This article is copyright 2001 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in the International Association of Jazz Educators Jazz Educators Journal, Vol. 33, No. 5, March 2001. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.
Ray Brown: Making Every Chorus Count
by Antonio J. García
Ray Brown has seemingly played, if not recorded, with virtually every important figure in jazz history and has long since become a legend in his own right. Through his musicianship he has set the standard for what many believe is the ultimate in jazz bass style: his straight-ahead swing lines and expressive soloing have influenced a world of bassists, rhythm sections, even the vocalists who imitate his sound—in large and small jazz ensembles.
Brown readily exudes his passion for jazz—especially the bass—and his commitment to the next generation of talent. For decades, aspiring musicians have sought his advice regarding the music and the business; and whether in private conversation or public forum, he speaks his views frankly.
During his recent engagement at Chicago's famed Jazz Showcase, Ray Brown visited Northwestern University for a lively question and answer session with a couple of hundred NU and Evanston Township High School students. Our conversation spilled over into the round-trip drive as well, all summarized here. But he spoke just as eloquently through playing a borrowed bass, whether solo or with our jazz faculty, all the while expressing sounds and grooves that inspired the young owner of the instrument he had borrowed.
Brown's fervor was perhaps most evident when discussing the importance of business knowledge for any musician, creating a repeated theme for this issue of the IAJE Journal. But those in attendance at Northwestern and later at the Jazz Showcase inescapably focused on the evocative musicianship of the jazz master in their midst.
GARCÍA: How did you get started?
BROWN: As a teenager in Pittsburgh I delivered newspapers; and one of my customers had a band in town that worked a lot. Some of his sidemen were regularly getting drunk by the last set of his gigs and weren't making very good music by the end of the night; so he decided to hire a couple of younger guys like me.
One day he said to me, "Come on: we're going to join the Moose Lodge." And I thought, "What for?" But soon we were gigging in Elks Clubs across Pittsburgh for good money—more money than my father was making in those days.
I didn't own a bass; so I always took the school bass home for gigs. My director thought I was practicing at home a lot—until one day he saw a picture of me in the paper with that bass on a gig! Then he said I couldn't do that anymore, and my father bought me my first bass at a pawn shop for $40.
GARCÍA: And how did you develop your concept of swing?
BROWN: Well, there was this jukebox at a beer garden in town; and the way it was built, the bass notes really boomed out. I mean, you could really hear the slap-bass and the short-note lines bassists were playing at the time.
All of a sudden, I heard "Things Ain't What They Used To Be" coming out of that jukebox, with these long, flowing, walking bass lines underneath. And I found myself listening through every note that bassist was playing on the tune. It was Jimmy Blanton with Duke Ellington. He didn't play like any other bassist before him or at that time: these were long notes in his bass lines. He was a huge influence on me.
GARCÍA: Is it fair to say you play on top of the beat?
BROWN: I play right on top of the beat, like it or not. Someone might say, "You're rushing." And I'd reply, "Yes—and I get paid a lot of money to do it!" You can't define swing. But I'll say this: if you don't swing, you should have stayed home!
GARCÍA: Pittsburgh was home to the Turrentine brothers as well.
BROWN: Yes, and losing Stanley last year was a big loss. His brother Tommy and I were about the same age. He played trumpet in our teens; Stanley was about nine and playing piano. I delivered papers to their house, too. It wasn't until years later that I heard about a Stanley Turrentine playing saxophone and confirmed it was the same person.
When I was with Snookum Russell's band, Tommy used to copy Billy Eckstine band arrangements off the records and bring them in to us. But eventually Tommy got into some bad habits that ended his career.
GARCÍA: You heard Charlie Parker when you were quite young and then of course later played with him. What was your impression of him then?
BROWN: Bird might have been the most complete player I've ever heard. When I was 12 years old, I saw him in Jay McShann's band; and Parker proved himself to be a fantastic blues player. But by the time he was with Dizzy's band in 1945, his focus was bebop; and he played that so well that folks forgot what a great blues player he was. Or when he sat in with Machito's band, he was great in a Latin jazz setting. When Charlie Parker with Strings came out, his ballad playing was so beautiful that people focused on that. He was such a complete player.
When I was on the Dizzy Gillespie band with him, Milt Jackson and I were among the younger members. It was the impression of some outsiders that Bird's playing was enhanced by the dope he was shooting; but in truth he just played great whether on or off drugs. All dope did was shorten his life; and even while with us, he was direct to us about its dangers. He told Milt, me, and some of the other younger musicians, "If I ever see any of you shooting up, I'll break both of your legs."
These days, as then, some of the most dangerous dope isn't what kids think it is: it's really alcohol and cigarettes. They're legal, accessible, and cheap; so kids think they're not as harmful as the illegal stuff. They are. The cigarette companies finally had to admit that their products kill people. So don't be fooled by alcohol and cigarettes: it's all dope.
