Tom Brown Biosketch
President, Jazz Audience Advocates
During my early years of studying jazz, from 1955 through 1962, there were only a very few loosely organized jazz studies programs at a collage level. In lieu of those programs that weren’t particularly popular with jazz musicians at the time, I practiced with albums and enjoyed exciting live performances of artists who lived in, and toured through, Detroit. And while I did play in clubs and at private jazz functions, I spent most of my time rehearsing with jazz groups in basements. In addition, I acquired knowledge of the music through hours of discussion with my peers, mentors and elders.
Detroit was a vibrant and open city in those early days, easily on a par with Chicago. It was one of the best jazz cities in the world boasting an astonishing list of jazz greats and close to 13 jazz clubs. During that time, I was fortunate enough to be able to play all styles of jazz. New Orleans and Chicago style jazz still served as party and dance music in certain singles bars and I played a number of them. I was fortunate for the opportunity to play swing, bop and Latin jazz with a variety of groups as well. I played free jazz at coffee houses with Don Preston, an innovative jazz piano player who went on to design and play electronic keyboards with the group, The Mothers Of Invention. And yes, the coffee houses of the late fifties were overrun with bad poets and, even worse for me, hordes of amateur percussionists.
As an example of my early love for drums, I have fond memories of hitch hiking to downtown Detroit at age 15 and sneaking into the Gayety burlesque. I was under age but the guy in the ticket booth would take a quick look up and down the street, grab my money, and quickly nod me toward the entrance.
The mid fifties Gayety shows were the very end of racy vaudeville - old time raucous and raunchy live theater entertainment. Fittingly, the audiences were equally loud and rowdy and, in a way, participatory. The strippers played bit parts in blue humor skits with a character named Scurvy, who was a scoundrel/comedian with baggy clown pants, suspenders, oversized shoes, and a large cane. Early on I discovered a few folding chairs next to the top edge of the orchestra pit.
There was a great old drummer, probably in his early seventies, playing in the pit with the band that backed up the strippers and occasionally some of the movies. His drum kit looked like it was from the twenties with a monstrously large bass drum, a funky old snare drum with gut snares, 2 small crash cymbals suspended from above, and a large set of wood temple blocks. The band played swing jazz standards and he accompanied in the style of Zutty Singleton, one of my favorite jazz drummers from the twenties and thirties. After the first few trips to the theater, I stopped watching the girls on stage and turned my attention to the drummer. I was intrigued with his ability to maintain such great time and a consistent feel while precisely kicking the occasionally out-of-time bump and grind on stage. It was obvious I was already hooked on the music.
In 1962, marriage and graduate school put somewhat of a damper on my early morning club and bar gigs. Realizing the difficulties associated with making a living playing jazz, I earned a PhD in physiology, worked in university-associated medical research laboratories during the day, and continued to play a few gigs in the evenings. Over the years I have played and recorded with most of the best musicians in the Detroit area in addition to several internationally known players. However, I have also played my share of what I refer to as industrial music; weddings, bar mitzvahs, country club membership parties, and bad shows, many with horrible musicians playing horrible music. So my experience ranges from the main stage jazz feature group to the sludge of music trenches.
Here’s an important point that relates to this “how-to-listen-to-jazz” site. Jazz drummers are listeners. Their primary role during jazz solos is supportive. Their goal is to inspire the soloists to play as well as they can. In order to accomplish this, a drummer must understand the process of improvisational soloing and develop ears for it. But generally, drummers learn to listen not from technical analysis of the chords, as do the soloists playing pitch instruments, but rather from the way the soloists’ ideas intertwine with the sound of the chords. It’s really a listener’s approach as opposed to a music theory approach. It’s likely that most of you aren’t interested in becoming musicians, but you may want to add some depth to your jazz listening skills. The platform of this instructional site, a listener’s approach to jazz, should work well to that end. This web site, including these essays, is designed as a mechanism for sharing this knowledge with you.
Copyright © 2013
Thomas R. Brown
All rights reserved.
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