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About

Ray Parker

I come from a musical family, my father being the first professional musician that we know of, although my great-grandfathers of both sides of his family were known to be musical. My folks, being good Baby-Boomers, split when I was seven and mom kept the kids. From seven until fourteen I lived in a non-musical environment and was a farm-kid for a couple of years as well. At the age of fourteen I moved in with my father and step-mother.

 

My father teaches at home and at that time was carrying on average forty one-hour students per week. On top of this he carried a full-time playing schedule in the evenings. Although I was surrounded completely by music, I didn't really begin acquiring an interest in playing until the age of sixteen or seventeen. My multi-instrumentalist father had literally dozens of instruments around the house and for a period of time I gave most of them a try, but none really grabbed me. Then, for reasons still mysterious to me, I decided that I wanted to play bass. Dad bought me a bass guitar (a Peavey T40) for my sixteenth birthday/Christmas. For about about a six months I plinked around on it without much seriousness and then gradually started getting more into it. I then bought a bass violin on a loan from dad and before too long I was doing sessions with students of his and then gigs shortly after. Not long after that I was playing out-of-the-way gigs with dad and some of the other older players in town -- who put up with me because I was 'Gene's kid.' I learned pretty fast and was playing steadily right out of high school. Perhaps all of the thousands of hours of hearing my father's lessons had somehow seeped in, giving me a head-start of sorts on playing. All throughout my music career my father has been an inspiration and continues to this day to cram my brain with life lessons as well as music theory lessons.

 

During the period mentioned above, there are a few more people who were influential to me getting started playing and I will mention them now as I couldn't wedge them into the 'brief' story of The Beginning neatly.

Perhaps the reason that I chose the bass was because of the bass player who worked with my dad a lot through the late 70's and early 80's named Rick Luettke. Beyond swinging, the thing that my dad always liked to point out about Rick's playing was how he was able to to 'play the spaces'. Tasty is how you could best describe Ric's playing. When it's time to lay low and build the foundation, he is there doing it without drawing attention to himself. Then, at just that magical moment when the right space happens, he'll say just the right thing to bring it all together. Also, much of the beginnings of my technique were from studying the way his hands look on the bass.

 

The next big bass player influence on me was a bass player who came to town to finish his degree at Bowling Green State University (where he is now chair of the Jazz Department) named Jeff Halsey. Jeff began playing with my dad not long after he got to town, and as part of the 'friends & family' plan was somehow relegated to giving me bass lessons. I wasn't the best student, but Jeff's influence on my playing is profound. Where Ric's approach to the bass itself is rather delicate (an ingredient that, to this day, I'm still trying to get more of in my playing), Jeff approaches the instrument with a more 'sleeves rolled up' approach that I would characterize more the way Mingus approached the bass. Jeff also plays a lot in the middle register of the bass, which started opening up the top of the bass in my ears. Another thing that Jeff did for me was to introduce me to the playing of bass players that I hadn't really been exposed to at that point. Early on I had been listening to a lot of Ray Brown, Sam Jones, and particularly NHOP, and Jeff said, "You oughtta check out Eddie Gomez". I found a copy of Chick Corea's 'Three Quartets' and haven't been the same since.

 

A couple of other strong influences on my playing, and also my love of duo playing, came from two piano players in Toledo.

 

The first, John Mast, was one of the toughest teachers that I had. John is 'old school', and known to be harsh to bass players. I played with John on a duo gig for about eight months where I eventually got fired for getting yelled at too much. I used to go home with headaches every Friday and Saturday night. What I did learn from John though was hundreds of tunes and how to really listen to what the piano player was playing. This was my first real intense situation where there were no charts or lead-sheets to follow. Only the piano voicing and the melody to go by. John would only feed you the root as he was pounding it and screaming if you missed it the second time. I also learned -- purely out of fear -- to get it right by the second chorus.

 

The second is a guy named Jim Lee. Perhaps Lee's greatest strength is as an accompanist. He's a great player in his own right, but in backing up a melody voice he truly shines. Jim and I first started playing together on a gig that we did with a singer where it was just Jim, the singer, and me. Jim's lesson picked up where John had left off.-- although (thank God), Jim didn't yell and scream at bass players. Jim's playing, chordally, is a lot more subtle than John's, wherein many of his voicings would allow choices as far as the bass note would go. Jim's playing is also heavily influenced by Bill Evans, and so my ears started to struggle for a more interactive style of playing. I wasn't to check out Bill for a few more years, however. I also got a long lesson in the delicate art of backing a singer. This is something that I've found is to be rare knowledge among even among the best of players.

 

Another mention that must be made is Eddie Abrams. Eddie was the house pianist at Rusty's Jazz Cafe' for years and years, and had three nights during the week where he ran a jam session. Eddie was known for giving young players a forum in which to work on their 'thing', and I had to good fortune of doing this gig with him for a couple of years. Eddie's greatest lesson to me would have to be spirit. The gig was no study in subtlety by any stretch, but if you were on stage with Eddie, you'd better mean it. Wrong notes were little things. Lack of spirit would get you a lecture out in his old Chevy Malibu during one of his famously long set breaks.

