Oscar Brown Jr.
How could someone that has been called genius, exceptional, beautiful and authentically hip by such diverse figures as Steve Allen, Nat Hentoff and Eleanor Roosevelt, someone that recorded classic albums in the sixties, someone that wrote the lyrics to the jazz standards "Dat Dere," "Afro Blue" and "Work Song," and even someone that was the host of a television show called Jazz Scene USA in 1962 disappear almost without a trace? What ever happened to the great singer composer political activist Oscar Brown Jr.?
When I was a teenager in the late sixties I bought an album by Brown called Between Heaven and Hell. This album touched my budding sixties awareness of peace, brotherhood and protest with tunes like "Excuse Me For Livin," "Opportunity Please Knock," "Love Is Like a Newborn Child" and "World Full of Grey." His songs and his presentation of them were somehow very real to me. His poetry was rich with colorful images. He made me feel the pain of the black man struggling to survive and the desire to simply enjoy all that life has to offer. His songs were full of sentiment and emotion and revealed Oscar to be a complete human being full of tenderness and pain, anger and love, as well as joy and confusion.
So what did happen to Oscar Brown Jr.? Well, I found out a couple of years ago when I was asked to play with him and the great tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine at a summer jazz festival in Germany. Oscar is alive and well, living in Chicago and still performing on occasion around the world. He's not performing as much as he would like but he's trying to become more visible (which as I talked about last month ain't easy given the politics of jazz today). He was such a wonderful man full of life and creativity I was honored to be in his warmth. I found out that he still writes a lot of music. In fact he has well over 500 songs that haven't been recorded yet. (Hear that all you record executives out there?!) He's still a great performer and captured the audience in the palm of his hand singing some of his old classics as well as a few new masterpieces. His strong political edge was still apparent as he stirred the audience into a frenzy singing a new song about our leaders in Washington called "Bull Shit." I was in heaven, playing with one of my early heroes on one side of me and with soulful Stanley Turrentine on the other, what more could I ask for?
Just a few years ago Columbia finally reissued both Between Heaven and Hell as well as his classic Sin and Soul on CD and in 1995 he recorded an album for a very small label (Weasel Disc) called Then and Now. To me it's an out and out travesty, a disgusting comment on the real state of jazz today that someone as great as Oscar Brown Jr. is barely visible. He's one of our almost forgotten elder statesmen that we should be cherishing and honoring with awards and contracts and studying his words and techniques. But most of all we should be given the opportunity to hear and feel what this man's serious music is all about. If the rare chance appears for you to hear Oscar Brown Jr. sing don't hesitate to buy a ticket for the front row.