Ray Brown was a stunning jazz bass talent whose career spanned over 50 years. He played double bass and cello, and worked extensively with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. He was featured on over 2000 records throughout the years, performing with such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Oscar Peterson.
Brown was one of the leading forces in the creation of the bebop style of jazz in the 1940s, and he was a long-term member of the Oscar Peterson Trio. Ray Brown was one of the original members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and he accompanied many famous singers of the day from Linda Ronstadt to Frank Sinatra. Jazz masters agree that Ray Brown was one of the leaders in defining the modern jazz rhythm.
Born in Pittsburg, Ray Brown began piano lessons at age eight. He began playing the upright bass in his high school jazz band. Major influences on Brown and his bass playing included Jimmy Blanton, the bassist in the Duke Ellington Band. Brown also felt a kinship with the likes of Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum, and Fats Waller.
Even before he graduated high school, Ray Brown was playing bass at local shows. He quickly became one of the most in-demand young bassists in the region. After graduating in 1944, he performed with the Jimmy Hinsley band for eight months.
At the tender age of 20, Brown bought a one-way ticket to New York City, where he was introduced to Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie hired him for his bebop group without so much as an audition. The next night, Brown was onstage with the group that included Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach. These men were the giants in the bebop jazz style, and their music featured fast tempos and complex harmonies. Brown continued with Gillespie’s band through 1951. Drummer Kenny Clarke and Ray Brown formed the Modern Jazz Quartet, one of the most famous jazz groups of the time. He met Ella Fitzgerald and married her in 1947.
During the late 1940s, Brown played in Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts organized by Norman Granz. In 1949, Brown first performed with pianist Oscar Peterson. This led to a long-term collaboration in which Brown played in Peterson’s trio from 1951 to 1966. He also became a manager and music promoter during this time. He and Fitzgerald divorced in 1952, but Brown continued to collaborate with her and produce her music.
During the Oscar Peterson Trio years, Brown became widely known an admired for his intricate bass solos, and for the development of a hybrid cell-bass instrument in 1960. The trio ranked consistently as one of the most popular jazz groups in the 1950s and 1960s.
Brown relocated to Los Angeles in 1966 and quickly gained work for television show orchestras. It was during this period that Ray Brown got the opportunity to accompany some of the musical greats such as Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, and Frank Sinatra. Brown also managed the Modern Jazz Quartet along with the young Quincy Jones. He produced shows performed at the Hollywood Bowl, developed a jazz cello, composed movie and television scores, and wrote jazz instruction books. Brown continued to work as a freelance jazz musician as well as a studio performer. Ray Brown got to play with the legendary Duke Ellington in the early 1970s, shortly before Ellington’s death.
After leaving the Oscar Peterson Trio in 1965, Brown moved to Hollywood and founded the LA Four in 1974. By the mid-1970s, Brown was playing four days a week on the Merv Griffin Show. Between 1974 and 1982, Brown recorded albums and performed live with the LA Four. He played on every Frank Sinatra TV special, directed the Monterey Jazz Festival for two years, and he was music director at the Concord Summer Festival in 1976 and 1977.
Zan Stewart of Down Beat magazine gave the Something for Lester album, created with pianist Cedar Walton and drummer Elvin Jones, a 5-star rating. Stewart commented that Brown was “the superlative bassist” and raved about his “glorious tone… his superb intonation.”
Throughout the rest of the 1980s and 1990s, Ray Brown led his own jazz trios, touring and recording extensively. He continued to refine and expand his bass style in everything he did. The emerging talent of jazz piano player Diana Krall studied under Brown, among others. The Legendary Oscar Peterson Trio reunited from 1990 to 1993, featuring Brown, Herb Ellis, and Oscar Peterson. Ray Brown continued to play with the last version of his Ray Brown Trio until his death in 2002.
His tasteful rhythm lines and his forceful yet melodic solo performances defined Ray Brown’s musical style. Not only was Brown technically masterful but he possessed a vast depth of musical knowledge and amazing bass technique. Other musicians described Brown’s playing as having “a feather-fingered guitar-like virtuosity” on the bass. He was treasured as an accompanist for having astounding foresight when collaborating with other artists. He took the bass technique to a soulful, more sophisticated than traditional jazz bass lines.
Dizzy Gillespie commented about Brown’s sound that it was “so deep and true you could hear the wood.”
Ben Ratliff of the New York Times wrote in 2000 “Brown is still one of the best musicians out there. His notes are shapely, fat, round and well defined. His rhythm is so propelling that on up-temp pieces his eighth-notes are always blowing wind into the music.”
Also in 2000, Mike Joyce from the Washington Post observed “One of the great and enduring joys of jazz is watching bassist Ray Brown dig his fingers into a deep, rhythmic groove until he is smiling like a kid who just got his hands on a new toy.
Dizzy Gillespie’s memoir “To Be or Not to Bop” claimed that “Ray Brown, on bass, played the strongest, most fluid and imaginative bass lines in modern jazz at the time with the exception of Oscar Pettiford.”
Ray Brown was the most-cited musician in the initial edition of the Penguin Guide to Recorded Jazz, published in 1992. He received multiple awards, including the National Endowment for the Arts “Jazz Masters Award.” He received the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art – 1st Class in 2001. In 2003, Down Beat inducted him into their Hall of Fame.
Ray Brown was a fixture in popularity polls of both listeners and music critics. Most include him in the top five greatest jazz bassists, in the company of Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Blanton, Milt Hinton, and Charles Mingus. Brown received his first Grammy award for “Gravy Waltz,” which was later used as the Steve Allen Show theme song. The albums of the Legendary Oscar Peterson Trio earned at least four Grammies for Brown.
Ray Brown’s lasting legacy among jazz musicians is his contribution to bebop as a musical style and to the bassist’s role in that. Other standouts in the bebop revolution included greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. Brown led the way in educating young bass players as they learned the instrument.
Thomas Owens wrote in Bebop: The Music and Its Players in 1995 that Brown was “an agile, inventive, and often humorous soloist. His bow technique is excellent…he shines most brilliantly as an accompanist. Examples of his beautiful lines are legion.”
Herb Ellis, interviewed in The Guitar Player Book, stated “Ray Brown is in a class all by himself. There is no other bassist in the world for me, and lots of players feel the same way… Ray has it all locked up.”
In addition to being a top-echelon soloist, Ray Brown was a leader in defining the modern jazz rhythm section. He influenced some of the great jazz performers with his dynamic and unique sense of swing. Brown dedicated most of his later career to passing on his musical knowledge and experience to the next generation. He became deeply involved in mentoring and educating young jazz performers, writing bass instruction books and developing a jazz cello.