Ray Brown: Interview 1
Ray Brown: Interview 2

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.


A widening scope

Les Tomkins interviewed Ray Brown again in 1973 and the bassist talked about relocating to California after he left the Oscar Peterson Trio, his work with the L. A. Four and the kinds of musical jobs available on the US west coast.


Ray Brown: Interview 3

Ray Brown: Interview 2

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1979
Interview source Jazz Professional
Image source credit
Image source URL
Reference number
Forename Ray
Quantity 2
Surname Brown

Interview Transcription

I’ve had a more relaxed lifestyle I since I left Oscar, back in the ‘sixties. I stopped travelling, settled down in California, and began to do studio work there. I began to enjoy it; it was quite nice for quite a few years. I got a chance to do a lot of movie and TV work with a lot of very good conductors, who are writing excellent scores. But a lot of that’s changed now; even the good conductors are relegated to maybe having to try to find a disco hit for a movie now so that takes away from their talent. It dilutes it, really. Well, guess that’ll have its day, and then it’Il go away.

I write myself, on and off, but most of the writing I do is usually material for recordings, or for the group I’m with like the L. A. Four, right now. I haven’t had any real big writing binges for a while. I think I’m about to go on one soon, though I feel one coming on. I’m going to have to write a couple of books for a Japanese firm that I’m doing business with. Once I get into that, I’ll maybe write every day for a couple of months. I’ll do the books, write a couple of suites, all the things I’ve had in the back of my mind to do I’m going to just get it all done. Let it out—and then I can relax again, and get into some other things.

If you’re a player, and not a writer per se, you tend to write in spurtswhat little writing you do. I usually will take a commitment to write something, then have to write it at the last minute. Then I’m forced to do it. Yes, sometimes it can turn out better that way. But you can’t get as much done; if you know that you have a deadline, and you have a lot of things to do, it’s best to start writing and just get on with it. I mean, if it’s a lot of stuff, it can’t all be real great; but I think it will have its great moments, anyway, that will come of this.

Although, of course, I haven’t been in the centre of the jazz scene; I’ve still managed to keep my hand in with playing. It’s a different type of hand you have when you stay in one town; it limits your jazz scope and ability. It isn’t the same type of playing; you just don’t play the same as you would if you were travelling, and seeing a brand new audience every other week, or every other night. It’s a different feeling.

As for the L. A. Four I don’t have to explain to you that it is not your everyday jazz group; you can hear that, and see what we’re doing. Yes, although we do play jazz, we are drawing from a lot of classical things. The classical pieces we play are mainly adaptations; some are played right on. But the whole concept of the group is not one of just getting up, jamming, like your average jazz group would be. There’s a lot more work involved here, The reason being that we have, first of all, a classic guitarist, who has had exposure to some jazz, as well as some bossa nova and things. . . but I think he’s even finding it invigorating because he’s doing different things now: I was just talking to the guys in the band room last night, and I don’t think it was designed this way we discovered that we .don’t have a blues number in our book. I mean, we play blues–type things, but there’s non a written arrangement on a blues. So I told ‘em: “That’s my next project I’m writing a blue’s for this band.” The things that happen to this group aren’t designed. At first Laurindo was taking the heavy load of doing most of the writing; now, everybody’s writing, and that’s good for the band, because you’re drawing from different areas. I’m from a jazz era, from Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson; my roots are steeped in Ellington; when I was a kid, I listened to Fats Waller and all the big bands, you know. I’m sure Bud has had a similar musical experience—not with the same things, but a relatively similar upbringing, in terms of jazz music. Laurindo has had other kinds of background, And then Jeff Hamilton, being a young fellow, has missed a lot of the stuff that we originally heard, but he brings in a new element.

His first arrangement was “Spain” by Chick Corea; that’s near to where his beginnings are. Although if I refer to Ellington, he knows what I’m talking about he’s done his research. That’s good, but he has come up in an era of newer music; so we have that contact.

No, I’m in no great need of playing blues I’d like to have a dollar for every one I’ve played. And besides, if you have the ‘blues’, it’ll come out when you play anyway I don’t care if you’re playing a pop song, or whatever. When it’s your turn to solo, what’s in you is going to come out. You can put blue notes in anything. It’s not something that you have to discuss it just happens.

The group originated from a succession of happenings, really. We had a trio, and Laurindo said: “I think we ought to call Bud Shank up. We used to do some quartet things years ago.” I said: “Yeah, why don’t we do that.” That’s really how it got started. For the last three or four years the group hasn’t been working more than somewhere between four and eight weeks a year; all of a sudden now, everybody has decided that they want to work more so we’re sort of picking it up a little bit.

On the question of having enough repertoire the more you work, the more repertoire builds up, because you do more rehearsing. You don’t want to go back to the same places playing the same music; you have to get new music to make records also. As a matter of fact, we haven’t had a release this year; we owe the record company an album, and it’ll soon be two albums. So we’re playing ketchup right now; we’re busy rehearsing and writing, trying to get material for our albums.

