Interview with Cameron Brown about
Brown: I definitely had the idea that I wanted a human voice in the band, and I wanted a singer flexible enough to do "normal" vocals but to also be a horn in the group. That was my idea for the band: to have three voices in the front line, bass, and drums.
Tafuri: Sheila Jordan's is definitely the voice to do that.
Brown: Oh, absolutely!
Tafuri: How long have you known Sheila?
Brown: Well, I met my first wife at Sheila's house around 1972 or '3. She's my oldest child's godmother, and that child is going to be 26 on October 2nd. You know, neither one of us can remember exactly how or where we met. But I remember very clearly that she gave me one of my first gigs.
Tafuri: In New York, you mean, or at all?
Brown: You know, I did this whole thing in Sweden in '65 and '66. I played with George Russell and Don Cherry in Sweden. And I had promised my father I was going to finish college. (I mean, I try to say I have no regrets about my life, but I should have probably noticed —at least a few years earlier —what I might maybe have wanted to do with myself. But no regrets! But, OK, I could have been a little more perceptive at that moment.)
Tafuri: We're young. We're busy doing "stuff," so who has time to sit around and take inventory?
Brown: So, anyway, I promised my father I was going to finish college. I was getting ready to graduate from college in 1969 when all of us guys looked around at each other in March or April and tried to poll who wanted to go to Vietnam. So, we wound up teaching school. Mayor Lindsay had a deal with the draft boards in New York that, if taught school in New York, you could continue to be deferred.
Brown: So, I taught elementary school in the South Bronx for three years.
Tafuri: Wow. In 1969?
Brown: 1969 to '72. Oh, it was the worst urban slum in the United States. I mean, the school was across the street from Fort Apache, the place where they made that film.
Tafuri: That's what I mean: the South Bronx!
Brown: I would say that it qualified as valorous alternative service.
Tafuri: What did you teach?
Brown: Everything. For the first year, I had a sixth grade class; for the other two years, I had fifth grade classes. I mean, this was a school that had been built in 1903 or something like that. George Meany had graduated from this school.
Brown: There was no gym in the school. Your job was to contain "x" number of kids from 9 to noon, from 1 to 3 …in the room, hopefully. That was the gig. Anyway, it was interesting. So, I came out of there in '72. I guess Sheila gave me this gig in '73 or '4. It was a regular Thursday out a Sonny's Place out on Long Island, which no longer exists. She's kind of the beginning of my story when I came back, 'cause I had lost all the contacts (pretty much) with (?) Jerry and George Russell and Donald Byrd and other people who I'd gotten a chance to play with in Sweden in '65 or '66. I still had a little bit of a contact with Bill Barron. (Tried to make a record with Bill Barron. We drove out to Newark. Bill and Kenny and I made it, and the drummer didn't make it; his car didn't make it from Brooklyn to Newark. And this record never got made. It was Savoy; Savoy was still in existence. This was in the '60s though, I think.)
Brown: Anyway, so there's some sense that Sheila was the beginning of my story. She introduced me to Roswell Rudd, and then Roswell's piano player was a guy named Hod O'Brien. Hod had come into an inheritance or something, and he had this club that came into existence for about a year or so called "St James Infirmary."
Tafuri: Really? In New York?
Brown: Oh, yeah. It was on 7th Avenue South and Leroy Street. And Roswell's wife managed it. There's even a song about this experience on one of Roswell's recent records. So, I got a chance to play with Roz, and Hod's concept was to have a house rhythm section. So, it was me and Hod and Beaver Harris. It was an amazing "school" for me, because Chet Baker played a couple days a week then, on the weekends, Charlie Rouse came one weekend, Pepper Adams, Al and Zoot came separately. You know, it was a great thing; we worked five days a week.
Brown: Yeah, it was like two days were Chet's days, then there was the weekend, and I think we worked one night just as the trio. That went on for about six months, and then that got me involved with Archie [Shepp]. Beaver got me the gig with Archie, because Jimmy Garrison had gotten so sick at that time. This is from around December '74 to the first half of '75. Right around that time —I think, June '75 —we made the record with Sheila called Confirmation for East Wind, a Japanese label. Then I went to Europe with Archie, then immediately to Montreux to record these two, you know, fairly famous records, Montreux I and II and Lush Life on Arista. Cuscuna came over to produce these records. I was thrown right into the fire —wasn't even in the frying pan. (Laughs.)
Tafuri: This was before you made the Black Saint records with —
Brown: No, the Sea of Faces album occurred immediately in August that same year. (I just saw Pelliciotti, whom I hadn't seen in ages. He was at that little concert in January in New York.)
Tafuri: But how about the Beaver Harris records?
Brown: The Beaver Harris records were made in the summer of '78 or '9. It's very interesting. I'm on the second Black Saint record, which is Archie's Sea of Faces record, and I'm on the second Soul Note record, which is Beautiful Africa. (Laughs.)
Tafuri: Billy Harper's on the first of each, and you're on the second of each.
Brown: That's true?
Tafuri: Billy has the first Black Saint album, called Black Saint, and the first Soul Note record, called Live in Europe.
Brown: Wow. You would know all of this.
Tafuri: Never made another one for them. Well, what sent you to Europe in the first place?
Brown: Sent me to Europe?
Tafuri: Well, you said back in the '60s —
Brown: Oh, you mean —well, that was another thing, a funny coincidence, a funny serendipity, too. I had a pretty rough time with my dad. I had a pretty rough high school experience.
