Ray Brown: Interview 2
Ray Brown: Interview 3

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.


Fusions and phases in jazz

Ray Brown interviewed by Les Tomkins in 1980, talked about the range of music played by the co-operative L. A. Four quartet, about the electric bass, and using the bow in playing the acoustic bass.


Dave Brubeck: Interview 1

Ray Brown: Interview 3

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1980
Interview source Jazz Professional
Image source credit
Image source URL
Reference number
Forename Ray
Surname Brown
Quantity 3

Interview Transcription

Do I set aside time to bass practice? Yes—you got to give it a little more time now. Most nights I bring it home. I wrote an arrangement for our drummer (Jeff Hamilton) in the L. A. Four today; then Laurindo and I are writing one for the two of us. So we had a rehearsal this afternoon. The nice thing about our group is that we can rehearse in a hotel room; we don’t need a piano. We can just set up and rehearse anywhere. Jeff doesn’t even have to set up the whole kit—it’s that type of group. He can just get a newspaper and a pair of brushes, and we can get a simulation of the sound.

I have more to do with the bow; so I practice more with that now. In fact, we just had a piece today that I’m going to have to do some work on; we’re doing a combination of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Monk’s “Round Midnight’.

And it’s all bow; there’s no pizzicato at all. But it’s very pretty, and I’m enjoying it; so it`s nice to practise that kind of stuff too.

Another arrangement I made was of an Ellington medley; we’re going to do some of that. We’re taking some of the well–known composers. . . it has to be somebody who’s written a lot of stuff, so you have something to choose from.

Yeah, Michel Legrand would be a good one, or Richard Rodgers. We’re just going to take some of the more prominent people; we do four numbers usually—each number features one of the instruments. Each person takes whatever song he wants to perform, and we put ‘em together that way. With a lot of the medleys, what we’re going to do is: each one will pick a song and arrange it himself. That makes for more interesting listening than just sitting down and playing. a given song. And I think the merger of a very pretty ballad and a classical piece—kind of weaved into each other—is also an interesting concept.

On the question of attempts to fuse jazz with classical music—regardless of what answer I give, it’s up to the individual whether he likes it or not. It’s not that I’m ducking it. I’m not talking about the player’s point of view; I’m taking it a step further—to the listener’s point of view. Put yourself as a listener, rather than as a player. You go in and you hear this, and you say: “Ah—I don’t think they’re making it.” That’s on that particular piece; maybe you then hear another piece, and you say: “Oh—that one’s making it.” So I think a group like ours has to profit from the mistakes of the MJQ—if, in effect, they did make any mistakes. Because that was a very successful, very well– liked group, and I think that they bridged the gap rather successfully in a lot of cases. I believe our group is even more expanded than that. I don’t mean to imply that we’re a better group; I just mean we go further into it. The problem with the MJQ was that only one guy was writing; here, we have four people writing. Which may dilute some of the writing talent; maybe some of us are better writers than others—but we have a much bigger variety to pull from musically. I don’t know—I have to let someone else make that opinion; I can just tell you what we’re attempting to do. Whether we’re pulling it off or not is up to the listener.

I can’t say whether we’re successfully merging classical and pop music or jazz. You might bring ten people in to hear it; five might say: “Yes, we like it”, and the other five might not like it.

But we’ve been very well accepted—and I know it’s happened in the rock field. I mean, this guy who wrote “A Fifth Of Beethoven” is still doing quite well. Good or bad, he sold millions of albums—and that was definitely a merger.

Maybe we purists might not like it—but it was accepted by the man in the street. We’re not about to sell near a million records; we don’t even entertain the thought. The only thought that we have is: playing to the very best of our abilities, and trying to bring people the best music we can. I want to leave some good music here when I go. There’s enough garbage here already.

