Ray Alexander

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Ray Alexander played jazz for over 50 years, appearing with such luminaries as George Shearing, Claude Thornhill, Stan Getz, Peggy Lee, Anita O'Day, Bill Evans, Charlie Barnet, and a host of others. Ray has two albums available from his own Nerus label and one on Cat's Paw Records - Click here to listen to cuts from all three albums. If you'd like information on ordering any of the albums, please click here .

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In the following interview from "Jazz Journal International", Ray talks about his life and experiences:

To begin with, I'd like to just mention my CD, "Rain in June", which is out on Nerus Records. It features Kenny Barron on piano, Warren Vaché, Jr. on cornet and flugelhorn, Harvie Swartz on bass, the late Oliver Jackson on drums, and Bob Kindred on tenor. Bob himself had just gotten out of the hospital, and did an incredible job. The session turned out great, and I'm very proud of it. It's gotten wonderful reviews and air-play in the US and England, and I've been invited for interviews on many radio stations and for magazines and newspapers. I even do a vocal on the title track, and a number of singers have expressed interest in using it. There's a couple more originals on the album, including Angelique (which I wrote for my granddaughter) and Twinkletoes, which I had in mind for a dancer.

I lived in Lynbrook, Long Island, and was born into a musical environment. My mother was a concert pianist, and my grandmother was quite successful in the New York theater. My mother told me I was picking out tunes on the piano at age two, but I never pursued piano as a main instrument. At 16, I got a drum kit and started lessons (I've always believed in study). You see, I had played hooky and saw Gene Krupa at the Paramount Theater in New York, and I thought he was so great that I just had to play drums myself. While in high school I played jitterbug contests at a theater called the Criterion with a pianist called "Snarl" Keith, who loved to play boogie woogie, and Dick Skinner on cornet. You'd know "Snarl" today as Brian Keith, the actor. I also had a 15 piece big band, and we'd play at proms, tea dances, and local clubs. It was tough for a 16 year old, still going to school, but I never turned down a gig because this was what I wanted to do.

I'd go to the Three Deuces on 52nd street to see Big Sid Catlett. He got to like me, and he'd say "Come on kid, sit beside me while I play." Right alongside him would be Art Tatum, Slam Stewart, Tiny Grimes, and in front the great Billie Holiday, so I was getting a terrific education in music.

There was a time when Al Haig rushed up to me and told me to listen to this guy sitting in on alto saxophone. I said "My God, he sounds great - I don't understand all of it but it's wonderful - who is he?". It was Charlie Parker, back around 1940. In summer on 52nd street the clubs didn't have air conditioning, so the doors and windows would be wide open. You could just be outside and hear the greatest music being played by so many wonderful artists.

I got to play at the Onyx Club with Stuff Smith, the great fiddle player, and at the Embers with Joe Venuti. Joe was a terrific character, and he really knew how to swing when he played.

After my war service in the army, I worked with Dave Mathews, a great tenor man. He did the arranging for the Hal McIntyre band. Doc Severinson was on trumpet, Bob Leininger on bass (who later played with the Les Brown Band with Doris Day as the singer), and Danny Hurd on piano. Another pianist with Dave was Marjorie Hyams, who became the first vibraphonist with George Shearing, and she was also a very good pianist.

I went out on the road with Reggie Charles, then with Ray Kinney's Hawaiian band, which was pretty big at that time. After that I was with Chubby Jackson, and then Bobby Byrne. It was with Bobby that I realized my dream of playing the Paramount Theater. We were working with the Mills Brothers, and that's where I met my wife Joan. I stayed with Bobby for about three years, and we played with a number of artists, including three weeks with Mel Tormé.

I took up the vibes at 24, and it's funny how it happened. I'd been to see Lionel Hampton, and he did that two-finger thing at the top of the piano with someone laying down the chords. I loved it, and I went home and started playing that. I didn't know what key I was in, or an F from a C, but I improvised and would fool around with it on gigs. People would ask why I didn't take up vibes, so I did. Although I played them right away, I again took lessons and was fortunate enough to study with some of the best: Terry Snyder, Phil Kraus, and George Devons. I learned arranging, harmony and theory, as well as chords and changes.

So now I was out playing drums and vibes. In the fifties I played vibes on Monday nights at Birdland, and go out on the road playing drums with Claude Thornhill the rest of the week.

Claude was definitely one of my favorite people. He was the originator of the style of two French horns and that slow, beautiful style that Elliot Lawrence later copied. One thing I always admired about Claude was that if something wasn't right in the music, he knew exactly who was wrong. He never blamed the wrong person for not fitting in correctly with the arrangement.

I'd been playing vibes for a year and a half when George Shearing called me to play with him. I had to tell him I didn't feel ready yet, so Cal Tjader went with him. Later in the fifties I did join George, and was fortunate enough to record the album "Beauty and the Beat", with Peggy Lee. It's proved to be a classic over the years, and I'm delighted that it's been re-released on CD. The only thing that bugged me was that none of the musicians were credited on the album. I'm happy to say that it's been re-released on a CD and all the musicians were listed:
Toots Thielemans - Guitar
Ray Alexander - Vibes
Carl Pruitt - Bass
Ray Mosca - Drums
Armando Peraza - Conga
The record is considered a classic, and it's great that they took the time to give credit to the proper musicians for the session.

At that time, I was with Shearing in Chicago and we were playing at the Blue Note there. There was a group at the London House called Martin Denny's Quiet Village, playing exotic Pacific sounds. Martin came in and asked me to play drums and percussion on an album, so you'll see me listed on that album, called "Quiet Village".