Tafuri: Where was this?
Brown: Detroit. And my dad went to Dartmouth. He ever so desperately wanted me to go to Dartmouth. I had no desire. See, they [my parents] had taken me to New York; they had friends in New York. They had friends who were city planners who lived on Perry Street —I mean, right around the corner from the Vanguard.
Brown: They had taken me to New York, like, one too many times. And, you know, I wanted to go to Columbia, but I think the only reason I wanted to go to Columbia was that I wanted to be close to Bleeker Street. At that time, that stretch of Bleeker Street between 6th Avenue and La Guardia, there used to be all these —I mean, I remember one time when I was a kid I saw Monk in the "big room" in the Gate, down in the basement in the Gate. And I wandered out, walked across the street, and saw Cecil Taylor on the second floor of the Take Three or the "Page" Three. There was a bunch of joints on that block. As young as I was, it was like (singing) nah-nee-nah-nah nah-nee-nah nah —I wanted to be close to Bleeker Street.
Tafuri: It hit ya.
Brown: I wanted to be close to Bleeker Street. "I need to be close to Bleeker Street."
Tafuri: You were enthralled.
Brown: I mean, it was crazy, man. I got to go to the original Birdland. I got to go to the Vanguard; I saw a double bill of Mingus' Big Band and 'Trane's quartet.
Brown: Did I tell you this story?
Tafuri: No! Man!
Brown: I think Mingus opened —he had Rolf Ericsson on trumpet and all these cats. It was a real big band. It was at least 14, 15 pieces. And Mingus opened, and then Mingus came off, and he was drinking something. And Elvin walked down the steps. And Elvin took a drink of what Mingus was drinking —I'm sitting in the peanut gallery, right? I'm looking up at these two —I mean, they looked like —huge men, as well as being musical giants. Then they kissed each other on the lips.
Brown: Wooooooooooo! I'd never saw any shit like that, man. (Laughing.)
Brown: I mean, I was like fourteen, maybe, I don't know.
Tafuri: That'll change ya.
Brown: "Wow! What's that?" Anyway, all these by way to tell you that so when I graduated high school in 1963, I was only seventeen. My parents —I mean, I didn't know this was their motivation —scrambled around to find me a year in Europe to find me an exchange student program, because they were scared to let me go to New York ... by myself.
Tafuri: (Laughing.) 'Cause they knew.
Brown: Well, it was weird. He desperately wanted me to go to Dartmouth, and I had been accepted at Dartmouth and Columbia. I guess they felt they had to let me go. You couldn't force me, manipulate me, that much, I guess. So, they wound up finding a little program in Michigan at some Michigan Council of Churches program. They wanted to send a student to a country where it would not have been possible for a student to have learned any of the language in advance.
Tafuri: Oh, interesting...
Brown: Sweden. And they [the program] didn't really have anything together. I mean, they didn't even have a school for me to go to. But the family that I happened to end up with was very hip. And they actually found me a school to go to [that taught] in English. But then I actually did finally end up learning Swedish and became fluent in Swedish. So, then I went to Columbia the next year —like '64, '65 —and I got involved with this trombone player named Brian Trentham who had been playing with George Russell. He was a junior, and I was a freshman. He was a heavy student of George's and a very good trombone player. So, it was coincidental that George was in Sweden. (I guess he'd gotten sick on tour and wound up staying in Sweden. I don't know. I don't know the whole story.) The Swedish Radio was very interested in him staying there. They wanted to record a bunch of his stuff. He got some tours for the Sextet, and different things happened. Brian went over to work with him, and I was in the Catskills —I was working at Crutcher's Country Club in the Catskills —and he talked George into bringing me over. (Well, George didn't bring me over; my parents paid for it.) So, that's sort of my Swedish story, that I actually spent another full year in Sweden. Between the ages of 17 and 20, I spent over two years in Stockholm.
Brown: And we made this incredible record with George that you can still buy a your local record shop, which is absolutely amazing. It was made in Stuttgart in 1965: George Russell at Beethoven Hall or something like that. You don't know this record?
Tafuri: I don't know that record? I'm going to have to check it out.
Brown: I'm actually on a George Russell record that's on Soul Note or Black Saint. The first one —it's called New York Big Band or something like that —which was made in two-and-a-half hours as a demo, and they wound up just putting it out. Unbelievable!
Tafuri: (Laughing.) With that singer? The guy that did "God Bless the Child"? This singer who had a real high voice?
Brown: I think so.
Tafuri: It had a picture of the Vanguard on the cover.
Brown: Yes. Because we were playing every Monday that summer at the Vanguard. And we did a week also, I think.
Tafuri: So, you got sent over as a student, and then you got a year as a —
Brown: Right. I did my freshman year —it was like '64, '65 —I took another year off before I went to college, and then I took off another year off before my freshman and sophomore years. That's when I got a chance to play a lot with [Don] Cherry. I actually came back to this country with Cherry in August of '66.
Tafuri: How did you hook up with Cherry?
Brown: It was just something that happened almost as soon as I got there. He had just fallen in love with this Swedish artist, Mulki —who was amazing, so he sort of had his band in Paris, but every chance he got he run up to Stockholm to be with her. The first gig I did with him was the summer of '65 —like August of '65. There was a concert in their park there, called Skannson, that we did. I think we were on the same bill with Bud Powell.
