Ray Brown's long
history of leading the Bass pack
The tear stains have not yet dried on the top bouts of acoustic basses the world around, even though the bass's top practitioner -- Ray Brown -- has been dead since July 2. True to form, the veteran died on the road, having performed a tour engagement the previous evening in Indianapolis, Indiana.
To call the 75-year-old genius a "veteran" seems a no-brainer among the jazz cognoscenti, because Ray Brown was so much more than that. If Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis charted the course of the jazz ship from the crow's nest, Brown was the ballast and rudderman, the top practitioner of his instrument who steered several generations of jazz artists through the twists and turns of changing fashion and kept the vessel on an even keel.
And, dating from the openings of the more experimental byways of jazz, Brown was there every step of the way, turning up when you'd least expect him, but then, by his very presence on some exploratory date, proving that he was the logical choice all along. Brown was that rarity among all musicians, only slightly more common among jazz artists, whose reach was so wide, whose grasp was so sure and confident, that he assimilated every imaginable style. He was as comfortable in the big band as in the trio; he could hold the bottom together without losing the heartbeat; he could solo or support, depending upon the requirements of the tune or the necessities of the ensemble, or both.
And what a galaxy of fine musicians decorated the firmament around Ray Brown! Bird Parker, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie brought Brown into the bop fold and gave him a prime role in the great cast that revolutionized jazz. The former husband of Ella Fitzgerald, Brown was so dedicated a musician that he didn't let a four-year-long failed marriage to the finest instrument ever crafted by the Almighty deter him from sticking around to lead Ella's sidemen after the couple split the sheets in 1952.
And think of his scope.
Bop? Brown was there. Scat singing? Brown was there. Third Stream? Brown was there, filling a chair in the early Modern Jazz Quartet lineup. Small-ensemble piano jazz? Brown smiled and performed with delight in the trio of Oscar Peterson. Band leader? There he was again, playing all over the landscape with the best musicians the jazz world could muster. Interestingly, he'd just released the latest in a series that began in 1994 on the Telarc label. The "Some Of My Best Friends Are ...." series includes pianists, trumpeters, singers, guitarists and saxophonists.
For new listeners to Brown, these recordings are a good recent place to start, although the long list of recordings that punctuate his more than 50 years in the business are so full of shining gems that one is daunted from recommending any of them over the others because all of them are so good.
However, 1965's "Ray Brown With Milt Jackson" [Verve] will allow one to hook an ear into his catalog with a taste of post-bop and Third Stream influence. The pity, however, is that the recording seems no longer to be in print. The good news, though, is that Verve has been among the leaders in recent years of putting together some laudable packages from their bulging vault of great recordings, so there is hope that this performance by two of the giants of jazz will once again become available.
"Something For Lester" [Original Jazz, 1979] is still in print but hard to find. But it deserves mention here for a closer look at the many tools in Brown's toolbox.
Finally, "Don't Get Sassy" [Telarc, 1994], though only eight years old, is worth a mention, with Brown, pianist Benny Green and drummer Jeff Hamilton winding their stunning way through a variety of engaging tunes, including "Brown's New Blues" and "Kelly's Blues," penned by his old partner, Oscar Peterson; and the title cut by Thad Jones.
It's going to be difficult to adjust to a jazz scene without the benevolent artistry of Ray Brown, who, like so many of his generation, seemed destined always to be present for the next great movement in the genre. That missed potential is saddest of all for the music, because, as grand and mighty as the contributions of the Brown generation were, those gifts now are frozen in time and will assume the characteristics of history.
For myself, each death of a member of that generation has brought an increasing sense of glumness, despite my faith in the resiliency of jazz. It's long past time for the men in suits to start combing the clubs -- my favorite venues for jazz consumerism -- for the gig-grizzled veterans who have stood in their day as tall of the more familiar names in our record collections. They're out there. They have something to say. Let's go find them.
In the meantime, as another bright light winks out, save a tear for Ray Brown.