In Japan, an artist or performer who is making a contribution to society that no one else could possibly make is given the title of "National Treasure." Along with the title comes an honorary stipend and some heavyweight status. Such artists don't have to wait in lines at restaurants or hold their own umbrellas anymore. If Knoxville ever decided to recognize its own living treasures, Donald Brown would be near the top of the list.
By day, for most of the year, Brown is an associate professor of music at the University of Tennessee. By night, just about every day of the week, you'll find him on a local stage playing the unique brand of jazz that has earned a him an international reputation as a composer and performer.
"I can't really distinguish between the rewards I find in playing and those I find in teaching," Brown says modestly. "They're two different ways I can make a contribution. Teaching is a lot like parenting. You give what you can to the students and share what you know. Over a period of time you see each student develop musically. They may go on to perform or they may go on to teach themselves.
"By performing, I give something directly to my audience. You can tell when they enjoy it, when what I play makes a difference. Those comments and compliments are very nice, but so is seeing a student make progress."
Brown grew up in Memphis, steeped in the musical traditions of that Mississippi River city. He saw the late, great jazz/blues pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. many times as a young man. He played bass and keyboards in the legendary studio bands at the Stax and Hi records studios. After graduating from Memphis State University in the early ’70s, Brown went to Boston to teach at the Berklee School of Music for five years before moving here.
You’d expect such a resume to give an artist an ego that wouldn’t fit through the door. The fact is, you can barely get the man to talk about himself. He’ll never tell you he’s got a shelf of killer jazz sides out on the Muse and Sunnyside labels. After Brown informs you that he heard Newborn as a lad, he doesn’t throw in the fact that earlier this year he played with the Contemporary Keyboard Ensemble on a stunning Newborn tribute, released on the esoteric DIW label (their Knoxville concert was called “Five for Phineas”).
“I loved playing that old R&B in Memphis,” Brown says. “And I miss playing it, but not as much as I miss hearing it. That was some great music to hear and have on the radio.
“For this Jazz and Blues Festival, I’ll be doing a little bit of both. I’ll be playing piano with Jerry Coker on the opening day. For my set, they asked me to put together a blues band. I can do that.”
What he says is true. The driving force behind the right hand melody in blues piano is the rock-solid rhythm that comes from the left hand. Not a problem for Brown; on the nights when there’s no bass player at Lucille’s, he plays the bass line on one keyboard with his left hand and covers the piano with only his right.
The fact that Brown has played nearly every kind of music and can play just about any instrument (he started with drums, worked his way through the brass and reed families, and finally settled down with bass and keyboards) shows whenever he sits down at the piano with a pen in hand. His compositions “Affaire D’Amour” and “Reruns of the Sixties,” featured on the recent local release by Bill Scarlett, Jazz from the University of Tennessee, are nothing short of homegrown beauty.
Brown also plays on the disc, and escorts UT’s other classroom hotshots through the gamut of all that jazz has to offer. His writing and playing embraces the unbridled freedom of fusion, the stately structure of bebop and the fun and unpredictability of improvisation. His two cuts on the disc sound right at home nestled among works by other composers ranging from Coltrane to Wayne Shorter.
Brown says Knoxville makes a great base for someone with his career and schedule.
“I’ll be going up to New York in a few days,” Brown says. “I’m producing an album up there for Kenny Garrett. After the Jazz and Blues Festival, the Contemporary Keyboard Ensemble has a date in Atlanta. Then I’ll be going to Europe, playing for Tom Harrell on 12 dates we’ve got over there.”
The delay in making the title official notwithstanding, Brown is a Knoxville treasure. If you didn’t know that for the price of a cocktail at the Regas bar, for pocket change down at Lucille’s, or for free at the upcoming Jazz and Blues Festival, you can see and hear a pianist whose concerts folks in Manhattan and Paris pull strings to snag tickets to—get hip, y’all.