Brown: It was wild. Then we did a bunch of little things through the year. Then I actually got to do two weeks at the old Monmartre in Copenhagen with the band Don had out of Paris that had Gato Barbieri in it —the band that did Complete Communion. They made some records in Italy that had some of that same material, with Gato and Karl Berger on vibes and this wonderful French bass player who passed away, Jean-François Jenny Clark, and Aldo Romano [on drums]. I mean, c'mon. Aldo Romano had been playing for something like six months. It was a two week gig.
Tafuri: I had no idea that Aldo Romano had played with Cherry.
Brown: Oh, yeah! He was just like raw energy; he sounded beautiful. I think he'd only been playing like six months or something.
Tafuri: 'Cause I have his album from about eight or ten years ago on Owl Records called To Be Ornette to Be. It's his album, and he's got all Italian cats on it. It's Ornette tunes, and it's wonderful. As a matter of fact, we would play it at WVXU, and nobody at the station —except me —would dare pronounce the names. And so we had this little gimmick where I pronounced all four of the names on a cart. You know, one of those continuous loop tapes they use at radio stations.
Tafuri: I would pronounce one name and then stop the cart. Then I'd pronounce the next one and stop it. And when jocks would play it —it was like a little gimmick —they would play the record, and then they would hit the cart (because they knew the names were in the same order as on the back of the album) and on the tape I would go "Aldo Romano" and the announce would say "on drums." Then they'd hit it again. And then I'd be like (I don't remember the other folks on the album) but like "Vincenzo Ciccarone" and they'd say "on bass." But they were all Italian guys.
Brown: Aldo is French and has always lived in Paris.
Tafuri: You know, what I wanted to ask you about is Sheila. It's kind of interesting that you hooked up with Sheila in New York, since you're both from Detroit. Did you know her at all before you came to New York?
Brown: No, we're from completely different generations, plus I left so young. She probably left pretty young, too, which means that she left fifteen years before I left. But before I left Detroit, I had been playing a little bit; I had this little band. This one jazz DJ knew of us, and there was a Sunday afternoon thing at a place. They used to let us play the second set ... on Sunday afternoon. It was four guys from Cass Tech, and the rhythm section was from this suburban high school where I was going. I grew up in the middle of the city, but in the middle of ninth grade my family moved to the suburbs. Very difficult for me, actually.
Tafuri: 'Cause you liked being in the city.
Brown: Oh, yeah. And there were these really segregated suburbs there.
Tafuri: Grosse Pointe or something like that.
Brown: It was!
Tafuri: Oh, it was.
Brown: It was almost like my father was following the Black Panthers edict to take the fight to his own people, and he did. I mean, he tried to integrate it when he got there, and we did pretty well. I mean, we were getting hate calls, you know, threatening phone calls.
Tafuri: Did you ever get to play with any of the "big names" from Detroit?
Brown: Not really, but —it did happen when I went to Sweden in '65 —I went to the Molde Festival. It was the fourth Molde Festival at that time, and you had to get to it by hydrofoil. There were two bass players at this festival —both of them nineteen years old —and, not my bass, but his bass. And who was the other bass player? Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson.
Tafuri: Oh, wow!
Brown: I was actually a little older than him. I think he was born in '46, January. I think I'm a couple weeks older than him. So, that was pretty wild. I played with George [Russell], Booker Ervin, and Donald Byrd. And Donald came and played a week at the Golden Circle then in September later on, and he used me again, with Albert Heath. Albert Heath was the drummer. And Donald was at the height of his popularity. I mean, wearing expensive French suits and going around Europe collecting art.
Brown: Yeah, it was great. It was a thrill to play with him. I mean, I was too young to be doing what I was doing; I didn't really know what was going on. But I was thumpin' around, thumpin' the best I could.
Brown: He was playing "Billy Boy" at breakneck tempo. It was pretty wild. [Begins to sing the tune at a fast tempo.]
Tafuri: And Booker's one of my favorites.
Brown: Ah, that was a thrill. I got to play with Booker again later on in New York, but I didn't play more with him in Europe. I just played two or three hits on the festival. There weren't that many people; the same bands would kind of play every night, I think. I don't remember exactly what the format was, but it was a much smaller deal than it is today.
Tafuri: So, okay, it's sorta, kinda clear how you met Don in Sweden. But how did you meet the other "Don"?
Brown: Poland. Poland was really through Beaver. Beaver was a big conduit for me, because Beaver had a band —the 350 Degree Music Experience —
Brown: '60. The 360 Degree Music Experience.
Tafuri: He went all the way, man! (Laughs.)
Brown: All the way. And he desperately wanted Don in the band. So, Don liked Beaver's concept and would try to get involved when he could. I don't know if you know who Timothy Marquand is, but Timothy was involved with a collective at that time, and they were making records, and it was an interesting scene. What was it called, "The Collective Jazz Artists" or something? But Roswell made a record, and Cherry made a beautiful record with a bigger ensemble with violins and all kinds of instruments. Anyway, Pullen was living in an apartment that Timothy had. He had a little studio apartment and a penthouse apartment on 72nd Street where Beaver lived. Timothy and Beaver had this heavy relationship, which I wouldn't attempt to speculate what that was all about, but Don was between things, and I think his life was kind of rocky at that moment. So, Timothy had this penthouse apartment and this little studio apartment on floor below it, and that's where Don was living. So, we'd go up there and rehearse all the time with 360. And then, you know, probably the turning point in my life was when Pullen called me up in the summer of '79 and said, "I'm starting this band with George, and Dannie Richmond is going to play drums, and I was thinking you'd be a good choice on bass because I think you could bridge the gap between playing more conservative and playing a little more out, which is what I'd like to try to do." I don't think anybody necessarily expected that band to last, but it had so much intensity and energy to it that it just took off.
