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Donald Brown: An Underrecognized Mind

To many colleagues, he is the iconic jazz composer of his generation

Donald Brown
Donald Brown (photo: Michel Vasset)

Between 1987 and 2000, before a combo of rheumatoid arthritis and rotator cuff surgeries on both shoulders made pianistic expression complicated, Donald Brown recorded 14 of his 16 albums. They document a corpus that pianist Eric Reed describes as “gargantuan.” Reed had in mind Brown’s first seven dates, released domestically between 1987 and 1994—six are presently unavailable. Between 1995 and 2000, Brown made another seven (available via streaming) discs for the French label Space Time, including two tour-de-force solo recitals and the superbly detailed, polyrhythmically percolating ensemble date At This Point in My Life.

“These are serious compositions, not ditties,” Reed says. “For me, Donald’s music created the entire soundtrack for jazz in the 1980s and 1990s. The repertoire he’s created is crucial to this music’s legacy.”

For a granular example, consider Terence Blanchard’s recollection of hearing Brown play his composition “New York” with the Wynton and Branford Marsalis edition of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at a Manhattan nightclub in early 1982. “It stopped me in my tracks,” says Blanchard, who assumed the Messengers’ trumpet chair not long thereafter. “The contrapuntal lines between the melody and the inner voices caught my attention. Then the way it resolved, where the melody makes a statement and the other horns answer, before a phrase that goes between three horns at the end. Donald utilized every instrument for its strengths in a very compact composition that made the band sound current. He’s one of the most underrecognized minds in jazz.”

“Everyone who was writing during that period checked out Donald and got something from him,” says pianist Geoffrey Keezer, who in 1993 and 1994 played alongside Brown, Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller, and James Williams in the Contemporary Piano Ensemble. “It was hyper-modern but straight-ahead writing with a swing feel for acoustic instruments, picking up where the writing on late-’60s Blue Note records left off. His piano playing exemplifies what I call the 1980s New York piano style. He played like he was making up compositions on the spot.”

“Donald is a well-rounded musician who not only has listened to everything, but actually did production for Stax Records,” says Kenny Garrett, who was rooming with Miller in Brooklyn when he met Brown in the early ’80s; Brown has produced seven of his albums. “I want him as a sounding board. I try to write music to keep him inspired, because he’s written so many great compositions that inspired me.”

Brown’s intimate relationship to R&B stems directly from lived experience in Memphis, his home from infancy until he joined the Messengers in 1981. As an example, he traces the bass line on 1992’s “Theme for Mandela” to a funk song he wrote during the ’70s. Then there’s the self-evident subject of “Booker T.,” a slow blues from 1991’s People Music. “I played with most of Isaac Hayes’ musicians, so I learned all the songs on Shaft, which was a game-changer for me in terms of orchestration,” he says on the phone from Tennessee.

Born in 1954, Brown started off as a “utility man” who played “some of everything”—drums, clarinet, saxophone, tuba, baritone horn, and trumpet in school bands, keyboards and bass in local groups. “I never took lessons, but I figured out fingering and how to get a sound,” he recalls. He also came to arranging by trial and error: “I have a fast ear—I’m able to remember passages and figure them out. Knowing a lot of instruments helped me transpose. My high-school band director, James Keys, influenced me. He played bassoon in the symphony, but then picked up a saxophone and played Bird and Trane stuff—I thought that was the norm for a musician.”

Piano became Brown’s primary focus after 1972, when he entered Memphis State University (on a baritone horn scholarship), where he met Williams and Miller. Three years Brown’s senior, Williams exposed him to his extensive collection of jazz and classical recordings, and introduced him to Memphis’ most eminent jazzfolk, including pianists Phineas Newborn and Charles Thomas.

“It intrigued James that I could take a record home and learn a Fats Navarro solo in one night,” Brown says. “He inspired me to practice scales and Bach inventions—so long that my wrists started hurting. I thought you play through the pain until it’s better. That’s where my problems started.”

