Old School

Benny Green (right), Russell Malone (guitar), and Ray Brown at the Dakota Bar & Grill, October 2, 2000
Michael Dvorak

There are a handful of photos I return to again and again. Sometimes the way shapes align with one another holds my attention. Sometimes it's a shadow or a dusty beam of light. Sometimes a subject's expression simply sparks my imagination.

The black-and-white photo I've been staring at for the past week, taken by City Pages photographer Michael Dvorak on October 2, 2000, at the Dakota Bar & Grill in St. Paul, has all those elements; that's why it's hanging on my office wall. But I'd never been able to articulate what it is about the image that I find so hypnotic. Now I know.

I can hear it.

Jazz pianist Benny Green is the focal point. He's sitting behind a grand piano. But he's not playing. He's turned sideways, shoulders stooped, one arm draped over the instrument. A lock of curly brown hair falls into his watery eyes, which are fixed on some serene distance just beyond guitarist Russell Malone and bassist Ray Brown. The way the photo is composed, only one of Brown's eyes is visible, peeking out from behind Malone at the edge of the frame. But Green's blissed-out expression, like the gig itself, is all about Brown.

"He lays down this pulse that is just like a heartbeat, like life itself; like the sun," Green told me later that night. "Ray has unquestionably enhanced the quality of life on this earth. When you lock in, and the right groove hits you, when you really need it--man, it can make a 180-degree difference in your life."

I still have the notebook I carried with me that evening. It's jammed with press clippings about Brown's career, which spanned nearly six decades and is chronicled on more than 2,000 recordings. The details are overwhelming: His first regular gig in New York City came in 1945, when Dizzy Gillespie hired him to play with Charlie Parker in the pioneering bebop band. He was a longtime member of several renowned groups, including the original Modern Jazz Quartet. He accompanied and was married to Ella Fitzgerald from 1947 to 1953. And, always acting as his own manager, he worked as a successful studio musician, bandleader, and composer. He is one of a handful of artists whose style has influenced bassists in nearly every musical genre.

"He's the closest thing we have to connect us to the past. The music is moving into the next generation," Green, who was 35, told me. "And our challenge is to nurture and develop our own sound and voice. But that means embracing what came before. It means taking the time to listen, I mean really listen, to what guys like Ray have to say."

Brown's appearance at the Dakota that night was a sellout. It was often that way when he came to town. Because his visits had long since become an annual affair, there was a casual, almost familial vibe in the room that resulted in a blistering second set. For Green, who spent much of the Nineties playing in Brown's trio, it was a reunion. And he savored every moment, shaking his head and giggling whenever Brown took the wheel. He would shout "Ray Brown!" in the middle of a tune. Someone in the audience would shout back "Benny Green!" People were slapping at their tables, laughing out loud.

Drenched with soul, or ripped into a rag, standards such as "Bye-Bye Blackbird" were nearly unrecognizable. Lickety-split bop tunes morphed into bluesy, foot-stomping testimonials. In my notebook, I scribbled the following: Brown, sweat-soaked, leans into his bass like a lover. Eyes shut, he smiles as Green pops into a higher gear. "Watch out!" he yells. If B.B. King played jazz bass, this is what it would feel like.

"The beauty of the quarter note, of the beat, is never to be taken casually or lightly," Green told me. "The beat and time is something to be honored and respected. You have players that embrace the time, and some who shy away from it. Ray takes great pleasure and pride in laying down a time that you can't help but move your body to. And when you play, with him three and a half feet from your left ear, man, you have to come with something special."

When it was over, the crowd jumped to its feet, Brown let go a roar of approval, and Green got up from the piano, embraced his mentor, and gave him a kiss.

"I think we are all looking to get to what is honest and what is real," Green explained later. "It seems like if we can get to that, everything else falls into balance. Being around someone who knows what they've been put here to do, who loves who they are, and who enjoys themselves--that's a blessing. You see, Ray knows what it means to really love this music. That's the bond between us. That's what he's all about."

On July 2, 2002, Brown died in his sleep, just a few hours before he was to play at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis. He was 75 years old.


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