Tafuri: Now —and I'm sorry, I should know the chronology a little better on my own, so I'm a little embarrassed —
Brown: —not necessarily —
Tafuri: —but —was Mingus still alive when the band started?
Brown: Mingus? There's a lot of confusion around this stuff, even to the extent that I think I'm listed in one of the big jazz encyclopedias that I'm listed as being one of the first bass player in the Mingus Dynasty Band. I never played with that band; it was Mike Richmond's gig. But, I think I'm correct in saying that Mingus died in January of 1979. I think that's correct.
Tafuri: I think that's right, now that you say it.
Brown: And I think that Dannie Richmond brought a band into the Vanguard for a week sometime in the weeks thereafter with Gomez playing bass ... with Bob Neloms, Jack Walrath, and Ricky Ford —Mingus' last quartet. And then, I think the first tour that the Pullen-Adams band did (or the Adams-Pullen band, or whatever you want to call it) —
Tafuri: [Laughs.] It's listed both ways.
Brown: Yeah, they couldn't decide either —even about that. [Laughs.] That must have been in October of '79. And, you know, it was wild. I mean, we got to Milano, and we were scheduled to go into the studio to do what wound up being the Don't Lose Control date —
Tafuri: That's with [Jimmy] Knepper?
Brown: No, no, that's a different band. That was the band co-led by George and Dannie.
Tafuri: Go ahead. Sorry. Stay on your story.
Brown: So, we came to Milano, and the band is two weeks old. And Alberto Alberti runs up to George and grabs him and is whispering in his ear and all this shit. So, Albert worked out a deal with Palcoscenico, this Italian government record label, to record. We were doing three nights in the (?sp) Shock, which I think is a thousand-seat theater that was pretty full for three nights, and so they recorded and got two albums out of that. All that Funk and More Funk. Are you familiar with these?
Tafuri: I'd love to hear 'em.
Brown: Palcoscenico? But you've heard of that label, right?
Brown: Wow! That's amazing.
Tafuri: [Laughs.] Well, you know...
Brown: But the secret was that the Bonandrinis weren't allowed to know that we were recording live at night when We were supposedly doing our exclusive debut album for them in the studio in the afternoon.
Brown: [Laughs heartily.]
Tafuri: Marrone! And all you are, at this point, is a sideman.
Brown: Aw, a sideman... And basically I was —
Tafuri: How old were you?
Brown: Naw, I wasn't young then. I mean, this was 1979. I was, ah, how old was I in 1979? I was 34.
Tafuri: Still, that's pretty exciting.
Brown: Well, I was very excited to be standing next to Dannie. I mean, I loved Don. I really felt like Pullen was a genius, and to be standing next to Dannie Richmond every night was like the ultimate graduate school, a thrill of a lifetime. What can you say?
Brown: This cat was a complete master of rhythm and concept. I mean, you played a tune with him and, by the time you played it five or six times, it had a completely different sound and shape than it had from the first time you played it. He put his own stamp on it completely.
Tafuri: It came into its own.
Brown: Oh, completely. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
Tafuri: So, how long did you play with that band?
Brown: That band was eight-and-a-half years old when Dannie dropped dead, and we had a full schedule of stuff to do. So, Lewis Nash actually played the last year. The band lasted about nine-and-a-half years —almost ten years. But, the last year, Don and George had completely different philosophies —not musically, so much, but they loved each other musically, though. Don loved George; George was one of the few people who he felt could interpret his music. But on the business side, they were pretty different and couldn't really work out a middle ground. George was kinda 'take anything, don't turn anything down, just keep going,' and Don really wanted to get rid of Wim Wigt, this horrible Dutch agent. He wanted to get a better record company, and Don actually was the contact to Blue Note. But Blue Note at that time was not in good shape, you know, in 1980-whatever-it-was, 1986, 1987. So they're finally breathing this big sigh of relief, like, 'Oh, we're finally on a big record label,' and we come to records to do our tours, and you can't find the records. This is supposed to be the company that's supposed to get the records all over the world. It was horrible, you know. We had probably ten things out on Timeless, Wim Wigt's label, and you could get those.
Tafuri: I have a couple of those.
Brown: But not in the States. We figured, 'Blue Note, oh, great!' I think they probably didn't even have any real distribution in the States. I don't know what the heck they were doing at that time.
Brown: Cuscuna produced the records. [Long pause.]
Tafuri: So, when did you start playing the bass? Were you in elementary school or something like that or high school?
Brown: No, no. You want this story?
Tafuri: Well, I'm just curious, because in chatting with you we kind of went from where your parents are trying to "save" you from New York —
Brown: [Laughs] From the jaws of New York —
Tafuri: From the jaws of New York by sending you to Sweden, man. [Laughs.]
Tafuri: Hallelujah, in another way. [Laughs.] And you were obviously playing over there if you were working with these people we talked about.
Brown: I bought my first bass in Sweden.
Tafuri: You did?
Brown: Yep. I saved up some money. Had about three hundred bucks; I think the first bass cost about two hundred. German plywood bass.
Tafuri: So, you're playing by then? Or you just decided, 'Man, I wanna play the bass!'
