"When Miles Davis got top billing during this concert series . . . the star - from the standpoint of audience reaction - unquestionably was 35-year- old Brown."
Other accolades of the day came from jazz critic Nat Hentoff, who wrote, ''Here, finally, is a performer and writer who is so authentically hip that he never overstates his authority," and from no less an artist than singer Nina Simone, who called Brown one of the most creative men in music. Period.
To say that Oscar Brown Jr. sings is to say that Diane Arbus took snapshots. The self-taught Brown sings jazz - impeccably, in a mellow, baritone kind of vocalese that Jon Hendricks would admire. He sings blues as well, and is a strong, natural melodist. But Brown is really a storyteller; a writer and a poet whose format happens to be music. In that regard, his glib, endearing, often swinging, sometimes moody, socially incisive songs predated Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Gil Scott-Heron, the Rev. Gene McDaniels. . . . .
Chicago-born and -raised, Brown first commanded attention for parables and wry little commentaries about ghetto life, as well as joyous anthems like ''Hymn to Friday" and sketches of characters, like the playful portrait of a waitress, "Hazel's Hips." He had a couple of hits in the early 60s - deft, cute things called "Dat Dere" and "Signifying Monkey." ("Dat Dere" concerns a little boy asking Pop a million "why" questions, culminating with a request for an elephant.) Yet after writing and recording 10 albums between 1960, albums often produced or arranged by the likes of Quincy Jones, he sort of fell from view. Why?
"I don't know! I've been working, making a public spectacle of myself as much as possible," he said and laughed, when reached by phone before a recent San Francisco gig. "I've been producing, directing shows, working with young people - in colleges, public housing developments. Just generally making a living as the business would allow. I am the kind of artist that the moguls of music don't really have much use for; they tend to want to produce those things which they can clone. They tend to want to clone those things that have a mindless quality, or at best, a very narrow look at life. You know, lyrics that don't get much beyond 'Baby, I love you.' "
Brown's lyrics do more. Take, for instance, this snippet from the "Journey Through Forever," which he wrote after hearing a speech by futurist R. Buckminster Fuller: "Puzzled on the planet, stranded with the baggage we were handed / None of us can boast of knowing / where a one of us is going."
One of the new CD's highlight works, a tribute to ragtime giant Scott Joplin, is set to Joplin's most famous rag, "The Entertainer." A few lines of lyric: "Were there any who truly knew / what made a black entertainer so blue? / The depression he fell into / over dreams that were never coming true."
In a way, Brown owes his return to the spotlight to bad lyrics spouted during a rap concert in San Francisco. Cork Marcheschi, owner of the tiny Weasel Disc Records, was in the audience, and he was disgusted by the undistinguished music and barrage of angry words.
"On the drive back I talked (to a friend) about Oscar Brown Jr. . . . When we got home, I played Sin and Soul (1960) and Between Heaven and Hell (1962). My friend was blown away. . . . The next day I went to pick up the CD versions of both albums, and found that nothing of Oscar's was available. I was outraged. A crime against nature," Marcheschi said.
He promptly found Brown, voice formidable as ever, and invited him to the Bay Area to record a CD. Then and Now, which features Brown redoing eight of his classics (including "Dat Dere") and debuting eight new works, was recorded in a week. The arrangements are deliberately stripped down to basic jazz combo (including Brown's son, Beau Brown 3d, on bass).
Becoming a singing raconteur was never paramount during Brown's young life in Chicago, despite his constant exposure to great music. He spent many a Saturday at the Regal Theater watching movies, a serial, and the likes of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, but his lawyer father had already reserved a desk for him at the firm. As a college prelaw student, however, Brown flunked everything except English. A stint as an English major left him disillusioned and it was five years before he could pick up a pen. From there it was a matter of knocking on many doors - doors of such people as Abbey Lincoln, Carmen MacRae, Dinah Washington - before a record deal came.
Brown has written and staged a number of musicals (Kicks and Company and Crecie are his best-known), and estimates having about 500 unrecorded songs. How has he persevered through hard times?
"I'm an optimist," he'll tell you, "a warrior in my field. I don't
quit." Still, he has made one adjustment at this late stage of his career:
"I'll go on tour, if I can go first class," he said, laughing. "I'm not going to bum it anymore."