington on a network. They resisted it so much in the beginning, but finally, a guy named Phil Capece(?) said, “Let’s do it.” Clarence Avon, a friend of mine, helped me get that connection together. We were trying to find out who to go to. Ray was involved. I think from that spot on, we started to work together. We did the album of “Walk In Space,” all those things… Then Grady Tate… A thing that stands out when he and Grady Tate first met each other. Man, it was a match made in heaven. Amazing.
TP: Did he ever indicate frustration with you at any of the limitations of studio playing? Eventually, he did get out of it and went back to touring.
JONES: Frustration? No! Ray did the shit out of whatever he was doing. We didn’t get into that. Because, you know, old school comes from… Also Clark Terry, who was my teacher when I was 14. They come from Silas Green’s Circus, man. They played everything. He’s older than Ray. But they’ve been around. They’ve played chitlin’ circuit… We all played chitlin’ circuits. And you didn’t sit around whining about what you had to play, man. You played what you had to play, and tried to make all of it sound good. That’s what I loved about Ray. That’s where I think our chord struck, in being very curious about what the business side of it was and tired of always a victim — not wanting to be a victim. That’s the same thing in Ray, and he saw it in me. We wanted to be a little bit more in charge of our own destinies. Then I had the good fortune in 1957 to live in France, and live next door to Picasso. Man, Picasso was totally in charge of his life. Lithograph plants. He didn’t have to take any shit from anybody. And I LOVED that idea. Because I heard all the victims… Black musicians were HUGE victims in the ’50s. And I watched it. I watched my idols… Like the Duke, the man who’s like the god of American music. We were producing a show once, and saw him in Vegas, and it just tore my heart out. He was 75, man, and he was playing in a lounge in Vegas. It just killed me! Because the man I used to watch in the white suit with Al Hibbler when I was 12, 13 or 14, and he’s playing in a lounge, and Paul Gonsalves was walking around the tables, man, like a violinist. It hurt me. It hurt me for him. It really hurt me. Basie and I used to talk about that all the time. Basie was like my father, you know. From 13 years old on, he took care of me. Brother, father, manager, everything. He’d get gigs for my band — everything.
TP: He was a true survivor, wasn’t he.
JONES: Oh, what a beautiful man. I feel so blessed to have come up from that school, with Dizzy and Basie and Ray Brown and Ray Charles.
TP: You’re a modernist with old-school values.
JONES: Yeah. I came up in the middle of the best damn thing, in the ’40s, after the war. I was a kid. Then I was with Lionel Hampton for three years, ’51 to ’53, and Dizzy’s band, and writing for Basie. So jazz and big band was just equal ambidexterity.
I’d like to add one thing. I never saw him do it… Going back to the eating thing. As a bass player, he’s the King of Humididing and Spangalang, please! And he could probably eat a 249-pound catfish if he tried! Ray could eat that. We used to have so much fun. I guess it’s that campfire thing. After you do all your other stuff, it’s always sit at the table around the campfire.
TP: Well, another aspect of people from your day is that they all knew how to have a good time.
JONES: Absolutely, man. Ben Webster taught us how to drink. It was great.
I’d like to say one more thing about the man I love here. Ray to me was the absolute symbol of if you empty your cup every time and learn to make it a habit, it always comes back twice as full. What I’m saying is give it up every time, man. Don’t save nothin’. That we definitely shared, and I learned more and more about that from him all the time. In everything. In relationships. Everything. Give it up.TP: You said you first met Ray Brown at a JATP concert in Tokyo in 1953. Was that your first experience listening to him? I’m sure you’d heard the records before hearing him live.
ED THIGPEN: That was in 1953. When I went into the Army, I was with Cootie Williams, and I hadn’t really been exposed to… Well, I had JATP. But when did Oscar go down there?
TP: He started going out in ’49, but would do more of a feature, and I think in ’50 he started going out as a duo act with Major Holley, and then he linked u with Ray Brown in ’52, around the time when his relationship with Ella Fitzgerald was dissolving.
THIGPEN: Okay. That puts things in perspective, because Ella was on that concert in ’53 in Japan as well. Prior to that, I had heard JATP, but I wasn’t really into… I got out of high school when they started out, and I’d been working with territorial bands… I got to New York in ’51, but I was working with Cootie Williams. I was on the road with Dinah and rhythm-and-blues bands. I’m a little more than four years younger than Ray. Whatever. But anyway, it was ’53.
TP: But you knew the records with Dizzy.
THIGPEN: Oh yeah, I’d heard that in high school.
