JJ 07/82: First Bass – Ray Brown interviewed

Forty years ago the bass maestro talked to Mike Hennessey about working with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, Oscar Peterson and more. First published in Jazz Journal July 1982

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Ray Brown (right) and Count Basie at Montreux in 1977. Photo from JJ Archive

A few years ago at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Ray and NHOP were summoned without warning by Norman Granz to play a set with Oscar Peterson. It seemed like a set-up for a cutting contest and, had you taken a quick ballot in the hall, my guess is that most money would have been riding on the Dane.

But the two musicians are far too mature, and have much too much respect for one another, to introduce a kind of ‘High Noon’ shoot-out into such a rare musical occasion. NHOP might outstrip Ray Brown for speed, but when it comes to sheer majestic authority, Raymond is still your man. It was a gracious encounter, though – each bassist leaving the other plenty of room.

I asked Ray what his feelings had been on that occasion in Montreux. He said:

‘Well, I guess it was a bit of a challenge. I hadn’t been out on the road much at that time; I’d been doing mostly studio work, and I’d come over to Europe to do that ‘Master Class’ series for British television. But I didn’t regard it as a contest – the main thing for Niels and I was to be ready for what Oscar was going to play. He doesn’t tell you titles or keys – but, by the same token, I could start a tune and he would pick it up. He knows Niels and I well enough to know that we’re not gonna get lost. That’s what you pay your dues for.

‘There are a lot of very fine, very fast bass players around today – people like Niels, Stanley Clarke and Eddie Gomez – so when a young guy takes up bass today, these are the people he hears and this is where he starts from. I started from Jimmy Blanton. But I’m not about to run away to woodshed – it’s too late for that, anyhow! It happens to all of us.

‘If you live long enough, you get to be the slowest gun in the west!’

‘There was a time when I would show up in a town and I was the fast gun. “Boy” people would say, “I never heard anybody play that fast before.” And it goes right on down the line. If you live long enough, you get to be the slowest gun in the west!

‘But I’m very fortunate. I’m still able to travel and play in various countries and still be liked by the public. I’m able to play what I like to play and as long as people want to listen, that’s fine with me.’

In 40 years of professional bass playing, Ray Brown has paid his dues in abundance and has earned a reputation as a fearless and resolute defender of musicians’ rights. To paraphrase Monty Alexander (who put it rather more bluntly), he accepts no nitro­genous fertilizer from anyone. I asked him if he deserved the reputation of being a tough man to deal with.

‘No, I don’t think I do. It is simply that I’ve got myself to a point in life where I think: If somebody wants me to come and perform, I’ve put in enough time, and they ought to think enough of me, to pay me decently. If they don’t, then I don’t come.

‘I can remember times in the early recording days when Dizzy, Bird, all of us, were just raped. They took our songs and gave us 25 bucks because we didn’t know any better’

‘Today, maybe, I can afford not to come – whereas in days gone by I would have had to take the gig to stay alive. Musicians in the past were always exploited, ripped off. I can remember times in the early recording days when Dizzy, Bird, all of us, were just raped. They took our songs and gave us 25 bucks because we didn’t know any better. I try to tell young guys now to protect themselves against this kind of thing. A lot of young musicians today are sharp enough to have their own publishing companies; but some of them don’t realise what we went through in those early days.’

By any standards – and especially by the frugal criteria of full-time professional jazz musicians – Ray Brown is very comfortably off today, dividing his time between studio work (the only time he uses Fender bass), tours with the LA4 and other small combos, and various festival appearances. His prosperity derives largely from his consummate expertise and experience as a musician, of course; but it is also, in part, due to his unremitting determination to get a fair reward for his work.

‘That wasn’t a major factor early on, because when you start out, you’re having so much fun playing that you don’t even think about the money. When I started playing with Oscar Peterson back in 1949, money didn’t count. It’s only when you get kids and mortgages that you become a little more concerned about how you’re gonna pay the bills.’

Even a decade after joining Peterson, Brown says, the money he earned was not spectacular considering the demanding tour schedules that had to be endured.

‘Working with Oscar wasn’t a big financial success for me until maybe the last four or five years [early 1960s]. I guess I was making 1,000 dollars or more a week’

‘Working with Oscar wasn’t a big financial success for me until maybe the last four or five years. I guess I was making 1,000 dollars or more a week and, towards the end I was on a percentage, so if the trio made a lot of money, I made a lot of money. But some of those tours were really punishing – we’d come to Europe and do 62 one-nighters in 65 days. We made a ton of money – but then I started to think “Hey! I don’t need this much money!” That’s the way it goes. You starve your ass off for years, then they say, “OK, you wanna make money? Here’s a marathon tour.” There doesn’t seem to be a middle way.’

Ray Brown was with Oscar Peterson for 15 years. ‘That’s longer’, he says with simulated awe, ‘than most guys stay with their wives! But there’s no doubt working with Oscar made me a better player. And I think we built something between us that will always stand up musicially. It was just that one day I looked up and realised I’d turned 40 and, although the money was great, the tour schedules were heavy and I figured I could probably do studio work in California and make the same bread – or almost. So I decided to quit.

I don’t regret the years with Oscar and we still get to play together from time to time. I think the definitive trio was the one with guitar – Barney Kessel, then Herb Ellis – because we put in a lot of time rehearsing and working out the guitar voicing with the piano. We didn’t miss a drummer because I was really the drummer in that trio, with the guitar player taking over sometimes when I soloed. Not having a drummer to lean on is good because it gives you confidence in your own time.’