Brown: There were a certain moment when I was ten years old that I wanted to play guitar. And my parents weren't pushy but, once an interest was expressed, they were committed to "total quality." So, I remember my dad took me to the solo harpist of the Detroit Symphony (or something like that), who also taught guitar (I guess), and he said, "Play the piano for a year. Learn how to read both clefs. Kinda learn music through the piano; that's the best thing for you to do. It's a good foundation." The piano teacher that this guy sent me to was so wonderful. The first two years were like a complete honeymoon in music. I was just in love with music, and I couldn't do anything wrong, and everything was flowing. It was beautiful. Then I played "Für Elise" on a recital, and suddenly I forgot the left hand. [Sings first two bars —the right hand part —of the piece] and then I thought, "Which note am I supposed to hit first in the bass?' It was a terribly rude awakening, that music could be painful. But for the two years before that, it was like a refuge. So, this guy was wonderful. Then, in junior high school, I went to a pretty big urban junior high school where the guys come around and say, "Who wants to play clarinet, who wants to play trumpet?" So, I raised my hand for clarinet, and the band guy was a really good guy. But at that junior high school was a couple of basses that were in their little rack there.
Brown: I used to eye those basses.
Brown: I was attracted to those basses. What can I tell you? There was something about them; they were curvy. And then, when I got out to Grosse Pointe and I'm in this big suburban high school with a really very good music program with a full concert band and blah blah blah. So, the first year, I'm playing clarinet in the band. Second year, they made me one of the four clarinets in the orchestra. Meanwhile, I was picking up the bass, because they guys were forming a dance band. Somebody had an instrument; it was made out of tin painted brown.
Tafuri: [Laughs.] A tin bass?
Brown: It had a wooden neck and scroll, but the body of the bass was tin. I have recordings of me playing this instrument. I sound great. There's nothing really vibrating there, so you can't make out any pitches, but I was swingin', boy! I was swingin' my ass off!
Tafuri: [Laughs, trying to catch his breath.]
Brown: I sounded just like Paul Chambers, but there were no notes.
Tafuri: That's great!
Brown: And the reason this happened was because the only bass players in the school were girls. You couldn't have a girl in your dance band —not in 1960.
Tafuri: Isn't that interesting? The only bass players were girls.
Tafuri: That's wild.
Brown: So, by the time I was a senior, like the spring semester of my junior year, the band director and the drama teacher actually put on a follies. I think this band director had been like the Harry James of southern Michigan in the late '40s. I have that feeling. This guy wound up running off with one of his students ... and he wasn't young.
Brown: That was later, after I left. It's wild. But he was great, Mr (?sp) Snook, Richard Snook. And he was tall. I can see him sitting up there leading the band. So, I played bass in this follies and then, by my senior year, I was playing clarinet in the band and bass in the orchestra. I guess I had time to take both. And I became first chair in the orchestra. I was completely self-taught, then he taught me.
Tafuri: Wow! You became first-chair bass.
Brown: Yeah. I was okay on clarinet. Clarinet's hard.
Brown: It's an unforgiving instrument. So, I picked up the bass with these guys who were forming this dance band. I was the runt; I was the little sophomore, and they were razzing me and hazing me, driving out to the middle of nowhere and pushing me out and stuff.
Tafuri: [Laughs.] So you really are pretty much self-taught.
Brown: I was self-taught about the first five years. When I was home one summer working in an automobile factory —my father got me a job in an automobile factory —and I —
Tafuri: Go figure, in Detroit, that you'd working in a automobile factory.
Brown: And I was on the "swing shift," so I worked from 2 to 10.
Tafuri: How appropriate.
Brown: So, I was on a real routine. I'd get up at 8:00 in the morning, and I'd practice religiously from 9 'til noon. I studied with a guy from the Detroit Symphony who was really a nice teacher and then, when I came back to New York, I studied with Ron Carter for a couple of years.
Tafuri: Oh, really?
Brown: Yeah. I don't remember exactly when it was. '67, '68. And then I was Dave Holland's first student.
Brown: Somewhere in 1970.
Tafuri: Here [in the New York area].
Brown: Yeah, because when I taught school that first year —'69-70, by the time that school year ended, those kids had kicked my butt. I was a complete wreck —a physical, emotional, psychological wreck. And there was a loft building on 19th Street; Liebman lived on the top floor, Dave Holland on the second floor, and Chick on the bottom floor, and they were playing with Miles. It was pretty exciting. I had actually been in Liebman's first band around '67 or something like that. So, I said, 'Okay, I'm gonna take the summer off,' 'cause I had money from the teaching. You know, everything was cool. I didn't go to the Catskills or go to work in music that summer.
Tafuri: You had to air your brains out.
Brown: I was such a wreck, man, and Dave Holland actually got me involved in macrobiotics, because my nerves were so shot that I literally didn't have an attention span to practice or to play. So, he said, "Eat brown rice for ten days." And it actually worked; I calmed down enough to get focused.
Tafuri: Hmm, wow.
Brown: I was like his guinea pig, so he gave me five-, six-hour lessons.
Tafuri: Wow! So he was still living in the city, then.
Brown: Oh, yeah. He was living on 19th Street. I studied with him, on and off, for many years after that. I would get together with him often.
Tafuri: So, you've played with all kinds of artists all around the world, and you've studied and worked with (I don't know if they're actually "icons," but in the "new music" world with some of the greats) Don Cherry, Don Pullen, George Adams, and Dannie Richmond. Why has it taken you 40 years to make a record under your own name?
