Deborah Brown: Jazz Diva Extraordinaire

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Sometimes I really just try to push the boundaries. I depend on that spontaneity in order to do something different.
Deborah BrownDeborah Brown is one of the finest jazz vocalists in the business, a "singer's singer" with a magnificent voice and mind-boggling technique. Vocalist JD Walter
JD Walter

vocalist
mentioned her as an inspirational teacher and mentor in a recent AAJ interview but, despite being very possibly one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, due to her own travel preferences she is less well known in the U.S. than in Europe and internationally.



Perhaps the reason for her "missing in action" status is that, while born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri., where she currently resides, Brown relocated to Europe for a considerable time, where she was a teacher and mentor, while traveling worldwide on concert tours.



While less well known in the U.S., she has acquired an "insiders" reputation as one of the best in the business. Her skill and versatility is demonstrated by her work, often on record, with large studio orchestras including the Netherlands' Metropole Orchestra, and in the intimate setting of duos—among the latter being sessions with pianists Dorothy Donegan

Dorothy Donegan
Dorothy Donegan
1924 - 1998
piano
, Roger Kellaway
Roger Kellaway
Roger Kellaway
b.1939
piano
and Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
1934 - 2013
piano
, as well as trombonist Slide Hampton
Slide Hampton
Slide Hampton
b.1932
trombone
.



Among other artists with whom she has recorded are Clark Terry

Clark Terry
Clark Terry
b.1920
trumpet
, Jan Lundgren
Jan Lundgren
Jan Lundgren
b.1966
piano
, and the Doky Brothers, appearing on their self-titled 1996 album for Blue Note Records. Brown has also worked in a musical-literary setting, recording A Lover's Question with the noted African American author James Baldwin. Her quartet Jazz 4 Jazz featured Horace Parlan
Horace Parlan
Horace Parlan
b.1931
piano
, Red Mitchell
Red Mitchell
Red Mitchell
b.1927
bass
(or alternatively bassist Hein van de Geijn and Ed Thigpen
Ed Thigpen
Ed Thigpen
1930 - 2010
drums
). Other artists with whom Brown has appeared include Benny Bailey
Benny Bailey
Benny Bailey
1925 - 2005
trumpet
, Kenny Drew
Kenny Drew
Kenny Drew
1928 - 1993
piano
, Harry "Sweets" Edison
Harry
Harry "Sweets" Edison
1915 - 1999
trumpet
, Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
1928 - 2008
sax, tenor
, Roy Hargrove
Roy Hargrove
Roy Hargrove
b.1969
trumpet
, Ernst Reijseger, Bobby Shew
Bobby Shew
Bobby Shew
b.1941
trumpet
, and Toots Thielemans
Toots Thielemans
Toots Thielemans
b.1922
harmonica
. The very fact that these outstanding instrumentalists chose to work with her further confirms the assessment of her exceptional status as a jazz singer.



Brown's husband and long-time manager, Michael Hansen, was in the room at the time and agreed to participate in order to spice it up with a spouse's perspective. He has been in the jazz business for many decades and interjected remarks that imparted some additional information and wisdom to the discussion.

Chapter Index

  1. Who is Deborah Brown?
  2. On the Road
  3. Brown's Approach to Jazz Singing
  4. Goals and Projects
  5. Spirituality and Philosophy of Life


Who is Deborah Brown?

AAJ: How did you get interested in jazz?



DB: Well, I was born and raised in Kansas City, the home of people like Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, Jay McShann
Jay McShann
Jay McShann
1909 - 2006
piano
, and Bobby Watson
Bobby Watson
Bobby Watson
b.1953
sax, alto
. When I grew up there, there was—and still is—more jazz than any place I've ever lived, and I've lived in a lot of cities. Even today, we have over 30 clubs locally. Kansas City is where we got our style, our beat. I learned how to sing blues with the real blues artists there. I learned how to sing jazz and bebop with the musicians and singers that were around when Charlie Parker played. So we have that special feeling. I've been singing since around 1971, where I had my first professional job in Kansas City (KC) at the Hilton Hotel downtown. My career has spanned many years, and I've played with many great musicians.



AAJ: Which of them did you hear when you were a youth?



DB: That's interesting, because singing is not where I came from initially Actually, I really didn't like jazz at first, because it took my dad away from us. Every Saturday, he would listen to his bebop records in the basement. And, of course, I listened to all that music without knowing what I was absorbing people—like J.J. Johnson

J.J. Johnson
J.J. Johnson
1924 - 2001
trombone
and Charlie Parker, you name it, my dad had every record. But there was never a singer in the lot. If someone sang, it would be like James Moody
James Moody
James Moody
1925 - 2010
reeds
or King Pleasure
King Pleasure
1922 - 1982
vocalist
, or real bebop singers who were actually emulating musicians.



So that was my beginning, and up until this day, I'm not one who listens to a lot of singers. I listen to instrumentalists more, which, in a way, is a product of being in Kansas City.



AAJ: That instrumental exposure may also account for how well you do scat. And in the beginning of your rendition of "I Thought About You," you have that long high note like a train siren.



Deborah BrownDB: Sometimes I really just try to push the boundaries. I depend on that spontaneity in order to do something different. So that's what happened in that recording. I never planned it.



When I did listen to jazz singers, it was well into my career. I was working with a drummer who said, "Hey, you're quite a good jazz singer," and I said, "What's that?" And then he let me listen to some of his records, like Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
1924 - 1990
vocalist
, Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
1917 - 1996
vocalist
, and Nancy Wilson
Nancy Wilson
Nancy Wilson
b.1937
vocalist
. And today I can say they are wonderful singers, and I know what's behind each of them, and I love them dearly for each one who they are, but at the time I actually didn't like some of their singing, although eventually, I fell in love with all of them. But because I'm so impressionable, I am hesitant about listening too long to singers, because I don't want to begin to sound like them. Interviewers often say, "You remind me of Sarah," and so on, and I find that amusing because I've consciously tried not to sound like anyone other than myself.



AAJ: There are always echoes of others—you can hear shades of other great saxophone players like Lester Young

Lester Young
Lester Young
1909 - 1959
saxophone
, Charlie Parker, and Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
1923 - 1990
sax, tenor
in Bobby Watson
Bobby Watson
Bobby Watson
b.1953
sax, alto
's style of playing.



DB: My husband made me aware of Bobby's 29th Street Quartet, and I really love "out music," avant-garde, and that's how I first heard Bobby. I never heard him play straight until he made that tribute to Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
album, and that's when I said, "Those guys can really play straight ahead jazz."



Michael Hansen: I think that was a different group. It was the World Saxophone Quartet

World Saxophone Quartet
World Saxophone Quartet

band/orchestra
. They were different groups, but in the same vein at the same time.



AAJ: Is it correct that you went from Kansas City to New Orleans?



MH: That's when Deborah performed at an [International Association of Jazz Education] IAJE conference.



DB: I was involved with IJAE, and I helped get them started in the international direction, because I was working at a conservatory in Holland.

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