George Mraz, consummate jazz bassist, dies at 77

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George Mraz, consummate jazz bassist, dies at 77
For half a century, he was in constant demand, backing big names like Oscar Peterson as well as countless up-and-coming performers.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- George Mraz, a sought-after jazz bassist whose deft, versatile work anchored the recordings and performances of generations of artists, from Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie more than 50 years ago to Cyrus Chestnut and Joe Lovano in this century, died Sept. 16. He was 77.

His wife, pianist Camilla Mraz, posted news of his death on Facebook. She did not say where he died or give a cause, although a GoFundMe page was established in 2016 to assist Mraz with expenses related to pancreatic cancer.

Mraz came to the United States from what was then Czechoslovakia in 1968 to attend Berklee School of Music (now Berklee College of Music) in Boston. While studying there, he was also playing at Lennie’s on the Turnpike and other local nightclubs, catching the ear of some of jazz’s biggest names. In 1969, Gillespie invited him to join his group in New York City; soon after that, Peterson made him part of his trio.

He toured with Peterson for two years and then established himself in New York. He spent six years with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra (later the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra) in its famed Monday night slot at the Village Vanguard. He became what’s known in the music world as a first-call player — the first person you would call if you wanted a top-notch bassist for a club date or a recording session. It was a status he held for decades, appearing on scores of albums and playing with name musicians as well as with up-and-coming ones.

“Mraz’s wonderful sense of harmony and penchant for subtle surprises won him work with the likes of Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald and Stan Getz more than two decades ago,” the Boston Herald wrote in 2000, when Mraz was appearing at the Regattabar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as part of the quartet Grand Slam. “He has remained as in demand as almost any bassist in jazz, particularly among piano players.” (One of his longest and most fruitful collaborations was with pianist Tommy Flanagan.)

By then, he had also become a bandleader. He recorded several albums under his name, including “Jazz” (1996) and “Duke’s Place” (1999), a tribute to Duke Ellington.

“He played so beautifully, with so much command of the instrument,” Billy Drummond, the drummer on “Duke’s Place,” said by email. “It was captivating to see and hear, and I always looked forward to playing with him.”

Drummond cited a passage from his liner notes for “Duke’s Place” to convey just how captivating Mraz could be.

“I remember vividly playing with him years ago with the pianist Steve Kuhn,” he wrote in those notes, “and George’s bass solos had me so transfixed that I found myself forgetting to come back in to play.”

Jiri Mraz — “George” was an Americanization — was born Sept. 9, 1944, in Pisek, in what is now the Czech Republic. When he was 12 or 13, he stumbled on Louis Armstrong on a Voice of America broadcast.

“I couldn’t figure out the music,” he told Bass Musician magazine in 2009, “and wondered how someone with a voice like Satchmo’s got away with singing like that. The music made me feel good, and I liked it better than a lot of other things I had heard. That’s when I started looking into jazz.”

He studied at the Prague Conservatory, graduating in 1966, and was playing with top jazz groups in his country while a teenager. When the Soviet Union cracked down on liberalization in Prague in the summer of 1968, he was out of the country, playing at a jazz club in Munich. That fall, he accepted a scholarship to Berklee. It was almost a quarter-century before he was able to return to his homeland to perform.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1975.

As an accompanist, Mraz was expert at complementing whoever was front and center, as in 1982 when he backed singer Carol Sloane at the club Village West.

“She uses vibrato to give each song a rhythmic pulse, and she knowingly savors every curve she adds to a melody,” Jon Pareles wrote in a review in The New York Times. “Mr. Mraz’s warm, legato bass lines gave her plenty to swing on.”

Mraz was schooled in classical music and would practice it as a conservatory student, but he said he rarely practiced jazz while a student or in later years. “Mostly I learned everything on the bandstand,” he said.

He had a knack for accommodating a variety of players and their demands. “There are so many different styles to consider, and I always just try to just fit with what’s happening musically around me,” he told Bass Musician. “It’s a very natural thing for me.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union gave Mraz a chance to return to his home country, and to step to the fore as bandleader.

“It’s not easy to decide how to put a band together,” he told The Boston Globe in 1999. “But I needed a group when I went to Prague in 1991, for the first time in 25 years, to play at a festival.”

His approach as bandleader was laid back.

“You can never tell people exactly what to do,” he said. “So you just try to find a way to work your concepts into the music, as well as their concepts, and just let them do what they do.”

A full list of Mraz’s survivors was not immediately available.

When not playing music, Mraz would sometimes pursue his hobby, fly-fishing, in the rivers and streams of upstate New York.

“I catch mostly trout and throw most of them back, though I keep one or two a year just to assure myself I’m not completely crazy,” he told the Globe. “The biggest I’ve caught was 2 feet long, and I let him go — he was too beautiful.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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