Though he was a different kind of musician Ray Brown’s type of music signaled that a new kind of musician was beginning to appear. Brown was a scholar and a theorist of music, he wasn’t just a performer, but someone that set no limits on what his music might be.
Reviewing the lives of jazzmen, there are certain recurrent features, the instant and early recognition- often almost in infancy-of the music that is to be their destiny. In a recent interview with Brown, I asked the bassist of his early big band years. He spoke of the experiences and what it was like to work with the greats like the brilliant instrumentalist Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson and an astonishing list of other gifted musicians who have passed through Brown’s lifetime. He reminisced of doing a duet with Duke Ellington and deemed it as one of his favorite recording sessions.
Brown spoke of his resolute refusal to compromise with the commercialism and the persistence in playing the "right" kind of music. He had great enthusiasm, great energy, strong opinion and a strong will.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1926, his formal musical training on piano at age eight (he laughed during the interview, as he mentioned how he would have rather been out playing baseball). After completing high school, Brown joined The Jimmy Hinsley sextet and traveled with the group for 6 months. Brown played with the Snookum Russell band for a short period of time and afterwards moved to New York.
During a rehearsal Brown was asked by Gillespie to play in his band. This union last for 2 years with Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Brown later discovered Jazz at the Philharmonic and was himself discovered by Norman Granz. Brown toured with JATP for the next 18 years.
In recent years Brown led a series of dazzling trios featuring some of the best young players in jazz.
Brown’s current group includes Karriem Riggins and pianist Larry Fuller, the threesome working regularly now 2 ½ years. His latest Telarc release, Brown’s 14th for the label out June 25. Some of "Best Friends" series that has featured the trio with guest pianist, trumpeters, saxophonists and singers. Such masters as Kenny Burrell and Herb Ellis are on hand to take part in the festivities, while Russell Malone and John Pizzarelli speak for the latest generation of plectrists.
The Jazz giants-those that have lasted a long time-are a breed apart. They are not heroes free from the flaws of ordinary mortals. On the contrary, they seem to be more essentially human than most of us. Perhaps it’s because it takes extraordinary qualities to reach the top of a demanding profession and stay there. Whatever the reason, Ray Brown is one of those giants who through the eyes of the beholder has viewed him with awe as well as affection.