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Music

George Mraz, Inventively Swinging Bassist, Dies at 77

George Mraz
Steven Sussman
/
used with permission
George Mraz, performing with Hank Jones at Birdland in 2003.

George Mraz, a widely recorded bassist praised for his sonority and buoyancy, died on Sept. 16. He was 77.

His death was confirmed by his wife, pianist and vocalist Camilla Mraz, on social media.

In recent years, Mraz's trio project with Camilla and drummer Anthony Pinciotti toured internationally and composed live music for films. Throughout his career, Mraz appeared as a leader or co-leader on nearly two dozen recordings. An in-demand sideman, he performed on an additional 150 albums alongside such artists such as Pepper Adams, Sir Roland Hanna, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Elvin Jones and Joe Lovano.

George Mraz/ Camilla Mraz ICICLES

"Even when he's doing nothing but walking four to the bar, his choice of notes is so perfect; it's like he's telling a little story in the back of each soloist," says Todd Barkan, Mraz's longtime friend and producer.

Born Jiří Mráz in Pisek, Czechia on Sept. 9, 1944, he and began classical violin studies at age seven. His ear was further piqued at 12 when he heard Louis Armstrong on the Voice of America jazz radio broadcasts. He soon fell under the spell of bassists Scott LaFaro, Paul Chambers and Ray Brown.

As a young teen, Mraz began studying bass at the Prague Conservatory, and performed nightly with the area's top local jazz bands. Shortly after his graduation in 1966, he began working with top U.S. expatriate musicians touring in Europe, including trumpeters Carmel Jones and Benny Bailey, saxophonist Leo Wright and pianist Mal Waldron.

Mraz traveled to the United States in 1968 as a scholarship student at Boston's Berklee College of Music. Playing nightly on the local club scene, he soon found work with visiting luminaries like Carmen McRae, Herbie Hancock and Joe Williams. Shortly thereafter, he received a call from Dizzy Gillespie in 1969 to come to New York and work with his group.

After performing with Gillespie for a few weeks, Mraz was scouted by pianist Oscar Peterson and offered the bass chair in his trio. The group's 1970 recordings for the MPS label showcased young Mraz as agile and unwavering. His note choice and rhythmic placement provided a sure foundation for the flights of pianism employed by Peterson.

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As word spread of his groove and swinging prowess in the 1970s and '80s, Mraz became the bassist of choice for improvisers and musical elders such as saxophonist Stan Getz, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, and pianists Hank Jones, Bill Evans and Tommy Flanagan. From the mid-'70s into the early '80s, he was a member of the New York Jazz Quartet, alongside Hanna, saxophonist and flutist Frank Wess and a series of drummers.

George Mraz
Dave Kaufman
George Mraz performing at The Nash in Phoenix, Ariz. in 2013, with the Lewis Nash All-Stars.

Swing was always the center of Mraz's conception, but his elasticity assisted in the creation of music that could also stretch boundaries. The resulting recordings and live experiences often placed him alongside improvisers from his generation, including guitarist John Abercrombie, saxophonist Joe Henderson and pianists Jan Hammer and Richie Beirach.

From the 1990s through the present, Mraz was featured as part of the trio collective with Cyrus Chestnut and Lewis Nash known as Manhattan Trinity. Though not officially recorded, he was also a touring member of the Directions in Music project in dedication to Miles Davis and John Coltrane in the early 2000s, which included collaborators Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, Roy Hargrove and Willie Jones III.

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Mraz's contributions to the international music scene were recognized in 2009 when he was awarded the Czech Republic Lifetime Achievement Award. In a more colloquial honor, jazz lore has it that pianist Jimmy Rowles bestowed Mraz the nickname "Bounce" — not only because of the buoyancy of his beat, but also because he was "a
baaaaad Czech."