From his early days playing R&B on the chitlin circuit to his stint as a sideman for the late, great drummer and bandleader Art Blakey, to his solo work and his time as a jazz professor at the University of Tennessee, Donald Brown has forged a career as one of the most distinguished pianist-composers and educators in the jazz world today. On the brink of this year’s jazz festival, Metro Pulse sits down with the city’s foremost jazzman—also a festival organizer—and listens to tracks from select albums across the spectrum of his discography. The man they call “Silk” rewards us with reminiscences about walking with giants, the life of the touring musician, the art of the album cover, and even a memory or two about his friendship with the late Eric Walker, aka Samarai Celestial, the star-crossed Sun Ra Arkestra drummer who for many years called Knoxville home.
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
Keystone 3 (Concord Jazz, 1982)
That record is important to me because it was my first actual recording doing a jazz record. I had recorded with different R&B artists coming up in Memphis, but that was my first professional jazz recording I had ever done. It reminds me of the excitement that was taking place in my life: I was traveling around the world for the first time, in a band with Wynton and Branford Marsalis. And you never knew who was going to show up at an Art Blakey gig, from Sting to [jazz vibraphonist] Roy Ayers. It seemed like Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead showed up one of those nights.
One night around that same time, the singer Joe Williams showed up; he had played with the Count Basie band. He came in and sat in with us. That was an interesting night because he called a standard, I don’t remember what song. But the bass player didn’t know the song well, and he was kind of messing the tune up. But I guess when you have the wrong bass note, it can sound like the piano player is playing the wrong chord. So Joe kept turning around and telling me to lay out because he thought I wasn’t playing the right chords. And Art kept telling me, “Silk! Play!” Then Joe Williams would say, “Piano player, lay out!” And he was getting pissed at me. And I laid out again. And Art would say “Silk, play!”
When we took a break Art took me aside and said, “Silk, why didn’t you play?” I said, “Well, Joe Williams told me to lay out.” And he said, “F--k that! This is my band, I told you to play!” And I said, “But Art, I didn’t know what to do.” And he said, “Shut the f--k up! Obviously you didn’t know shit or you wouldn’t be out here.” It was one of those awkward moments where I felt like I was being jumped on from both directions. It was somewhat embarrassing.
The Nearness of You (Blue Note Records, 1991)
What’s interesting about this record, it doesn’t bring back a lot of good memories. Dianne, I’d worked with her, and she was one of my biggest boosters and fans and was always raving about how much she loved working with me. She asked me to produce this record and I feel like I let her down in some ways, ’cause I really didn’t play well. It was a really weird thing ’cause it was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio where a lot of the Blue Note records were recorded. It was probably the most famous studio in jazz. But I heard so many horror stories about recording there, how Rudy wouldn’t let you play the piano to warm up. But I didn’t believe it until I got there. I went over and got on the electric piano and I had my headphones on and I hear someone saying “Donald!” And it scared me. “Donald, would you please not play the piano.” And I thought, man, this cat’s tripping. He didn’t want to take a chance with the acoustic piano getting out of tune, but this is electric. I found later from some of the other people, like [guitarist] Kevin Eubanks. He told me, “Man, don’t feel bad. I’ve been recording here for years, and he’s just an asshole.” I’d heard bad stories about how he was a control freak, runs the studio like your mother with the living room. She’s got plastic on stuff and she doesn’t want to get it dirty. But it’s probably the most famous studio in jazz, so he feels like if you come up here for his sound, you put up with his crap.
“Capetown Ambush,” from Sources of Inspiration (Muse Records, 1990)
This is one of my favorite tunes, period, and this is probably one of the top three or four records I’ve done. It’s called Sources of Inspiration and has pictures of my wife and kids, but it was kind of a political statement, as you can see. It kind of reflected where I was.
Basically the title came from me watching a news sound bite once, and they were talking about how some blacks had attacked a white suburb, and some kids were killed. And I saw this man on television crying, “They’re savages!” and so on. And I was thinking, you don’t ever want to see that happen. But then I was thinking that same guy, it probably didn’t bother him when he saw the black kids murdered in Soweto and different places. So why call them savages? I thought there were so many scenarios where blacks were attacked by whites in their villages, and everything destroyed. And so I thought, “What would it be like if the blacks didn’t wait to be attacked and took the fight to the whites?” So the music captures a certain suspense, the planning the attack and then waiting for the moment of the actual attack, and the bridge represents the actual confrontation. I feel like I captured the picture I created in my head. I play it all around the world, and after I explained what it was about to an audience in Memphis, a young white couple came up, in their late teens and they were married, they came up and told me it was their favorite piece of the concert. It’s been recorded two or three times by other artists, including Thelonious Monk’s son Toots.
