Published Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 | 4:07 p.m.
Updated Monday, Jan. 20, 2014 | 11:22 a.m.
A well-liked and highly respected artist in the Las Vegas entertainment community and a member of the “Jersey Boys” family has died, killed in an almost unfathomable tragedy Saturday afternoon near Seattle.
Jeff Ray, a busy musician in Las Vegas who played guitar nightly in “Jersey Boys” and, occasionally, was the show’s onstage drummer, was killed when he was hit by an Amtrak commuter train in the Seattle suburb of Auburn. The 42-year-old musician was in the area to perform with the Top 40 cover band The Jone$ at Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn.
On Saturday afternoon, Ray and Trina Willardson, who is the manager of the band and the wife of Jason Tanzer, a Las Vegas musician and the founder of Dustree Productions that booked the band on this two-night appearance, walked through an open crossing to an area where Mount Rainier could be seen in the background. Willardson is a photographer who takes publicity shots of local entertainment acts, and Ray had needed updated promotional photos for an upcoming CD.
According to a blog posted on the Seattle Times website, an Auburn police commander said the train was traveling 79 mph while heading southbound from Seattle to Portland, and Ray was unable to move out of the way of the Amtrak Cascades train. It was reportedly the second fatality on Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad property in Washington's King County this year.
In the Times blog, a BNSF spokesman said, “We cannot emphasize enough how important that the public realize that the trains move on any track, at any time, at any direction. Please be aware of our no-trespassing policy." There were no other injuries among the 130 passengers. The train continued to Auburn and stopped, and the passengers were rerouted to Seattle by bus.
Word of Ray’s death spread rapidly among his friends and fellow artists in Las Vegas. “Jersey Boys” music director Keith Thompson has worked with Ray, a particularly gifted jazz guitarist who could play any genre, regularly since 2011.
“We at ‘Jersey Boys’ are in shock, total shock, about Jeff’s death,” Thompson said in a phone conversation today. “He was a complete and total delight to work with and be around and was one of the most positive, upbeat, joyous people I’ve known in the business. … He loved ‘Jersey Boys’ and being part of this show.”
Ray played second guitar, to Jimmy McIntosh’s first guitar; the chief distinction in “Jersey Boys” is that the first-guitar performer is the one seen onstage. But Ray often took the first-guitar role and also was the onstage drummer in the show whenever needed.
"He was a utility player in the show, but he was a lot more than that," Thompson said. "He was a brilliant man."
McIntosh says his friend and bandmate was a serious student of the instrument.
"Jeff was interested in rock, but he was always studying jazz," McIntosh said by phone today. "For a younger-generation guy, he was a very sophisticated jazz player. Sometimes we tend to stay at a plateau as musicians, but he was the rare guy who was always studying, nonstop."
Originally from Ohio, Ray moved to Las Vegas after living in Harlem as an adult and performed at lounges at Mandalay Bay, Wynn Las Vegas, Bellagio, MGM Grand, Palazzo, Paris Las Vegas, Excalibur and Stratosphere. He’s played in the bands for Boyz II Men at Flamingo, “Mamma Mia!” and “Disney’s The Lion King” at Mandalay Bay, “Vegas! The Show” at Saxe Theater in Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, “Sinatra, Dance With Me” at Encore Theater in Wynn Las Vegas and often performed with Skye Dee Miles and her band at Tropicana Lounge.
“There aren’t enough words,” Miles, who knew Ray for many years, said in a phone conversation today. “It’s just unbelievable. That’s all I can say.”
Ray long maintained an affiliation with the jazz quintet The Onus, with whom he recorded three CDs, and taught jazz guitar studies at UNLV. He also was often called onstage to jam with Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns, further reinforcing his status as one of the city’s great musicians.
In describing Ray’s artistry and demeanor, Tanzer said on his Facebook page, “Jeff was the real thing. He was an actual real-life legend on the guitar, a true professional through and through. I really looked up to him. He was one of my favorite people I’ve ever known professionally, and our company was richer in his presence.”
Ray's mother, Alice Chumbley Ray Lora, also posted a message on her son's Facebook page. "My only consolation is that Jeff was at his peak in so many wonderful ways and that he died taking photos, something he loved."
Plans for a celebration of life for Ray are to begin this week.
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