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Deborah Brown: Jazz Diva Extraordinaire

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.



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