Though Oscar Peterson has the reputation of being a relentless taskmaster, Ray Brown doesn’t agree that he was sometimes a difficult man to work for. ‘It’s so much a question of how you react to people. If you are not intimidated by absolute professionalism, then you have no problem. Sure he’ll throw you a curve from time to time by calling unscheduled numbers or unexpectedly doubling a tempo, but if you’re not good enough to handle that, you shouldn’t be playing with Oscar anyway. No, I really enjoyed my time with Oscar – I must have done, otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed 15 years. Unless I’m a masochist!’

Even in 1949, when he first played with Oscar Peterson at the age of 22, Ray Brown was not one to be intimidated easily, because he had already worked with some of the greatest musicians of the day and had survived what he regards as the most daunting experience of his entire musical career.

‘The Dizzy Gillespie Quintet was mind-blowing. Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Dizzy. If I had known those guys any better I would probably never have gone to the rehearsal. I really had no idea what giants they were’

‘It was after I left Snookum Russell’s Orchestra and went to New York. The first band I joined there was the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet – and it was mind-blowing. Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Dizzy. If I had known those guys any better I would probably never have gone to the rehearsal. I really had no idea what giants they were. The only guy I knew something about was Dizzy because some of his records had filtered through down south where I’d been playing with a territory band.

‘Charlie Parker I knew a little bit because when I was back home visiting after being on the road, my brother came in with a record of Walter Brown singing the blues with the Jay McShann Band. He played me the record and said “Hey Ray, listen to this blues singer.” But there was an alto solo on that record that turned me around. I told him to play the alto part again. That was Charlie Parker – but even then I didn’t realise what a complete genius he was.

‘As for Bud Powell, I’d seen him with Cootie Williams’ band – I played hookey from high school to catch the band every day of the week; and I’d seen Max Roach with Benny Carter. But I was too green really to understand what I was getting myself into! I guess if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have stayed at home!’

When you are pitched into the deep end of the jazz pool, as Ray Brown was when he arrived in New York from his native Pittsburgh and found himself in the Parker-Gillespie Quintet with Bud Powell and Max Roach at the tender age of 19, you either sink or swim. There is no one to throw you a lifejacket.

Ray Brown swam. So much so that when Gillespie formed his second – and most illustrious – big band in 1945, Ray was one of the star sidemen. He has treasured memories of that band. ‘It wasn’t so intimidating as that Three Deuces small group. I guess I’d gained a lot more confi­dence by then. It was a fantastic experience – you could feel that there was new music being born and it was a tremendously exciting time.

‘Dizzy was – and is – a funny guy and we had a lot of laughs in that band. But I learned a tremendous amount of music from him because I asked him a lot of questions’

‘Of course, the big band had a lot of rough edges to it – there were some into­nation problems – but had so much vitality, so much spirit! It was really some­thing else! You just can’t measure a thing like that – but I know I’d rather be in that kind of band any day than in one that plays exactly in tune and is so well-rehearsed that you sit there like a bunch of undertakers.

‘Dizzy was – and is – a funny guy and we had a lot of laughs in that band. But I learned a tremendous amount of music from him because I asked him a lot of questions.’

Like many musicians who have worked with John Birks Gillespie, Brown asserts that, no matter what instrument you play, you can learn to play it better if you work with Dizzy. However, if Ray Brown had arrived in New York carrying a trombone instead of a bass – as might well have happened – the chances are that he would not have got to play with Gillespie.

The possibility was there, because it was originally Ray’s intention to become a trombone player. Like so many other bassists, he really took up his instrument by default.

‘I was set on playing trombone – but my father just couldn’t afford to buy me an instrument and the school didn’t have one,” Ray recalls. “I studied piano for a while but I really didn’t have aspirations to become a pianist, especially as the school already had 20 or 30 piano players – that meant I’d be lucky if I got to play with the school orchestra once a week.

‘I used to hang around the side of the orchestra where the bass players were and, as there were only two bassists but three basses, I started messing around with the spare instrument. I gradually got more interested in it and started taking it home from school. As I got into it more and more, I got more kick out of playing it – and eventually I forgot about the trombone. It was bass all the way from then on.

‘I don’t think I had any special aptitude for the bass, but I guess studying piano had given me a good ear for harmonies. I think the study of piano is a good starting point for any musician – even a drummer – because it gives you an insight into the whole orchestra.’

Inevitably Ray’s idol on bass was Jimmy Blanton. ‘At the time I was picking up bass, Jimmy was making all those solos with Duke Ellington, around 1940 – that was the Blanton era and he was the out­standing exponent of the instrument.’

Ray had no formal lessons on bass to start with; he learned by trial and error, by listening to other bass players. He had always been a committed listener to music. From the time he was eight he’d been taken to neighbourhood theatres to hear a variety of black bands – such as those of Benny Carter, Fats Waller, The Sunset Royals – and to the big theatres in downtown Pitts­burgh to hear Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington playing between movies.

‘I grew up listening to some good music; I was always on the edge of my seat when the picture finished and I could hear the guys tuning up on stage behind the curtain. I can remember thinking very early on that the only thing I ever wanted to be was a musician,’ Ray says.

To be continued