Though it's not a commonly known fact, Knoxville is actually a hotbed of jazz activity. The University of Tennessee boasts one of the first collegiate jazz programs in the country, a program that has thrived for at least 20 years.
Among UT's cadre of jazz instructors is pianist extraordinaire Donald Brown. Unbeknownst to many, Brown is a seasoned professional with a rich history of playing with some of the leading lights of jazz. Though he may not be a household name hereabouts, Brown is highly respected in the jazz world. He is especially revered in Europe, where he tours yearly.
Along with numerous recordings in groups led by other, more famous band leaders, Brown has also released a handful of his own albums. His most recent effort, Enchante, (Space Time Records) finds Brown in top form, playing what he describes as a "post bebop" style.
It's truly amazing that a musician of such high caliber would be playing with regularity in small clubs in Knoxville, usually in front of meager but appreciative crowds.
A part of UT's jazz department for 11 years now, Brown says that the chance to get in on square one of Knoxville's emerging jazz program was his impetus to relocate from his position at the Berklee School of Music. "I really came here because of the teaching job," he says. "My wife and I are both from Memphis, so we're nearer home here than we were in Boston.
"There's starting to be more and more universities with jazz programs. But Jerry Coker, the guy who started the program here, he's actually one of the pioneers of jazz education. There's a lot of history here with this program. It just seemed like a good opportunity to come to Knoxville."
Brown has experienced something of a metamorphosis in his career, with all of the elements of his experience contributing to his current sound. In the last 20 years, he has played with a litany of jazz greats too long to mention. (For a more complete picture of his auspicious career, visit http://www. bluegeo.com/dbrown.htm)
"Actually, I play more with other people's groups than I do with my own," says Brown. "In a way it's good, but I think nowadays I'd like to be performing with my own band more. I get to play with my own group two or three weeks out of the year, usually in Europe.
"The other day I was talking to one of my students and he asked me what was the most exciting thing I'd done in my career," says Brown. "And it was definitely playing with Art Blakey.
"The first time I played with Art Blakey's band was in 1981. I always considered that my first really big professional job. Wynton Marsalis was in that lineup of the band. We got to travel around the world and we recorded three albums with that group. One of the albums, Keystone III, (recorded at San Francisco's Keystone Club) was nominated for a Grammy.
"I mean, playing with Art was the closest I'll probably ever get to playing with the direct source of the music. You know, you think about playing with Monk and Bird and Dizzy and Bud Powell... Of course I'll never get to play with those people. But, through playing with Art, it kept me in touch with those people and gave me a direct connection."
Clearly, Brown's experience with other musicians placed him in the higher echelons of the jazz world. He has also worked extensively with Freddie Hubbard and has produced three albums by Kenny Garrett, a player he met while they both were in Blakey's employ.
As to his own music, Brown says that all of the facets of his collective experience come into play. "Being from Memphis, I worked with a lot of the musicians that worked on Stax Records," says Brown. "I actually had the chance to work with people like Al Greene and Rufus Thomas, so a lot of my roots are actually in rhythm 'n' blues music and that still comes through in what I'm playing today.
"Personally, I think my music has something of a bebop base and is mainly influenced by contemporary jazz of the 1960s," he says. "But subconsciously, the blues element still comes through, even when I'm trying not to sound like that."
Brown says that the evolution of jazz may have slowed since the peak, pioneering days of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, but that the style continues to flourish. "I think the music is kind of in transition again," he says, "and people are waiting to see what the new thing is that's going to come along—who's gonna be the next new artist to really bring about major change in the music.
"I think it's possible for jazz to become more popular, but the powers that be in the recording industry are not ready to do that just yet. I think it's a fact that jazz is an art form, and art forms are never usually that popular."
By performing and teaching, Brown is helping to spur the continuing progress of jazz. Many students in Brown's tutelage have gone on to high flying careers, including renowned young pianist, Cyrus Chestnut. Asked whether he prefers teaching or performing, Brown is reluctant to choose a favorite.
"You know, I get a lot out of both. I think I'd say that I enjoy performing more because you can touch so many people's lives that way.
"On the other hand, teaching is a lot like parenting. It's like getting a chance to help cultivate someone's mind and expand it musically. And, like being a parent, the big reward is that you kind of send that kid off into the real world. I've probably had my biggest rewards by recommending my students for their first real jobs, and for them to go on and get record deals from there.
"Now I'm having some success with some of my students here at UT that have gone on to win jazz piano competitions and start their own careers. So those are the kinds of things you want to boast about—kind of like being the parent of a kid who goes out and does something that's great. That makes you feel good and feel like that's what life is about."