I came into the Mel Lewis Big Band in 1980, right around the time that Thad Jones went to Copenhagen and Bob Brookmeyer was on the scene with Mel. George Mraz had been in the band in the ’70s, and he would sub with us sometimes. I’d heard him in a bunch of different settings before that—he was everyone’s first call on the bass, man, and so he’d be in every club in New York—but that’s when I first played with him, on one of those Monday nights at the Village Vanguard.
He knew all of Thad’s charts; he had an amazing memory. George remembered everything he had ever played and would be able to recall and channel stuff. So 20, 25 years later, when we were playing with Hank Jones, we played some of Thad’s tunes. I had a lead sheet, but George just knew the bass parts, and he went back and executed them from memory. That taught me a lot about the inner focus it takes to really get inside a piece of music.
George’s contribution was so melodic, and yet he was on all sides: He would get inside the melody, inside the harmony, inside the rhythm. He had a concept of how to play with each musician he was on stage with and would create an inner dialogue that was so personal. Communication with him was intimate and beautiful. How many bassists really play with that kind of insight?
I put together a trio in the mid-’90s with George and Al Foster, who were playing with Joe Henderson at the time. That trio was the core of my recording Celebrating Sinatra, which Manny Albam arranged for string quartet, a woodwind section, and voice. Go back and check out the way George plays through those orchestrations: The way he interprets Manny’s writing, it sounds so free and spontaneous.
I was surprised that he was in Prague [when he died]. When we toured with Jim Hall [in the Grand Slam quartet] in ’99 or 2000, that was the first time George had been back to the Czech Republic. [He had left his native country, then called Czechoslovakia, in 1968. —Ed.] We were in a van, traveling, and we drove through the border. George was a little nervous, and not so anxious to go back; he had gone through some harsh and painstaking dues while he was coming up there. I remember, while we were at that border station, he was real quiet, man. He had a U.S. passport, and he didn’t say a word. Jim actually wrote a tune called “Border Crossing” that was on that Grand Slam recording, a real tense tune, and that was for George.
Since then, though, he was back and forth a lot to the Czech Republic. The [country’s first] president, Václav Havel, he and George went to school together. He was a huge jazz fan and used to put on all these concerts, and George played for him several times.
The last time I played with him it was in 2016, at a museum in Baltimore, with Lawrence Fields on piano and Lewis Nash on drums. And he was beautiful, man; he played beautifully.
Shortly after that he was diagnosed with a few issues that put him in a situation where he wasn’t touring or playing around too much. We were in touch, though. He treasured all of his relationships with folks. I remember we were on tour with our quartet with Hank and Lewis in April of 2005, and Percy Heath, Jimmy Woode, and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen all passed away within days of each other. George was having a rough time. He was really connected with those three cats.
That’s how I felt about him too; I really valued that connection with George. I felt so honored every night to be in that company. Playing with him enriched my whole musical conception: It fueled my ideas when we were on stage together, and it fuels them to this day. He was a treasure.
[as told to Michael J. West]