Saturday’s Northampton Jazz Festival, in addition to presenting headliners Matt Wilson, Sheryl Bailey, and Gary Smulyan, will honor the memory of Marion Brown, the late jazz artist who called Northampton home for a couple of decades. Governor Deval Patrick issued a proclamation today naming September 15 Marion Brown Day, and urging “all citizens of the Commonwealth to take cognizance of this event and participate fully in its observance.” The proclamation will be presented to the alto saxophonist’s son Djinji Brown at the festival on Saturday afternoon.
Governor Patrick is the son of Pat Patrick, the baritone saxophonist who spent most of his career working with Sun Ra; Marion played with Sun Ra’s Arkestra too. Northampton attorney Joe Defazio had the initial thought of doing something to recognize Marion at this year’s festival and that led him to Rick Jeffery, a former Northampton resident who was a close friend of Brown’s. Back in the day, Jeffery produced recordings for Brown’s Sweet Earth Records label and established the Pines Theater Jazz Festival at Look Park, which in 1981 included an appearance by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with a 19-year-old Wynton Marsalis on trumpet.
Now an attorney on the North Shore, Jeffery told me this week that he met the governor at a Boston Celtics game last winter and spoke with him about the connection between his father and Marion. The previous year, Governor Patrick had donated his father’s archive of music and memorabilia to the Berklee College of Music, an event that occasioned this touching story on All Things Considered. The governor obviously understands the importance of recognizing the legacies that jazz artists leave to the communities where they’ve made their home. During his years in the Valley, Brown was a stellar example of a living legend who honored his local friends and neighbors with his courtesy and care, and by contributing to the local arts scene with his music and painting, teaching and mentoring.
A few weeks ago, when Jeffery was contacted by Defazio, he dashed off a proposal to the State House in which he described Marion as having been a “roving ambassador,” and “a catalyst for the explosive growth of the jazz community,” in the Pioneer Valley 35 years ago. Within a week, he got a reply in the affirmative from Governor Patrick, and on Saturday the entire Commonwealth will experience an extra measure of soul through the well-deserved honor it’s conferring on Marion Brown.
When Brown died nearly two years ago, I wrote a memorial tribute to him for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Here it is in a slightly revised edition.
The Bittersweet Sound of Marion Brown
Marion Brown was a trailblazer. A sojourner from the segregated South, he was among the original group to be designated “New England Living Treasures” by the New England Arts Biennial in 1985. Brown was a prominent figure in the vanguard of black artists and intellectuals who forged bold new directions in music, theater, education and politics a half-century ago. He recognized his generation as one that would “bring much more pride to black people.” While figures like Brown tended to effect change at the margins of society, the impact of these efforts can be felt all the way to the White House today.
Closer to home, Brown made an indelible impression on those who knew him as a neighbor and friend in the Valley. The alto saxophonist and former Northampton resident died on October 18, 2010 at age 79 in Hollywood, Florida.
I feel honored to have known Marion Brown. Years before I began hosting Jazz a la Mode on WFCR, he encouraged my interest in jazz and African-American culture and engaged me to speak on jazz history at music programs he presented at area colleges. As a next-door neighbor, he dined at my kitchen table many times, always requesting chicken cacciatore. I offered to prepare other dishes, but he’d say, “Tom, don’t mess with it. That’s your signature.” Then he’d liken it to one of the patented solos that Ellingtonians like Barney Bigard and Tricky Sam Nanton repeatedly played on Duke’s creations. Later, he was a guest on Jazz a la Mode, and on one occasion played an in-studio concert during the show.
I have lots of memories of Marion, both light-hearted and poignant, to go along with his recordings and some of his artwork. Brown toured Europe numerous times beginning in 1967 and found a devoted following there and later in Japan. In 1981, in the wake of extensive dental surgery that prevented him from playing his horn for awhile, he began drawing churches in a sketch book, the first being the Cathedral San Antonio in Padua, Italy. Facility and style came simultaneously to Marion, and he soon began painting watercolors. I have two that depict a lively, forward-thrusting jazz ensemble in action.
Brown was both scholar and artist. His essay, “The Negro in the Fine Arts,” was published in the 1966 edition of The American Negro Reference Book, and he was a denizen of Northampton’s Forbes Library. In a 1990 profile, he told the Gazette that most of his formal study of art took place in the stacks of the library’s Arts and Music department.
Like the griot of West African village life, Marion was a keen and witty observer of all he surveyed. To borrow a phrase from Alfred Kazin, he was a walker in the city, and upon meeting he would invariably tell me about some colorful character or ironic situation he’d encountered on his early morning perambulations. His unique brand of storytelling, which combined down home poetics with uptown urbanity, made him something of a postmodern bluesman.
I remember listening to a stack of records with him one day, and when Muddy Waters sang, “I’m just a country boy, and I’ll always treat you wrong,” Marion cracked up and said, “Yeah Tom, that’s a bluesman all right.” (To this day, I can readily recall Marion’s distinctive Georgia accent and the way he would address me as “Tome.”) Regarding the merits of the world music genre, he’d say, “B.B. King will always be my Ravi Shankar.”
