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.


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.

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