JJ 08/82: First Bass – Ray Brown interviewed /2

Forty years ago Mike Hennessey concluded his conversation with the bass master, who touched on practising, his favourite instrument and more. First published in Jazz Journal August 1982

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Ray Brown in a publicity shot, probably for the Pablo record label

The first band Ray joined when he left school was a little territory quintet led by Jimmy Hinsley which was popular on the night club circuit of Pittsburgh, Baltimore and the north-east. After that came a short period with the Snookum Russell Or­chestra, a band which had earlier counted among its number such incipient stars as JJ Johnson and Fats Navarro.

Then it was the pilgrimage to New York, the ferocious initiation with the Parker-Gillespie Quintet and, later, the long association with Oscar Peterson – a part­nership which really earned Ray interna­tional celebrity and countless poll victories. There were also, of course, many ap­pearances with Norman Granz’s travelling JATP circus.

When Ray left Peterson in 1966, the new phase of his career was devoted to studio work, composing, publishing and manage­ment, with breaks for appearances at inter­national festivals. Then, in 1974, came the LA4 and a series of tours and record dates for the Concord label.

Of the LA4: ‘Some people even get a little offended by what we do and they say, “Hey, you’re not playing enough jazz!” Well, of course, we do play a lot of jazz but there’s much more variety in the music’

‘I’m enjoying working with the LA4 because it’s a different ball of wax, musically, from what I’ve been accustomed to doing. It’s structured music and therefore something of a diversion. In fact, some people even get a little offended by what we do and they say, “Hey, you’re not playing enough jazz!” Well, of course, we do play a lot of jazz but there’s much more variety in the music, and I enjoy that. After all, you do something for nearly 40 years and you get to want to change it a little bit.

‘Oscar did some of this type of thing – not as elaborate, but he certainly had arrangements and structures, and we didn’t read them; we had to remember them. The LA4 is a very professional group; we all compose and arrange, we take turns an­nouncing and we like to pace the pro­gramme, showcase the individual talents in the group and present a balanced and varied set.’

Although he’s been known to take a pret­ty abrasive line with promoters and book­ing agents who try to sell musicians short, Ray is widely known and respected for his sympathetic and co-operative attitude to other musicians, especially to those a little lower on the jazz ladder. I remember his coming on stage at Montreux one year to play an unscheduled and unpaid set with Phineas Newborn, just because Phineas had said earlier that he couldn’t wait to play with Ray again. He also consented to do an album date for a small French label with Swiss pianist Marc Hemmeler, to help give some extra name value to the recor­ding and, not incidentally, to enable Hem­meler to realise a lifelong ambition.

I asked Ray why he took such a benevolent view when many musicians of his stature tended to be aloof and unresponsive to players on a slightly lower level.

‘Well, there are a lot of pianists and drummers who have told me that the one thing they want to do is get up on stage and play one number with me. They don’t know how good or how bad I’m going to be – but they have this one thing on their mind.

‘I remember Lalo Schifrin telling me that, years ago, when he was still living in Argentina, his lady asked him what he wanted for Christmas and he told her “I want to play a set with Ray Brown”!

‘But I get as much excitement and en­joyment out of seeing somebody like Marc Hemmeler fulfil a dream as he does. It’s also nice to be wanted, anyway. We all want to be wanted and I can remember when I had the same kind of dreams. I was lucky enough to have a lot of them come true and I remember how much I ap­preciated it. I mean, when I first came to New York and I really didn’t know from nothing, there were a lot of musicians who were nice to me. Maybe there is a tendency for some musicians to forget this when they get to the top – but I don’t think a little humility hurts any of us.’

Ray Brown is resolutely optimistic about the future of jazz. He acknowledges that it will never achieve the same level of popularity as rock music; he even accepts that it is unlikely to retrieve the popularity it once enjoyed in the thirties when it was the dance music of the day.

‘But it is certainly not going to disap­pear,’ he says emphatically. ‘There are always going to be talented players coming along to keep the jazz flag flying. The styles may change – that’s in the nature of things and it happens to everything, automobiles, furniture, aeroplanes, architecture, everything changes. But the music goes on. And some of the newer players are doing some fantastic things.’

