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Oscar Brown Jr.

As a performer, he acted his songs more than he sang them; as a songwriter, hedrew as much from gospel, the blues and folk music as he did from jazz. He preferred to call himself an entertainer, although even that broad term didnotgo far enough: he saw his art as a way to celebrate African-American life andattack racism, and it was not always easy to tell where the entertainer ended and the activist began.

His song “Brown Baby,” recorded by Mahalia Jackson and others, was both a lullaby for his infant son and an anthem of racial pride. Other songs, like “Signifying Monkey” and “The Snake,” took their story lines from black folklore. The album, “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” for which Mr. Brown wrote lyrics to the drummer Max Roach's music, was one of the first jazz works to address the civil rights movement. His commitment to art as a tool for social change was most evident in the numerous stage shows he wrote and directed in his hometown Chicago.

Oscar Cicero Brown, Jr. made his earthly debut on October 10, 1926 at Chicago ’s Provident Hospital as the firstborn child of school teacher, Helen Lawrence and Oscar C. Brown, Sr., a prominent lawyer and real estate owner. Oscar was raised in a two-church house hold: his mother attended St. Edmond’s Episcopal Church, and his father was a member, and attorney for Pilgrim Baptist Church for over fifty years. Oscar Jr.’s verbal skills stood out early in his academic career as evidenced by thefact that he often took first-place in “elocution” contests. He attended Willard Elementary and Englewood High Schools, and by age 15, he had launched his professional career in Studs Terkel's children's radio series, called “ Secret City .” His father, however, encouraged him to pursue a college career and study law, with the hope that he would take over the family business.

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