George Mraz, a sought-after jazz bassist whose skillful and versatile work anchored the recordings and performances of generations of artists, from Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie over 50 years ago to Cyrus Chestnut and Joe Lovano during this century, passed away on September 16. He was 77 years old.
His wife, pianist Camilla Mraz, posted the news of his death on Facebook. She did not say where he died or give a case, although a GoFundMe page was set up in 2016 to help Mr Mraz with expenses related to pancreatic cancer.
Mr. Mraz came to the United States from what was then Czechoslovakia in 1968 to attend the Berklee School of Music (now Berklee College of Music) in Boston. While studying there, he also performed at Lennie’s on the Turnpike and other local nightclubs, catching the ear of some of the biggest names in jazz. In 1969, Gillespie invited him to join his group in New York; shortly thereafter, Peterson made him part of his trio.
He toured with Peterson for two years then moved to New York. He spent six years with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra (later the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra) in their famous Monday night slot at Village Vanguard. He has become what in the music world is called a Top notch player – the first person you would call if you wanted a top notch bassist for a club date or recording session. It was a status he held for decades, appearing on dozens of albums and performing with renowned musicians as well as promising musicians.
“Mraz’s wonderful sense of harmony and penchant for subtle surprises led him to work with Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Stan Getz over two decades ago,” the Boston Herald wrote in 2000, when Mr. Mraz appeared at the Regattabar in Cambridge, Mass., As part of the Grand Slam Quartet. “He has remained as in demand as almost all jazz bassists, especially among pianists. (One of his longest and most successful collaborations has been with pianist Tommy Flanagan.)
By this time he had also become a conductor. He has recorded several albums under his name, including “Jazz” (1996) and the tribute to Duke Ellington “Duke’s Place” (1999).
“He played so well, with such mastery of the instrument,” “Duke’s Place” drummer Billy Drummond said via email. “It was captivating to see and hear, and I always looked forward to playing with him.”
Mr. Drummond quoted a passage from his liner notes for “Duke’s Place” to express how captivating Mr. Mraz could be.
“I vividly remember playing with him years ago with pianist Steve Kuhn,” he wrote in those notes, “and George’s bass solos fascinated me so much that I forgot to come back and play. “
Jiri Mraz – “George” was an Americanization – was born September 9, 1944 in Pisek, present-day Czech Republic. When he was 12 or 13, he ran into Louis Armstrong on a Voice of America show.
“I couldn’t understand music,” he told Bass Musician magazine in 2009, “and I wondered how someone with a voice like Satchmo got away with singing like that. made me feel good and liked it better than a lot of other things I had heard and that’s when I started to get interested in jazz.
He studied at the Prague Conservatory, graduating in 1966, and played with the best jazz groups in his country during his teenage years. When the Soviet Union suppressed liberalization in Prague in the summer of 1968, he was abroad playing in a jazz club in Munich. That fall he accepted a scholarship at Berklee. It took almost a quarter of a century before he could return to his homeland to perform.
He became a US citizen in 1975.
As an accompanist, Mr. Mraz was adept at complementing anyone in the foreground, like in 1982 when he supported singer Carol Sloane at the Village West club.
“She uses vibrato to give every song a rhythmic boost, and she knowingly savoring every curve she adds to a melody,” Jon Pareles wrote in a New York Times review. “Sir. Mraz’s warm, legato basslines gave him a lot of swing.
Mr Mraz studied classical music and would practice it as a student at the conservatory, but said he rarely practiced jazz during his studies or later. “Most of the time I learned everything about the bandstand,” he said.
He had a knack for adapting to a variety of players and their demands. “There are so many different styles to consider, and I always try to adapt to what’s going on musically around me,” he told Bass Musician. “It’s a very natural thing to me.”
The collapse of the Soviet Union gave Mr. Mraz a chance to return to his home country and gain recognition as a conductor.
“It’s not easy to decide how to start a band,” he told the Boston Globe in 1999. “But I needed a band when I went to Prague in 1991, for the first time. in 25 years, to play in a festival. “
His approach as a conductor was relaxed.
“You can never tell people exactly what to do,” he said. “So you’re just trying to find a way to integrate your concepts into the music, and their concepts, and let them do what they do. “
A full list of Mr. Mraz’s survivors was not immediately available.
When not playing music, Mr. Mraz occasionally pursued his hobby, fly fishing, in the rivers and streams of upstate New York.
“I mostly fish for trout and reject most of them, although I keep a couple of them a year just to make sure I’m not completely crazy,” he told The Globe. “The biggest one I caught was two feet long, and I let it go – it looked too good.”