Playing down to earth solos on many way-out Dizzy Gillespie sides, the tenor saxophonist Ray Abrams was part of the Abramson family musical dynasty. He was born Raymond Abramson in New York City in the early '20s. His younger brother Lee Abramson, who became Lee Abrams, was a jazz drummer who roamed in pretty much the same musical territory, best described as the foothills leading from the plush swing lowlands to the bebop mountain peaks, an image served well by some of the notes Gillespie hit. The brothers were both trained by their talented father, who played both clarinet and violin. Ray Abrams began working in local combos around Brooklyn, where the family had relocated shortly before the younger son's birth. The Clark Monroe band which held forth at the Uptown House turned out to be a good band to get into; as for the formative years of bop, this was one of the bands Charlie Parker got into during one of his first bites at the Big Apple. In a true tribute to Parker, bop researchers angrily toss cymbals at each other during heated debates over what the first bebop record was, but in some versions of the genre's history, Abrams is credited with playing on it.
In 1946 he got into the first big band Dizzy Gillespie took on tour, playing a slickly organized combination of the bebop innovations and sarcastic beatnik humor. He also toured Europe with the vastly more traditional bandleader Don Redman the same year. He spent several years in the Andy Kirk band before rejoining Gillespie near the end of the decade, by which time the trumpeter's pitch range had inched up another three- quarter tones. From then on into the early '50s he could still be heard freelancing in the bands of trumpeters Hot Lips Page and Roy Eldridge, madcap guitarist and songwriter Slim Gaillard, and a selection of rhythm and blues groups, but was just as likely to be leading his own aggregation. While he never played a solo that did not have at least some taste of rhythm and blues, the best example of his funky honking on record is a live set by singer, talent scout, pianist and bandleader Paul Gayten, recorded at the enticing sounding Rip's Playhouse in New Orleans and found languishing in the leader's garage years later. Tenor saxophonist "Wildman" Sam Butera gets into combat with Abrams on the exciting "Dueling Tenors," enough to make the listener forget about banjos and canoe trips forever. The issued version of these recordings came out under the name of the band's vocalist, Little Jimmy Scott, and also features a pair of hot Abrams instrumentals.
In 1947, the Ray Abrams Orchestra provided accompaniment on record for Savoy artists such as vocalist Billy Stewart. Various large outfits involving the Abrams name and his arrangements and compositions have been active in the New York area ever since; indeed, the Ray Abrams Big Band name has survived the death of its leader and has carried on in his tradition, combining soulful blues soloing with modern jazz elements. This particular posthumous big band is really more about the Brooklyn scene than just Abrams, and is said to be something of a living history book that at times includes members from three different generations. The trumpeter Hank Dougherty was one of Abrams' main collaborators in forming the band. Following the death of Abrams in the '90s, fellow saxophonist Ervin Simpson stepped in to lead the 18-piece aggregation. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi