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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 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, Roger Kellaway and Cedar Walton, as well as trombonist Slide Hampton.

Among other artists with whom she has recorded are Clark Terry, Jan Lundgren, 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, Red Mitchell (or alternatively bassist Hein van de Geijn and Ed Thigpen). Other artists with whom Brown has appeared include Benny Bailey, Kenny Drew, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Johnny Griffin, Roy Hargrove, Ernst Reijseger, Bobby Shew, and Toots Thielemans. 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, Jay McShann, and Bobby Watson. 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 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 or King Pleasure, 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, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nancy Wilson. 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, Charlie Parker, and Dexter Gordon in Bobby Watson'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 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. 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.


On the Road

AAJ: You lived for over a decade in Holland. What brought you there?

DB: I started out in KC, and then I began traveling all around the United States with a no-name group, and went to almost everywhere in the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii. From there, I developed a desire to go international, and a friend went to Japan, and made a contact for me to go there. I did a couple of tours in Asia for about six months, not only to Japan, but to Jakarta, Indonesia and that area. And I developed a taste for international travel.

At one point, I went to Europe to visit a friend who was a singer. A pianist there heard a tape I did of a spin-off of a PBS special called Women in Jazz, hosted by Carmen McRae. I was in a small snippet of that. The pianist, who lived in South Africa at the time, heard the tape, and said, "Look, I can get work for you in Europe." So I moved to Europe in 1985 and stayed there until 1995.

Deborah BrownAnd in those 10 years, I recorded albums with many great musicians, and that really catapulted my career in Europe. I did some very unique things. I did a record with James Baldwin, the writer, the only recording he ever made. I also did recordings with five great musicians, Horace Parlan, Ed Thigpen, Johnny Griffin, Benny Bailey, and Red Mitchell. And I got that special feeling you experience with these guys. As they grow older, it's harder to get that original feeling directly from the source.

AAJ: Speaking of great musicians, in 2005, you released a duet recording with guitarist Joe Beck.

DB: He was amazing. And that record was just the tip of the iceberg. After that, we collaborated more closely. We really wanted to record again, but we never got a chance to.

MH: That whole album was done in five hours—it was intended as a sort of demo record.

AAJ: Was that collaboration with Beck inspired by the recording Ella Fitzgerald did with Joe Pass?

DB: Not really; it was really inspired by Joe Beck himself. He was a one-man show. He designed his own guitar, with strings from several different instruments. I never heard anything like it.

AAJ: He did a recording with Jimmy Bruno, Polarity (Concord, 2000), with that guitar. It's a beautiful album—just the two guitars.

MH: It was called the alto guitar, and has two guitar strings, two bass strings, and two banjo strings.

AAJ: Could you tell us a bit about the Blue Note recording you did with the Doky Brothers?

DB: They are just fantastic musicians. They are part Danish.

MH: And originally from Vietnam.

DB: Neils Doky has played with everyone, Randy Brecker and Michael Brecker, for example. Neils also played for Pope John Paul, with Gino Vanelli. He's played everywhere, as has his brother.

MH: Both have performed in New York, and more recently Neils moved to Paris.

AAJ: So you were building a career in Europe back then?

DB: We had a house in a small village in the Netherlands, and it provided a base for getting around Europe, and also I was invited to teach there.

MH: We started out in Brussels, and then got the opportunity to go to Holland.


Brown's Approach to Jazz Singing

AAJ: What do you emphasize in your education of vocalists, once they've achieved a level of competence? You're such an exceptional singer, that you must have a lot to convey to those who are coming up.

DB: I try, for starters, to teach them some discipline, Because most people can sing, but to be a professional singer really takes a lot of work. And you have to understand your voice. I try to teach them technique. My strongest suit is probably vocal technique. I treasure my voice because at one point I got very close to not being able to sing, and then I took a lesson from George Peckham, a fantastic teacher, and he turned around my whole singing career using his method, and that's what I share with my students as well. Peckham opened up my whole vocal approach, where I could begin to sing all the different notes and registers, and this was the key to my really growing. It's just like any horn player has to learn to use their lips, their mouth, and their embouchure to the best of their ability in order to facilitate the music itself.

AAJ: Your rhythm is extraordinary—it embraces the Kansas City beat, a la Basie and the others. Do you think the best vocalists are right on the beat?

DB: Except for Betty Carter I love Betty Carter along with Anita O'Day, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan—all the classic singers. But to learn from, there's really something special about Betty. I'd really love to be someone who breaks the time barrier like Betty.

AAJ: In her later career, Betty Carter really broke new ground, are saying you'd like to follow in her footsteps in that regard?

