Bassist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who started out on the piano but drifted toward the bass in high school in order to fill a void in its jazz band. He became a fixture on the local club circuit and was soon being solicited by touring bands, but his mom laid down the law and encouraged him to finish school. He did just that, but not long after graduating high school, he began playing professionally with artists such as Jimmy Hinsley and Luis “Snookum” Russell.
It was New York City that allured Ray, and in 1945, he headed to the Big Apple. He was literally an overnight sensation. A chance meeting with his friend Hank Jones led to an introduction to Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy offered him a job that very night. His first rehearsal was the next day. Imagine his surprise when he found out his fellow band-mates were Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Max Roach. Milt Jackson joined the group shortly thereafter, and he and Brown became joined at the hip, so much so that they earned the nickname “the twins”. The two of them made the cut when Dizzy decided to form a big band in 1946. Dizzy was very generous about spotlighting Ray as a soloist and songwriter: ” One Bass Hit” and “Two Bass Hit” are examples of the former, “Ray’s Idea” and “That’s Earl Brother”, the latter.
In 1947, Ella Fitzgerald did a stint with the band and Ella and Ray hit it off right away. They were wed the following year. In 1949, another musical marriage began, and it would last longer than Ella’s and Ray’s. It happened at Carnegie Hall, when Buddy Rich dumped out of his commitment to play in concert with Oscar Peterson , and Ray was recruited to take the stage. Their chemistry was immediate and lasting. In the meantime, Dizzy’s outfit disbanded and the rhythm section continued to perform and record together as The Modern Jazz Quartet.
It was not long, however, before Ray would help co-found The Oscar Peterson Trio . In 1952, the Brown-Fitzgerald duo was no more, although they managed to stay friends and continued to make music together, albeit literally. The Oscar Peterson Trio had a revolving door of musicians until 1953, when Herb Ellis signed up, and this is the most famous incarnation of the group. Their friendly and virtuosic one-upmanship made for lively and electric performances and recordings, including At the Concertgebouw and At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival.
In the late ’50s, Brown moonlighted on a quintet of Blossom Dearie albums on the Verve label. His loyalty to Oscar Peterson , and his musical curiosity, remained unabated. He became a double threat by learning to play the cello and invented a new musical instrument that incorporated elements of the two instruments. It is considered to be the inspiration for the piccolo bass.
He quit the band in 1966 and moved to L.A., where he was soon indispensable as a session musician. Although it would have been easy for him to gobble up all the work, he instead branched out by managing other artists like Quincy Jones and The Modern Jazz Quartet, produced records and live performances at the Hollywood Bowl, and wrote and published a series of music instruction books.
He also continued to compose, and won a Grammy Award for his song “Gravy Waltz”, which Steve Allen would eventually employ as his TV theme song. In 1972, he recorded the tribute album, This One’s for Blanton, with Duke Ellington. The album, dedicated to Ray’s childhood idol Jimmy Blanton, was a realization of some of Blanton’s performances with Duke, circa 1939-1940.
In 1974, he helped co-found The L.A. Four, along with Laurindo Almeida, Shelly Manne and Bud Shank. Jeff Hamilton supplanted Shelly Manne in 1977. The group performed live and recorded together for about eight years. In 1983, he reunited with Milt Jackson for an album entitled Jackson, Johnson, Brown & Company.
Ray then formed his own trio, again with a revolving cast of characters that stayed together for nearly a decade. He eventually eschewed the confines of the studio for the expanse of the road, touring for about seven months out of the year. In 2001, over 400 people paid tribute to him by turning out for his 75th birthday bash.
On 2nd July 2002, while napping after a round of golf, Ray died in his sleep, hours before a gig. He is regarded as one of the most popular bassists that ever lived.
Here he is playing the bass in-between Edgar Meyer and Victor Wooton….