Ray Brown’s storied career includes stints with bebop pioneers Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. He was a regular member of Jazz at the Philharmonic, was the original bassist in the Modern Jazz Quartet, and made history playing in the legendary Oscar Peterson Trio.
“Music, all music, is a form of vibration.”
Pianist Benny Green.
"And Ray Brown got to actually play with people who defined this music, people like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. And the thing is he had that vibration that lived in his bass line. He didn’t like play with them early on and then retire for a while and come back to it. He was continuing that vibration.”
That’s Benny Green featured as a member of the Ray Brown Trio in 1994. Long before joining the group in 1992, Green was in awe of the man would become his boss.
“The very first time I got up the courage to speak to Ray Brown, I introduced myself to him and I asked if it would be o.k. to ask him a musical question and he moved close to me and he say ‘o.k.’ And I said ‘well, when you played Misty just now, the 5th bar of the bridge, what changes were you playing?’ And Ray got right up in face like almost nose to nose and he said ‘the right changes.’ Which was just the most beautiful, direct answer. He really did so much with that simple statement to demystify this music.”
You might say, Ray Brown’s whole approach focused on demystifying jazz. Although he started out playing the sometimes cerebral style of bebop, Brown was all about connecting with audiences… whether it be by laying down an infectious groove or, as in the Misty example, supporting a beautiful melody. Green witnessed that connection time and again on the road.
“In addition to playing wonderful concert halls throughout major cities in Europe, we’d also be playing in smaller towns, sometimes more private concerts. Sometimes we’d be playing places so out of the way that people actually weren’t as familiar with Ray Brown and his music. And by the end of the night Ray would have made converts of the entire room. Everybody in the room loved jazz.”
Another way to connect with audiences, says Green, is by always being “in the present.” Ray Brown exemplified that. And it’s something Greann and guitarist Russell Malone will strive for tonight.
“Generally when Russell and I play concerts, even 2 minutes before we’ve begun the first note of music we haven’t even discussed what we’re going to play. It’s enjoyable for us and I’m learning a little as I get older that audience indeed feels however the musicians are feeling. So I think the audience feels if we’re just being in the moment and being spontaneous and taking chances and we don’t know where it’s gonna go, that sometimes that can be enjoyable for the listener as well.”
Tonight’s duo concert is the first in a series. On May 6th, bassist John Clayton, another Brown protégé, will lead a trio with pianist Geoff Keezer, who like Benny Green is a veteran of the Ray Brown Trio. Then on May 20th, vocalist Freddy Cole, a good friend of Ray’s, will perform with his quartet.
“People who perhaps didn’t know a whole lot about Ray and his music will walk away from any one of these concerts with a deeper sense of appreciation for this music, which Ray was such a noble warrier for throughout his life.”
Pianist Benny Green. He’ll perform with guitarist Russell Malone tonight at 8 at the Napa Valley Opera House.