DB: I would definitely like to do something that is so innovative, that it's a new way of listening to the music. But who can say—is that really a goal of mine? No, it's not a goal, but I would love to stumble on something that would have the same impact as Betty did. Today, singers are relaxing their time a lot, not sounding like Betty Carter, but taking more risks, so she has inspired singers to follow their own instincts.

DB: I did a Jazz Connect contest where I had to listen to over 200 singers, and I was very pleasantly surprised at how many people are out there doing it. And, of course, each of them was trying to get to the top and get noticed, because the record companies were keeping their eyes and out.

But, one wonders if there are any record companies any more, because right now it looks like the Internet is the record company in a way. We're on CDBaby. So there are so many jazz singers emerging, and I'm really happy about that, but there are so many trying to be heard, that the attention to the details of the music is being a bit lost.

You can't just repeat the past. How many times can you sing "My Funny Valentine" like everybody else? You have to find your own unique interpretation and expression. So many pop singers are trying to be jazz singers, but jazz is an art form. Imagine a rock singer saying, "OK, I'm gonna do a jazz album." It's ridiculous. I think most rockers appreciate and acknowledge jazz, but what they don't do is play jazz.

AAJ: What's your take on how a singer can and should move in a creative direction?

Deborah BrownDB: The objective is to really be a musician. Consider the difference between Barbra Streisand and Betty Carter, for example. Streisand reads what's on the chart, and interprets it. She's a beautiful singer, and I love that.

But Betty Carter understands where the music is, where the time is, and can take it apart and reconstruct it. Barbra just sings the story, and even though Betty is singing the story, she's taking the music along with her. Rod Stewart, Chaka Kahn, they have a story they're singing, but they're using the lyrics, not the music as such to tell the story.

Betty gets into the music itself. That's why she sometimes sounds so funny: she can take a phrase and put it in a different place, and it gives a new meaning to the song.

AAJ: It seems the best jazz singers always become a part of the group they're performing with; they share the stage equally with the sidemen's solos, and you can tell they're always listening to their accompanists and instrumentalists.

DB: That's good. That's like my former student, J.D. Walter—he's that way. He's really grown, and I'm so proud of him because he really is going on his own. He just got a few tips from me, and he went for it. He's a warp-drive man. This guy is really great.

AAJ: People refer to him as using his voice like an instrument, but he says his emphasis has always been vocal.

MH: There are so few real jazz singers, just a very few. And I think the influence from instrumentalists does have a lot to do with it, because if you're going to improvise freely, you have to get away from the delivery of the lyric.

Jazz is about using the framework, about creating alternate melodies; but you have to be careful not to be confined too much by the lyric. That's why people don't appreciate true jazz vocalists so much, because they give less significance to the lyric.

AAJ: You used the word reconstruct, and a lot of jazz is indeed about taking the music apart and transforming it.

DB: I love the novel called Jazz (Penguin, 1993), by Toni Morrison. It's the first book I ever read that had a jazz form, where it gave you the main story, but the book was based on all the people who witnessed one event. It was the same event described from everyone's point of view.

AAJ: You just indirectly gave us a new way to look at jazz singers. To notice specifically how they each transform the tune to reflect their own point of view, a matter of multiple perspectives on the same song.

DB: When I was working in Japan, I always wondered why their singers only sang a limited number of the standards. And it's no secret, they actually have a list—and those are the only songs they'll sing. At first, I thought, that's awful. It's so limiting. But recently, I returned there, and played with some Japanese musicians, and we had jam sessions that were wonderful.

I heard how they took a few melodies everyone knows, but they individualized it so incredibly that each was a work of art. I said to myself, "OK, I'll never look at the standards the same way again." Now, American musicians have always done that, it's just that it really clicked for me in those jam sessions.

And when you think about it, it really is the Japanese way of doing things. For example, their artists have been doing paintings for centuries that repeat the same subject or landscape over and over. And each new painting gets accolades for the way it imitates the others. I used to think that was strange, but now I understand.


Goals and Projects

AAJ: What are your current and future interests?

DB: Well, first of all, I've recorded about 22 CDs over the years, maybe more. They sell out pretty fast, and then they're gone, out of print. We're finding out that people want to hear those older CDs, so what we're trying to do is to incorporate the CDs from the past into compilations. Currently, it's frustrating for people to go on my Website and not be able to order them.

So we want to make those recordings available again. Those Internet bootlegs are taking over, and there's no way to stop it, so we've got to make it available directly from us.

AAJ: The authenticity of the product is important. And the liner notes are important, and the bootlegs don't include them.

DB: That's a good point. I think that people who really love jazz want to have a product in their hands, and they want to read about it, so the booklets are very important. Most of my records manage to include all that. One advantage we have is that we own all our recordings, and just leased them to the record companies for a limited number of years.