Ray accepts that no giants of the calibre of Lester, Bird and Bean have emerged on the scene since the advent of John Coltrane; ‘and maybe we’ve just got to wait a little while, because giants and geniuses don’t come along that often – I mean the real innovators, the people whom everybody else copies. Meanwhile it’s good to see more people interested in playing straight-ahead jazz that swings – people like Warren Vaché and Scott Hamilton.

‘And Monty Alexander; he’s from a younger generation than me, but he really gets down to the roots. He’s an ear player in the same mould as Erroll Garner and Milt Jackson and he’s a really talented musician. Guys like Monty usually finish up running their own band because if they’re in anybody else’s outfit, they may have to come to grips with reading charts or doing things musically which are not really akin to what they like to do.

‘On the other hand, I know that if I call Monty to make a gig I can sit down with him half an hour before we go on stage and run through the tunes and he’ll retain 90% of the message without having a thing writ­ten down. The other 10% comes together by communication onstage. There’s a mutual confidence. For example, when we made that live album at the Concord Jazz Festival, Monty came up with an in­strumental of his own called Consider. So he put the music up and I just played it from sight. After all, I’ve had to do that for years for a living, so it’s no big deal – but he knows it’s going to get played right, and his confidence in me gives him con­fidence.’

‘I got serious about studying the bass in the fifties when I found there were some things I couldn’t do – or couldn’t do con­sistently. And once I started studying I found there were a lot of things that I’d had no fear of before but which suddenly became intimidating. When a guy doesn’t know anything, he doesn’t have any fear’

Ray says people ask him all the time if it is necessary to study formally in order to play the bass and his unequivocal reply is: ‘You bet your ass it is – unless you’re a natural genius. I didn’t take lessons when I first started on the instrument. But musi­cians who can make it as professionals without some study are pretty rare. I guess Oscar Pettiford was the most precocious bass player of his time who didn’t have a lot of formal training – not as much, let’s say, as Mingus, for example.

‘But I got serious about studying the bass in the fifties when I found there were some things I couldn’t do – or couldn’t do con­sistently. And once I started studying I found there were a lot of things that I’d had no fear of before but which suddenly became intimidating. When a guy doesn’t know anything, he doesn’t have any fear. It’s like Wes Montgomery doing things on the guitar because he didn’t know they were impossible!’

Brown admits to great admiration for some of the newer arrivals on his in­strument. ‘There are a whole bunch of fine players who have helped raise the standard of bass playing. Today when a guy starts playing bass, the men he listens to are Stanley Clarke, Eddie Gomez and Niels and he assumes that this is the starting point.’

Ray Brown, however, is not about to woodshed in order to compete with the “fast guns”. ‘This is natural evolution and I consider myself very fortunate to be able to travel around the world playing and to still be liked by the public for what I do’.

Although he uses Fender bass on studio dates occasionally, he is much happier playing one of his three “steam” basses. His favourite among them is one given to him by his main teacher some 20 years ago – a 200-year-old French bass which is not exactly innocent of repairs.

‘It’s easier for bass players today because of amplification,’ Ray says. ‘In the days before amplifiers, you really had to struggle to make yourself heard! But you accepted it because that’s the way things were. It’s just the same when people ask “How did people live through the days when there was no air-conditioning?” The answer is that it was no problem because what you don’t have you don’t miss. Nobody said “Gee, I wish somebody would hurry up and invent air-conditioning.”

‘But people used to get a good sound without amplification. You can play an Ell­ington record of the thirties and hear Jimmy Blanton’s bass loud and clear. I find that the pure, unamplified sound of the bass, when it’s right, is the best sound you can get – but most guys just don’t know how to do it. You listen to the Stratford Memorial Concert album by Oscar. That was done without any amplification on the bass – but that’s a hell of a bass sound.’

It certainly is. It’s exactly the kind of sound, in fact, that you’d expect from a man who is still widely regarded as first bass.

See part one of this interview