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George Mraz, jazz musicians’ bassist of choice, dies at 77

Mr. Mraz, at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands in 1992. He performed with many of the best musicians in jazz, including Chet Baker, Michael Brecker, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, and Oscar Peterson.
Mr. Mraz, at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands in 1992. He performed with many of the best musicians in jazz, including Chet Baker, Michael Brecker, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, and Oscar Peterson.Heritage Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Years before arriving in Boston to attend what is now the Berklee College of Music, bassist George Mraz was drawn to jazz during his youth in Czechoslovakia when he heard Louis Armstrong one Sunday on a radio show that mostly featured classical programming.

“I couldn’t figure out the music and wondered how someone with a voice like Satchmo’s got away with singing like that,” Mr. Mraz told Bass Musician magazine in 2009, using Armstrong’s nickname. “The music made me feel good and I liked it better than a lot of other things I had heard. That’s when I started looking into jazz.”

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A favorite of audiences in Greater Boston and around the world, Mr. Mraz was 77 when he died Sept. 16. His wife, musician Camilla Mraz, announced Mr. Mraz’s death on his Facebook page and did not say where he died. His website says the couple lived in New York City.

A GoFundMe page was created in September 2016 to raise funds to cover medical costs after he underwent surgery on his pancreas.

In a 1999 Globe profile, music critic Bob Blumenthal praised Mr. Mraz’s “beautiful tone, propulsive time, and lyrical instincts.”

Mr. Mraz’s playing in the more than 30 years after he came to Boston in the late 1960s had propelled him into “the jazz world’s elite,” Blumenthal wrote.

Performing throughout his career with many of the best musicians in jazz, Mr. Mraz took the stage or appeared on albums with the likes of Chet Baker, Michael Brecker, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, and Oscar Peterson.

Often when Mr. Mraz was in an ensemble supporting a headlining star, he drew notice for his fine playing, such as when he backed saxophonist Art Pepper in performances captured on the album “Thursday Night at the Village Vanguard.”

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“Drummer Elvin Jones, pianist George Cables, and bassist George Mraz display exquisite taste and an understated coexistence that seemingly allows Pepper to move about comfortably and unthreatened,” Globe critic Ernie Santosuosso wrote in a 1980 review of the release.

By 1984, Mr. Mraz was already “one of the premier jazz bassists,” Blumenthal wrote after a Boston performance.

Though he was “hailed as the consummate sideman,” according to Bass Musician magazine, Mr. Mraz stepped into leadership roles for his own album and performance projects as well.

“Musically it was quite easy for me as I had certain ideas, and over the years I found out that you cannot really change people,” he told the magazine. “You can never tell people exactly what to do. So you just try to find a way to work your concepts into the music, as well as their concepts, and just let them do what they do.”

Even after record companies began releasing George Mraz albums, such as 1996′s “Jazz,” he comfortably worked with others.

“I don’t really think about adjusting much,” Mr. Mraz told the Globe in 1999, the year “Duke’s Place,” a tribute to Duke Ellington, was released under his name. “I just try to fit in, sometimes playing a little less, sometimes a little more. It’s different with everyone, though you can pretty much tell right away if it will work. Sometimes you think playing with a particular musician will be perfect, then find out it isn’t. But these days, I don’t get too many surprises.”

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Jiri Mraz was born on Sept. 9, 1944, in the town of Pisek, which is now part of the Czech Republic. In the United States he went by George, an American version of his name.

Mr. Mraz recalled in the Bass Musician interview that while growing up in what was then Czechoslovakia, he “used to tape broadcasts off the Voice of America, and because of the poor recording quality at that time, I never really heard the bass that well. So I was more or less trying to emulate other instruments that I could hear clearly. I was always listening to the melodic approach that the soloist came from.”

He told the Globe that he “had already played saxophone before bass.”

By the time he was a Prague Conservatory student, “I was playing every night in Prague clubs. My teacher heard me playing a bowed solo on the radio during my second year, and at my lesson the next day, he said, ‘What I heard was horrible! But will you show me how you did it?’ "

In a tribute posted on the London Jazz News website, Czeck pianist Emil Viklický recounted a story Mr. Mraz had told him about how his father had been killed in a streetcar accident, when a Soviet tank struck the car in which the elder Mraz had been riding.

George learned that half a minute before the impact, his father had offered his seat to an old lady, who entered the vehicle at the previous station,” Viklický wrote. “She survived the scene without any injury. Because the incident involved a Russian, the Czech police were forbidden from pursuing the case. This incident significantly added to George’s decision to leave the country.”

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Mr. Mraz ended up in Boston at Berklee, where a faculty member immediately launched his US career. “The pianist Ray Santisi gave him a regular gig on the very first day of his arrival,” Viklický wrote.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Mraz became a US citizen, and a quarter century would pass before his first return visit to his homeland, to perform at a festival.

In the intervening years, he spent a couple of decades, post-Berklee, in New York City as one of the jazz scene’s first-call players — the top musician for each instrument on everyone’s go-to list for gigs and recordings.

In his tribute, Viklický called Mr. Mraz “one of the greatest jazz bassists of all time.”

The names of all of Mr. Mraz’s survivors were not immediately available.

“I wish to express my deep and sincere gratitude for all the many, many calls, letters, postings, and other expressions of sympathy for our recent loss of George, our mutual heartfelt loss of my best friend and partner. You all know that he was one of the finest musicians of our time,” his wife, Camilla, posted on her Facebook page Monday.

“Among George’s last wishes was that he be remembered by you for what and who he was, how you personally remember him in your hearts, and that no memorial or public tribute be organized to honor him,” wrote Camilla, a pianist, composer, and vocalist. “I will honor those wishes and pray that you will too.”

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Mr. Mraz told Bass Musician that his classical training was beneficial for jazz in that “it helped me to get around the bass in a better fashion. Bowing on the instrument certainly helps you play in tune more as well.”

As for the genre in which he made his name, “to tell you the truth, I’ve almost never practiced jazz,” he added. “I graduated from the Prague Conservatory in ‘66, and I was playing jazz almost every night in one of the clubs. I was playing so much I actually didn’t really have time to practice. I did spend time practicing my classical material, but mostly I learned everything on the bandstand.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.