When bassist Ray Brown steps on stage at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday night to perform as part of “A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald,” he won’t exactly be the most visible performer on the platform.
Far more of the attention will probably be focused on singers Joe Williams, Dianne Reeves and Vic Damone and on the recycled hits of the Count Basie Orchestra.
But of all the players on stage, Brown, 70, a warm, smiling man with the image of a friendly bear, has the most direct association with Fitzgerald, who died June 15, 1996, at age 78. Musical associates for more than four decades, they were husband and wife from 1947 to 1953 and are the parents of a son, Ray Brown Jr.
But Brown, a persistent all-star who has led his own trios for the last decade, has to ponder for a few moments to recall the first time he saw Fitzgerald. He finally fixes on a concert in the early ‘40s in his native Pittsburgh.
“I gotta think,” he says, “that it was at one of those big shows they held at the Downtown Theatre, maybe around 1943, when I was about 16 or 17. She was on a program with the Ink Spots, I think, and the Cootie Williams band.”
His initial impression of her was not particularly memorable.
“She was a good singer,” he recalls, “but at that time, I wasn’t really into singers. I remember distinctly one time when my older brother brought home a record and said, ‘Man, you gotta hear this guy sing the blues.’ I put the record on, and before the guy started singing, there was a saxophone solo, and I kept pushing the needle back to the beginning to hear the saxophone. And my brother said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, the guy just started singing.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but I want to hear the saxophone player.’ ”
Brown pauses for a moment for dramatic effect, then adds, “Well, it was Jay McShann’s, and you know who the saxophone player was? Charlie Parker.”
His views changed dramatically, however, in 1946 and ’47, when he played with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band during a joint tour with Fitzgerald.
“That’s when I really got to hear her, during that run with Dizzy. It’s a whole different ballgame then, when you’re working with somebody. And she was amazing, just picking up on everything that the band was doing. It was phenomenal the way she was responding to that band, because I don’t think she’d ever been around that kind of music before, working with swing players like Cootie Williams and Andy Kirk.”
The tour, in fact, had a major impact on Fitzgerald, both stylistically and in terms of her popularity. The mid-'40s were a period of seminal change for jazz, as rhythms, harmonies, melodies and attitude shifted dramatically with the arrival of bebop--especially as it was performed by Parker and Gillespie.
Far more than most swing-oriented instrumentalists, Fitzgerald almost immediately seized the essence of the new music, quickly making it her own.
“It was like she was waiting for it to show up,” Brown says. “It just fit right into her natural talents.”
So much so that her classic scat-singing versions of “How High the Moon,” “Lady Be Good” and “Flying Home” were first heard during this period.
“They were so popular,” Brown recalls, “that Ella had to do them wherever we went. And she was criticized by some critics for doing the same solos. But at that time, if you had a hit record like ‘How High the Moon,’ and didn’t sing the solo the way it was on the record, man, you could get assassinated, because people wanted to sing along with you.
“There was always some guy in the audience who’d been carrying garbage cans all week, waiting to come out to hear Ella, and thinking, ‘Man, I’m gonna hear this thing.’ I mean, he knew the record and that’s what he wanted to hear.”
But Fitzgerald, according to Brown, more than made up for the repetitious versions of her familiar hits with a rush of creativity in everything else she touched. Comparing her to instrumentalists, he points out that there are two categories of players and singers.
“On the one hand, you have a guy like [tenor saxophonist] Coleman Hawkins,” he says. “With him, if you played different changes on ‘Body and Soul’ 10 nights in a row, he would play them all. [Pianist] Hank Jones and I used to conjure up all kinds of changes to see if we could trick the old man, but he never got tricked. He’d laugh at us when he finished and say, ‘I heard you guys.’
“On the other hand, with a guy like [tenor saxophonist] Lester Young, you could stand on your head and it wouldn’t make any difference. Because he played little songs. You could do whatever you wanted to do, and it didn’t make any difference, because he was going to play what he was going to play.”
Fitzgerald, Brown feels, was like Hawkins, fully ready and eager to deal with any musical challenge tossed in her direction. Billie Holiday, the other half of the primary duo of female jazz singers, was--appropriately, given their own long association--far more like Lester Young, set and focused on what it was she wanted to say.
“Yeah, they were really very different,” Brown says. “With Billie, there was no reason to try to stretch the changes, because she knew what she wanted to sing. But with Ella, we were always trying to trick her with some weird changes. But every time we did, she’d just laugh and sing right through whatever we were doing. She had this incredible flexibility.”
Brown’s marriage to Fitzgerald ended when their careers pulled them in different directions: in his case, into a long, musically productive association with pianist Oscar Peterson; in Fitzgerald’s case, into the heavy schedule of recording (for Verve and Pablo) and touring that dominated the balance of her life.
Brown remarried and Fitzgerald did not, but they continued to remain friends and frequent musical associates.
“It was awkward for a few minutes,” he says, “but that was all. We never had any big differences after that and, of course, we had our son, Ray Brown Jr.
“The bottom line is that she was always a pleasure to work with, musically,” Brown says. “Once Ella got her music fine-tuned, back in the ‘40s, with that combination of bebop, ballads and swing, she just became a complete singer. She had great pitch, a great ear and an ability to grab hold of whatever was going on, a completely natural musician.”
A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, with Vic Damone, Melissa Manchester, the Mills Brothers, Dianne Reeves, Joe Williams, Ray Brown, the Count Basie Orchestra and others. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave. Tickets $10 to $100. (213) 480-3232.