TP: So you knew who Ray Brown was from when you were very young, and a formative musician.
THIGPEN: Yes, but you know and KNOW who he was. I didn’t have a record player when I was in high school. I didn’t get a record player until I was a grown man. But I heard a lot of live music growing up in L.A. Anyway, that’s another story.
TP: All of this is a roundabout way of asking what was your impression of his sound and his aura as a musician.
THIGPEN: To be honest with you, the group was just so overwhelming with Herb, as I told you in the letter. That pretty much summarizes what I thought. What impressed me was his kindness. He was a nice guy. Everybody played… I was looking at Ben and Benny Carter and J.C. Heard. But mainly, when I met him, he was a nice person.
TP: Good enough. Then I’m going to jump ahead to 1959, when you join the band, and the orientation of the trio changes from piano-bass-guitar, very orchestrative, to you kind of driving the band from the drums. The way Oscar Peterson put it, they would change their articulation to suit the type of fills you would do, and this became more part of the structure of things. First, how were you recruited to the band? Through Ray Brown?
THIGPEN: Well, I guess so. As you said, Oscar said he recommended me. I remember that in 1958 I was working at the Hickory House in New York, and Oscar came in. He didn’t say anything to me. He just came in at dinner, like Duke Ellington used to do at the Hickory House…
TP: A steakhouse.
THIGPEN: A steakhouse, right, on 52nd just off Broadway. Earlier I was working there with Billy Taylor, Jutta Hipp, Toshiko and different people. I was working with Billy during 1957-58. But he came in, and that summer I got a call from Norman Granz saying that he wanted me to join Oscar Peterson. There was a little discrepancy in the money… Anyway, I didn’t go with him right away. Which I was very shocked by it. I said, “What have I done?!” Anyway, six months later, it was just at Christmas break, he called me again and said, “Okay, we’ll give you that.” Boy, I said, “Thank you, Lord.”
TP: So you’d never played with Ray Brown up until…
THIGPEN: Oh, yes. We had done a record with Blossom Dearie prior to that. I’d started getting on the scene because I was in New York, working with Billy. critics started liking my work, and I was getting recognition. I’d go see Ray, and somehow we hooked up, and we did this date.
TP: But that was just in the studio. So your first bandstand experience with him was the rehearsals and then going on stage with the Oscar Peterson Trio. Tell me about the experience of playing drums with Ray Brown. What were the qualities that made Ray Brown, Ray Brown?
THIGPEN: Well, his sound and his time, his attack. And it wasn’t just playing fast, it was the whole approach, the musical approach for me. In other words, taking your instrument and making it an orchestra. How do we play together? How do we blend together? It was much of the tradition that I’d heard from Kenny Clarke and Jo Jones and my dad about how a rhythm section functions. It was very dominant. But they had an edge, playing on top of the beat, laying in the middle of it, laying behind it, shifting gears… But sound. How our sound blended. So on my own… He didn’t tell me what to play, but it was like how he played. And I loved it so much — same with Oscar — that I developed techniques of my own that I thought would be compatible with what you were doing.
TP: You played with him night after night for 6-1/2 years, maybe 200 nights a year…
THIGPEN: We worked ten months a year.
TP: That’s 300 days a year. Was he an extremely consistent player?
TP: And was he an extremely creative player from night to night?
THIGPEN: Extremely musical, creative… It was…
TP: That’s hard to do. On the road for ten months a year?
THIGPEN: It isn’t as hard to do when people are compatible. It’s hard not to do because it’s not acceptable not to do that. You don’t lay on… It was never coasting. Oscar and Ray were at another level altogether, and their penchant for excellence was dominant. But Ray was never forceful with me. Just you wanted to be the best it was at what you were doing. So you were giving your all every evening. And once you get used to that, it’s unacceptable to come below that level.
TP: Did you rehearse a great deal with Ray?
THIGPEN: Oh-ho! Well, we lived together. He shared a room with me. He was like a big brother, taking care of me, guiding me — just a lot of things in general. We would practice every day. After two weeks, I said, “I guess we got it.” He said, “not yet.” And two years later, we’re still practicing how to play time together, and dynamics, and me play his part, sing his parts and play mine, and vice-versa. What was Oscar doing? Then when we’d do things with the orchestras, when it was augmented, how to shift… How to work a rhythm section, how to really make it work. We worked at that every day.
TP: So he never rested on his laurels.
THIGPEN: Oh, no!
TP: By 1963, he’s Ray Brown, the heir to Jimmy Blanton, but he’s continuing to work on himself and perfect what he does.
