Marion Brown, 1931-2010

Marion Brown Septet
Fontana : 1966

MB, alto saxophone; Grachan Moncur III, trombone; Alan Shorter, flugelhorn; Bennie Maupin, tenor; Dave Burrell,  piano; Reggie Johnson, bass; Beaver Harris, drums.

Marion Brown + Gunter Hampel
Calig-Verlag : 1968

MB, alto; Gunter Hampel, vibes; Ambrose Jackson, trumpet; Buschi Niebergall, bass; Steve McCall, bass.

Marion Brown
In Sommerhausen
Calig-Verlag : 1969

MB, alto; Jeanne Lee, vocals, percussion; Gunter Hampel, vibes, bass clarinet, percussion; Ambrose Jackson, trumpet, percussion; Daniel Laloux, bass, percussion; Steve McCall, drums, percussion.

Marion Brown
Disco Mate : 1976

DANCED: MB, alto x 2.  PEPI: MB, alto; Ambrose Jackson, trumpet; Billy Patterson, guitar, electric bass; René Arlain, guitar; Fred Hopkins, bass; Juuma Santos, percussion; Ed Blackwell, percussion; Chris Henderson, drums.

Marion Brown & Mal Waldron
Songs of Love and Regret
Free Lance : 1985

MB, alto.

While the passing of any great jazz musician saddens us, the death of Marion Brown hits especially hard. There was such a palpable warmth and intelligence to his composing and playing that you couldn’t help but feel like you knew something of the personality behind the horn.

His playing was never showy, insisting on shadings and subtleties. He had a rare ability to ground abstract ideas in earthy tones, and vice versa. His compositions were often full of ellipses and evasions – not to outsmart the listener but to invite you to listen more closely. Above all else, Marion Brown’s music insisted on communicating. It wanted to forge deep connections.

Maybe that’s why his music created so many passionate fans beyond the world of avant jazz. He inspired tributes from such far-flung artists as minimalist composer Harold Budd, electronica act Savath & Salavas, and indie rockers Superchunk (see “Song for Marion Brown” off Indoor Living). His Name Is Alive even created an entire album in his honor – Sweet Earth Flower: A Tribute to Marion Brown.

Because much of his catalog has languished out of print, the range of Marion Brown’s music has never been fully acknowledged. He’s best known as a key second-wave free jazz musician, entering the scene with a splash in the mid ’60s by performing on John Coltrane’s legendary Ascension and releasing two exceptional albums on ESP Records. But that was only a small part of the story. Brown was also adept at Euro style free improv, ethno-jazz explorations, funk and groove tunes, computer music collisions, ambient tone poems, and traditional ballads.

Our small tribute to him is necessarily incomplete, but we’ve tried to represent some of the many sides of his deeply adventurous and deeply rooted music. It spans the fertile periods of the ’60s and ’70s and ventures into the ’80s, before a variety of illnesses hampered his ability to regularly record and perform.

We’re not featuring anything from his most famous work, but recommend you seek out copies of ESP’s Marion Brown Quartet and Why Not?, his Impulse debut Three For Shepp (itself  a play on Archie Shepp’s own tribue Four for Trane), and the remarkable trilogy exploring his Georgia roots comprised of Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, Geechee Recollections, and Sweet Earth Flying.

Instead, we’ve selected tunes from obscure albums that may have flown under the radar of even hardcore fans. It’s telling that the music from these records is no less vital than the better known material. The quality control on Brown projects was insanely high. Give them a few spins – with each listen the beauty of his music resonates more profoundly.


–“Iditus” is an ace version of an Alan Shorter composition. This mysterioso track features a ridiculously fine band, who each step out for exceptional solos while maintaining the song’s delicately dark and shimmering atmosphere.

–“Gesprachsfetzen” starts out subdued before erupting into a fire music blow-out. Even within the ecstatic squall, there’s an almost mathematical precision to the overlapping solos. This expansive 15-minute track highlights Brown’s compositional prowess, his unusual sense of movement and drama, and the many textures and emotions he could pack into a single piece.

–“The Sound of A Song” is an achingly lovely ballad from largely the same band as above. The trance-like percussion patterns and understated melodies are simultaneously straight-ahead and strange. This could almost be an updated Strayhorn tune. Dig how Jeanne Lee’s wordless vocals float over the rest of the tune.

–“And Then They Danced” features the rare audio spectacle of Marion Brown dueting with himself. It’s reminiscent of Brian Eno’s dictum that the studio should be used as a compositional tool. Melancholy and fiery, both Browns hold up their end marvelously. (There is another fine duo performance of this tune worth seeking out, featuring Brown with Leo Smith, most recently on Porto Novo.)

–“Pepi’s Tempo” shows off another side of Brown’s music. It’s a barn-burning funk tune that demonstrates his interest in hard rhythms and kozmigroov textures. Guaranteed to help you get down. Note the inclusion of Billy Patterson who later played with James “Blood” Ulmer.

–“Hurry Sundown” is a solo performance of an old chestnut by Clarence Williams that featured prominently in Brown’s solo repertoire. This particular version is taken from the mid ’80s, a period that found Brown investing more energy in exploring the jazz tradition. It’s a confidently melodic, unhurried, and beautifully plainspoken rendition. This track was requested by Ethan Iverson (via email) and we’re curious if it lives up to his memories of it.

On a personal note: Several years ago when we did a post on Marion Brown’s Geechee Recollections, a kind reader posted a startling comment. He informed us Marion Brown was currently living in a retirement home in Florida, supplied the phone number, and said that Brown liked to hear from fans. We were thrilled and planned to call him to express our admiration and get some behind-the-scenes stories about the making of his albums.

But we never did it. It seemed a little awkward, there was never a good time — the lame excuses piled up and calcified. It will always be one of the bitter disappointments of this site that we never reached out to Marion Brown, if only to say thank you and nothing else. The jazz musicians who’ve created the music we celebrated on this site have received so little financial and critical validation for the remarkable art they’ve birthed. Gratitude is the least we owe them.

One last tribute to Brown. Karl-Michael Schneider runs the essential Marion Brown discography site. It’s such a huge undertaking and clear labor of love that we wondered if he had been motivated by any personal connection with Brown. Here’s what he had to say:

I never met Marion Brown, but I have many of his records. I first heard about him on a German radio station and the music made such a strong impression on me that I had to find out more, but at that time there wasn’t much information available online. That’s when I started the Marion Brown discography. A couple of years ago I met Rashied Ali at a concert in Amsterdam, and I asked him about Marion Brown, but he couldn’t tell me much about his whereabouts. Rashied recommended to buy his [Marion’s] records and listen to them. I think this is a good way to appreciate Marion Brown’s music.

Some great remembrances have appeared on-line; here are some of the finest we’ve noticed:

> Lars Gotrich, @ NPR’s A Blog Supreme
> Clifford Allen, @ his own blog, Ni Kantu
> Bob Flaherty, @ the  Daily Hampshire Gazette
> Warn Defever, @ Metro Times Detroit
> Peter Hum, @ the Ottawa Citizen
> Hank Shteamer, @ his blog, DFSWP
> Peter Keepnews, somewhat scantly, @ NYT
> …and the Washington Post supplies a rare track, via youtube clip.

Special thanks to George Scala for his invaluable help in putting this post together and for supplying us with many of these tunes.

Category Marion Brown, tributes Tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,