Gene Ramey, jazz bassist, was born Eugene Glasco Ramey in Austin, Texas, on April 4, 1913. His father was a teamster and horse trainer who also sang and played banjo. He died when Gene was only four. As a boy, Ramey learned to play a variety of instruments, including ukulele, snare drum, and trumpet, and he sang in church. He was also exposed to brass band concerts as well a number of “territory bands” that played around Austin and on radio. He graduated from Anderson High School in 1931. During this time, he also played sousaphone with George Corley’s Royal Aces and worked assorted odd jobs. In the early 1930s he played with the Moonlight Serenaders and Terrence Holder’s band. In 1932 Ramey left Texas to study electrical engineering on a modest scholarship at Western University in Kansas City, Kansas, where he played tuba in the school band. There he also discovered his love for the string bass.
Ramey learned to play the string bass from the famous Kansas City bassist Walter Page and was soon leading his own bands around Kansas City, Missouri. He also began a lifelong friendship with saxophonist Lester Young. Ramey earned a printer’s certificate from college in 1934 and secured a full-time music gig the following year with pianist Margaret “Countess” Johnson, in addition to playing with various other groups. He had married by this time and had a daughter. In 1938 Ramey played bass with the last of the great Kansas City bands, led by pianist Jay McShann. Along with Texas drummer Gus Johnson, Ramey helped drive the McShann band, which featured alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, who would become one of the most inventive improvisers in jazz history. Ramey worked individually with Parker and helped him develop his mastery of keys and chord progressions.
In 1944 Ramey moved to New York and began playing with many of the era’s most prominent bandleaders, including Coleman Hawkins, Luis Russell, Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Oran “Hot Lips” Page, and Tiny Grimes, among many others. In 1947 Ramey had the distinction of being a member of Thelonious Monk’s first trio (with drummer Art Blakey). He can be heard backing Monk on several of the recordings released as Monk’s Genius of Modern Music. Ramey never considered himself a soloist, preferring a traditional approach complementing and guiding other players with his steady beat. He did, however, play an important role in bridging the changing of styles from swing to bebop.
In the 1950s Ramey performed with the Count Basie orchestra and played numerous studio engagements as a freelance session bassist. He maintained a close working relationship with Lester Young and recorded extensively with the tenor star in his last years. The two men toured throughout 1951 and recorded together in 1956 on Jazz Giants and Prez and Teddy (both albums including Texas-born pianist Teddy Wilson) for the Verve label. Ramey historian Cameron Addis has commented that on the two albums “Ramey is at the top of his game with a group of Swing-Era musicians he knew well. He pointed to these ‘fantastic’ sessions as his favorite recording memory.”
In the 1960s, having been married three times (and with several children, including two daughters and a son), Ramey chose to take a steady job with Chase Manhattan Bank. He had outlived some of his closest musical associates, including Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Walter Page. He turned down a chance to perform with Louis Armstrong, but he did work with Mugsy Spanier, Teddy Wilson, Jimmy Rushing, and Peanuts Hucko, and he toured in Europe with Jay McShann and Eddie “Cleanhead “ Vinson. Ramey even backed Bob Dylan on his 1963 release of “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” but was not particularly impressed with the role of a bassist in that genre. In 1965 Ramey recorded with pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines and Texas saxophonist Budd Johnson, and on their version of “Sometimes I’m Happy,” the bassist booms out his lines and helps Johnson produce one of his finest tour-de-force solos. By the end of the 1960s, Ramey had made several tours of Europe, but the hectic lifestyle and his admitted overdrinking—he had generally disdained alcohol and drug use throughout his career—led him to reevaluate his place in the music business.
In 1976 Ramey moved back to Austin, Texas, to operate a small farm near Round Rock. He gradually drifted back into the area jazz scene and performed with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and with Herb Hall, both in San Antonio. In Austin he played in area clubs and at Hyde Park Theatre. He also toured Europe in 1977 and 1979 with McShann’s orchestra. Ramey commented that he was “an Austinite that got transplanted for a few years,” and he was bestowed with the title of honorary admiral in the Texas Navy. He died of a heart attack at his home on December 8, 1984. He was inducted into the Austin Music Memorial in 2009.