Cabrillo College instructor Ray Brown is an iconic musical figure in the region. A featured trumpet soloist with the legendary Stan Kenton Orchestra back in the 1970s, Brown has headed up the much lauded music program at Cabrillo for more than four decades. He’s truly a local treasure.
All the while, Brown has continued performing, composing and arranging himself as the mainstay of Ray Brown’s Great Big Band (GBB), a throwback to his stint with Stan Kenton and the big band era of the 1940s and 1950s, in which Brown was raised. GBB has been blowing audiences away annually for 27 years.
But now that run is coming to an end.
On Monday, Nov. 21, Brown will be staging a farewell GBB performance, featuring a host of all-star jazz musicians from throughout the Bay Area, at Cabrillo College’s Crocker Theatre, beginning at 7:30 p.m. All of the songs performed throughout the show, entitled “Last Time Around,” will be either composed or arranged by Brown.
Included in Brown’s amazing ensemble are saxophone soloists Mary Fettig, Paul Contos, Bennett Friedman and Charlie McCarthy; baritone sax player Mike Young; trombone soloists John Gove, Dave Eshelman, Dave Gregoric and Dave Martell; bass trombonist Steve Barnhill; trumpet soloists Erik Jekabson and Don Beck; third trumpet Mike Galisatus; and two lead trumpets, Rich Bice and Louis Fasman. The rhythm section is also legendary, with pianist Eddie Mendenhall, bassist John Shifflett, drummer Alan Hall, and Brown’s brother Steve Brown on guitar.
Brown was raised with big band music in his blood. His father, Glenn Brown, a marimba and vibraphone player, toured during the 1950s and 1960s with Xavier Cugat, the Cuban-raised band leader who first popularized Latin jazz in the U.S. When he was a kid, Brown and his family actually followed Cugat and his father on a cross-country tour while sleeping in the family’s Buick woodie station wagon or on blankets on ballroom floors after the shows.
A decade later, Brown’s dad ran a music summer camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, where the teenage Brown got his first formal training in music with classes spanning “theory, arranging, copying (calligraphy), improvisation and combos,” and also performed in his first big band, which Brown recalls “was playing concerts three to four nights a week.”
“We rehearsed every day,” Brown notes, “and I started writing arrangements at that time. I actually conducted the band one night and that set it off for me. I grew to love the sound of all the horns.”
During the Vietnam War, Brown played trumpet in the U.S. Army’s touring jazz band, and as soon as he was released he hooked up with Kenton, still touring the U.S. as the last remnant of the big band era.
Kenton was known for his big blaring horn sections—his was the original “wall of sound,” long before Phil Spector developed a similar concept in pop and rock—and the then-25-year-old Brown was a more tempered trumpeter than those high, strong players usually favored by Kenton. “I was more in the Art Farmer mode,” says Brown. He wasn’t sure if he was going to stick.
“Honestly, I don’t think Stan much liked my playing at first,” Brown recalls, “but I grew on him, and we eventually became good friends—so much so that he had me rehearse the band for him numerous times.”
Shortly thereafter, Brown wound up at Cabrillo, raised a family, and became a lynchpin in Santa Cruz County’s musical community. He’s recorded, conducted and performed around the world. In 1990, he received a Fulbright Senior Professorship to the University of Mainz in Germany. He and his wife Sue, herself a talented violinist and violist, packed up their three daughters for a six-month German adventure.
Once he got back from that sojourn to Germany, he began to build the Great Big Band. It’s been a great 27-year run, but time has started to take its toll. One of his band members, Steve Campos, passed away last year.
“It has been magnificent,” says Brown. “But I think it’s time. I’ve had a great group of players to write for, and I’ve done that religiously. My ‘book’ now has 150 works in it. That’s a nice round number. I guess you could say I have some other projects I’d like to tackle.”
And despite putting the GBB to bed, Brown—who formally retired from Cabrillo two years ago, but still teaches two courses each semester—also promises to keep performing locally, albeit on a much more intimate scale. Beginning in December, he and his longtime pianist Eddie Mendenhall will play gigs as a duet dubbed “Tuo” at Gayle’s in Capitola. Their first show will be Tuesday, Dec. 13 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Ray Brown’s Great Big Band will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 21, at Cabrillo College Crocker Theater, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. Tickets $25 general; $20 student, available at brownpapertickets.com, or at the door. For more information, call 479-6154.