MACLEAN'S REVIVEW

MUSIC

Why the best bass player in jazz does his banking in Canada

JACK BATTEN November 2 1963
MACLEAN'S REVIVEW

MUSIC

Why the best bass player in jazz does his banking in Canada

JACK BATTEN November 2 1963

MUSIC

MACLEAN'S REVIVEW

Why the best bass player in jazz does his banking in Canada

UNLESS THEY HAPPEN TO RE JAZZ. RUFFS or have more than a humming acquaintance with the hit parade, most Canadians aren’t aware that after years of handing over our Percy Faiths, Gisele MacKenzies and Robert Goulets to American show biz, we’ve finally stolen one of theirs. The steal is Ray Brown, a thirtyseven-year-old Negro bass player and song writer from Pittsburgh who has settled in Toronto. Brown may not be a household name like Goulet but his talent is just as impressive — more, according to jazz fans. Down heat readers have been giving him first place on his instrument in the magazine’s annual poll ever since 1953; in the Downbeat critics’ poll, Brown has topped the ballot nine out of the last ten years. And recently, as a song writer, he joined the select group of jazzmen (which includes Toronto saxophonist Moe Koffman, composer of Swinging Shepherd Blues) who have broken into the wider field of popular music with a genuine hit song.

Brown’s tune, an infectious, swinging item called Gravy Waltz, reached fifteenth place on Billboard's ratings last summer and enjoyed a healthy twenty-week run on the Top Fifty charts. An album of Steve Allen’s called Gravy Waltz was still selling well late this summer. Brown wrote the tune in 1957 but forgot about it till last fall when Allen began using it as a theme on his nightly television show. Allen liked it well enough to record — it was his single record that got the hit-parade play — and later, with Brown’s permission, he put words to it. Since then, over twenty instrumental and vocal groups have recorded Gravy Waltz, including an improbable country aggregation called Billy & Carol & the Ozarks. Brown thinks a new version by Chicago jazz singer Bill Henderson, backed by the Oscar Peterson Trio (in which Brown has played for twelve years), may send the song back up the ratings.

I.ong before Gravy Waltz. — about eighteen years before — Brown was already fairly famous as a bassist. At nineteen he played with the legendary Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie sextet that pioneered the music that was derisively known as “bebop” then but is accepted now as the basis of modern jazz. “No one understood what we were doing,” Brown recalls. “In a club in Los Angeles the owner told us to stop playing and start singing before we drove the customers out.” Brown stuck with bop and both prospered. In 1951 he joined Oscar Peterson, and their trio (with drummer Ed Thigpen) became one of the top four or five jazz attractions in the world.

A handsome, good-natured man, once married to the singer Ella Fitzgerald, Brown visited Toronto first with Peterson, who lives in suburban Scarborough. He liked it immediately. He still spends most of the year playing with the trio in clubs and concert halls from Tokyo to Amsterdam, but he makes Toronto his headquarters and says, “I’m not going to be on the road when I’m any forty-five, like most musicians.” To make sure he isn’t, he’s already acquired in Toronto a corporation (Ray Brown Music Limited) to publish his songs and look after his other interests; a business partner (a stockbroker named Morey Kessler); an office and a secretary.

In January, I960, he and Peterson opened a school in Toronto to teach jazz. This was sacrilege to the purists but common sense to Brown and, while it isn't a money - maker, Brown intends to stick with it. He regards it as “sort of a patriotic duty.” He also wants to do more writing — his Bass Method, published earlier this year, is certainly as big a best seller as any book about the string bass can be — and work on his inventions. His company peddles Ray Brown bass stands, resin, bows and strings.

And, of course, he'd like another hit song. He’s written over a hundred tunes altogether, and most of them had a good reception from fellow jazzmen who find them challenging to play. But Gravy Waltz has given Brown visions of a bigger, richer market. He thinks he just might make it again with a romantic ballad called I Know You Oh So Well. At least, Steve Allen’s interested. JACK BATTEN