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John Brown

Classic heart of jazz



North Carolina has so many musical giants that have shot up and out from this southern byroad as if it were a jammin' Cape Canaveral. John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Percy Heath and Max Roach would be enough to solidify this state in the all-time music hall of fame, but the list goes on with Blind Boy Fuller, Thelonious Monk, Maceo Parker and Shirley Caesar--among so many others--as we await Fantasia's ascendance. One name that will be added for sure will be Fayetteville's own bassist John Brown, recently installed as professor and director of the Jazz Program at Duke University.

Brown's big heart and big vision revealed itself last February when the Triangle was treated to the best Valentine's Day bargain going. A historic jazz festival comprised of the jazz ensembles of North Carolina Central University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University--under the direction of Ira Wiggins, James Ketch and John Brown--blasted the stage with tune after tune of standards and originals. Never had these three ensembles shared the same stage in the same night, and the spirited presentation raised the roof and the love index in Durham's Carolina Theatre that night. Ask anyone how it came to be and Brown gets a shower of accolades befitting a king who leads his liege through a successful conquest.

Ask Brown how the concert came to be and he'll say it was just something that came to him. "Jazz is about bringing people together," he states in his characteristic humble mode. The thought played constantly in his mind like some catchy, irrefutable song and he would wonder over and over again what he would do "if I ever get into a position to do this." Then like his turn to solo in the enthusiastic final tune of the final set of a good evening, Brown became interim director at Duke. He immediately had everyone--from jazz students to directors of all three campuses--put the date on their calendars.

Brown is still in awe at the turnout, a near sell-out crowd. It represents to him an intact and bright future for the music here and beyond. He is so grateful he gushes with joy when he says, "I wish I could get the phone numbers of everyone there and call them."

It is we, jazz lovers and performers, who should be calling Brown with our hosannas.

A man of his talent could easily be elsewhere on the planet, but we are fortunate to have him here in the Triangle. Brown would not have it any other way. He considers this state home and moving away from his musical roots would sever a rich heritage that started in Fayetteville at the age of nine. It was there in fifth grade orchestra at Douglass Byrd elementary school that he picked up the bass. As a teenager, Brown took a real interest in jazz through the introduction of several regional musicians. He identifies Ray Codrington, Tom Gaven, Malachi Sharpe, Richard Jones and Paul Scott as "the initial bandits who corrupted [me] into jazz thinking." They encouraged Brown to put down those sheets and play some real music. Codrington gave him his first gig at the old Fort Bragg Playhouse. From there everything he learned about playing jazz came through listening to and transcribing the music of bop bassist Ray Brown (no relation).

"No one swings harder than that and his bass lines encompass the spirit of jazz," Brown emphasizes with an upbeat.

His classical training took him to UNC-Greensboro where he studied under Jack Budrow, former principal bassist with the North Carolina Symphony. Since then, Brown has continued to play with the Carolina Ballet, the Opera Company of North Carolina and the North Carolina Symphony.

Visit his Web site ( a pensive snapshot of him in repose with his bass and a sound loop from As-Is Ensemble's "Face," as in "bass in your face"--and you will get a bigger picture of Mr. Brown. Captured in the photo section of the site is a collection of visuals that document a world-orbiting experience of gigs with a "who's who" of contemporary music and theatrical performance.

There is no missing Brown, Chevy Chase and the former director of the Duke Jazz Program, Paul Jeffrey, in a rehearsal session. (You didn't know the combustible Chevy Chase played piano? Well he does and quite proficiently.) Brown can also be seen with such divas of dance, stage and screen as Debbie Allen, Jackee Harry, Dawn Lewis and Freda Payne. It seems that he has also done some moonlighting in such films as Stompin' at the Savoy, Radioland Murders, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Hellraiser III, and theater performances Blues in the Night and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. His role in each of these is, of course, doing what Brown does best--playing bass.

But it gets deeper from there. Brown has toured with Durham's own Nnenna Freelon to the Blue Note in New York; the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; Catalina's Bar and Grill in Hollywood, Calif.; the Montreal Jazz Festival in Canada; New Morning in Paris; and Alexander Platt's in Rome. His first trip to Japan was for a two-month tour of Blues in the Night with Freda Payne and Rahn Coleman, pianist for Barry White and music director for Anita Baker. He is a Grammy Award-nominated musician for performance, co-writing and arrangement on Freelon's Shaking Free, and she refers to him as a bass player, educator, sideman, mentor, composer and community leader, saying, "I've known John for over a decade and he continues to amaze me."

Brown's jazz star continues to shine brightly with notable performances with the Delfeayo Marsalis Quintet, which included stops at the Free Jazz Festival in Brazil and the Festival de Guanajuato in Mexico. He has also played with other members of the Marsalis family, including Wynton, Branford and poppa Ellis--the latter two at a recent concert at George's Garage. He makes no distinction between jazz and classical music, saying, "[I'm] drawn to the similarities of the music that people want to classify as different." For him, "It is the joy of playing music without words."

And it doesn't stop there. The tempo and trajectory of Brown's creative expression and contribution to the tradition has been anointed in the presence of another jazz giant, Elvin Jones, who was Coltrane's classic quartet drummer. As assistant music director and bassist on the "Peace and Love" tour with Jones' Jazz Machine, Brown got to return to Japan and, as he tells the story, was brought back to life by Elvin after an unpleasant experience with Tokyo cuisine. He also learned from the master the importance of compassion for the music and humanity.

As he learned, so he teaches, with an eye on his students that draws inspiration from their commitment and drive. That inspiration has him already planning next year's Valentine's Day jazz festival--featuring all three of the grand jazz ensembles and a special guest. So set your calendars and make a date with your sweetie for some more great jazz music! The jazz side of John Brown can also be experienced at the Blue Martini in Raleigh where he regularly plays with the Nebulous Quartet.


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