Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Brown, Ray (Raymond Matthews)

Bassist Ray Brown's ability to tailor his imaginative technique to any ensemble made him a key player in the bebop movement, and the accompanist of choice for many singers. In Brown's hands, the bass contained all the harmonic possibilities of modern music, which set a new standard for the instrument.

                      Ray Brown (with Christian McBride)
                                 Photo by Ron Hudson

Always in demand, Brown performed and recorded with musicians in both jazz and popular music, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Oscar Peterson and dozens more.

Raymond Matthews Brown was born on October 13, 1926 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He began his musical education at the age of eight by taking piano lessons. He enhanced his musical vocabulary by listening to and memorizing recordings by pianist Fats Waller.

In high school, Brown wanted to join the orchestra, but was frustrated by the number of piano players he had to compete with in the ensemble. He decided to stop playing the piano, and at first thought he might play the trombone. When he was unable to purchase this instrument, he switched to bass, which the school's music department could supply, and which the orchestra needed.

One of Brown’s earliest influences was Jimmy Blanton, the bassist for Duke Ellington. Blanton soon became a model for the aspiring bassist. Every day in high school, he would listen to Blanton and practice his bass lines. As a teenager, Brown began to play local gigs, and soon began to make a name for himself on the Pittsburgh jazz scene. Disregarding offers by bandleaders, the teen heeded his mother’s advice ,and finished high school before going on tour with regional bands.

After graduating from high school in 1944, Brown performed with the Jimmy Hinsley Sextet for eight months. It was during this time that he was introduced to the playing of Leroy “Slam” Stewart and Oscar Pettiford, two of the era's major bass players. Brown then joined the touring band of pianist Snookum Russell. While on the road with Russell, Brown was encouraged by fellow band members to move to New York City, where he could pursue a freelance career.

On Brown's first night in New York in 1945, he went straight to 52nd Street, where he met up with pianist Hank Jones, a friend from the road. Jones in turn introduced him to trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. That same night, Gillespie hired Brown without an audition, on Jones’s recommendation. It wasn’t until the next day, at his first rehearsal, that Brown discovered he had joined the era's most advanced group, alongside alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, drummer Max Roach, and pianist Bud Powell.

Brown went on to play in Gillespie's big band, and was showcased on the song “One Bass Hit.” On tour with Gillespie in 1947, the rhythm section of Brown, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, pianist John Lewis and drummer Kenny Clarke decided to form their own repertoire, to allow the band's horn players to rest their chops between sets. This ensemble later performed and recorded under their own name as the Modern Jazz Quartet.

While on the road with Gillespie, Brown became acquainted with vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, who was a special guest during a tour of the southern United States in 1947. The two became a couple and married on December 10, 1947 in Ohio. The couple moved into the East Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens, New York with their adopted son Ray Brown Jr. They divorced in 1952, stating their careers overshadowed their marriage, but remained friends and performed and recorded together on several occasions.

At the end of 1947 Brown left the Gillespie band and joined Fitzgerald to tour and record with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) organization. On a JATP tour in September of 1949, Brown met and performed with Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson as a duo, when at the last minute drummer Buddy Rich was unable to perform. Brown went on to join Peterson’s trio, and performed with him from 1951 to 1966.

In 1953, Brown played with Gillespie and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz on the album Diz And Getz. On “Exactly Like You," Brown's strong performance unites the styles of the co-leaders' horns. Brown changes his performance in subtle ways, depending on which horn is soloing. In doing so, his playing provides the balance between Diz and Getz.

From 1957 to 1959, Brown performed with singer and pianist Blossom Dearie on five recordings for Verve Records. In 1958, Dearie released the album Once Upon A Summertime, which includes “Tea For Two.” On this track, Brown's solemn tone is well suited to the ballad. He captures the song's mood by never overpowering the ensemble, allowing Dearie’s performance to take center stage.

Following the example of his early hero Oscar Pettiford, Brown began play the cello, and released the album Jazz Cello in 1960. Always an innovator, Brown helped to develop a hybrid instrument which combined the features of both the bass and the cello: this instrument included a modified bridge and geared tuning heads, like those found on an upright bass. This instrument is considered a precursor to the contemporary piccolo bass.

In 1962 the Peterson trio released the album Night Train. On the title track, Brown's stylish feel enhances the song’s pleasant mood. Peterson and drummer Ed Thigpen add embellishments which perfectly complement his bass solo on this track.

In 1966, Brown left the Oscar Peterson Trio and moved to Los Angeles, where he played with several television variety show orchestras. During this time, Brown also accompanied many top vocalists, such as Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan. Brown also began to branch out into other elements of the music industry including, management, production, and publishing. He made full use of his time; managing the Modern Jazz Quartet, writing instruction books, and managing the career of then-trumpeter Quincy Jones. He also produced shows at the Hollywood Bowl.

Los Angeles also offered Brown opportunities to perform and compose soundtracks for films and television productions. He composed music for John Cassavettes’ 1970 film Husbands and performed on tracks for several short films. In 1963, Brown won a Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition, for the song “Gravy Waltz,” which would later be used as the theme to the The Steve Allen Show.

In 1972, Brown cofounded the L.A. Four, a group which combined Brazilian, classical and jazz styles, with saxophonist and flutist Bud Shank, guitarist Laurindo Almeida, and drummer Shelly Manne. The group remained active for a decade.

Also in 1972, Brown recorded with composer Duke Ellington, which had been a lifelong goal. Brown and Ellington recorded This One’s For Blanton, a tribute to the bassist's childhood idol. For this session, the pair reconstructed Blanton's famous performances with Ellington’s from 1939 and 1940.

Throughout the eighties, Brown continued to work in management. He discovered singer Diana Krall in a restaurant in Nanaimo, British Colombia, and persuaded her to move to Los Angeles so she could with better network with teachers, musicians and producers.

In 1984, Brown created a new trio with pianist Gene Harris and drummer Jeff Hamilton. Brown also participated in the accompaniment of Charlie Parker’s music for the 1988 film Bird, directed by Clint Eastwood. Brown did so with some reluctance, as he felt that his original recordings with Parker did not need to be updated.

In 1987, Brown toured with Harris and drummer Mickey Roker. In 1992, he was named a Jazz Master by the United States' National Endowment for the Arts, the nation's highest honor for a jazz musician.

On July 2, 2002, during a stop in Indianapolis, Brown decided to take a nap in his hotel room after playing a round of golf. He passed away in his sleep at the age of 75. Brown was posthumously inducted into Down Beat magazine's Jazz Hall of Fame in 2003.

Select Discography

As Ray Brown

New Sounds In Modern Music (1946)

This Is Ray Brown (1958)

Jazz Cello (1960)

Ray Brown With Milt Jackson (1965)

Brown’s Bag (1975)

As Good As It Gets (1977)

Bye Bye Blackbird (1985)

Black Orpheus (1994)

With Blossom Dearie

Blossom Diaries (1957)

Give Him The Ohh-La-La (1958)

Once Upon A Summertime (1959)

Blossom Dearie Sings Comden And Green (1959)

My Gentleman Friend (1961)

With Dizzy Gillespie

Diz And Getz (1953)

With Billie Holiday

Lady Day (1952)

With Ella Fitzgerald

Ella And Louis (1956)

These Are The Blues (1963)

With Duke Ellington

This One’s For Blanton (1972)

With Oscar Peterson

Night Train (1962)

Montreux ’77 (1977)

Last Call At The Blue Note (1990)

Saturday Night At The Blue Note (1990)

Encore At The Blue Note (1990)

Contributor: Eric Wendell