Bass Legend Takes a Late Lead (Georgia Straight)

Bass Legend Takes a Late Lead

Just don’t ask Ray Brown to play favourites

The Georgia Straight, June 21-28, 2001

Los Angeles-based Ray Brown is considered one of the best bassists in jazz history, but that doesn’t mean he was expecting an invitation to the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Although the 74-year-old is heading to Vancouver for a three-night stint at Rossini’s, Monday to Wednesday (June 25 to 27), he assumed the shows would be no different from the ones he usually does at the Gastown eatery.

“They didn’t say anything about the festival, they just said my regular visit up there,” Brown says from an Emerald City tour stop. “Whenever I’m in Seattle, I just come up there the next week usually.”

Name a jazz master, and chances are the bassist has played with him. But don’t ask him to play favourites.

“I’m not going to touch that,” he says. “You think I’m going to stand up here and say that Count Basie was better than Duke Ellington, or Duke Ellington was better than Art Tatum, or Art Tatum was better than Dizzy Gillespie, or Dizzy Gillespie was better than Charlie Parker, and so forth? And then Louis Armstrong and then Coleman Hawkins and then Lester Young? You want me to tell you one person? You’re outta your fuckin’ mind. You gotta be crazy! I mean, you don’t ask anybody that’s played with those many people who’s the best. There’s no such thing.”

Okay, a bad call on my part, but in my defense, had he chosen one I would have had a scoop.

Brown, who was married to Ella Fitzgerald from 1948 until 1952, isn’t one of those old-timers who thinks everything was better back in the day. His comments on the younger generation will shock those who think nothing good has been recorded since 1959.

“There’s a whole bunch of good young musicians around now,” he says, “and they’re playing better at a younger age than we did when I was young.”

He says the reason for that is simple: “There’s more stuff available. Duke Ellington made maybe four records a year when I was a kid. Four 78s. That’s, like, two minutes of music on each side, so that’s 16 minutes. That ain’t even a CD. And that’s what we had to study from and practice with.”

Brown started out on the piano but switched to the bass in high school. Why? “It looked easier. It only had one line to read instead of two.” Was it easier? “Hell, no.”

It’s not common for bass players to be leaders, but after 50 years of being a sideman, Brown has had enough. Now it’s his turn, although just because he’s in charge doesn’t mean he’ll be taking endless solos all night.

“Solos are great, but I don’t think you serve any purpose playing on every tune,” he says. “I think you’re better served playing one really good substantial solo. I play maybe 10, 12 minutes solo. And I think you impress people maybe a little better than just taking some choruses on every tune that goes by. After it’s been exhausted by the saxophone player playing 40 choruses and the piano player playing 25 and the other horns, then they always turn it over to you last.”