Brown: [Laughs heartily.] Well, you know, it's really interesting, Frank. I think I used to really be of the opinion that certain people ought to be leaders and certain people ought to be sidemen.
Brown: And I'm actually no longer —[Someone comes into the room and Cameron asks, "What?" Then the tape stops. When it resumes, there's a woman —probably Cameron's wife, Deborah —begins:] Deborah: I mean, I'm not going to give it from a jazz perspective, okay? I'm going to give it from a spiritual perspective, okay? So, in the kind of education that we do, the Waldorf Curriculum, there's different "temperaments." There's a sanguine personality, a melancholy personality, there's a choleric personality, and there's a phlegmatic personality. Everyone has a combination of these, and it changes at different ages throughout one's life, but different people have different roles that they play. And when I hear Cam' play, what I hear him doing is being the "anchor" for what is happening and being the sound that envelopes everything else, so that when his sound disappears, there's sorta like no "bottom" and no "roundness" to the music. And so he's not the "up-front" person. He's not the sanguine personality. He's not the melody, you know. He's not the violinist. You know, you have the viola, the cello, and the violin. Which one is the sanguine personality? Which one plays the melody? So, I see it as being in that position doesn't necessarily make him the up-front guy, which I think of as people who are creating their own records as that up-front personality that really need an anchor in their lives.
Brown: I mean, that's true. I take a lot of pride in being a good "craftsman," but I think it's more than a craft. To be a good team player, I dunno. I remember when Lewis Nash came to play with George and Don's band. He came and he said, "Okay, the rhythm section functions like this and like this and like this, you know, Don's trying to run the rhythm section, he plays way on top of the beat and buh-buh-bu and buh-buh-buh," and I said, "That's right." So he said, "So, I think I need to play such-and-such and such-and-such," and I said, "Yeah, I think you're right." He had really, you know, "scoped" what he had heard. But when I did this project that we're releasing now, when I put this together —and I had a year to put this together, when I had my idea about Sheila and Dewey and Leon and Dave Ballou came along later —the whole experience of having your own band and realizing your own kind of musical vision was such a wonderful growing experience that now I feel like everybody should try to do it. It's something that, if you've been playing this music for a certain length of time, you do have your own musical vision. Absolutely. And you do have your own fantasies of what you would do with a band, of what it would sound like. And it's just a thrill to realize that. I mean, the gig that I did actually about a year ago at Cornelia Street (this was with Billy and Steve Swell played trombone and Dave and Sheila), when I finished playing this gig, I felt sorta completely fulfilled that I could have died at that moment. They had played my music so nicely and the whole kind of Gestalt of that music was just what I had in my heart, just what I had in mind. And to have that all realized just felt so completely fulfilling, so special.
Tafuri: So, it was time.
Brown: Yeah, it's time. It's also —and what Deborah's saying is correct, then there's another way —where everybody needs to be a leader, everybody needs to step to the front.
Tafuri: Even if for no other reason than to have a better appreciation of what leaders have to go through to lead a band.
Tafuri: I tell some artists, who want to make a record with our label, a similar thing: "You know what you really should do? Make your own record. Put it out there, try to get distribution, sell it, and then come see me in a year or two." Isn't that what Groove Homes or Jimmy Smith supposedly said to a very young Jimmy Smith who showed up saying, "Man, I wanna play the organ," and they told him to go away and practice for a year and then come back?
Brown: Well, Dewey's famous for seeing things in a little bit of a dark way. Dewey said, "So you want to me a musician? So you want to be a bandleader? Good luck. Welcome to the club."
Tafuri: What might be interesting to know is: how did you come about putting this band together? You said at the beginning of the interview that you wanted to have a human voice in the band that could also function as a horn, and there are very few people who are around who can really do that. Sheila is definitely one of those people. How did you come up with the concept for the band?
Brown: Well, this little organization in Belgium asked me to do this project —and it was a pretty big project of three nights of concerts in these three festival venues —and try to get two CDs out of it. That was the assignment. I knew I wanted to do my originals, the few things I had worked on. My first thought was really trying to put Sheila and Dewey together, and my next thought was Don Cherry, who was kind of my big inspiration in life, well, musically anyway.
Tafuri: Because you'd worked with Sheila, and you dug what she did? She was significant to the kind of music you heard for the group? You say to put Sheila and Dewey together...
Brown: Let's start specifically with Sheila, which is precisely what I said: that I wanted the human voice that could play many roles. And then, I'd been playing with Dewey for eight, nine years, and I just thought that they would sound great together.
Tafuri: So that was a little of the bandleader-as-producer, almost, because you had the opportunity to try it and see what would happen. Cool.
Brown: And then as we got closer and closer to the time when this thing was going to happen, Dewey was having a very rough time. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was going through a lot of stuff. He was obviously very frightened, and a lot of stuff was going on for him, and the original idea of having just Dewey and Sheila as the front line I could see was not going to work. And I had met Dave Ballou that summer in Italy. I really love his playing and his whole concept. To me, he was the perfect cat: in many ways reliable. You know, Dewey didn't want to come to rehearsals. There were some tunes he didn't want to learn. It was a little hard. So, Dave was the guy who could sort of help glue stuff together and, I think, in the final version of things, that's exactly what he did.
Tafuri: Did you go into the idea of putting this band together specifically without a chordal instrument, like not having a piano?
Brown: Yes, absolutely.
Tafuri: You wanted to keep it loose or open or —I shouldn't put words in your mouth.
