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Ray Brown

Ray Brown was a major force in jazz history as a virtuoso bassist, prolific recording artist, Grammy winning composer, arranger, record producer, artist manager, and concert producer.  As a performer he toured and recorded with Dizzie Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, The Modern Jazz Quartet (as a founding member), Jazz at the Philharmonic, The Oscar Peterson Trio, and the Ray Brown Trio.  

''One of the great and enduring joys of jazz is watching bassist Ray Brown dig his fingers into a deep, rhythmic groove until he's smiling like a kid who just got his hands on a new toy.'' -Mike Joyce The Washington Post 

Virtuoso Bassist

Ray Brown is considered by many critics to be the most amazingly talented and influential bassist in jazz history. His distinct deep full sustained tones, nimble fingering and ability to bend notes to create soulful bluesy melodies made him the most in demand bass recording artist in the history of jazz.  Brown was a magical accompanist and masterful inventive soloist who made the bass sing and swing.  He called his style of soulful blues accompaniment ''the grits and the gravy.''

Brown was a legend to legions of bass players who were amazed by his superb tone quality and accuracy of pitch. Every note he played was in tune. According to bassist Hal Gaynor, most bassists played a "thumpy" pulse with short choppy notes, but Ray Brown played clear loud sustained notes. He gave every note its full value.  Few bassists can duplicate Brown's unique sound as he had unusually strong hands. Brown is credited with inventing and developing many of the techniques that have become standard skills for generations of virtuoso bassists. 

Critics said he played with "majestic authority". His melodic baselines set the mood and tempo for thousands of classic jazz recordings.  He was the 
ideal ensemble bassist whose bass lines complimented the music of other players both harmonically and melodically. “What he always did was to make the band sound better than it would be without him. Every time, he made everyone sound better than they ever sounded before. In fact, he made everyone better just by showing up.”Don Thompson

Prolific Recording Artist

Ray Brown's bass and compositions are heard on over 2,000 recordings.  He recording with the leading jazz artists in Be-Bop and swing including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Chet Baker, Clark Terry, Louis Armstrong, Ben Webster, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, Buddy Rich, Cannonball Aderly, Lionel Hampton, Lester Young, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, Jerry Mulligan, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Still, Stan Kenton, Wes Montgomery and more.

Backing leading jazz and popular singers Ray Brown's bass is heard setting the pace for Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Sara Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin, Linda Ronstadt, Blossom Dearie, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Barry Manilow, Natalie Cole, Johnny Matthis, Joe Williams and others.

Brown also recorded with R&B, Rock and Pop artists including James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Earth Wire & Fire, Ray Charles, Lionel Richie, Steely Dan, Baby Face, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Blondie, and Nick Lowe.  Brown joined his fellow Pittsburgh jazz mates recording with Roy Eldridge, Art Blakey, Henry Mancini, Dodo Marmaroso, and Stanley Turrentine.

Composer / Arranger / Producer

Ray Brown composed over 130 songs that were recorded by many jazz artists including Dizzy Gillespe, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Quincy Jones, the Modern Jazz Quartet and more.  Some his best known songs include Ray's Idea, One Bass Hit, Shaw 'Nuff and The Real Blues.  His best known tune "Gravy Waltz", that he co-wrote with Steve Allen, won the Grammy award for "Best Original Jazz Composition" in 1963.

Brown produced nine Quincy Jones albums including the No 1. Jazz and R&B hit "Body Heat".  He also produced recordings by Toots Tilman and Patrice Rushen.

Artist Manager and Concert Producer

Ray Brown managed several artists including the Modern Jazz Quartet and Quincy Jones.  He discovered and mentored Diana Krall and Phineas Newborn Jr. and promoted pianists Dado Moroni and Jacky Terrason.  He discovered Diana Krall singing in a restaurant in Nanaimo, British Colombia and convinced her to move to Los Angeles. He introduced her to bassist John Clayton and mentored her on his first album "Stepping Out" released in 1993.  Brown showcased talented young players taking them on tour as members of The Ray Brown Trio including pianists Gene Harris, Benny Green, Geoff Keezer, and Larry Fullerand along with drummers Jeff Hamilton, Greg Hutchinson, George Fludas, and Karriem Riggins.

Ray was the musical director for both the Monterey and Concord Jazz Festivals.  He produced, directed, and performed in many concerts at the Hollywood Bowl over a 20 year period.

During his 58 year career he frequently topped the readers polls of Downbeat, Metronome, and other publications.  Ray Brown won his first Grammy in 1963 for "Best Original Jazz Composition" for the classic song Gravy Waltz, that became the theme song of the Steve Allen Show.  As a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio Brown was awarded two Grammy awards for "Best Jazz Instrumental Performance"in 1990 and 1991.  The National Endowment for the Arts named Ray Brown a ”Jazz Master” in 1992.   He was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997.  Brown was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 2003.