People Music (Muse Records, 1991)
Having Samarai playing drums was one of the high points of the record, because he was going through a hard time in his life, and we’d been playing together a lot. So it was kind of my way of reaching out to him. We had this world-class drummer here, but because he was playing with Sun Ra a lot of people didn’t know how great a drummer he was. I felt like maybe they thought he could just play avant-garde stuff. So I felt like, well, on a record like this he’d get a lot more exposure, which he did.
One thing I remember about that period—and it was fun cause we were getting to play outside Knoxville—was that Samarai booked this gig in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and he asked me to do it and I said I’d do it. This was classic Samarai, the kind of mess that he would get into that would really get on your nerves. I take him, we do the record, he gets the gig in Raleigh. He tells me it’s his gig, and I tell the people that since I’m traveling a lot, I want them to fly me. And so he was going to drive there. So the morning I’m supposed to fly off, he says, “Hey, look man, can you rent a car for me?” And what it was, he didn’t even have a driver’s license. He waited until the last minute and he wanted me to rent a car and drive. So I had to give up my plane ticket to drive there. We drive there, and right as we get there to campus, I start to see these posters that say “Donald Brown, blah-blah-blah.” I said, “Samarai, what is this?” He said, “Man, for me to get the gig I had to put it in your name.” I said, “Samarai, man, this ain’t cool. People going to be coming here to hear my group. This ain’t my group. This is something you put together.” I said, “Man, don’t you ever do this shit no more.” I was so mad at him I didn’t know what to do.
But the record itself went great, and had a lot of my favorite people. I had such a great feeling just knowing Samarai was on there and he was going to get some exposure. And he played his butt off. That record, I love it for that reason.
Piano Short Stories (Space Time Records, 1995)
My manager was pushing me to do a solo piano record. I don’t think I was really anxious to do it, but after I did I was glad he pushed me into doing it. It was probably something I needed to do. It turned out good, we did it in just a couple nights after concerts. One of the concerts was in a piano factory, and he just had the engineer set up to record the concert, and after the concert he just kept the tapes rolling, started playing and we just went with what came out.
I had written so many pieces dedicated to other people, and it’s not often you hear something that you think is you. I felt like this piece represents me, at least one side of me, and probably some of the things that have always stuck out about my music, like my harmonic concept, or my rhythmic sense from having been a drummer in the beginning. A lot of musicians, drummers and bass players, like playing with me because of the rhythmic thing. But I think I’ve heard from a lot of musicians that I have a way of making things sound pretty, but still provocative at times, with an edge to them.
To me, I think my personality is a lot like my father’s—a somewhat timid person, somewhat passive, in some ways, and I think that this piece kind of captures that mood and element that people who know me well, they can say that sounds like Donald.
Donald Brown and the Bush Messengers
At This Point In My Life (Space Time Records, 2001)
Donald Brown Trio
Autumn in New York (Space Time Records, 2003)
These two records were made within four days of one another. A good friend of mine who had put up money for some of my records, he told me, “Donald, if you did a record of standards for me, you can do a record of whatever you want to do.”
But what gets me about both these records are the covers. My manager, I love him to death, but he’s from Paris, and his idea of a good album cover, I don’t like at all. You look at the Messengers cover, and you can see why we argue about covers. Man, I almost thought I was going to have a heart attack, literally, when the CD came to my house in a box. This cover picture was from an airport in Paris. There was a solar eclipse, and they were giving people these special glasses to wear. And he told me to put them on, that he just wanted to take a picture of me wearing the glasses. And then he started hinting at using this picture for a cover. I said, “Man, if you use that as a cover, I ain’t never going to speak to you.” I was that upset. And he ended up putting it on there anyway. My wife will tell you, I don’t think I talked to him for months, I was that pissed, ’cause this is a messed-up cover.
He always tried to justify it, saying, “French people like pastels.” I said, “I live in America.” And I think the more we argued about it the more determined he was to use it.
But the records are good. The Bush Messengers is one of my favorite records. The music turned out how I wanted it to be. It was recorded in Paris and it really shows the contrast of what I can do musically, from standards to my own thing.
Fast Forward to the Past (Space Time Records, 2008)
I love it. It’s one of my favorite records, because again, it’s kind of an all-star band, not only some of my favorite musicians but some of my favorite people. And to have my son Kenny [a drummer] on it was just heaven. To get this record completed was a really big deal, because I was having a lot of pain in my shoulders. We started recording the record, and then the pain got to the point where I told my producer, “I can’t go any further. We’ve just got to stop.” I felt like I’d let myself down and the musicians, too. We didn’t finish the record. I went and got shoulder surgery, had to heal, and then six or eight months later we recorded the record again. And then there’s one of those freak things that only happens once every hundred years. We recorded the record, but the engineer somehow lost all of the masters, they got erased. So I like to have had a heart attack. I said, “Man, it took all this long to get the record done, the record’s done, then it gets erased.” So then we had to go back to record it again. And to get everyone’s schedules to gel, it took almost two years to get done. But the music turned out, I thought, really great for me. And my playing, I can live with it, considering I was coming off some surgeries and I didn’t really know what to expect.