GARCÍA: One more flashback: Miles Davis....
BROWN: Miles was a genius at putting bands together. His bands were a "who's who" on piano, bass, drums, sidemen such as Coltrane and Cannonball.... That made him a great leader.
He also used his head. He was about a year younger than me, I guess; and he wanted to play like Dizzy. But he didn't have Dizzy's chops. So he invented his own style.
Taking Care of Business
GARCÍA: You've been known for a long time as a solid businessman, managing not only yourself but in the past Milt Jackson, Quincy Jones, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and others. Many IAJE members have requested we provide more insight as to how to run the business side of their careers, be it as touring musicians or otherwise.
BROWN: Well, musicians nowadays don't understand as much about business because they're going around it by having managers. In an eight-piece band, each member might have his own manager! That's the style now. So instead of doing it themselves and learning the ropes, they just say, "See my manager." They don't want to be bothered with the details.
If you put 1,000 musicians in an auditorium and asked them: "If you were to rent Carnegie Hall for two concerts, how many seats does it have; what's the normal pricing break-down for tickets; and what's the break-even point?"—you might not get anyone to answer. And they might say, "Yeah, but we're not supposed to know that!" I say, "Maybe you should."
If someone calls me to play at a club, I ask, "How many seats do you have? How are you scaling the house? What are you charging per show? Is there a drink minimum?" You can tell what kind of business is generated, how much money is coming in: these are things that you should be interested in—you should know it! And once you've learned it about that club, you don't have to learn it again. You've gained a sense of business.
I'm not against having a manager; you don't have to do everything yourself. But if you've asked those kinds of questions, then when you sit with your manager, the two of you can converse on an equal level rather than having your manager tell you everything as though you're a little kid.
When I was starting out, I began to notice the business deals going on. I got curious and started asking questions, and it was very interesting to me to find out the answers.
GARCÍA: Yet so many jazz students are interested only in practicing; they're not yet interested in the business.
BROWN: Yeah, and as little kids maybe we go to school thinking that learning how to count and read and write isn't appealing, either; but you sure as hell better learn how to do it! The same thing applies to learning the business end: if it doesn't appeal to you, forget about appealing—learn it!
How many people can we recall who were stolen from by their managers because the individuals never questioned them: musicians, sports figures, and others who made a hundred million dollars and ended up shining shoes or the like? Woody Herman's manager stole everything from him: decades of payroll taxes withheld from the band members' checks that were supposed to be turned over to the government and never were. Woody's then lying in the hospital while the IRS is taking the furniture out of his house. Come on! We can't do that anymore. Schools must teach their music students about the business; it should be mandatory. Every music student should take some business courses, learn about making and keeping an income, expenses, publishing, and the bottom line.
GARCÍA: Do you evaluate someone's business sense when considering adding them to your group?
BROWN: Well, I certainly need someone who can take care of business: show up on time, know the tunes, be responsible. There's more to getting hired than just knowing how to play the instrument.
GARCÍA: What's your typical schedule during the year?
BROWN: I usually tour until mid-December, then break until mid-February. I like to go to Hawaii and play golf.
GARCÍA: Are there new projects in the works?
BROWN: Well, the Some of My Best Friends Are... CD series has one more volume already recorded that should be coming out this year: it features guitarists. And there's another project in the planning stages that I can't quite discuss yet.
GARCÍA: The ...Best Friends... CD series demonstrates that you appreciate some of the younger talents coming up in their careers.
BROWN: Well, at some point you get old enough that there's no one else left but younger musicians! We've lost so many senior players. Trumpet-wise, Clark Terry still does it so well; and in his footsteps are younger players such as those I've had on some of my CDs: Jon Faddis, Roy Hargrove, James Morrison....
Unfortunately, in that series of CDs I had to fight with the label to allow me to have even one new person per CD; the label really wanted established names that would sell recordings and eventually bent to allow me the one newer name on each CD. And I understand that I have to deal with that; that's how labels stay alive.
GARCÍA: Have you come across some young jazz musicians that the rest of us probably haven't heard of yet who might be among the next to break out onto the scene?
BROWN: Oh, there are a whole lot of good new players; and most of them I don't even know personally. For example, I heard a bunch of guys on a studio recording under label consideration. They could really play! Again, I notice that many young players today play better than I or my peers did in our youth.
GARCÍA: But is that an advancement in technical development or also in expressiveness?
BROWN: Well, good or bad, I believe young people are highly impressed with technique. That's just the way it is. This group I mentioned certainly has expressive potential, but they're not using it all. They're focusing on their technique to get more attention from listeners.