Mr. Brown was ‘Mr. Bass’, that’s it! When I first heard him play in 1943 I said to myself, ‘Good God! This man comes from another planet!’ I had never heard a bass played like that. And he swung so hard.” – Hank Jones

“Ray Brown, on bass, played the strongest, most fluid and imaginative bass lines in modern jazz at the time, with the exception of Oscar Pettiford,''  - Dizzie Gillespie from his book ''To Be or Not to Bop.''

“Ray Brown is on every recording date I ever do -- if I can get him. He’s simply The Best there’s ever been.” Quincy Jones

“Ray was The Man! He got the biggest and strongest sound ever on the bass. His sound came directly from the center of the earth. Like an earthquake.” Lionel Hampton

"One of jazz’s foundational figures. Along with Charles Mingus, Ron Carter, and Scott La Faro, he was one of the greatest contributors to the liberation of the bass as an expressive instrument–in all of jazz history." - Frank A Matzner Allabout Jazz.

"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." - Christian McBride

Pittsburgh Piano and Bass Student

Raymond Matthews Brown was born in Pittsburgh on Oct, 13, 1926. He came under the spell of jazz early at age 8 when his parents took him see Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie in concert. He began learning piano around age 10 or 11. His second teacher was pianist and popular band leader Ruby Young. He attended Schenley High School where he the school Orchestra as a pianist. With 26 other pianists in the Orchestra he only played 15 minutes once a week.  Wanting to play everyday he observed that the orchestra had an unused double bass. 
Ray asked the orchestra director if he could play it. The director said yes as he needed another bass player.  He taught Ray the basics of the instrument and let Ray take the bass home on weekends to practice. Brown learned to play along with Duke Ellington records guided by the sounds of innovative bassist Jimmy Blanton.

During Ray's high school years Henry Foster, a guy who Ray had delivered newspapers to told Ray he was looking for musicians to play his club.  Ray told Foster that he played bass and his friend Walt played piano.  Foster hired them to work his club.  Ray formed a quintet with pianist Walt Harper, a drummer and sax player. They played Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings for $3 a show.  They bought the latest records and learned the songs in two days. They performed standards like Honesuckle Rose and Tea For Two.  Working a Sunday night gig at the North Side Elks Club an older pianist from their neighborhood named Errol Garner often came in to jam with them.

Rays first offer to tour nationally came while he was still in high school.  The Cootie Williams band was in Pittsburgh performing a week long run at a downtown theater with Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots. Cootie's bass player had failed to respond to his Army draft notice.  Army M.P.s came backstage, grabbed the bass player and whisked him off to an Army base for basic training. Needing a bass player Coolie brought in Pittsburgh's best bassist, Carl Pruitt, to finish out the week.  Someone told Coolie about Ray Brown and he invited Ray downtown for a meeting.  They tried the bass player's jacket on Ray and it fit.  As Carl Pruitt was too big for the jacket they offered the touring job to Ray.  At home Ray's parents crushed his hopes saying "You have no job.  You're going to school."  His mother insisted that he stay in Pittsburgh to finish high school.

Shuffle Off to Buffalo and Hank Jones.

After graduating from Schenley in 1944 Ray went to Buffalo play with the Jimmy Hinsley Sextet.  During his time in Buffalo Ray stayed at the YMCA where he met pianist Hank Jones. Jones was working with another band in Buffalo and practiced on a piano in the YMCA's cafeteria.  Every afternoon Ray and Hank Jones met in the YMCA cafeteria to jam their hours away.

Ray next joined the Snookum Russell Band touring with him for eight months.  Reading about Coleman Hawkins and 52nd Street scene in Downbeat Magazine Ray decided he had to move to New York City to make it.  He  left the Snookum Russell Band and bought a one way ticket to New York in 1945.

Brown Get's Dizzie in New York City

Arriving in New York Ray went straight to his aunt's house to stay. After dinner that evening he asked he cousin to take him to 52nd Street.  They went to the club where Coleman Hawkins was playing and were suprised to hear Hank Jones was accompanying him on piano.  Ray went back stage to see his old friend Hank.  While they were talking Jones said look here comes Dizzie Gillespie.  Ray asked Hank if he would introduce him Dizzy.  Hank called Dizzy over and said "This is a good friend of mine.  He's a good bass player.  He just got in town." Dizzy looked at Ray asking "Can you play?"  Hank answered "Yeah, he can play." Dizzy asked Ray "You want a job?" Ray replied "Yeah!.  Dizzie gave him his card and said, "Be at my house tomorrow night 7 o'clock for a rehearsal".

Ray walked into Dizzie's house the next night where the founders of BeBop Bud Powell, Max Roach, Charlie Parker, and Dizzie waiting for him.  Only eighteen years old he was frighten to death.  Gillespie hired Brown to perform with his small groups and his big band. 

Recording with Gillespie's big band, Ray Brown played on the seminal BeBop classics "Emanon" and "Night in Tunisia." In 1946 Gillespie recorded Brown's composition“One Bass Hit” and followed up with "Two Base Hit" in 1947. Brown was a member of the Gillespie band through 1947.

