Mel Brown sits down at his kit and adjusts his cymbals. He hits one with a drumstick — ting ta-ting ting. It rings brightly, clearly, with resonance. Next he picks up a couple wire brushes and makes stirring strokes across the snare — whoosh shhh-whoosh. It’s smooth, sensual and a little spicy. He proceeds to play a few swinging measures and then hits a cymbal again, which makes a soft crash. He chuckles to himself. It’s clear he likes what he hears.
On this crisp Wednesday evening, the crowd trickles into Jimmy Mak’s in Portland, a long-standing jazz venue rated among the best in the world by DownBeat Magazine. It’s about half an hour until showtime and it takes Brown, a lifelong Oregonian, just minutes to warm up for his set. He’s been doing this music thing for a little while now.
With a career stretching back to the mid-’60s, Brown stands out as the patriarch of the city’s homegrown jazz scene and remains one of the most prolific, if underappreciated, drummers of the 20th century. At 72 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Today he leads a grand total of five bands — including his trio, quartet, septet and a B-3 organ group — and plays every Friday night at Salty’s on the Columbia. He’s also an unwavering presence at local festivals, such as the Portland Jazz Festival (February) and the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival (July).
Despite this outstanding musical output, Brown doesn’t easily settle into a routine. “Every night is just unpredictable,” he laughs. “That’s the best way to describe it. That’s the way we used to do things in Motown — everything just keeps moving.”
For each gig, he riffs on a slightly different style, showing off the skills he’s gained after decades of performing alongside the most iconic names in soul and rhythm and blues — the Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, just to name a few.
In 1967 Martha Reeves, of Martha and the Vandellas, gave Brown his first break. He was working in Vancouver, B.C., when Reeves hired him to join her band. This eventually led to a contract with Motown Records. He began touring live in support of the label’s top talent and recording on a number of hit albums. He’d spend the next two decades as one of the most sought-after drummers in popular music.
“Some things have been really, really good,” he grins nostalgically, running through some of the highlights of his decades-long career: touring with Diana Ross, performing at the White House with the Temptations, hanging out with the Beatles and recording on George Harrison’s hit single “My Sweet Lord.”
But even with his star-studded résumé, Brown never achieved much fame for himself. That’s largely due to the fact that he’s not credited on the album notes of many of his recordings.
As a sideman for Motown Records, his label maintained an infamous policy of not printing the names of band members — so competing record companies couldn’t poach the talent. This was the topic of the 2002 documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” which examined the little-known career of studio band the Funk Brothers. Still, Brown — and other sidemen like himself — has hardly received the recognition he deserves, at least not outside of his hometown in Portland, where he’s still the most visible and celebrated figure in the jazz scene.
It’s due to his sense of guardianship and community that jazz remains a force in Oregon’s varied and independent musical landscape. He works tirelessly to educate and inspire younger jazz talent, and he hosts the Mel Brown Jazz Camp each summer at Western Oregon University’s campus in Monmouth. And even as popular tastes have shifted away from the traditional styles he grew up playing, he’s seen how jazz continues to influence and permeate other genres, spawning crossover hits like Pink Martini and Grammy Award winner Esperanza Spalding, who gained notoriety in 2011 by besting Justin Bieber to win Best New Artist.
“The jazz scene here has certainly evolved. The people I grew up playing with, half of them are dead; they’re just gone,” he says, his voice wistfully cracking. “So you’ve got the new generation coming up, and they’ve got their own sound. But they’re also going back to see where the music came from — and they’re moving jazz forward.”
To see Brown perform tonight, one thing is immediately clear: Jazz isn’t just his passion. It’s his calling, his life work, a source of joy and wonder. It’s what motivated him to start a band with his peers at Washington High School, which has since been converted into a live-music venue, Revolution Hall. And it’s what keeps him playing day after day, week after week.
“I’m just doing something I like to do,” he says. “To me drums are everything because they’re the heartbeat that keeps things really flowing.”
After an impassioned hour-long performance of original compositions and a few classics, the band takes an intermission. Brown steps off stage and gets a glass of orange juice — he never drinks and plays at the same time. While standing by the bar and taking slow sips, people come up and tell him how much they’re enjoying his set. He graciously smiles and repeatedly thanks them. For him, this is what the music is really about.
“I’m able to beat on the drums, express myself and put smiles on people’s faces — there’s nothing I’d rather do,” he says. “I call it anger management, and I get paid for it.”
Experience Portland jazz: In addition to the major annual festivals mentioned above, a number of smaller events occur throughout the year. Plus, nearly two dozen venues regularly host jazz shows. No matter the night of the week, there’s probably live music playing somewhere. Check the PDX Jazz and Jazz Society of Oregon’s calendars for complete listings. Also, tune in to Oregon Public Broadcasting’s KMHD, one of the oldest listener-supported jazz stations in the United States.
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