Benny Green on Brown and ‘the right changes’
The first time Benny Green, then a teenager and aspiring jazz pianist, met legendary bassist Ray Brown, there was no actual meeting involved. Green was only a spectator, but the encounter – at a concert featuring Brown with pianist Oscar Peterson and drummer Louis Bellson, at the Greek Theater in Green’s Berkeley, Calif., hometown – was deeper and more meaningful than a backstage greeting.”It was the first time the music carried me to laugh out loud and cry real tears in one sitting,” said the 41-year-old Green by phone from New York’s Upper West Side, where he has lived for 23 years. “As a young person, I don’t know why the music affected me, where it came from. I didn’t get to shake his hand, but I felt like I met him.”Six years later, Green got to speak with Brown when both were featured – Green as part of singer Betty Carter’s band, Brown co-leading a quartet with vibist Milt Jackson – at the Edmonton Jazz Festival. Where the first “meeting” was inspirational, the actual encounter left Green mystified.”I was so moved by the music that I somehow got the nerve to go up and speak to him,” said Green. “I asked if it would be OK to put a musical question to him: When he played ‘Misty,’ what chord changes was he playing in the fifth bar of the bridge?
“He got real close and said, ‘The right changes, kid.’ I backed up and said, ‘OK.'”Nine years later, Green had the chance to get even closer to his bass hero. Brown invited Green to join his trio, a partnership that lasted from 1992-96. Over those years, while touring the world and recording such albums as “Seven Steps to Heaven” and the outstanding “Super Bass,” Green saw just how much meaning there were in those three little words, “the right changes.””He demystified the music,” said Green, who is among the artists honoring Brown, who died in 2002, at Jazz Aspen’s Tribute to Ray Brown concert Wednesday, March 23, at Harris Hall. “He let me know the information is there if I listen to the record. I didn’t need to be spoon-fed.”Green came to find an even bigger meaning in what Brown had told him. The “right” changes weren’t the most technically challenging or sophisticated. They were the chords that spoke best to the listener, that best served for the music being made at the moment.”Not, ‘What does it have to offer me?'” said Green, “but, ‘What can I do to help?'”As intellectual as he was, he didn’t go off the deep end. He kept it bare-bones, real life. And he brought music down to core human elements. He used to say, without that consideration that you’re playing for people, you might as well stay home.”
Green – whose subsequent prominent career has included a series of duet recordings with guitarist Russell Malone; trio and solo CDs; and “Oscar and Benny,” which teamed him with two of his principal heroes, Peterson and Brown – was stunned by Brown’s technical skills. “Ray Brown knew all the pop songs, everything, in every key,” he said.But just as lasting is Brown’s generosity. Brown’s bass-playing was an original foundation of the bebop style that continues as the primary building block of jazz today. A Pittsburgh native born in 1926, Brown moved to New York City in 1946, where he quickly joined the combo led by saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Even at that young age, Brown was a force: In his memoir, “To Be Or Not to Bop,” Gillespie wrote that Brown “played the strongest, most fluid and imaginative bass lines in modern jazz at the time, with the exception of Oscar Pettiford.” The group’s influence has been unsurpassed in the decades since, and Brown went on to become jazz’s most prolific and respected bassist. He died with more than 2,000 recordings to his credit, including collaborations with Peterson, André Previn, guitarist Herb Ellis, and Ella Fitzgerald, to whom he was married from 1947 to 1952.Such accomplishments never got in the way of Brown’s desire to serve as a mentor to young musicians. Diana Krall credits Brown with her rise to prominence. Brown consistently brought young players – including Green and fellow pianist Geoff Keezer, guitarist Malone, and bassist Christian McBride, all of whom are set to perform in Aspen this week – under his wing. On his 1998 album “A Family Affair,” McBride included the original composition “Brown Funk (For Ray)”; in the album’s liner notes, McBride refers to Brown as “Dad.””I’m so grateful that someone who embodied the music, who was the music, saw fit to bring me into his musical life,” said Green. “He taught me firsthand the passing down of the legacy. I think about Ray Brown and the patience he showed with younger people on the bandstand. He was able to play with people who were relative infants and still make that person feel included.”Brown didn’t save that patience for top-level young players like Green and McBride. At Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ inaugural JAS Academy Summer Sessions program (known then as the JAS Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Colony) in 1996, he spent a week in Snowmass instructing students just embarking on their professional careers. Brown’s presence gave Jazz Aspen’s fledgling education program an immeasurable boost, and the bassist returned three years later to find Rosemary Clooney and Herbie Hancock among that year’s faculty.”It was huge, because he’s been such an anchor in the world of jazz for so many people, for so many years. He gave the program credibility,” said Jazz Aspen founder and executive producer Jim Horowitz of Brown’s 1996 appearance. “He’s like that solid oak tree. And having him set the bar in a particular way, everybody looked up to him, students and masters. I don’t think anybody came to the Academy who was better.”
