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Bassist George Mraz

640px-George_Mraz by Brian McMillen CCSA4.0.jpg
Brian McMillen
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George Mraz

Carol Handley explains how radio changed the life of Czechoslovakian bassist-turned-U.S. citizen George Mraz, who went on to lead a six-decades-long career.

“He plays the bass as though he invented it.” That's what pianist Richie Beirach said of his collaborator for more than 40 years, bassist George Mraz.

Mraz possessed a tone that was both full-bodied and remarkably agile — thus seeming lighter than it actually was. It enabled him to excel across multiple styles of jazz, from Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop stylings to the more experimental avenues of John Abercrombie and Dave Liebman.

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

The list of "A" players he worked with through the decades is testament to his agility and ability to respond to what his bandmates were playing. Beyond his 10 albums with his own group with pianist Richie Beirach and drummer Billy Hart, he recorded multiple albums with more than 50 artists that included John Abercrombie, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Sir Roland Hanna, Stan Getz, Stephane Grappelli, Thad Jones & Mel Lewis, Tommy Flanagan, Dizzy Gillespie, Zoot Sims, McCoy Tyner, Lionel Hampton, Larry Coryell and even Grover Washington Jr.

For Mraz, it all started with classical violin studies at age 7. His ear was further piqued at 12 years old when he heard Louis Armstrong on the Voice of America jazz radio broadcasts.

Never underestimate the power of radio.

He fell in love with the bass work of Scott LaFaro, Paul Chambers and Ray Brown.

The Czechoslovakian-born bassist went on to tune his talent at the Prague Conservatory, graduating in 1966, and was already playing with top jazz groups in his country while still a teenager. When the Soviet Union cracked down on liberalization, he accepted a scholarship to Berklee College of Music.

While playing in Boston clubs, he was heard by Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson, and both asked him to play in their bands.

Mraz 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 before going on to record with a myriad of jazz talents, including violinist Stephane Grappelli.

When George Mraz died this year, he was 77 years old.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.