As regards my other involvements—my wife has a talent agency that she s running, and, of course, when you’re married to somebody, it’s hard to stay out of those things. Naturally, I’ve got a foot in it somewhere. That’s something that I may want to do if I ever get out of playing; but it’s hard for me to get into business, because I can’t lay the bass down. I try to lay it down, and I wind up picking it back up all the time. You know—when you think about carrying that thing around, trying to get on airplanes, fighting with airlines and taxicabs—it’s a big hassle, to get to that stage and play.

At this point—I find that when I get on the stage, that’s the easiest part of the day. Getting to the challenge of the music is easy, after you’ve fought your way on to the airplane, and got through that whole maze of stuff you’ve got to deal with.

On the general music scene—I’m not an authority by any means; I can’t speak on this subject and say: “I know for a fact”—but I have the feeling that it’s in some sort of peak period at this point. It’s not so much the recording aspect; if you say there’s more jazz recorded now than there was forty years ago—of course, there are more people to buy it. Even though more people are buying rock, there’s still more people around. So I don’t want to go for that angle; I want to go from the fact that there are more places for you to go to play. That’s what I base my thing on—suddenly I look up, and there are more cities to go to, to present your music. Maybe five years ago there weren’t so many places, or so many festivals going on. I feel that it’s opening up more. You know—jazz music isn’t ever going to go away; it’s been here, and it’s going to stay here. It’s going to be big at times, and it’s going to be small. Maybe it was as big as it’s going to be back in the ‘thirties—who knows? It just seems to be at some kind of a beginning right now. It’s good to see it surviving so healthily.

You’ve got to have the young musicians—that’s for sure. I try to encourage them all I can; Lord knows, we need them. I was teaching at the University in Los Angeles, and I take on the occasional student. I can’t teach them on a regular basis, because I’m too busy; I’m running out of town and doing things. But what I do is: I give them maybe a two or three hour tape lesson. We put it on tape, so that they can make references to it. But when I say I encourage musicians—they don’t have to be bass players; they can be piano players or saxophone players. I just encourage them to study and become the best possible players that they can. What youngsters need more than anything is somebody to show an interest in them—to tell them that they’ve got something going, and that if they just work at it, it’s going to pay off.

The electric bass? Of course it’s taken away from the string bass. It’s been embraced by every composer—well, a large portion of the writers and the people who record music. It’s louder than the string bass; it’s easier to transport—you can ship it anywhere. You can even run over it with your car, and take it out and play it. So it has some advantages. Yes, I have to play it in the studios—because your average all–day movie or television call: you start out with a big string orchestra in the morning generally, and then after lunch you break down to maybe fifteen or eighteen pieces, and you wind up in the late afternoon with a quartet doing disco, or something like that. It’s almost like that every day; this is part of the business.

It has made a large dent in the string bass, of course. But I think that the string bass isn’t about to disappear; it’s going to stay there. It’ll come back, and be stronger than it is now. A lot of youngsters come up to me, who only play electric, and they say: “We’d like to take some lessons from you. We want to do on the electric what you do on the string.” I say: “Well, what I would suggest you do is play both instruments. Don’t just become proficient in one. At your age, this is a time for you to study them both. Ten years from now, the electric may be out, or not as widespread as it is now, and maybe the string will be back in. Then there’ll be a big shortage of bass players, because everybody’ll be standing around with electrics in their hands.” As long as they play both, they’ll have a hand on whatever’s going on in the music business.

When I started, there were no amplifiers, and hardly any microphones. I mean, you just stood in the back of the band, and you never got to play over the microphone. The microphone was for the vocalist usually, or announcements—and once in a while a saxophone or a trumpet would go down there and play. So you had to be heard; you had to play with a lot of strength and dexterity. But I think that orchestras were aware of that, and you always heard the bass player. You stood in front of an orchestra and you could hear everybody; they blew so that you could, for some reason. I remember standing in front of Lunceford, Basie, Ellington and all those bands, and I could hear the bass as good as everybody else. The only thing that happens, I think, since they got amplification, is that the guys just blow louder. You go to the average concert now, they have eight microphones on the drums—so you bet there’s got to be some loud blowing to compete with that.

Copyright © 1980, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.