THIGPEN: I wrote (and I took some time to word this correctly in the email) at the end that Ray Brown was a worker at everything he did.
TP: You said he “was a natural leader, dominant but not forceful, he was consistent, a very persistent, patient hard worker. Brownsk was in the trenches with you leading by example.”
THIGPEN: That’s it.
TP: It’s wonderfully put, and I’m talking to you for elaboration and examples, which you’re giving me.
THIGPEN: That was Ray. Everything he did. He came home, he studied all the time, he practiced all the time, trying to improve all the time. I think all great artists are like that, but the ones I’ve had the pleasure of working with are really exception. Like, he would get together with symphonic players; he wanted to improve the bowing, he wanted to do this, and they would come down to see what he was doing. He was always open. But there were some things that were definite that they had stylistically that worked, and those things they were very adamant about, because they worked. I’m speaking of Ray and people of that caliber. We’re talking about the very top of the heap, now. Whether it was Buddy Rich or Oscar Peterson or Ray Brown… Ray Brown, after he heard his father play Oscar Pettiford, he came off the road, and went back and learned everything Oscar Pettiford was doing before he’d go back out there again. Oscar Peterson didn’t feel he was ready to come down when Norman asked him, and when he felt ready he came down, and jumped right to the top of the line. So those guys are going to be the best possible, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to lay on it. Because that instrument is challenging and the music is like that. The instrument tells you. There’s always somebody coming along, like a new fast gun.
TP: I interviewed him in 1999, and he said he had to practice all the time so he could execute all the stuff he used to play. I think that’s one reason why he had young musicians in his trio.
THIGPEN: That’s right. He told me, “When you go out…” Because I’d been off, I was raising my kids and blah-blah-blah. But he said, “You get you some young boys, because they’re gonna be on top of it.” So that’s what you do. You’ve got to get where the energy is.
TP: So your friendship lasted the duration, after leaving Oscar Peterson.
THIGPEN: Oh yes. My spiritual brother, Donald, and every… Oh, Ray was more than just a friend on the bandstand. Ray spiritually was like a big brother. He didn’t press you for anything, but if I needed to know something or whatever…encouragement… Ray was always there.
TP: Was his business acumen always extremely evident?
THIGPEN: Well, let me put it this way. I knew he was a fast study. I certainly couldn’t keep up with him. But he would try to pull my coat about certain things which I just couldn’t grasp until later years.
TP: You mean business things.
THIGPEN: Business-wise. But he’s one of these guys who could read the “Herald-Tribune” in 15 minutes, and you ask him a topic and just give him the page number and the subtitle, he’d tell you everything in the paper.
TP: So to use the word “genius” wouldn’t be overstating the case with him.
THIGPEN: No, I don’t think. “Genius,” dictionary-wise, says a person of exceptional talent, unusual creativity and talent, and how to use it. That’s the dictionary form of the word. I think he fit the category. You have nuances.
TP: Well, everyone has their idiosyncracies.
THIGPEN: But as far as these extra-special gifts that he had, and how you use them is what’s important…
TP: Can you think of any one or two anecdotes that really get to his essence?
THIGPEN: Yeah, my last little paragraph. I thought this out; it wasn’t just random.
TP: What I mean is that over the forty years of friendship, any thing you remember happening that brings into relief his qualities and his character.
THIGPEN: What I mentioned is that he was consistent, and as I said before, he’s a very caring and thoughtful person. This is very personal. He became a very integral part of my life, as I said, as a spiritual brother and by example as a human being, thinking of me as a person… Unlike a lot of people, they talk to you and they don’t really listen to what you have to say from your perspective. He was one of the most fantastic listeners. He knew how to listen to people for what they had to say. Not for what he was perceiving them to say, but what they HAD to say.
TP: That exactly correlates with what he did on the bandstand, too.
THIGPEN: That’s right.
TP: As you know, Oscar Peterson has an incredible feel for people’s voices. How they speak, how they phrase things… It’s uncanny, and it really adds to the book. He said he was doing his job, because he had to listen to them, because he had to play with them…
THIGPEN: That’s right. I mean, I always felt like that. My father had told me that, and that’s a deep-rooted scene. And you learn that as an accompanist. He was the perfect accompanist. That’s an art. You’re not afraid of losing your identity by being subservient or serving up something good to enhance another person’s performance. That was him. When I said he was a caring and thoughtful human being, he was a caring and thoughtful musician in everything that he did, and it was like, “‘How do you make it better?” And that was the thing that… That put it on for me. And living with a person like that, when you’re able to practice it every day on the bandstand, then that’s something else.