Young musicians may like someone who plays slow, but they don't usually place the same importance on such players. This is a bit of a problem because that's how you miss the full impression as to how someone's putting his or her soul into the instrument. If you want to play a ballad, for instance, first look up the lyrics and see what they say; then play the ballad. Sometimes when you hear young kids playing ballads, they might as well be playing "Cherokee"! They're playing 8,000 notes, as if they're being paid by the note—as if they've never heard of Johnny Hodges and what he could do with just a few notes.
GARCÍA: With such a busy performing schedule on tour, do you get much of a chance to go into the schools to offer workshops?
BROWN: I do a lot of clinics in different cities.
GARCÍA: Is there anything about jazz education that strikes you as very positive or negative?
BROWN: Well, as I said, what really bothers me is that though there are so many young musicians that can play better at their age than my peers and I could, they don't know nearly as much about the business. That's a tragedy!
On the positive side, I see a little surge of young people interested in jazz: I see a lot of young people in the clubs listening. Because of my age, a lot of my fans are in their sixties and seventies—people who came to see me with Dizzy or Bird or Oscar—but now a lot of young people are joining them at the clubs. And when I did a bass master class in Minneapolis recently, over two hundred students were there.
GARCÍA: With your instructional book that's been out for some thirty years, plus your more recent video series, you're teaching a lot of people you've never met. Frankly, even the brief video excerpts on your web site are instructional: viewers get to see you play; John Clayton bows a passage beautifully; Milt Hinton slaps that bass; and then Francois Rabbath gives us all a lesson in expressiveness and intonation. I have to point out that when Rabbath's video segment ceased playing over my computer, the piano in my office rang D overtones for almost 10 seconds—the first time my piano's reacted to any sounds arriving via the Internet. That's some serious intonation from Francois; how did you meet him?
BROWN: Years ago I did a television show in Paris with Michel Legrand. They had invited American jazz musicians to pair with French classical musicians as counterparts: Dizzy and a trumpet player from the Paris Opera, a saxophonist and Phil Woods, a percussionist and Shelly Manne, and Francois and me. And we all made music together.
GARCÍA: Do you encourage jazz students to learn and borrow from the classical traditions of their instruments?
BROWN: In order to play that instrument correctly, you're going to have to go through some classical study. Even if I put out a book of fingering exercises, that stuff has been done before: it's classical, let's face it.
Plus, the principal bassist in an orchestra isn't just a fine player, or necessarily even the best soloist. But that bassist knows the repertoire better than anyone else, and all the bowings that go with it. The same is true in jazz: know the repertoire and the technique of playing it.
I gave a lesson once to a bassist who was soloing all over the top of the fingerboard: everything was high and fast. So I said, "Play me a song, a melody." And he proceeded to play the bass line to the song he chose while humming the tune along with it. I said, "Well, that's OK; but what I meant was—can you play me a melody on the bass?" And he couldn't!
But that's the cycle young folks go through; it usually changes after a few years. In the old days, a 78 r.p.m. record carried only about two minutes of music per side; a soloist within the tune might get eight bars to blow over—sixteen, if he was really well-known as a hot-shot soloist. So soloists had to make those few measures of improvisation count. More musicians should try that these days: play one chorus, and make it really count.
It reminds me of one more Charlie Parker story. Bird didn't play endless choruses; and I, for one, wanted to hear more. So once I said to him, "When you play, it feels so good. Why don't you play more?" And he said, "Well, Raymond, I'll tell you. If I played any more, I'd be practicing. And I practice at home."
Live at Starbucks—CD-83502 (2001)
The Very Tall Band: Live at the Blue Note—CD-83443 (1999)
Christmas Songs with the Ray Brown Trio—CD-83437 (1999)
Some of My Best Friends Are...The Trumpet Players—CD-83495 (1999)
Some of My Best Friends Are...The Singers—CD-83441 (1998)
Super Bass—CD-83393 (1997)
Live at Sculler's—CD-83405 (1997)
Some of My Best Friends Are...The Sax Players—CD-83388 (1996)
Some of My Best Friends Are...The Piano Players—CD-83373 (1995)
Seven Steps to Heaven—CD-83384 (1995)
Don't Get Sassy—CD-83368 (1994)
Bass Face—CD-83340 (1993)
Old Friends—CD-83309 (1992)
After Hours—CD-83302 (1989)
Ray Brown's Bass Method (Hal Leonard #00695308)
The Art of Playing the Bass (Vol. 1: Milt Hinton, Vol. 2: John Clayton, Vol. 3: Francois Rabbath, Vol. 4: An Evening with Triple Threat); for further information visit...
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Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own garciamusic.com, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.
Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.
Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."
About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”
Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/educator...one of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.
The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <www.garciamusic.com>.
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