“Any contemporary jazz composition by someone of my generation or younger bears Donald’s influence, one way or another, whether you know it or not.” –Geoffrey Keezer

In 1974, Williams, now teaching at Berklee, invited Brown to join him in Boston, where he remained for six months, meeting expenses with an organ/drums duo gig at a strip club. “It got me more into bass lines,” he says. Back in Memphis, guitarist Michael Toles, whose CV included gigs with Hayes and the Bar-Kays, connected Brown with R&B guru Willie Mitchell, who hired him as a staff musician at the Bearsville label. For the next six years, Brown “lived the dream,” freelancing, playing in Top 40 bands, interacting with musicians who “cut the hits during the day and played jazz at night, swinging and playing the blues.”

Meanwhile, Williams—who joined Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1977—was recommending Brown to Clark Terry, Pat Martino, and Betty Carter. “They called, and each time I told them I wasn’t interested,” Brown says. “James said, ‘Donald, you’ll never think you’re good enough.’ Then, when James got ready to leave Art, he asked me. I thought James would quit asking after a while. I think I got the gig because Wynton and James played Art a tape of some of my R&B stuff, with me playing all the instruments.”

Betrayed by his hands and wrists, Brown left the Messengers after a year to pursue studio opportunities in Memphis, then accepted an offer to teach at Berklee where, between 1983 and 1988, his mentees included Cyrus Chestnut, Danilo Pérez, Javon Jackson, and Roy Hargrove. There were tours with Freddie Hubbard and Donald Byrd, and a second, 1986-87 stint with the Messengers. Then Brown transplanted to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he taught until his retirement in 2020.

Williams introduced Brown to François Zalacain of Sunnyside Records, who issued Brown’s 1987 debut, Early Bird, with Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Bob Hurst, and Jeff Watts. Williams also introduced him to Don Sickler, who published some of Brown’s music and connected him with Joe Fields at Muse. Fields issued, seriatim, three underpublicized jazz masterworks: the searing-to-tender Sources of Inspiration, with a Gary Bartz/Eddie Henderson front line; the sprawling, conceptually ambitious Cause and Effect (made in response to the LAPD’s notorious 1989 beating of Rodney King), on which Joe Henderson stretched out at length; and the kinetic, inexorably grooving People Music.

“I was always writing,” Brown says, before contextualizing titles like “Capetown Ambush,” “The Human Impersonator,” “Theme for Malcolm,” and “A Free Man.” “Race was always a big part of my life. The tune ‘Early Bird (Gets the Short End of the Stick)’ comes from what our parents told us—that Black people have a better chance of getting a job by getting up early in the morning. I felt we can get up early if we want, but a white person will get the job anyway. On my next album, one tune is dedicated to Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland, and another, called ‘Black Beauty,’ is dedicated to Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone.”

That album will be Brown’s first since 2013’s Born to Be Blue, on which Garrett, Ravi Coltrane, and Wallace Roney guest-soloed over a rhythm section propelled by drummers Marcus Gilmore or Brown’s son Kenneth. “I’m not writing now because of the problems with my hands,” he explains. “I haven’t been able to do a gig for three years. I’ve tried botox injections and platelet-rich plasma. I want to take my time and check out every possibility. I hope I can be playing by the spring.”

“Donald often had issues with not being to play what he wanted, and he’s been underrated because of his health,” Garrett says. “But even with his limitations, he played so much more music than most people who have full capacity.”

“People would be surprised at how much stuff I’ve absorbed from Phineas and Oscar [Peterson],” Brown says. “Because I couldn’t play it as fast as they could, I had to modify so it came out my way.

“It’s very frustrating, but I’m trying to be positive. Even doing this interview is lifting my spirits, because at least it affirms I’ve done some things. Otherwise you wouldn’t be talking to me.”

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

Sources of Inspiration (Muse, 1990)
People Music (Muse, 1991)
Cause and Effect (Muse, 1992)
At This Point in My Life (Space Time, 2001)
The Classic Introvert (Space Time, 2004)
Fast Forward to the Past (Space Time, 2008)

Read a vintage JazzTimes review of two late-1990s Donald Brown albums.

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.