 

About this time -- I guess I was bout 20 or 21 by then -- I had finally gotten it together enough to start working with my dad and 'The Big Boys'. Halsey had started to move on to other things, and the bass chair was slowly opening up in my father's group. I was still below par, but close enough to bring hope to my father that I might become a bass player, I suppose. My dad, usually a gentle teacher, had far less patience with me than he did his other students, so I was back in the high-tension learning environment.

 

Hundreds of wedding gigs allowed me to accumulate quite a collection of styles and tunes, but the real lesson that I got here was playing in concert settings. Now I had to not only hang at the 'pro' level, but had to come up with 'something to say' where people were actually listening. I had to start developing a voice in music, where before I was just trying to not be a drag to the other musicians with whom I played.

 

As my playing grew stronger, I began playing more and more with the best players in the area. I was now in with the 'pros'. About this time, I started to check out where Eddie Gomez was coming from. Mention was made in some interview that I read somewhere that Scott LaFaro was his big influence, so this is where I 'discovered' Bill Evans. I hadn't had much exposure to Bill as my father was never a real big fan of his, as Bill's 'bouncing eighth notes' grate on dad's ears.

 

After some time, I was getting itchy to get out of town. After some initial missions to Cincinnati, I ended with up a couple of years of heavy-duty commuting between Toledo and Cleveland where I lucked into the tutelage of a great musician named Bob Fraser ("The Chief"). Bob would be the next huge influence on me after my dad. As I said, I spent a couple of years driving back and forth between Toledo and Cleveland, and as my last in a series of junker cars was on its last leg, I decided to move the Cleveland to continue playing with Bob in a trio led by Chuck Braman. Bob and Chuck (and Cleveland in general in the late eighties) were in to far more a modern kind of thing that was Toledo, which was heavily steeped in Hard Bop. Here I got a whole different perspective on harmony, and started developing a more interactive or collective-improv voice on the bass. Here is where I was beginning to develop my own voice on the bass.

 

While in I was living Cleveland, Gary Burton came to town and somehow got stuck playing an open jam session at a club in the flats as part of a concert/clinic deal that he was working at one of the colleges in town. Through a series of mis-communications, I wound up being the bass player on the gig. Gary took a liking to me, and suggested that I move to Boston (instead of NYC, which I had been considering by then). Although I generally had a miserable time in Boston (moving there just in time for one of the worst recessions that they'd ever had), I did a lot of playing, and I grew musically.

 

My time in Boston was miserable enough (financially) that I decided that I wanted out of the music business, and effectively laid down the bass for about a year. During this time, I was staying at dad's house again, teaching myself how to program computers. Toward the end of this year, my old roommate (Mike Noonan) from Boston called with an NEA residency gig in Iowa. I took the gig on the condition that I would get computer classes at the sponsoring college. We ended up too busy for me to spend much effort on the classes, but the whole adventure (a story in itself) was the positive input that I need to stay in music.

 

I did the residency for a couple of years, and then left the band to study computer science formally at the University of Toledo. During my first year at the university, I ended up getting a job, where I soon ended up as a one-man computer department, and left school to make money. As I spent more and more time working with computers, I soon came to the full realization that music, not computers, is where I wanted to be headed. For the next few years I carried an incredibly packed schedule where I worked both the computer job and played 4-7 nights a week. After I burnt out and quit the first computer job, I continued to play a pretty active schedule with my dad's vibe trio, and did a few low-pressure computer temp jobs. As I became more and more serious about playing again, I was starting to get impatient with the pace (and density of good players) in the Midwest, and again set my sights on the East Coast.

 

In preparation for my impending flight from Toledo, I quit yet another of my computer jobs so as to hit the 'woodshed' and have my hands together for my landing in NYC. My bass had been set up very stiff, and this combined with a couple of years on this setup, bad habits from playing an unplayable bass (playing with a lot of tension), and then a rigorous practice regimen left me with a case of tendonitis. For the next four months as I prepared to leave for New York, I laid off practicing, only playing gigs, in the vain effort to let my hand heal and keep my chops somewhat together. I seemed to be generally on the mend until I got to NYC and got real busy (double and triple events daily) -- and my hand started acting up.

 

I then spent a couple of years enduring the frustration of being at the center of the universe and not being able to play. I worked for a Wall Street firm, Bernard L. Madoff, as a computer programmer, leaving that job in the spring of 2001. In trying to fix my wrist, I was turned on to the Alexander Technique. I recommend it to everyone.

 

I'm currently out of the computer business again, with the tendonitis in my left wrist well on the mend, fighting my way up the pile of great bass players in New York.

 

In case you wanted to know.

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