With September’s 61st anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival (MJF) now in the books, it was most fitting and appropriate for the promoters to devote one special segment in honor of double bassist Ray Brown, a key component who helped shape the history and success of the festival. Kudos to Artistic Director Tim Jackson for recognizing the significance of such programming. Brown, who passed in 2002 at age 75, was practically an MJF mainstay – from his first appearance in 1959 to his last in 1994.
It goes without saying that were it not for Ray Brown, there would be a huge void in the progression of this instrument today. But to his credit, Ray was always quick to praise another bassist, Jimmy Blanton, who provided the single-most influence for him and was directly responsible for Brown’s own personal development.
Blanton, today recognized as the virtual jazz founder of bebop bass, was thrust into the spotlight as a 21-year-old when Duke Ellington hired him for his Orchestra in 1939. As described by critic Harvey Pekar, Duke was so enamored with Jimmy’s pizzicato technique – “...full of eighth- and 16th-notes and triplets, and he played melodic, piano-like parts at brisk tempo” – that he showcased the bassist front and center on the stage next to his piano. Ellington had never before featured his bass player in such a manner, and within a short time, even frequently used the youngster in duo recordings and in intimate combo settings with such band stalwarts as Johnny Hodges.
In the 1950s, Brown told then-editor of Down Beat, Jack Tracy, "I just began digging into Blanton because I saw he had it covered--there was nobody else. There he was, right in the middle of all those fabulous records the Ellington band was making at the time, and I didn't see any need to listen to anybody else.”
As a way to pay it forward during his final Monterey visit in 1994, Ray closed the loop by passing along the “double bass baton” to another rising successor. Halfway through his set, Brown announced, “I have a little surprise for you. I’m hoping it’s going to be a treat for you. I have probably one of the most promising young bass players to come along in quite some time. I happen to think he’s as talented at his age as the guy that I copied playing the bass from, Mr. Jimmy Blanton from the Duke Ellington Orchestra. I’d like you to help me welcome to the stage Christian McBride.”
From the glowing praise he received that night as a 22-year-old, McBride has more than lived up to the early billing, as well as exceeded all the expectations of him that have since followed. Today the six-time Grammy Award winner continues to walk away with multiple first place finishes among readers and critics alike in virtually all the major jazz magazine polls.
So it was only natural that the 2018 “Remembering Ray Brown” tribute at Monterey featured Christian McBride. The headliner, who had the honor of making music and hanging out with Ray Brown on numerous occasions, was joined by fellow bassists John Clayton and John Patitucci who were also strongly influenced by Brown. Coincidentally, beginning in 1997, both McBride and Clayton joined with Ray Brown to record several albums under the name “Superbass.”
Final Note: October 5, 2018, marks the 100th anniversary of Jimmy Blanton’s birth. Had he not succumbed to tuberculosis at age 23 – and likewise, guitarist Charlie Christian at age 25 – there’s no telling just how much broader and exciting our modern music landscape would be today. As it is, the jazz world is indeed blessed to have received their bountiful contributions.