Ray Brown: The Telarc Years
Monty Alexander: ...I was still in Jamaica. I was something like 16 or 17, and...I guess I heard one of Peterson’s records. The thing I noticed more than anything else was the big rhythm in the back. You know, I heard the great, great piano playing, but the thing that captured me and stuck with me the most were these booming, gracious notes in the background.
Asked what accounted for Brown’s endless appeal, both to musicians and audiences alike, the responses were remarkably consistent.
Geoff Keezer: Swing. Absolute big, beautiful, happy swing.
Elaine Martone: ...He had a great bass sound. The notes were warm and round. He was always laying the foundation for whatever was to come, and I think those two things really, really made him great. And the third thing—I could say a million things—the third thing I’d add is that he was constantly innovating. From inventing the music in a way, to what he was doing right at the end of his life. He was never content to play the standards. He was always looking at what’s new, what’s out there, and picking up other influences, be it funk or whatever, he would just start incorporating things into his style. To do that for fifty years, to constantly reinvent yourself—but not in terms of what other people want, but in terms of what will impact your own musical experience—I think that is a remarkable gift.
Russell Malone: ...Every note that Ray Brown played, it fit and it made sense. There was always a logical reason why he played those notes. There was always a sense of purpose to the notes. I think that comes from having developed a relationship with the piano, loving the piano. He played great notes, his solos, everything. I wish that every musician could have gotten a chance to play at least four bars with him just to get a sense of what that feels like. Because it was the real thing, man. I feel so blessed and fortunate that I got a chance to spend time with him.
Benny Green: He loved the piano. Ray loved the piano. He was a huge fan of people like Fats Waller, Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson and Hank Jones, of course Oscar Peterson. Nat Cole, Duke Ellington. He just loved the piano. I was so fortunate to sit and listen to piano music with Ray. He developed a lot of his conceptions of note selection and the shape of his bass line very much as an embrace of the tradition of the left hand of the piano, in the hands of some of those pianists I mentioned.
At some point in the conversation, Ray Brown’s influence on each musician’s career and musical development came up, indicating the lasting effect Brown’s leadership and dedication continues to have on jazz. As Geoff Keezer explains, Ray Brown didn’t set out to be a mentor. He wasn’t there to teach, and he just didn’t see himself in those terms. Nevertheless, as a strong musical model, he came to serve that function. At the very least, his tenacity of spirit, staunch work ethic, and constant interest in new voices helped form the shape of things to come.
Geoff Keezer: I did have a chance to tell Ray the last time I saw him how much I appreciated playing in his group, and how I felt it was the best thing that had happened to my piano playing. Something transferred. Not verbally—via some other mechanism that we don’t have a word for. When you’re in the company of someone, you become influenced. Their experience and their knowledge, it gets transferred somehow...He never set himself up in a teacher-student relationship. It was never about that—he loved to play, and he loved to hire people who would keep him fresh and inspired. And he inspired us too. It definitely went both ways. It wasn’t set up as a school. It wasn’t a school, it was a band, but when you look back on it years later, you say, ‘well, I did learn a lot’.
Russell Malone: Let me tell you, man, I wouldn’t trade that [playing with Brown] for nothin’ in the world.
Monty Alexander: He influenced it [Alexander’s playing] to a great deal. But he also influenced it in the areas of what not to do. And I’ll tell you a lot of what it was. Ray was a very commanding personality...Ray Brown had what I call take-over-itis, okay? I ain’t goin’ for it. I was too ignorant. And I came up with a strong sense of who I am and what I do. When I got on the bandstand I would instantly assert myself, you know? I didn’t have time to listen to him telling me what to do...We [would] get happy right away. So I learned from the beginning: take the good of this great association and just enjoy...And with Ray, what happened—and this is what happens when music is very, very great—it’s because two people are kinda just going down the same road together...