Jazz Professional               



Jazz is catching hell


Talking to Mike Aldred in 1963

Oscar Brown Jr. is that rare artist, the multi-talented entertainer. He not only composes very hip songs but performs them as well, making even the faintly absurd sound convincing. He is at home with a lyric, whether it be a swinging dedication to “Hazel’s Hips” or a plaintive elegy to a “Plain Black Boy”. Not surprising that he regards himself primarily as an actor. However, it is through recordings—both his own and those of established singers like Mahalia Jackson and Mel Torme that his name has become known in Europe. He is also host of Steve Allen’s Jazz Scene USA TV programme that is now screened in various parts of the world.

He is overwhelmingly confident without being conceited. Undoubtedly this zestful self–assurance enabled him to survive the colossal flop of his first musical, Kicks And Co., a $400,000 production. Instead of forcing him into obscurity, it redoubled his efforts as a singer. His reputation as a nightclub entertainer has since steadily grown. He has worked at the Crescendo in L.A. with Jonah Jones, at New York’s Village Gate with Dizzy G. and scored heavy successes in most of the top clubs throughout America.

Yet Oscar Brown is an enigma. As a singer he offers nothing technically astounding. Yet he has been acclaimed by journalists like Nat Hentoff and Dorothy Killgallen, by jazzmen like Max Roach and Cannonball Adderley and tagged as “exceptional”, “authentically hip”, “genius” and “a startling genius”.

When I talked to him he was in the middle of rehearsals for Wham! Bam! Thank You Ma’m, a revue which opens later this month and which has a big band on stage directed by Tony Kinsey and which stars Annie Ross, at whose suggestion Brown was cast for the male lead.

He is a friendly man—but frank and down–to–earth. He does not regard himself a jazz singer. “I’m a singer who sings jazz songs, but I hate being categorised and this is something you should not do in music—categorise it. I sing a good deal of jazz and I sing a good deal of what you would call folky. But you couldn’t say I’m a folk singer. I’m just a singer.

Jazz is such a complex thing and people have so many ideas of what it is and what it isn’t. Kenton, to some people, is jazz. To others, it’s the Firehouse Five Plus Two. I have never understood Ornette Coleman, and I don’t feel what he is trying to say in his playing. But who is to say that he isn’t adding anything to jazz or even that it isn’t jazz? “I started singing through writing. I’ve always been interested in performing. In fact I was about fifteen when I made my debut as an actor in a little theatre in Chicago and then I was doing things for the local radio and I was singing all the time. I think writing is very important. I used to write mainly for other people. Abbey Lincoln recorded a song of mine called Strong Man on an album for Riverside about 1957. This was terrific encouragement at that point. Then Max Roach and I composed a suite. It never really came to anything. I don’t think it was ever finished, but his Freedom Now has something of mine in it.

“He’s just done a thing called Parisian Sketches which is just beautiful you know. He did a record some time ago with a jazz chorus out of sight; that was beautiful too. I think he is a very talented composer—to say nothing of his ability as a playing musician. You could say that he influenced me to stay with it and not give up as a writer.

“Actually, Abbey recorded more of my songs and Mahalia Jackson had done Brown Baby. That is by no means jazz. Much of what is considered jazz is really jazz treatments of ordinary tunes—show tunes written by composers who couldn’t swing if you hung ‘em.

“As a composer myself, I’m not so much interested in social commentaries as in slices of life. There’s no deep sociological meaning to Hazel’s Hips for example—but it does have a life meaning. With other songs I’ve written, like Sam’s Life, I do try to focus on social—or human—problems.

“That second album I did, Between Heaven And Hell—that has a mixture of songs, some of which I did for Kicks and others which I just wrote. They are all swinging messages. Everything about life has some message. I perform material that has something unique for me, and I’ve tended to sing my own songs because I can identify myself with them. I’ve found that they communicate with audiences.”

Some areas in the country are fortunate enough to be able to view Jazz Scene USA, about which there has been nothing but praise. I asked Oscar why it should get such a limited presentation and why, indeed, jazz should be a limited culture.

First he enthused about working with some of the best jazzmen in the world and expressed gratitude for the wonderful experience. Then he commented: “Jazz is catching hell in the United States and a lot of it has to do with the places in which it is presented. It used lo be a come-on for whisky. Some of those places were not exactly conducive to jazz, but they were to booze. Today in some of the clubs it’s not all that different.

“The musicians are partly to blame. Some play for themselves as if there were no audience. They play their own expressions, not reaching an audience—and certainly not playing for them. Miles Davis may look as though he’s playing for himself, but he’s one of the most successful audience-appeal jazz musicians that I know.

“I think jazz is going to have to be ‘sold’ more to the public. It’s going to have to find different stages, find the legitimate theatre, find television. We’re going to have to incorporate more of the dance in jazz if it is going to appeal to a wider public. This can be done, I think, without detracting from its basic essentials—sentiment, expression.

“The days of King Oliver are over. The jazz of the brothels is dead—just as Shakespeare is dead. No one is speaking in basically Shakespearian language today. Earlier forms have given way to newer forms and jazz must go right on with it. Composers must score larger works; there must be jazz oratorios and jazz operas and jazz cantatas.

"Working with Annie is great—so professional in everything she does. I think she is one of the finest jazz singers in the world. But this isn’t a jazz Musical. It’s a revue with jazz as one of the ingredients.

“Because of sheer economics, there are many good out-of-work musicians. There are absolutely no means by which a young up-and-coming musician can season himself.

Union scales are so high that clubs iust cannot afford untried musicians. Free jam sessions are now prohibited by Union regulations and so there are no gigs in which young musicians can try out their talent.

“Some of the worst get through because they have stamina or because they are better politicians with the agencies and record companies. It’s not always musical talent there at the top.

“A country like the United States should feel a responsibility for developing the few unique cultural contributions it has made to the world. Why should a show like Jazz Scene USA be able to find exposure in Stockholm and not in Chicago ? “There is no help from public or private foundations to promote jazz. The State Department does initiate these odd exchanges, admittedly—but there are no funds devoted to the development of our own musical heritage. “This is partly due to racial prejudice. The fact that the main exponents of jazz are Negroes has tended to confine jazz to the saloons.”

Copyright © 1963 Mike Aldred. All Rights Reserved.