Doug Raney — Not Just A Chip Off the Old Block

May 29, 2018 by  

Doug Raney, a fine jazz guitarist, died last month (this piece was written in June 2016) of heart failure, at age 59, in his beloved Copenhagen, Denmark, where he had lived off and on since his early 20s, when he went off on his own to be a jazz musician. To get things out of the way up front, it has been rumored for years, and finally stated by Doug’s brother Jon, that Doug had a substance abuse problem. He had apparently gotten past the drugs and was working to eliminate his dependence on alcohol. But the life he led took a severe toll on his body, as evidenced by photos of him taken in the last five to ten years of his life. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Doug was born in 1956 in Louisville, Kentucky to famed jazz guitarist Jimmy Raney and Esterlee (Lee) Hirsch. He grew up in his father’s shadow, taking on the guitar from a young age, but found his own voice by the time he became a professional musician.

To listen to Doug, there is no mistake about his influences, chief among those being his dad, Jimmy. At the same time, he synthesized styles of Jimmy and others whom he heard on records, those with whom he played, and probably from musicians known within the Raney family circle. His brother Jon is a noted pianist, so clearly the apple did not fall far from the tree.

When Doug was 20, he went on a European tour with his dad, liked what he saw, and soon moved to Denmark, where there was enough work, and enough recreation, to keep a young man happy. He recorded his first album, Introducing Doug Raney on the SteepleChase label in 1977.

My first exposure to Doug Raney was during a trip to Norway, while I was in the US Air Force, back in 1980 or thereabouts. The Norwegian Air Force, our hosts at Bodø Air Base, had arranged for a fleet of shuttle buses to take us between our working locations to the dormitories. Most often, these were comfortable buses, the type most often used for charters. The drivers usually played one of the local radio stations, this one being mostly jazz. I was already a huge jazz guitar fan, and so when the next tune began playing, my ears pricked up. It was a swinging, bepoppish trumpeter with a very laid-back guitarist, who sounded a whole lot like one of my favorites, Jimmy Raney. I had to know who it was. Fortunately, the tune, a chestnut from the Great American Songbook, But Not For Me, was a long one, with lovely extended solos, including some fine scat singing by the trumpeter. The bus arrived at the dorm, and I literally raced to my room, pulled out my portable radio, and located the tune as the last few notes were playing. The announcer spoke Norwegian, of course, but I picked up enough to know it was the trumpeter Chet Baker, whom I had heard of, but never consciously listened to, and his guitar accompanist Doug Raney. Doug? Gee, Jimmy must have had a son. I hadn’t heard of him, but knew I wanted to hear more. The next day, I took the shuttle bus into town to grab a bite to eat at the local equivalent of a McDonalds, called Kickers, and then took a walk down the icy sidewalks of downtown Bodø, where I happened upon a small record shop! I walked in and immediately located the jazz bins, and wouldn’t you know it, they had the album, I Waited For You, on the SteepleChase label. I don;t know how I got the record back to my dorm room at at Lindsey Air Station, in Wiesbaden, Germany, where I was stationed, in one piece, but I did, and even before I unpacked, I put that record on the turntable, and thus began an unending love affair with the music of Chet Baker and Doug Raney, together and separately (they did one more album together before Chet passed away in 1985). I almost wore out the album, but years later, in a record store in West Palm Beach, Florida, near to where I lived, I found the album on a CD. Later on, I converted the CD to the MP3 format, and it now resides on my media server, as well as my old iPod and my new-er iPad and iPhone. This was (and is) truly a desert island record for me.

What I found from listening to Doug Raney was that he shared his father’s sense of space–in other words, when to stop and gather his thoughts, and then resuming at exactly the right time. He also shared a few of Jimmy’s licks, but those were just a small part of his own toolbox of licks, grips, patterns, and everything else the modern jazz guitar player needed in order to be a creative voice, and be in great demand as a musician.

And Doug was in great demand, recording extensively for European labels SteepleChase, Criss Cross, and countless others. He toured extensively throughout Europe, and made a few trips back to the States to deal with family issues, recording and performing along the way in New York and hometown Louisville.

I never saw him play live. Folks of his stature seldom play out in the bush league known as South Florida, although some of the greats have performed one-nighters (mostly in concert halls and the big South Florida hotels, and less often in clubs where the average Joe might be able to afford to see them), eminent players such as Joe Pass, Benny Goodman, Barney Kessel, Emily Remler, Bucky Pizzarelli, Stephane Grappelli, etc., come to mind.

Though it seems impolitic for me, a non-player, to categorize musicians, my instincts in this have often been acknowledged by others. My late uncle, Andy Nelson, former clinician and salesman for Gibson and Epiphone guitars, even told me I was the greatest musician he ever knew who couldn’t play. Damning with faint praise? Maybe. Anyhow, there are A-list players, and B-list, and C-list, and so on. I won’t share my list here, as once again, it just seems improper to do so. Who the hell am I to be pronouncing judgments like this? What I will say is that like his father Jimmy, without question, doubt, or comment, Doug Raney was definitely an A-lister.

Recordings by Doug Raney are easily obtained through the iTunes Store, Amazon, eMusic (a great place to find some of his more obscure European recordings), and many other online sources. You probably won’t find his stuff (or his dad’s) at your local CD emporium (Barnes & Noble comes to mind), unless you happen to be in New York or Los Angeles (I would have added Chicago, but the awesomely great jazz record Mecca, Bob Koester’s Jazz Record Mart(1), closed its doors earlier this year–2016), but you will most certainly find lots of Doug Raney online. You’ll probably guess this one, but I would start with the SteepleChase album of Chet Baker, Doug Raney, and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted-Pederson, I Waited for You. You really won’t be sorry. The interplay between these three top-drawer musicians was outstanding, a session marked by a cool, laid-back West Coast sound, marked by three musicians, at the peak of their powers. Other albums, well, in my humble opinion, they’re all great and all are recommended. In particular, keep your eyes open for one of the three or four duet albums that Doug recorded with his father, Jimmy. Most were on the SteepleChase label. Doug and his dad often played with a heightened state of adventure where they played more outside than one might be used to hearing them in other recordings. Those were often embellished with subtle humor, for example, ending unexpectedly dissonant and unresolved.

Players of Doug Raney’s depth and talent don’t come along very often, making their absence, when their end does come, something almost tactile. He is already missed.

 

(1) Good news! Bob Koester has re-opened Jazz Record Mart in a somewhat lower rent area in Chicago. He has rebuilt his inventory, as the original store’s inventory was sold to the purchasers. Look for the store on the web at jazzrecordmart.com.