When I was in my early college years, aged about 19 or 20 in early 1990s New York, every once in a while I used to love visiting some of the legendary jazz clubs in Greenwhich Village near NYU, where I was going to school and living in a dorm on 10th and Broadway. A couple of times I went with friends to see Branford Marsalis at the Village Vanguard, where practically all of the greats have played from Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. When a friend visited from Oregon, we went to Sweet Basil, another great Village club, and saw the minor-legend of a trumpet player, Art Farmer. (My jazz guide lists one of his albums in their top 25 of all-time.) I also once turned down the chance to get a table at the Blue Note club to see Dizzy Gillespie the reservation cost $35 - plus a two-drink minimum ant tip! It haunts me to this day.
It was with those experiences in mind that I recently visited Jimmy Mak's jazz club in Portland to see Mel Brown and his trio play. Brown plays at Jimmy Mak's three nights a week, and has so for many years. He is a legend of the surprisingly accomplished and vibrant Portland jazz scene that he's been a part of for over forty years. And earlier in his career, he was a drummer for several Motown Records acts, as described on the Jazz at Newport website:
...later down the road it would be Redd Fox who, after hearing Mel’s drumming, made a call to Martha Reeves. Weeks later Mel would find himself at Whiskey a Go-Go in Los Angeles playing for Martha and the Vandellas. This you could say was his entree into the Motown family. Eventually, Brown was the staff drummer for Motown Music Corporation, working with the Temptations and Supremes. For ten years Mel Brown was the drummer for an impressive list of celebrities including Diana Ross, Suzanne Somers, Hal Linden, Connie Francis, Pat Boone, Smoky Robinson, Stevie Wonder..... the list of musicians Mel has worked with is unbelievable!
What finally prompted me to go see Mel Brown play was an assignment for the small regional senior newspaper that I take a handful of portraits for each month. It's my only regular photography gig; the rest is writing. But it's a fun little diversion each month. In the case of the Mel Brown assignment, it was more than a diversion. I'd meant to go see one of his different ensembles (he also has a quartet and a septet) long before now. It shouldn't have taken me a paying gig to go see Brown or another group play jazz. I was reminded of that as soon as the set started. However, having the chance to photograph the Mel Brown Trio playing live in a semi-official capacity was an extra treat; I was very aware of the long tradition of great jazz photography by Robert Gottlieb and many others. (Paul and Rosie also once gave me a terrific book of jazz photos.) Not that I consider my picture-snapping of jazz or anything else to be at that level, of couse. I just don't cut people's heads off like my mom.
I had actually come to the club the night before, when Brown was scheduled to play but wound up canceling, due to last-minute tax problems (it was April 14) according to the gentleman taking admission at the front door. When Brown took the stage the following night to the applause of a nearly full audience of jazz fans and Greek food patrons, he told about receiving a call at 10PM the night before tax day that there was some kind of problem with his taxes. He didn't elaborate, but I imagined some relative, maybe a nephew or a son in law, telling him he forgot to do Mel's taxes like he'd promised several months earlier. Talking on a hand-held microphone to the audience from behind his drum set before the music began, Brown said, "You might notice me taking a few extra drum solos tonight." How funny to think of all the tortuous emotions jazz greats have wrestled with over the years with drugs, race, etc. And this guy is fuming because he didn't go to H&R Block.
I can't say there was anything extraordinary about Mel's playing versus other jazz drummers I've heard. I'm also no expert. But in the brief time I spent talking to him before the set, he was warm and friendly. He wound up dedicating the set to a former student who came up to visit while I was supposed to be taking Mel's portrait - none of those shots came out; the closest thing is the funny he look he's making in one of the photos above.
I also enjoyed hearing Mel's trio immensely. As someone who doesn't go out to hear live music very much at all (and when I do it's usually classical), I was reminded of the unmistakable difference you hear in real instruments. Mel's trio had a little bit of amplification to augment things, I believe, but the drums, piano and bass all could be heard plain as day without them. I enjoyed the soft touch that Mel had with the drums, with a fluid but subtly very sharp sense of timing and beat. It's no wonder Mel's apparently known particularly for his brushwork, which requires more of a feathery touch.
As I was walking out of the club the night before, I ran into saxophonist Warren Rand, with whom I used to work in the kitchen at Nick's Italian Cafe in McMinnvile, for several months in late-1995, early 1996 right after I graduated from college. Warren used to play at Nick's a lot; he lived in McMinnville back then and commuted up to Portland for gigs. I remember him always improving with his saxophone late at night after closing if somebody else took a turn at the piano alongside Warren. He also made a wonderful album of songs composed by Tad Dameron. I also remember Warren loaning me his VHS copy of Roger and Me, but I guess that's less to the point. Which is that I feel bad thinking of all the year's I've spent living in Portland and never going to see Warren or Mel Brown play. I'm more of a home stereo and i-Pod person by nature. But I'm going to make a point of going back to Mak's. If I don't, Dizzy Gillespie will come after me in my dreams.