Bob Brookmeyer
Ray Brown: Interview 1

Ray Brown (1926–2002)

Ray (Raymond Matthews) Brown was, through his career, one of the most distinguished and respected bassists in jazz.

Born in Pittsburgh, he moved to New York in 1945 after playing with various local bands and began rehearsing with bebop pioneers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He toured California with Gillespie in 1946, returned with him to New York and played in the trumpeter’s innovative big band.

From 1947 he also worked regularly with Norman Granz’ Jazz at the Philharmonic package. He accompanied singer Ella Fitzgerald (to whom he was married until 1952), recorded with Milt Jackson and from 1950 worked for many years with pianist Oscar Peterson, initially as a duo and then in Peterson’s trios, which gave him immense prominence both in the US and internationally, on record and on tour.

After leaving Peterson in 1966 Brown settled on the US west coast, working as a freelance and studio musician. Subsequently he toured widely with many groups, recorded extensively and wrote leading tutor books for bass. Brown’s style is one of great harmonic precision and faultless swing, as can be heard especially on his many albums with Peterson.

Biography by Roger Cotterrell.


Bass quiz

In this 1963 interview, Ray Brown talks about the technicalities of his bass and about how he learned to play the instrument.


Ray Brown: Interview 2

Ray Brown: Interview 1

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1963
Interview source Jazz Professional
Image source credit
Image source URL
Reference number
Forename Ray
Surname Brown
Quantity 1

Interview Transcription

Tell us about your bass, Ray.

The one I'm using on this tour is a small French bass made by Silvestre. It's about a 100 years old, violinshape with a swelled back. My best bass is an Italian around 200 years old. That's also violin–shaped, but with a flat back and it's a large bass. The machinehead keys are unusual because they are open through their centres.

What type of string setup do you favour? It's according to what suits the particular instrument. On this bass, I have rope–cored steel strings. The Italian bass gives in best results with a gut G and D and a metal A and E. Lots of orchestral players use all metal strings: they're good for bowing. For pizzicato playing, the metal G and D b strings tend to cut into the fingers. I prefer the gut; they have a more flexible ‘feel’.

What about the string height from the fingerboard? You have to decide that according to the type of playing you want to do, and how responsive your bass is. The higher the strings, the bigger the tone. But for speed solo playing, you need to press the strings down easier, so they need to be closer to the fingerboard. If I put the third finger of my left hand flat on the fingerboard at the bottom end, and it slides comfortably under the strings, that's the height that suits me. The curve of the bridge is related to the curve of the fingerboard.

It should allow you to bow any of the strings in the high register, without the bow touching the next string. The D and A strings are set the highest. I like all four to be as near the same relative height as possible.

What height do you set the bass for playing? It depends on the width of the shoulders, etc: but should allow you to reach all the notes as easily as possible. I have mine five inches from the ground, with a wooden peg of fixed height. As it suits me, it doesn't need adjusting.

Can you tell us how you pick the string? I wrap the first section of my index finger round the string and snap it back. Usually just the index finger, but occasionally with the second. I come from the older school, where one finger for picking was the thing. The twofinger style. has come in with the younger men.

How hard do you pull? You find out what the instrument will take without killing the tone. The tone has to sing. With the left hand you apply an equal pressure to match the pull of the right hand. In each position, the fingers should be over their respective notes, ready to press when required. I keep my left hand as relaxed as possible, and don't hold the fingers rigidly in position as though a teacher were standing over me.

Did you study with a teacher? Well, I learned in a class at school. Actually, I was a pianist at the start. I felt, though, that there were plenty of pianists in the class, girls included, who were better than me at execution and reading. The piano playing got kind of hard for me.

There weren't many bass players, though, so I picked up a bass and tried it, thinking: "Here's an instrument I could learn quickly." I didn't realise then just how long it does take, but I stuck with it. I learned the basics in class and the rest I taught myself. I'd never be ashamed, even now, to take a lesson from anyone who could do something I wanted to know.

Any advice on building lefthand fingering strength? Just practiceand more practice. Bowing is a great helpsustained notes. I practise a lot in private. I like bowing.

You may be interested to know—I've written a 144page book on bass playing that will be out in the USA and Canada in about three weeksand probably in England, too, pretty soon.

It contains all pizzicato exercises which can be bowed as well. They are pretty difficult, but they will enable a player to develop a sure, positive execution in all keys.