Legendary jazz bassist Ray Brown died in his sleep on Tuesday night in Indianapolis. He was 75.
Born in 1926 in Pittsburgh, Pa., Brown began on piano and switched to bass during high school. Upon moving to New York in 1945, he immediately became a part of the emerging bebop scene, playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. The young bassist played in Gillespie’s big and small bands, and can be heard on famous recordings such as “One Bass-Hit” and “Night in Tunisia.” From 1947 to 1952, Brown was married to Ella Fitzgerald and formed a trio to back the singer. The couple continued to work together after their divorce, with Brown serving as Fitzgerald’s musical director. During the ’50s, he recorded with the Milt Jackson Quartet, which later became the Modern Jazz Quartet, and was a member of the Oscar Peterson trio from 1951 to 1966.
In the late ’50s Brown began playing cello and had a custom instrument built combining features of the cello and bass and recorded with it on several occasions. After leaving Peterson, Brown moved to California and founded the group the L.A. Four, which featured Bud Shank on saxophone, Laurindo Almeida on guitar and Shelly Manne on drums. Brown also appeared on several JATP tours, participated in many studio recordings, and managed several artists, including the MJQ. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Brown toured and recorded with his trio, which featured a number of musicians including pianists Benny Green and Geoff Keezer and drummers Jeff Hamilton and Greg Hutchinson. The latest version was with drummer Karriem Riggins and pianist Larry Fuller. His Some of My Best Friends Are… series featured Brown with a number of talented musicians, each album focusing on a different instrument. …Guitar Players was his latest.
In a recent interview on Allaboutjazz.com, Chris Hovan asked Brown how he would like to be remembered in terms of his place in jazz history. Brown answered by saying “I’m not going to sit here and talk about what I contributed; that’s for somebody else to do. But, I just want to be remembered as a guy who gave his best, and I hope that whatever few good ideas I had, that they grab them and develop them and do better.”
Friend and fellow bassist John Clayton noted in an e-mail sent the morning after Brown’s death, “When speaking about this moment to me, Ray made it clear that he wanted us to throw a big party with lots of music. We’ll see to it that he gets his last wish.”
Brown lived in Los Angeles, and is survived by his wife, Cecilia, and his adopted son, Ray Brown Jr.
Photograph by Jeff Sedlik