Courtesy of Marion Brown
Photo by Nicolas Perrier
CHAT WITH MARION BROWN
recent years, I had heard that Marion Brown was ill. Such vague details
were of grave concern since I had first experienced his virtuoso playing
on John Coltrane's wicked Ascension opus. It was only a matter of time
before Three for Shepp was in my collection and then came Porto Nova,
Reed 'n Vibes, and Live in Japan. Through Roadshow friend, Gunter Hampel,
I learned of Brown's trials and they are many in number. Brown has undergone
brain surgery, eye surgery, has had all of his teeth extracted, and a
portion of his leg has been amputated and he has had to learn to walk
with a prosthetic. For such a gentle soul, it is too much for me to bear.
From an undisclosed nursing home in New York, we spoke of his life, his
love, his music, as always, unedited and in his own words.
JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
BROWN: It was because of my mother. My mother liked music and I loved
her a lot and she brought me to the attention of music and it stuck, so
I started taking lessons. The saxophone was my first instrument because
of Charlie Parker. When I heard him, it was the greatest saxophonist I
had ever heard before. He decimated me. I liked his technique and his
ideas. He had stupendous technique and brilliant ideas. That showed me
that he's a very intelligent man.
You attended both Clark College and Howard University, an impressive amount
of education, which at the time was unheard of for a black man.
BROWN: Yeah, right, Fred. And then I played in the army band for three
years. It was very good experience. That's how I got my chops and learned
to be able to rely on myself. I played the alto, the clarinet and the
What prompted the move to New York?
BROWN: My mother wanted a better life for herself and a better life for
me, so she came to New York to find it.
Sounds like she was a single mother.
BROWN: Yes, she was. My mother was my total inspiration. Everything I
did, I did it for her.
How did you get involved with the Sixties free jazz whirlwind?
BROWN: After I left Howard University and came to New York City and met
Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman. I met Archie Shepp in 1962. He lived
in a building where I had a friend live, Leroy Jones. And one time I was
visiting Leroy Jones and on the way downstairs, I heard Archie Shepp in
his studio practicing, so I went in. I had a soprano recorder in my pocket
and I played some soprano sonatas for Archie and he liked my playing so
well, he offered me the opportunity to play with him. But I didn't have
a saxophone, so Ornette Coleman let me use his white plastic saxophone
to get started.
Nice of Ornette to come through and the infamous white plastic saxophone
BROWN: Well, I met Ornette through WBAI FM. I did some jazz programs on
there substituting for A.B. Spellman and Ornette heard me and he liked
what I did and he wanted to meet me.
At the time, Ornette was creating quite a firestorm in New York. What
was your impression of Ornette?
BROWN: Ornette Coleman is the same as Charlie Parker, but he did it a
different, the opposite way. Charlie Parker did everything that he did
based on knowing harmony and chords. Ornette Coleman did everything he
did based on knowing how to reach inside of himself and create music intuitively.
Whose approach did you find more appealing?
BROWN: I found Ornette more appealing. I thought it was better to play
what you felt naturally than to have a lot of systems based on chords
Being without a saxophone initially, when were you able to purchase your
BROWN: As soon as I started working with Archie, I earned enough money
to buy my own, so I gave Ornette his horn back.
You performed on John Coltrane's Ascension. How did you find yourself
on the session?
BROWN: Well, I met Coltrane through Archie Shepp. Archie told him about
my music and he started to listen to it and he liked it. And then, several
times, he would come to hear me play and he liked that. So when he decided
to do Ascension, I fit the picture of somebody that he wanted in it. Coltrane
was a very brilliant man and a beautiful person. He was one of a kind.
His sound and technique, those things he used to play called "sheets
of sound," that and his feeling of a love for God. His spirituality
became the most important part of his music because he was thankful to
God for all the things that God had given him to make him who he was.
During much of the Sixties, American musicians were seeking sanctuary
and employment in Europe. You were one of them.
BROWN: The climate was good as far as people liking the music, but it
was impossible to make enough money to meet the cost of living. The climate
was the same in Europe. People liked music and it was possible to get
enough gigs to survive.
You recorded two sessions for the ESP label, Marion Brown Quartet and
Why Not?, how did you end up recording for the now defunct label?
BROWN: I found out where their office was and I started going by there
and talking to them. So they basically became interested in seeing what
I had and when he heard me, he liked me and so he gave me an opportunity
to record. As a matter of fact, Fred, that very first album that I made
for ESP is being reissued next month.
Compared to the ESP dates, Three for Shepp, and Porto Nova, Afternoon
of a Georgia Faun set in motion the inclusion of African rhythms and motifs
in your music.
BROWN: It is the performance of it because African music has as performers,
not only the performers, but the audience and listeners as well.
An example of that would be the Art Ensemble.
BROWN: Yes. I did that with Leo Smith. He stayed in Connecticut when I
was up there teaching. He needed a place to stay and I had a house, so
I let him stay with me. We became friends and musical partners back then.
I was teaching in elementary schools. I was teaching children how to make
instruments and create their own music.
FJ: What were some instruments you developed?
BROWN: I made mostly percussion instruments and I made some flutes from
bamboo. I played them with Leo Smith and for ECM on Afternoon of a Georgia
Let's touch on your collaboration with Gunter Hampel, whom you worked
with for almost twenty-five years.
BROWN: I met him the first time in Belgium, Liege. We became friends and
worked together and as a matter of fact, him and I played here at this
place last month.
As educated as you are, music is one of many options you could have taken,
BROWN: No regrets and I still don't because I'm a very well known musician
and I met a lot of people. As a matter of fact, Fred, last year, I met
Sonny Rollins, who is one of the most beautiful people that I've met in
my whole life. Not only is he a musical genius, but he's a human genius.
I would love to record with him.
Your health has been a concern, how are you holding up?
BROWN: I'm fine now, but for the last six years, I've been through some
serious health problems. I had brain surgery. I had laser eye surgery,
all of my teeth removed, and the last thing was that my left foot was
amputated, so I have to walk now with a prosthetics. It has been a challenge.
That is what they taught me to do at this place.
How long of a period passed before you were able to comfortably walk?
BROWN: Twelve weeks. It puts life in a perspective, but the perspective
is more beautiful before these things happened because I've learned to
appreciate God more.
Any memories stand out?
BROWN: Philly Joe Jones. He was an incredible drummer and a very incredible
person. It was the night that I recorded with him first. I went into the
studio and he was setting up his drums. So I walked over to him and said,
"Hey, Joe, how you doing?" And he said, "Fine, Marion."
I said, "What are you going to do for me tonight?" And then
he smiled and said, "I'm going to fry your little ass." (Laughing)
And he did. Yes, he did because the man could play four, five rhythms
all at the same time, different ones and have them all clicking on the
one. I played better than I had ever played before because he spun a carpet
under me. All I had to do was ride it.
And the future?
BROWN: I recorded last year with a singer and that's about it. There is
a new record out in Germany that I'm on.
Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and is sponsored by IKEA. Email