Ray Brown, a legendary jazz bassist who played with giants Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, and his one-time wife Ella Fitzgerald in a career that spanned more than half a century, has died. He was 75.
Brown died yesterday (July 2) in his sleep in Indianapolis where he was finishing an engagement at the Jazz Kitchen at the conclusion of the U.S. leg of a tour, said John Clayton, a friend and fellow bassist. Brown had played golf earlier Tuesday and went to take an afternoon nap, Clayton said. When he did not show up to perform with his trio, a bandmate went to his hotel where his body was found in his room.
Brown, a technically accomplished bassist known for tasteful rhythmic lines, started his career in the 1940s and was among the founders of bebop. “Ray played with such strength and power and he had such great musical knowledge, he knew every right note to play and he had the most fantastic technique,” said drummer Frank Capp, a close friend.
Ray Matthews Brown was born in Pittsburgh in 1926 and started on piano, switching to bass as a member of his high school orchestra. After graduating, he worked in some local bands, before moving to New York in 1945 where he was immediately involved in the emerging bebop revolution. The 19-year-old bassist was hired without an audition to join Dizzy Gillespie’s experimental big band, which included such bebop innovators as Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach.
Brown “is the primary contributor to bebop from a bassist’s standpoint,” Clayton said. “We had Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk, and there to contribute from the bass chair is Ray Brown. He was extremely important in jazz education, leading a lot of young bass players to learn the instrument.”
Brown’s bass talents were featured on such tracks as “One Bass Hit” recorded by a sextet led by Gillespie in 1946. The bassist also appeared with the trumpeter in the 1946 film “Jivin’ in Be-Bop,” and played with Gillespie on such classic recordings as “Night in Tunisia” and “Emanon.”
In 1947, Brown married vocalist Ella Fitzgerald and later formed his own trio to tour with his wife. He became the singer’s musical director and they continued to work together even after their divorce in the early 1950s. During this period, Brown also recorded with Parker and worked with some of his former Gillespie bandmates in the Milt Jackson Quartet, an early edition of what became the Modern Jazz Quartet.
While touring with producer Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, Brown played with the Canadian-born Oscar Peterson and became a founding member of the pianist’s drumless trio in 1952. With Herb Ellis on guitar, the trio ranked among jazz’s most popular groups in the 1950s. Brown was consistently voted top bassist in critics’ and readers’ polls during the decade.
In 1960, Brown created a stir when he had a hybrid instrument built for him that combined features of the cello and bass. The experiment attracted plenty of interest and eventually Ron Carter had a piccolo bass designed along similar lines.
After leaving Peterson in 1966, Brown moved to California. He co-founded the group L.A. Four with saxophonist Bud Shank, Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida, and drummer Shelly Manne, and also appeared regularly on the “Merv Griffin Show.” He recorded the album “Something for Lester” with pianist Cedar Walton and drummer Elvin Jones.
Since 1989, Brown recorded a series of albums for the Telarc label, many of which featured his trio with pianist Benny Green. His most recent recordings included “Live at Starbucks,” “Superbass 2” — matching Brown with fellow bassists Christian McBride and Clayton — and his latest, released in June, “Some of My Best Friends Are … Guitarists,” featuring an all-star lineup of jazz guitarists, including Ellis, Russell Malone, John Pizzarelli, and Kenny Burrell.
Brown lived in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles with his wife, Cecilia. Along with his wife, he is survived by his son, Ray Brown Jr., of Hawaii, who is the adopted son of Brown and Fitzgerald.
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