I enjoy the scope of what we do very much that experience everybody should have, I think; anybody who is playing music would enjoy that. Whereas in, say, Oscar’s group, we were basically a jazz trio; it was mostly straight ahead, and that’s all. Maybe once in a while we would do something different, but it wasn’t near the variety that we have in this band. In one set we can play five or six different areas of music.

My move out West was something I had planned. At first I didn’t nave a set date, and then as it went on I got a target date. I got there finally about when I thought I would. Sure, it was a complete change of environment. The West Coast is made up almost strictly of studio musicians—because they do almost all the movies and television out there, a great deal of recordings and quite a bit of jingles. So there’s room for a lot of studio musicians. The only other place would be New York City, and that’s gotten smaller and smaller, because there are very few movies ‘being done in New York now.

No major TV shows are left there they’ve all moved to the Coast. In New York now, you can do a lot of theatre, a lot of nightclub work, recording or jingles. If you’re in bhe East and you want to do nightclub work, you’d better stay there unless you just want to go out to California for the weather. On the West Coast, I think even the younger musicians who aren’t doing studio work have an eye cast to eventually getting to it; it’s just a matter of waiting for their turn. Whereas a young musician in the East might not have that in mind; he might just have in mind being a better jazz musician.

When you get my age, you’re either going to be in studio work, or you’re going to be in some musical organisation that is well–known and works all the time. You could wind up with a Count Basie or somebody, who works year round; maybe one of the popular small groups, like Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Ahmad Jamal, George Shearing, Phil Woods, Stan Getz, that still travel around. But there are not too many people like me, who are riding the cracks at this point. It’s been my choice; I did studio work for fifteen years, and it isn’t as exciting now as it was so I think I’m starting to drift away from it.

After a fifteen year lapse, I’m beginning to enjoy the road again, although I’m not travelling ten or eleven months out of the year. Take this year : I had a one month tour in Japan with Milt Jackson, and we had a great time; then we had a three week tour across Canada with the L: A. Four. After the present tour, we may go out for some weekends up and down the coast; that may be the extent of our travel for the rest of this year.

On and off, I do quite a ‘bit of recording not all the time, but some time. Yeah, Concord have been doing a lot of things; well, I’ve enjoyed that, you know as it’s been a lot of fun. And then I’ve been doing the Pablo stuff, too, and that’s been interesting. Between the two labels—then every once in a while you do some different things. The Japanese come in, and you do some records like the thing I did with Joe Sample and Shelly, or with Paul Smùith and Louie Bellson, or Bill Berry. I’ve been rather lucky in that respect, that I’ve ,been doing a fair amount of records still.

Am I finding new reserves in my playing? Well. . . maybe I’m talking too fast, but some nights I find that I’m starting to really get into things that I haven’t been into before. And it’s proving to be interesting to me. I don’t know how far I’m going to carry this, but as of right now, it’s been exciting.

The physical element I’ve alleviated by changing instruments. I don’t have those big basses that I used to carry around, now; I’m playing a much smaller instrument. So it’s awash, us far as that goes I’m breaking even. The energy that I used to have as a young fellow I put on some pretty big basses I mean, I’ve wrestled some huge bass fiddles, you know. If I were playing one of those basses now, I would get snowed under, maybe nightly, trying to wrestle one of those.

With the much smaller bass, I’m still able to play closer to the energy period I had when I was in my twenties ‘and thirties. As of now, I’m pretty happy about what’s coming out, and I’m looking forward to improving that. And you have to look forward to that, I think one has to hope to do better. I’m sure if I were eighty– five years old and still playing a note, I’d hope to play something better the next day, We all have to have that—that’s what keeps us going.

You can become dulled as a creative player if you’re heavily into studio work. What happens is: you lose your chops first, and then you lose. . . well, it’s a combination of things. When you play solos, you have to think of something to play, and if you play regularly, the thought processes are well–oiled, and you can think of things. Then, When you start thinking of things to play, the hands have to be able to execute it. It’s like I remember distinctly Joe Louis saying when he got older he saw openings that, in his younger days, if a guy just opened up his hands five inches, he would have shot through there in an instant; now all he could do was look at ‘em they open and close, and he’s still standing there. That’s the same thing I think happens to you in music.

That’s what I like about this group also : I am forced to do a large portion of soloing. There’s only the guitar, the bass and the saxophone; the drummer does a lot of soloing, but he still have to keep time. So the major part of the soloing—especially on the jazz things is between Bud and myself; then on the bossa nova and classical stuff, Laurindo carries the bigger load. I have to play a lot of solos, and at all kinds of different tempos, including some really fast things you just have to face up to it every night. Either you start playing it, or you just quit—it runs over you. I’m not about to be run over; so I’m going to fight it, nightly. And it’s getting to the point where I even feel like I win some nights! When you feel like that that’s what keeps you out here.

Copyright © 1979, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.