J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Mr. Kicks, Oscar Brown, Jr.

Oscar Brown, Jr. once ran for a seat in the Illinois State legislature as Communist, running on Henry Wallace’s ticket. The next year he ran for Congress as a Republican. Don’t get excited, this was no Whitaker Chambers-like apostasy from the God That Failed. More like an illustration of how sad the local GOP was at that time.

Brown’s politics essentially never changed throughout his life, although he was purged from the Communist Party for reasons that he never divulged. Yet as a jazz-inspired vocalist, his wit and flair for drama forgive many politically extreme positions and incendiary rhetoric, at least for me personally. (Conversely an over-rated cabaret singer like Streisand shouldn’t even sing, just shut up).

The 2006 Harlem Film Festival at Aaron Davis Hall screened Music is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown, Jr. a new documentary on Brown’s life yesterday, and I hope it will eventually find wider distribution. Filmmaker donnie l. betts (no caps) does capture Brown’s humor and dramatic flair. There is much in the film that will be of interest to casual fans of Oscar Brown, Jr. and jazz in general.

In one interview Brown relates a case of political correctness that has resonance in today’s climate. For his 1962 Between Heaven and Hell album Brown set the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “Plain Black Boy” to music, with her approval. Columbia was so impressed with the standout track, they released it as a single. However, they withdrew the 45 from the marketplace when they NAACP protested that “Black Boy” was a derogatory term, much to the surprise of Brown and Brooks.

Brown’s “Elegy (Plain Black Boy)” was one of his finest recordings. I actually heard him perform it live at Vartan’s, a Denver jazz club which has since joined Slugs, Fat Tuesday’s, and all the other great jazz clubs in the sky. It was a knockout performance in person, and definitely turned me onto Brown’s music. Filmmaker betts was also at that Vartan’s set with his cameras, and you can see the power of Brown’s performance in the film, if you can find it on the film festival circuit.