Marriage to Ella Fitzgerald

While on the road with Gillespie in 1947, Brown met vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, who was touring with the band. Ella and Ray married on December 10, 1947 in Ohio. Brown left the Gillespie band at the end of 1947 to tour and record with his wife.   Ray formed his own trio with Hank Jones and Charlie Smith to accompany Fitzgerald at her engagements.  Ray and Ella divorced after four years of marriage in 1952.  But they remained friends and continued to work together over the years.

Jazz at the Philharmonic

In 1947 Ray began touring with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP).  The JATP concerts featured an all star cast of jazz performers battling one another in competitive jam sessions held at large formal concert hall in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.  Artist appearing on the JATP tours included Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins and many others.  Ray Brown appeared with the JATP tour for 18 years.  

While touring with the JATP Ray formed a network of symphony bassists that he took private lessons from.  He continued to learn and practice throughout his career to improve and perfect his sound.  One of his instructors was Herman Clements of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra who also taught bassist Paul Chambers and Sonny Dallas.
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During a JATP tour in September of 1949 Brown met pianist Oscar Peterson and began working with him.  They recorded in a duo for the JATP in September of 1950 and recorded as the Oscar Peterson Duo in 1951.

Founding the Modern Jazz Quartet

Ray Brown joined his Dizzy Gillespie band mates pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson and Pittsburgh drummer Kenny Clarke to form what became the foundation of the Modern Jazz Quartet.  The four began playing together as a quartet in 1946.  They played during breaks at Dizzy Gillespie Big band shows.  They recorded together as the Milt Jackson Quartet with a self titled album on August 24, 1951. It featured the classic cut "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea".  When Brown left to work with Oscar Peterson bassist Percy Heath join the quartet that was renamed The Modern Jazz Quartet.   In the late 1960's Ray Brown  became the manager of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Oscar Peterson Trio

Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown formed the Oscar Peterson Trio with guitarist Barney Kessel in January of 1952.  Guitarist Herb Ellis replaced Kessel in 1953. The Peterson-Ellis-Brown trio is considered one of the greatest small ensembles in the history of jazz.  Drummer Ed Thigpen replaced Ellis in 1958 and remained with the trio through 1965.. Brown and Peterson toured the world and recorded together in a trio until 1966.  Over their 15 year run they recorded dozens of albums.  There are over 130 album releases featuring Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown.  They reunited to perform live in 1990 and 1991 and won two Grammy awards.

Oscar Peterson credits Ray for their success : “If I had never played with Ray, I would have never reached the level I have. He was ‘The Man’ who did it for me. We were born to play together.”

Move to L.A.

Tired of the constant traveling Brown left the Oscar Peterson Trio and settled down in Los Angeles in 1966. There worked in television, film, studio sessions, concert promotion, and artist management. He performed regularly in "Merv Griffin Show" band and occasional sat in with the Tonight Show band. He was the bassist for several Frank Sinatra TV specials. Working with Lalo Schifrin he recorded the theme songs for the "Mission Impossible" and "Mannix" television series. Brown also composed music for films and television shows. In 1970 He composed music for John Cassavettes movie "Husbands".   He  wrote music for the Bill Cosby show, Sanford and Sons, and Ironsides.  Brown also performed on over 20 television and movie sound tracks.

Brown formed the L.A. Four with altoist Bud Shank, acoustic guitarist Laurindo Almeida, and drummer Jeff Hamilton in 1974 and performed in L.A. clubs.  During this time he also served as music director of the Monteray and Concord Jazz Festivals and produced concerts at the Hollywood Bowl.

Ray Brown Trio

Ray formed a trio with pianist Gene Harris and drummer Jeff Hamilton in 1984. They toured and recorded together for nine years.  In 1994 pianist Benny Green joined the trio.  He continued to tour with versions of his trio until his death.  Brown's trio released many albums on the Concord, Paddle-Wheel and Telarc labels. Highlights of the recordings of Brown's Trio are featured on the double disc compilation "Bassics: The Best of the Ray Brown Trio" released in 2006.  Matt Collar of the Allmusicguide hightly recommends the compilation writing "These are elegant, sophisticated mainstream jazz recordings that are the epitome of swinging modern jazz."

Last Round of Golf

On Tuesday, July 2, 2002, Brown was in Indianapolis, Indiana for an appearance at the Jazz Kitchen. In the afternoon Ray played a round of golf, his favorite hobby.  He returned to his hotel to take a nap before his evening show.  He never showed for the gig.  Ray Brown died in his sleep at age 75.  
Grits and Gravy Sound of Ray Brown
Ray Brown Video Playlist
Ray Brown with Walt Harper -Teenie Harris Photo
Ray Brown with the Dizzy Gillespie Band
Ray Brown with Ella Fitzgerald at Birdland
Ray Brown with Milt Jackson
Jazz at the Philharmonic
Oscar Peterson Trio
Ray Brown Trio with Gene Harris