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Born to theologically inclined parents in Chicago's Hyde Park district on October 16, 1952, Anderson came up under the influence of his father's swing and Dixieland record collection. Inspired by the sounds of Vic Dickenson and Trummy Young, he started playing trombone when he was nine years old. Other early influences were gospel vocalist Mahalia Jackson, various folk singers, Broadway musicals, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's horn concerti. A self-described musical omnivore, Anderson's voracious listening habits became even more all-encompassing (i.e., Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, John Cage, Motown, the Beatles, James Brown, Sly Stone, and Jimi Hendrix) when he enrolled at the University of Chicago Lab School, where he studied with teachers Frank Tirro and Dean Hay. Anderson's classmate, trombonist George Lewis, joined him in seeking out recordings and live performances by members of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Both individuals would eventually work closely with cardinal agents of that organization.
Anderson's college education took him to Minnesota and then to Los Angeles; he performed with R&B bands in both locations, and with funk and Latin American groups in San Francisco. Living and working in California brought him into direct contact with saxophonist David Murray and drummer Charles Moffett. In 1973 Anderson relocated to New York City, where he collaborated with multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Giuffre, drummer Barry Altschul, and master composer/improvisers Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell. Anderson also played behind Luther Allison on the bluesman's Motown-produced album Night Life; performed with Boston-based guitarist Baird Hersey's electric jazz ensemble Year of the Ear; sat in with the funk band Hidden Strength; and bolstered the brass section of the eight-piece Improvising Orchestra. The 1980s found Anderson recording with the funky Slickaphonics, forming a trio called Bass Drum Bone with drummer Gerry Hemingway and bassist Mark Helias, and popping up everywhere on the cutting edge of progressive music. He worked with the George Gruntz Concert Band and the George Russell Orchestra, with Ukrainian-American saxophonist Keshavan Maslak, bassists Peter Warren and John Lindberg, cellist Hank Roberts, guitarist John Scofield, multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Henry Threadgill, tenor saxophonist Bennie Wallace, Swiss sax and flute man Daniel Schnyder, Japanese electronic composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and "rock & soul" pop stars Daryl Hall & John Oates.
During the 1990s Anderson joined Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra and the New York Composers Orchestra, and worked with Dr. John and a group of progressive players on the second Bluesiana Triangle project. He harmonized with trumpeter and kindred spirit Jack Walrath on pianist Bob Nell's album Why I Like Coffee and was heard on sessions led by bassist Mark Dresser, keyboardist Pete Levin, trumpeter Lew Soloff, and bluesman Lucky Peterson. Anderson also recorded with German organist Barbara Dennerlein, trumpeter Randy Sandke, and bassist Jerome Harris' sextet in the company of reedmen Don Byron and Marty Erhlich on Hidden in Plain View, an Eric Dolphy tribute album. He sat in with the Klaus König Orchestra, with groups led by Portuguese bassist Carlos Bica, Swedish saxophonist Thomas Gustafson, and pianist D.D. Jackson, and put in a guest appearance with a quartet calling itself When Granny Sleeps. In January 1997 Anderson led the Brande International Music Workshop Orchestra (BIMWO) in the recording of six of his own compositions. He appeared on Andreas Vollenweider's all-star world music album Cosmopoly and distinguished himself as a soloist and section player with Sam Rivers and the Rivbea All-Star Orchestra.
During the first decade of the 21st century Ray Anderson recorded with Puerto Ricans Johnny Ortiz and Tito Nieves, with vocalist and accordionist Erika Stucky, and with saxophonist Ellery Eskelin in a band led by drummer John Hollenbeck. His adaptable versatility manifested itself in several collaborations with the edgy, unclassifiable Danish trio Ibrahim Electric and on sessions with Pierre Dørge & the New Jungle Orchestra and the ensemble known as Fool Proof. He backed vocalist Aaron Neville on an album of jazz standards, blew his horn on David Byrne's album Grown Backwards, and teamed up with saxophonists Randy Brecker and James Carter in support of Roseanne Vitro and Kenny Werner's Delirium Blues Project. Anderson has a history of collaboration with other trombonists, as evidenced by his forming a trombone trio with Connie Bauer and Steve Swell, a trombone quartet with George Lewis, Craig Harris, and Gary Valente, and a slip horn-driven unit called Super Trombone. His respect for the cultural traditions of New Orleans has led him to lead both the Alligatory Band and the Pocket Brass Band. He is a respected educator who in 2003 became Director of Jazz Studies at the University of New York at Stony Brook. Ray Anderson is passionate about the spiritual aspect of the music that has shaped his life. Although he insists that he does not play "joke music," he believes that humor is divine, that mirth is a state of grace, and that "music is ultimately an expression of love." ~ arwulf arwulf