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Ray Brown, 75; Jazz Bassist Was an Icon


Ray Brown, who expanded the boundaries of the upright bass during a career in jazz spanning more than five decades, has died. He was 75.

According to bassist John Clayton, a onetime student of Brown's and a longtime friend, Brown had played golf Tuesday morning in Indianapolis in sweltering heat.

Brown returned to his hotel room in the early afternoon to rest before his scheduled appearance that night with his trio at a local club. When he didn't arrive for an evening sound check--something that the punctual, highly professional Brown never missed--members of his entourage returned to his hotel, where they found him dead.

He had not been ill, associates said Wednesday, but apparently died of natural causes.

Known for his longtime association with pianist Oscar Peterson, Brown also was recognized for his prodigious work in Los Angeles music studios, where he was the bassist of choice for several generations of the top names in music.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 11, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 21 inches; 763 words Type of Material: Correction
Brown obituary--A July 4 obituary of bassist Ray Brown gave an incorrect title for a memoir by the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. The book is called "To Be or Not to Bop."

In addition to his own vast catalog of recordings, he recorded on hundreds of dates for a wide variety of artists.

"He was without question one of the great bassists in jazz history," said Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University.

"He had a remarkable command of the instrument, great intonations, wonderful sound, terrific beat."

Jazz critic Nat Hentoff said Brown "had everything going for him, a full sound and the sense of time and the melodic imagination.

"And unlike some bass players, he never forgot that time was the basis of everything in jazz. He had the full scope of the instrument and everything that it could do in jazz."

Born in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Oct. 13, 1926, Brown took piano lessons at age 8 and learned the keyboard by memorizing the recordings of Fats Waller.

He joined the orchestra in high school but dropped the idea of being a pianist when he found that about 14 of his classmates were playing the instrument. He thought about the trombone but didn't have the money for one. The school's music department gave him a bass, which he took to immediately.

He learned quickly and began playing local gigs while in high school. After graduating in 1944, he worked in regional bands.

His musical influences then were Jimmy Blanton, the pioneering member of Duke Ellington's orchestra who helped move the bass from a rhythm instrument to one with its own distinct voice. Brown also was influenced by Oscar Pettiford, a prime mover of a modern approach to the jazz bass.

Brown's big break came shortly after he moved to New York City in 1945. He encountered pianist Hank Jones, who introduced him to Dizzy Gillespie, one of the leaders of the emerging bebop movement. Gillespie hired him without an audition.

The other members of Gillespie's group, Brown found out at his first rehearsal, were saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, pianist Bud Powell and drummer Max Roach, the founding fathers of the new music called bebop.

"If I had known these guys any better, I would have probably never gone to the rehearsal," Brown told an interviewer for Jazz Journal International some years later.

But Gillespie later said that Brown had nothing to worry about.

"Ray Brown, on bass, played the strongest, most fluid and imaginative bass lines in modern jazz at the time, with the exception of Oscar Pettiford," Gillespie wrote in his memoir, "To Bop Or Not to Bop."

After playing with Gillespie's big band in 1946 and 1947, Brown went out on his own. For several years, he was musical director for singer Ella Fitzgerald, whom he married in 1947. They later adopted a son.

Though they divorced in 1953, partly because of conflicting career demands, their musical relationship lasted years longer.

Fitzgerald and Brown joined Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic in the late 1940s, and Brown was on stage at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1949 when Peterson, a Canadian, made his American debut in a concert promoted by Granz.

The next year, Peterson also joined Jazz at the Philharmonic and toured with Brown in a duo. Brown also kept busy in 1950-52 as a member of the Milt Jackson Quartet, which included the great pianist John Lewis and was a forerunner of the influential Modern Jazz Quartet.

By 1952, Brown was part of Peterson's first drumless trio. At the height of its success, the group included the guitarist Herb Ellis.

Peterson was a tough taskmaster, which Brown didn't mind.

"If you are not intimidated with absolute professionalism, then you have no problem" with Peterson, Brown told Jazz Journal International. "Sure, he'll throw you a curve from time to time by calling unscheduled numbers or unexpectedly doubling the tempos, but if you're not good enough to handle that, you shouldn't be playing with Oscar anyway."

In 1958, Peterson went back to a traditional trio setting, replacing Ellis and eventually settling on the drummer Ed Thigpen. Peterson, Brown and Thigpen would work together until the mid-1960s, but the touring schedule was difficult.

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