At that time Denny had a vibes player named Julius Wechter who used to always be going on about how worried he was with the music business and how he'd make out in the future. Well, one day he got a call from Herb Alpert who had A&M Records and the Tiajuana Brass. Herb asked Julius to head up a co-operative outfit called the Baja Marimba Band, and that's what he did. He became a very rich guy, after all that worrying about the future!

Around this time I played drums at the Metropole in New York quite often. It was with Tony Parenti, but you never knew who would show up. Once it was Coleman Hawkins, and he said "Ray, you sure got good time", which made me feel so good. The clarinet player, Tony Scott, had one of the first lofts in New York and everyone would go there and sit in. One night I was on drums and Bird showed up and played a couple of tunes. I'll never forget that!

I got to play pretty often at Birdland, and here's how that happened. A pal of mine, drummer Jim Chapin, had a group there a lot of Mondays and Phil Woods was part of that. I came in the club and Jim introduced me to Oscar Goodstein and asked why couldn't he hire me for a Monday night? So he did, and I had Tommy Potter on bass, Wade Legley on piano and Art Taylor on drums, playing opposite the Stan Getz Quartet (who just finished a tour). They were pretty tired, but when we played, boy, the audience went wild! After that, Oscar Goodstein gave me 15 Mondays a year, and I was thrilled because it was such a prestigious place to play. I had such people as Eddie Costa, Paul Motian, Ray Mosca, Teddy Kotick, Nick Stabulas, Vinnie Burke, and many more with me there - it was great.

A friend of mine said to me, "There's a terrific piano player coming to New York, you've got to hear him. His name is Bill Evans." I'd been hired to play the Childs Paramount on Broadway and I got Bill Evans the piano spot. He played the weekend, then told the leader of the band that the music was fine, but he had come to New York to play only 100% jazz.

One Sunday afternoon I got a call from Ralph Watkins, who owned the Embers and Basin Street East. He asked me to put together a band for the Embers for that night because he'd had a cancellation. I'd learned never to say no, so I called Bill Evans, a bassist named Tom O'Neil and a drummer and we had a great time. I played with Bill a few more times before he went with Miles Davis.

Stan Getz and I played a number of times, and of course it was wonderful. In the early fifties I was playing a club on Long Island called the Lamplighter and Stan was living nearby and came in many times to play with my trio, because he enjoyed it so much. We'd get them to lock the doors at 2 AM and play until 4, just for fun. Some years later, Stan asked me to join his bossa nova band but I couldn't due to other commitments.

Another time I was playing at the Hotel Edison across the street from the Helen Hayes Theater, and a lot of people would come across during the intermission for a drink. Once a guy came up on the stand, grabbed the bass and played with us. We suddenly realized it was Ernest Hemingway! He had such a great time he didn't go back to see the rest of the show - he stayed with us, playing and telling stories and getting drunk.

In 1961 I played with Charlie Barnet at Basin Street East and on the bill were Billy Eckstine and Don Rickles. A few of the fellas in the band, including Nat Pierce, didn't have to play for Billy Eckstine, so after Charlie Barnet's band did the show, we'd go around the corner to a watering hole called Kulkin's Bar and sink a few. Of course, we had to play Cherokee every night and I was getting bored with that. One night, without thinking, I played Charlie's solo note for note before he played it. The guys were breaking up and Charlie was standing there saying "I'm going to kill you Ray, I'm going to kill you!" He played his solo anyway, note for note, and I thought, "This will be the end of me, he'll knock my head off!" In the end, we laughed about it and that was it.

Around this time a bass player by the name of Ray Carle and I opened a jazz restaurant in Mamaroneck, Westchester County. We leased a place called the Green Haven Inn. It was great, and all the guys would come in, like Gary Burton, Doc Severinson, Mike Mainieri (who got married there), and Joe Morello; we all made great music together. I'll never forget that crazy Jonathan Winters dressed up as a policeman one Sunday morning and directing traffic the wrong way so everybody going to church was going around in circles, just like a mad movie. Sadly, we sold the place after a year and a half because the business of running it became too much.

Mousey Alexander and I formed a group called "Alexanders the Great" and did very well for a time, getting wonderful reviews. Lynn Christie was on bass and Lou Forrestieri on piano, and we often played the Half Note in New York and included a lot of original material of mine. We were on our way to becoming a hot item when Mousey got a heart attack. He recovered, but continued to have health problems and the group broke up.

In 1983 I put out an album called "Cloud Patterns", recorded live at Eddie Condon's by a friend. It featured Albert Dailey on piano, Harvie Swartz on bass, Ray Mosca on drums, and Pepper Adams on baritone sax. Sadly, we lost Albert and Pepper, so I dedicated the album to their memory. The album got great reviews and created a lot of interest, and I recouped my financial outlay. Jazz Journal critic Peter Vacher voted it among his top 10 in the 1990 poll, so after only 47 years in the business I had a great album out under my own name and it has done me a lot of good.

It's a funny thing, but with the release of my "Rain in June" CD there's been renewed interest in Cloud Patterns, so I'm thinking about re-releasing it on CD. I've still got extra tracks that didn't make it onto the LP, due to time considerations that won't apply to a CD.

There's another recording in the works, and in the meantime I'm playing in Long Island, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Newport (Rhode Island), and Maine. I also play down in Florida a couple of weeks in the winter, and in Europe during the summer.

I'm also teaching part time at 5 Towns College in Dix Hills, NY, where I received an Honorary Doctorate.


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