Brown was also instrumental in putting part of the focus of the JAS Academy on the business side of jazz. Brown managed the Modern Jazz Quartet and Quincy Jones, and served as director of the Monterey Jazz Festival for two years.”He was a very strong businessman,” said Horowitz. “He was a guy who took care of his own business. He was tough and smart and very fair. His professionalism and demeanor – he was a model citizen in every way, on the bandstand, with the promoters who hired him.”Among those aiming to personify that model is Green, who refers to his time with Brown as having “been to the mountaintop.””I know that I’ve played with the hardest-swinging bassist in the history of jazz,” said Green. “For the rest of my life, I’ll be answering to the excellence he put into the music.”A Tribute to Ray Brown, featuring bassists Christian McBride and Gerald Clayton, pianists Benny Green and Geoff Keezer, vocalist Marlena Shaw, guitarist Russell Malone and drummer Jeff Hamilton, is set for Wednesday, March 23, at Harris Hall, as part of Jazz Aspen’s Winter Jazz series. Opening the concert is the Gerald Clayton Trio.Jazz Aspen throws a 15th anniversary season kickoff party on Thursday, March 24, at the Belly Up, featuring Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel. A sampling of just which artists will be playing Jazz Aspen’s 2005 season – the organization has been noticeably tardy in making announcements – should be made by then. Jazz Aspen’s 15th annual June Festival is set for June 23-26 in Aspen’s Rio Grande Park, and the 11th annual Labor Day Festival will be Sept. 2-5 in Snowmass Town Park. In addition to main-stage performances, both festivals feature JAS After Dark concerts in the clubs in the vicinity of the festival grounds.
Also, Jazz Aspen is serving as associate producer of the new Sonoma Jazz +, a four-day music, food and wine festival set for Sonoma, Calif., Memorial Day weekend, May 26-29. Artists include Steve Winwood and Diana Krall, whose shows are sold out, as well as Tony Bennett, Isaac Hayes, Mavis Staples and Boz Scaggs.Also staying busy is the Belly Up, which has an apparent reluctance to keeping its doors closed.The club’s upcoming schedule includes New York groove-jazz trio Soulive (Sunday, March 20); New Orleans rock band Better Than Ezra, with Memphis pop-rock band Ingram Hill opening (Tuesday, March 22); neo-swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (Wednesday, March 23); a Latin Lounge benefit event, hosted by Aspen Peak magazine, with Colorado’s Cabaret Diosa (Friday, March 25); and Tristan Prettyman, with Southland opening (Saturday, March 26.) Also, blues-rock singer-guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd (March 28); alt-country rebel rockers Steve Earle & the Dukes, with Alison Moorer opening (March 31); former Ugly Americans frontman Bob Schneider, with the Family Groove Company opening (April 3); the Samples (April 4); reggae greats Toots & the Maytals (April 11); the Bodeans, with Maktub opening (April 12); electronica group the Crystal Method playing a DJ set (April 13); and Boulder hard-rock trio Rose Hill Drive (April 16).Adding to the April groove are Wheeler Opera House shows with bluesman Taj Mahal (March 28); and jazz-funk band Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe (April 2).Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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