March 2011

Marion Brown

9.8.31-10.18.10

Marion Brown, at one time, was a very close friend of mine. It was during the middle-’60s. I had been living in NYC since 1957, when I got out of the Air Force, moving from the far West Side and transitioning to a loft in Chelsea where I could finish working on my book Blues People. We came to end up together in a weird little building on Cooper Square in the upper Bowery. This part of the Bowery has a more colorful sobriquet because it’s just a couple blocks down from historic Cooper Union.

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Marion Brown album cover
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Amiri Baraka

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Living in that same building after awhile was a drama school one floor down, Archie Shepp and family a floor under that, and saxophone player Marzette Watts below him. This was before this was the East Village; I guess it was a more homey, less commercial kind of bohemianism. It seemed more of a neighborhood. Right around the corner from the ancient McSorley’s and a few steps from a Bowery bar, the abstract expressionists neutralized the bums out of a place called the Five Spot.

Marion, from the jump, was quiet yet intense. He seemed interested to find out what I, actually, we, the whole of that neighborhood, was doing. But at the same time Marion was the kind of person who told you great stretches of his life every time he asked a question. So I quickly found out about his Georgia birth, his study of music at Clark College in Atlanta, and how he’d then suddenly decided he wanted to go to Howard University and study law.

But this was how Marion’s mind moved, not altogether centered but drawn from one point of interest to another very rapidly. Though, obviously, the love of music was one foundation of his person, his later interest in architecture and painting are not obscure. In fact, it was the burgeoning scene on the Lower East Side that pushed him so deeply into the music at that time; the fact that in that community he was surrounded not just by music but new voices, profound voices. And he could feel that as something important to be involved in.

Marion emerged just as the new music and the new musicians who played it arrived downtown; that point when Coltrane had left Miles and some people were putting him down for being weird and Sonny was practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge. And all of us who were close to the music knew some other stuff was about to go down: about the time a dude name Ornette Coleman and his crew showed at the Five Spot in some colored Eisenhower jackets and let us know, yeh, we had been correct, that some other stuff was afoot. So in the neighborhood, not the radio or television, but in those streets the Yeh went up of something new. Next thing we know, Monk had Trane right next door and we sat in there nightly to dig the new learning.

But that also meant Cecil Taylor (who had showed up even earlier, further transforming the bum’s bar) and the host of young dudes who followed. In an essay dated 1961, “The Jazz Avant Garde,” I named a bunch of folks who had just shown up. Reeds: Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Wayne Shorter, Oliver Nelson. Brass: Don Cherry, Freddie Hubbard. Percussion: Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Dennis Charles, Earl Griffith (vibes). Bass: Wilbur Ware, Charlie Haden, Scott LaFaro, Buell Neidlinger. Piano: Cecil Taylor. Composition: Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Wayne Shorter, Cecil Taylor. There’s a mea culpa at the end of the piece talking about how some of those named vanished shortly after. But basically this is the “new” at the beginning of the ’60s, and the class that Marion Brown sought to enter. But see, in this essay neither Pharoah Sanders nor Albert Ayler nor Sun Ra had really made the scene yet, so Marion must have showed just after this.

You can imagine then the sweep of charismatic magnetism such heavy entrances must have wired up, so that young Marion appearing, actually at a center of that newly rising turbulence, was deeply affected. I met Pharoah Sanders, who was called then “Little Rock,” walking down the street. He told me his name and I heard Pharoah and it’s been that ever since. Albert showed up one night just like Marion with a dude named Black Norman. Marion was witnessing these mighty comings, and we spent hours and hours talking about the scene and how the major problem of the day—no venues—was to be resolved.

That ushered in the period I wrote about called “Loft & Coffee Shop Jazz.” The old club owners didn’t want to hear the new music so new venues had to be found—and they were. Many times they were the very lofts we lived in. It was in those kinds of lofts and coffee shops that Marion Brown rose to prominence, not in the club world: places like 27 Cooper Square, White Whale, Playhouse Coffee Shop (we first heard of Sun Ra there), Avital, Harouts, the Speakeasy, the Ninth Circle, the Cinderella Club, the Center, Maidman’s and, later, Ladies’ Fort.

Marion got one of his first chances to record through Archie Shepp, because Marion would see Shepp every time he came over to our house—learning from all of us and being drawn to Shepp’s then-brand-new outrageous funk. Marion was “raised” in this warhead of the avant-garde, and it seemed everything was possible!

Marion played on Shepp’s Fire Music (’65), steadily making his way up among the young names in the ’60s, and by that association was one of the privileged sidemen on Trane’s explosive Ascension (’65), which was the ultimate recognition that the new learning was here. It was also at a session, The New Wave in Jazz, which featured Trane, Shepp, Ra, Tolliver, Hutcherson and many of the other new musicians, that I last saw Marion.

That was the year of Malcolm X’s murder; a month later I was in Harlem. The next I heard of Marion he was in Europe. Later I heard he was back in the U.S., and every once in a while I’d hear about some of the things he was doing; still later I heard he’d gotten ill. But I never saw him again.

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