In addition to my ongoing recording sessions, I'm on my way to Europe again soon. I just recorded a tribute to Ivie Anderson, who was Duke Ellington's primary singer. Most people know Elllington's hits through her. She died young, in her 40s, but she left a fantastic legacy. My tribute is on Challenge Records, a Dutch company, released in 2008. It's called For the Love of Ivie.

AAJ: Do you tour in the United States? I'm amazed that I've never come across a notice of a live performance by you in Philly or New York.

DB: I don't tour often in America. I might go to the East Coast every once in a while. I did the Cape May Jazz Festival. I love to go to Nashville and Knoxville. I work with a jazz orchestra there. I work in Kansas City, of course, at the American Jazz Museum. I work in Chicago at the Jazz Showcase and am going to be on their cruise this coming season. But the reason I don't tour so much in America is that I'm world-focused, and that takes up much of my time. Last year I did 10 tours outside the U.S.

AAJ: The history of jazz was written in KC in large measure, so it's not a bad suggestion for jazz fans to visit there and hear you and others who are playing there these days.

Deborah BrownDB: There recently was an article in The New York Times about the Musician's Union, where Charlie Parker used to play in Kansas City. It's a little club, but everyone goes there, and it's open all night long. Friday and Saturday nights. All the young musicians go there, and it can be a real cool scene.

MH: You finish your gig, and you can go there and play until 5 or 6 in the morning. Now they have a liquor license, so it's legal. Count Basie and all those guys were members of this particular union. There was that documentary, The Last of the Blue Devils (1980), and it was a lot about the Musician's Union, and it's still there and happening. A while back we brought over a Russian tenor saxophonist who was on the International Incident record, and a pianist whom Deborah works with in Holland also showed up, and we took them to the Musician's Union, and they got up and jammed for a couple of hours. It was great. It's something that hardly exists anywhere else any more.

DB: And once a year, we bring someone from Europe to KC to play.

AAJ: What else do you have on your plate?

DB: Well, in a peculiar way what makes me a unique singer is that I don't have my own band. I play with musicians all around the world that I've performed with for years, but I don't have a band.

I like to travel, so I use local musicians wherever I go. That puts less travel pressure on the musicians, but it puts more pressure on me personally to come up with music that's not totally complicated, and then it's up to me to come up with interesting singing that entertains everyone, including the musicians. I've developed that to the point where I can go anywhere and play with any musicians, and these days I only play with the best musicians, and that makes me so happy, because I can have the best sound wherever I am.

These days, it's very difficult for musicians to maintain their own band for financial and practical reasons. The guys that you enjoy working with, they're booked ahead for a year, and so on. We had great hopes for a tour with Joe Beck, since it would be just him and Deborah, but Joe's untimely passing ended that dream. Joe could really carry that bass line. He was like two musicians in one. Sadly, he passed away last summer.


Spirituality and Philosophy of Life

Deborah BrownAAJ: Jazz is rooted in spiritual music—what are your thoughts about spirituality and life?

DB: While many musicians connect their work and their music, I actually don't think they're the same thing. Personally, the way I look at my spirituality, it's all a part of me. I'm not someone who is one way in one situation and someone else in another. I try to be true in everything that I do, so there's a spirituality in everything that I do, and I think that when people hear me, that's how they interpret it, that the music is a part of me. But my spiritual life and my job are two different things. What my job allows me to do is to support my spiritual life. You have to make a living. That supports whatever you want in life- whether family, a car, and so on.

What I want is to have enough money to support my spiritual activities, help my brothers and sisters with whatever they may need. I do volunteer activities. I share my spirituality. So music and spirituality are two different things to me. They're related in principle, but I don't bring my spiritual beliefs into my music. I prefer to keep them private. It's a matter of good taste. My work is my work, and my art is what I'm developing.

AAJ: Just as Johann Sebastian Bach wrote religious music, but was basically a craftsman in his composing, so you are as a vocalist.

DB: I have to think of it that way, because music is not my God. There's a lot more to life than music. My happiness comes partly from music, but it's not the only thing that makes me happy. I've seen musicians who come to life on stage, but they're unhappy on a daily basis, especially as they grow older. I don't want to be that way.

Select Discography

Deborah Brown/Joe Beck, I Found My Thrill (Jazz Voix Records, 2005)

Deborah Brown, International Incident (33 Jazz, 2003)

Deborah Brown, Song Bird (Jazz N Pulz, 2003)

Deborah Brown, Live at the Blue Note (VH Records, 1997)

Deborah Brown, Deborah! (September Records, 1987)

Photo credit

In performance in Belgium: Marc De Clercq

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