Brown: You know, it's funny. Sheila just did this big article for JazzTimes, and the woman that wrote the piece was interested in hearing that Confirmation record that I made with Sheila in '75. When I played that —and I hadn't listened to it for many years, I realized that how that record seemed to actually kind of come out of Sheila's voice-and-bass concept. And maybe something happened to me at that moment, but just working with Sheila, making that record with Sheila said something about that transparent sound of the voice and the bass. Like with "For All We Know" on the record, it's very slow. You know, it's like there's sort of "nothing there." To me it's sort of...
Tafuri: There's "nothing there," but there's a lot there.
Brown: Right. It's kind of the less-is-more idea. And that transparent sound of the melody —especially in the voice, but even in the horn —and the bass...
Tafuri: Well, I think it leaves a lot of room for the listeners.
Brown: Well, I hope so.
Tafuri: It leaves a lot of room for the listener to fill in the gaps in some —maybe not explicit way, but some —subliminal way.
Brown: Right. I agree.
Tafuri: And then I think that requires a certain amount of sophistication to appreciate the mastery in the simplicity of that's going on there. Well, it's a wonderful project, and it's wonderful that after so many years you've been able to have a band of your own and be able to call the shots a little bit and be the producer and deal with the "issues." It's also great that you have a chance to have people hear some of your own music —
Brown: yeah, thank you —
Tafuri: Which I don't think we've heard too much of it in the past. So, you do a couple of your own tunes on each volume. We have on this first volume "Rylie's Bounce."
Brown: This tune came to me when I was kind of thinking about Miles a little bit and how Miles uses those little chromatic runs. That was my first thought. I don't know how the heck I wrote it. And then, as we were working with Sheila, she said, "Well, sure, I could scat the stuff, but it'd be fun to have some words." The lyrics came to me out of my sleep early in the morning, and it's around I think it's Jackie McLean's first record on Blue Note that was very little touted for some reason —it's called New Soil —
Tafuri: Oh, yeah, I love that record.
Brown: It's a fantastic record. Walter Davis Jr. Donald Byrd plays like a god on this record. Pete LaRoca and Paul Chambers.
Tafuri: It's a great record.
Brown: And it's purported that Pete LaRoca's solo on this record was the first modern, out-of-tempo, not-in-tempo drum solo that any drummer ever took —you know, blah blah blah. But there's a very funky tune on this record called "Greasy."
Tafuri: Yeah, I love it!
Brown: By Walter Davis. And the kids used to love —it starts out with a boogie woogie piano thing [sings the line] —and Rylie, when he was a little kid, liked to bounce around to this tune. And that's what the lyrics are about. The first chorus is about his birth, and the second chorus is about —
Tafuri: She sings about "Jackie Mac" —
Brown: Yeah, Walter Davis, Jackie Mac.
Tafuri: But it's your lyric.
Brown: It's my lyric. [Laughs.]
Tafuri: So, not only do we get to hear your music, we get to hear your lyrics inspired by "Miss Spontaneous Lyrics" herself.
Brown: Well, I wasn't thinking about Sheila when I wrote this.
Tafuri: No, no, no. I'm just saying that she suggested that maybe it'd be cool if the tune had lyrics.
Brown: Oh, yeah. Absolutely, absolutely.
Tafuri: If not at least inspiration, she at least ... assigned you the task, just like the tasking of putting the band together. "Your job is to write lyrics for it."
Brown: And then the ballad "For Dad and Dannie" took me ten years to write. Dannie Richmond passed away on March 16th of '88, and my dad passed away on August 16th of '88. They were definitely two very significant male figures in my life. So I wrote this tune, and I didn't like it and I didn't like it, and I would come back to it every few months and work on it, put it down, and it took me a long time. And I'm actually very happy with the final version. And I was still rewriting it up until a couple months before the record date. And Dewey plays so beautifully on this track. It's funny because, when we played it live in New York about a month before this recording, he didn't have a clue. I don't think he'd looked at it before, and it's a little tricky. He played a very abstract solo that night. [Laughs.] Completely abstract, as far as I could tell. [Laughs.]
Tafuri: Well, musically I can hear why, but I'm just curious that, when you look at the title and you know that this was for two very different influences in your life, how did it get paired up with "What Reason Could I Give," the Ornette tune? Was it just a purely musical kind of decision, or was there...?
Tafuri: I'm not trying to make anything out of this.
Brown: I mean, I can tell you exactly what went into those decisions. I'm not sure you'll want to put it into your liner notes, but "What Reason Could I Give," Cherry always played that before he played "Art Deco."
Brown: But we decided that we really wanted to open the record with "Art Deco." We didn't want to open the record with this two-and-a-half minutes of me playing "What Reason Could I Give." And I decided that it would sound good in front of "For Dad and Dannie."
Tafuri: Oh, cool. So, it was a musical decision.
Brown: It was a musical decision. I liked what I had done on the Ornette tune and I wanted to include it somehow. It's not really a medley; it's just sort of "intercut"; it just goes straight into it.
Tafuri: That's very hip. And as far as the selections on the recording, I know that Sheila had a relationship with Don.
Brown: Oh, absolutely! They loved each other. I'll never forget, I had Don and Sheila and Don's wife Muki over for dinner in Brooklyn at some point in the '80s, and they did a couple of these "jazz operas" together ... with George Gruntz, I think, in Germany. And Don had actually asked Sheila to write lyrics to "Art Deco," which she hadn't done when he was still alive, but she did...