In the 1970s, Marion recorded a trilogy of albums, Geechee Recollections, Afternoon of a Georgia Faun and November Cotton Flower, that were inspired by Jean Toomer’s celebrated 1923 novel of Southern black life, Cane. Toomer’s prose and poetry seemed a perfect complement to the bittersweet lyricism of Marion’s alto saxophone playing.
Marion was born in Atlanta on Sept. 8, 1931; he was fond of associating himself with a pantheon that he dubbed “the Virgo saxophonists:” Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Charlie Parker and Lester Young. He admired something “princely and aloof” in the alto players Parker, Johnny Hodges and Earl Bostic for the way they subverted the secondary status that society held them in as black jazzmen. On the other hand, his poem “Paul Desmond” extolled the saxophonist and “Take Five” composer for not trying to “imitate” black people.
Country blues was in his bones, spirituals too. In his memoir, Recollections, published in 1984, he recalled growing up in Collier’s Alley near the campuses of Morehouse and Spelman colleges and attending Flipper Temple, A.M.E. Church. His mother was a nurse; his maternal grandfather a mojo man who concocted potions and told fortunes; his paternal grandfather a prosperous carpenter whose lands included apple orchards.
Like many religious families of that era, Marion’s was wary of music outside the church, but his mother, who had friends in dance bands, gave him an alto saxophone when he was in junior high school. After service in the Army, Marion returned to Atlanta to attend Clark College, where he studied with the legendary Chick Webb reedman Wayman Carver. In 1960, intrigued by the legal aspects of the civil rights movement, he enrolled in a pre-law program at Howard University. He later described this unsatisfying venture as an “intermission” in his artistic odyssey.
Marion moved to New York during a period of intense foment in the jazz world and there began his long association with the avant-garde. Ornette Coleman loaned him an alto saxophone, and in 1965 he made his recording debut with Archie Shepp on Fire Music. That same year he appeared on John Coltrane’s Ascension, a recording so emblematic of the sonic force of free jazz that Marion said, “You could use that record to heat up an apartment on a cold winter day.” He acted in Leroi Jones’s (Amiri Baraka) play “The Dutchman,” and of his time with the autocratic Sun Ra, he said, “You played your instrument, and he played you.”
Brown eventually returned to school and earned a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University. He was a gifted, patient teacher. Robert Palmer acknowledged him as such in his book, Deep Blues.
But while he served in adjunct or artist-in-residence capacities at Bowdoin and Amherst and Brandeis, a tenured gig proved elusive. Brown was a man for whom one naturally wished a more substantial measure of income and security. I found him to be a compelling example of the kind of artist who adds such value to the life of a community that he ought to be compensated for his mere presence; conversely, he ended up a case study of one whose neglect is rationalized by society’s tendency toward measuring everything by commercial standards.
Commerce was of little interest to Marion, who described the artist’s role as fostering “the expansion of consciousness. Our approaches vary, but essentially we are after the same thing: widening the individual’s outlook.” Brown often impressed me both with his equanimity and his openness to all kinds of musical expression. Around 1983, he and Karl Rausch played the music of Eric Satie in a series of two-guitar concerts.
But it was his jazz artistry that resonates. Jordi Herold, the founding proprietor of the Iron Horse, which in its early days served breakfast and lunch as well as nightly music, recalls how Marion would come by for morning coffee and caution Jordi to “add an ice cube so I don’t burn my lips.” In addition to his performances at the club, Jordi credits Marion with encouraging him to book Ahmed Abdullah, Sirone, Billy Bang, Andrew Cyrille, and Archie Shepp. When Herold questioned how much interest there would be in a concert of classical guitar music by Marion, Brown countered, “People come to see me, not the saxophone.”
Brown’s weekly appearances at the now-defunct Sheehan’s Café, where he often played with pianist Art Matthews, are also legendary among area jazz fans, and he was a mentor to emerging players like drummer Claire Arenius, guitarist Jay Messer and pianist Tom McClung. Messer and McClung recorded with his quintet in 1992 for Venus Records of Japan; these were among Marion’s last recordings, and are well worth seeking out. The cover of Offering is illustrated with one of his watercolors.
My most poignant memory of Marion involves time I spent with him when he was living in Paris in 1991. My sister Paula was living there too and I took her by his place for a visit on a Sunday afternoon. He lived in a poor neighborhood. His spirits were down, and gigs were few and far between. Like all too many impoverished jazzmen, Marion had lived beyond his usefulness to promoters, but there was still rent to pay.
On the day after our visit, my sister and I entered the Virgin Records store on the Champs-Elysees, and as we rode the escalator to the second floor jazz department, there gradually appeared a life-sized promotional poster of Marion’s recently reissued Impulse Records classic, Three for Shepp. My sister was shocked to see this grand visual display of the very man whose humble quarters we’d visited the day before. I could only shrug my shoulders and mutter something about the cruelty of the music business.
More bad luck and bad health befell Marion. He suffered a stroke, then lost a foot to gangrene in a mishap that occurred in a convalescent home in the Bronx. Young musicians from the New York jazz community who paid visits to Marion as a form of service to one of their own often reported on how enlivening this unassuming, sweet-souled man was to his fellow residents. Eventually he and his son Djinji moved to Florida, where some of Marion’s relatives lived. He was reportedly happy to be back home.
Here’s Marion with Tom McClung, Jay Messer, bassist Mike Marcus and drummer Chris Dailey playing John Coltrane’s “After the Rain.”