Tafuri: So, it wasn't so hard to come up with the repertoire for this band once you and Sheila were together. You knew there was probably going to be some Don Cherry things and Don Pullen things.
Brown: Well, the Pullen tune is just my favorite tune. It's such a brilliant tune that it was like the featured tune for the first two or three years of the band's existence. We would close the first set with this tune and, invariably, it would take about 45 minutes to play this tune.
Tafuri: [Laughs heartily.]
Brown: I mean, before we even started the melody, ten or fifteen minutes could elapse.
Tafuri: Oh. I know when I put the Critics' Picks Sampler together for Soul Note and the Vanguard recording was picked as one of the all-time top ten of the critics, it was really hard to include it, because all the tracks on it are so long ... and I didn't want to edit anything, I didn't want to fade anything. I forget now off the top of my head which track I picked, but most of the motivation for it was that it was the shortest track, or we couldn't have gotten everything we'd wanted on it. So, we make those kinds of decisions. You also do this, ah, "lullaby," or it's called "Lullaby," anyway, for George, Don, and Dannie.
Brown: Well, that's going to be on the second volume.
Tafuri: Well, we're still talking.
Brown: Well, that's, that's... That was... You know, I was fairly dismained that all these guys passed away before any of them made it to 55. (I'm not even sure anyone made it to 54.)
Brown: Oh, yeah.
Tafuri: Even Dannie?
Brown: Even Dannie. Dannie was born in 1935. He was very young when got the gig with Mingus. He was 21 or 22, I guess, 1956, '55. He was 20 or something. You know, it was just... And I had lived with these guys for almost ten years four or five months a year. I mean, this was a real working band. So I knew 'em pretty will. I mean, you get to know people pretty well. And just how hard they lived and some of the things they did, just... [Gets a little choked up.] So, when I wrote the lyrics to this tune, which also came to me in my sleep —this very simple A section that's so simple, it's a little diatonic melody —then I was trying to figure out the bridge. I wrote this tune originally when George died, so I was thinking about George, who lived across the street from me in Brooklyn. So, I was trying to figure out a bridge for this tune, and I thought about a sequence of chords George liked to use in some of his tunes. So, I picked out this eight-bar sequence of chords that was similar to some of the changes he would use on some of his originals, then the melody came to me almost right away, very fast once I had the chords. And then, the lyrics, were about just how much those guys meant to me. And then, the lyrics on the bridge were really trying to figure out how hard their young lives must have been to create both such beautiful, incredible, intense music and shorten their lives. I'll let those lyrics stand for and by themselves, but that's what I was thinking about when I wrote the bridge to that song ... just that there must have been some fairly terrifying things going on.
Tafuri: And still they were able to get up and make the kind of music that they did.
Brown: Oh, man.
Tafuri: The contributions that they made.
Brown: And I think that's also a beautiful medley with Sheila's tune that's also on the same subject, "The Mourning Song."
Tafuri: Well, that's her Indian roots that she was trying to get in touch with. I heard her, when she did the duo concert with you at Cornelia Street, talk about it in her introduction to it. I think it's significant. I guess, I want to ask you one more question.
Tafuri: Why is the "Hear and Now"?
Brown: Well, very specifically, we're trying to listen, and we're trying to be present. To me, that's what music is about. I guess that's what I'm striving for.
Tafuri: And we have it here in it's most live sense on these recordings.
Brown: The older I get and considering how the music has developed in the "Age of Marsalis" or whatever (or, in this moment, the "Age of Marsalis/Crouch" —
Tafuri: —/Ken Burns —
Brown: Yeah, there you go. I just find myself more and more, especially when I get into workshop situations. In one of the first workshops I ever did, I got to my bass master class and somehow spent a half an hour trying to describe what it felt like to sit in front of Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, what that rhythm section felt like, what was going on there. That level of focus and intensity, that level of playing, you don't find much today. So, in whatever small way I can, I try to carry on the tradition of that concept. To work with somebody like Sheila who literally goes back to Bird, it just has a tremendous meaning for me: that we're trying, in some living way, to preserve the feeling of this music. I guess jazz is always going to change and is going to go through "lulls" and "peaks" and all this "stuff." Sure. "I come from the generation just after that very intense generation of the late '50s, early '60s. That spirit is what I want to bring to the people.
Tafuri: That's what we're trying to do to with the label.
Tafuri: And I would rather put some music out —and I was just talking to Tom Varner about this the other day. We were playing a little role reversal the other day in the studio when we were mixing. Tom tends to be so obsessive and picky and 'every little bit' and I'm like, "Man, I would rather have something out there —'warts and all' —that's real, that's down, that you get the energy, that you get the color, that everything is cookin', man, and just leave it out there, because you don't get enough of that today.
Tafuri: People get so much sugar-coated stuff or diluted stuff that's filtered and strained and all this shit, man, and that's what I love about the Black Saint/Soul Note records —the good ones. Man, okay, so the sound isn't so good on some of them, and maybe the mix isn't so great. You listen to those two records of the Quartet that Kazunori recorded, the sound is pretty crappy, actually.
Brown: It was a very difficult band to record live at the Village Vanguard. It was almost impossible.
Tafuri: Of course, but what I'm saying is that, despite the fidelity of the recording, the music is amazing. I'm so glad it got captured, man. The energy and all that stuff you were just talking about really comes through, so I agree with you. I think that there's just too much "sugar-coating" and too much "whatever," and there's not enough stuff like the Soul Note recordings. People aren't willing to take chances.