Black History is American History – February 27
Oscar Brown Jr. (1926 – 2005)
Oscar Cicero Brown Jr. was born on October 10, 1926, in Chicago, Illinois. His father, Oscar Sr., was a lawyer and real estate agent and his mother, Helen Clark Brown, taught school. Though African Americans were legally, socially, and economically second-class citizens throughout most of the country, Brown and his sister Helen enjoyed a comfortable middle-class upbringing. “I really enjoyed growing up in Chicago, you could say I was fat, dumb and happy,” Brown told Black World Today. “I wasn’t aware of a lot of the problems.” However, Brown soon learned about activism by example. His father was a leader of the Chicago branch of the NAACP and both of his parents were active church-goers, committed to giving back to their community.
At the age of 15, Brown got his first taste of show business when he landed a role on the national radio series, Secret City. During his early education, Brown had been an excellent student. For the next few years Brown bounced from Wisconsin to the University of Michigan to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. With the exception of English, Brown was a failure in college. “I never got out of my college freshman year,” Brown told Global Black News. “However, I was turned on to writing.”
After returning to Chicago in 1947, Brown landed a broadcasting job with Chicago’s first African-American radio news show, Negro News Front. It brought him face-to-face with the current events affecting the black community. “[That] sort of pivoted me,” Brown told Black World Today, “it changed me around and made me not only an actor but also an activist.” He became involved with the Civil Rights Congress, a movement led by Chicago activist Will Patterson that openly accused the U.S. government of genocide against black peoples. Brown also joined the Communist Party.
At the age of 21, Brown decided to go into politics. He joined the Progressive Party and ran for Illinois State representative. Although defeated, he ran again in 1952 in the Republican Primary for Congressman of the 1st District which he also lost. As Brown became more politically active, his on-air commentaries became increasingly radical. By 1953 the white station owners had had enough and Negro News Front was cancelled. By the mid-1950s the Communist Party had also had enough. “I got kicked out for being a black nationalist…. We were too black for the Reds,” he was quoted in Black World Today.
Over the next few years Brown served in the U.S. Army and worked for his father. Eventually he returned to his first love—writing—and started to compose songs. In order to get them heard, he began singing in local night clubs. In turning to music, he did not abandon politics. “The liberation of black people from the domination of racist whites can only be achieved by application of the necessary force. Can music provide this force? Yes, it can, due to its matchless ability to stir the human spirit,” he wrote in an essay entitled “Music: The Liberating Force,” published on his Web site.
In 1959 Brown attended the Chicago opening of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” There he met the playwright’s husband, Robert Nemiroff, a music publisher from New York. Impressed with Brown’s music, Nemiroff made an introduction to executives at Columbia Records. Columbia promptly offered Brown a recording contract. Brown was not so sure. “When they first sent me the contract for a singer, I wanted to go in as a writer,” he told Global Black News. “I let a year go by before I realized that was the best offer I was going to get so I signed as a singer.”
Brown’s 1960 album “Sin and Soul” debuted to critical acclaim and made Brown a national celebrity. The 12 songs moved from hard-hitting social commentary to light-hearted humor, all bound by the rhythmic flow of classic jazz. “Bid ‘Em In” offered a somber look at slave auctions delivered with a lyrical style that many critics have called a foreshadowing of rap. “Signifyin’ Monkey” was a humorous reworking of an old black folk tale. “Brown Baby” was a lullaby written for his newborn son, Oscar III. It was later made famous by gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. Several songs were instrumentals by other jazz artists to which Brown added lyrics, including Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” Nat Adderley’s “Work Song,” and Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere.”
The success of “Sin and Soul” introduced Brown into the world of jazz greats. Brown’s performance style made him an instant sensation. Brown was soon sharing the stage with names like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. He teamed up with drumming great Max Roach to pen lyrics for Roach’s 1960 Civil Rights album, “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.” In 1962 he headlined a sold-out shows in London called “Oscar Brown Entertains.”
Even as “Sin and Soul” was cementing his fame as a singer, Brown remained a writer at heart. Making the rounds of New York’s music scene he always had a copy of his musical, “Kicks and Company,” in hand. Dealing with racism and revolution, Kicks was both timely and riveting. Determined to produce the show on Broadway, Brown embarked on a string of fundraisers including private performances for guests from Martin Luther King to Harry Belafonte. In an unprecedented—and never repeated—display of support, NBC’s Today Show dedicated a full-two hour program to Brown and Kicks. Though the play never made it to Broadway, it did have a brief run in Chicago in 1961.
In 1962 Brown moved to Los Angeles to host the television program Jazz Scene USA. There he met singer and dancer Jean Pace. The two would eventually marry and collaborate on dozens of projects during a 30-plus-year partnership. Back in Chicago, Brown wrote and produced the musical “Opportunity Please Knock.” It was a success, not only for its music but for its performers—members of the notorious Chicago street gang, Blackstone Rangers. The Washington Post wrote that Brown originally confronted the gang members about “steppin’ on my hustle, scaring my audience.” Eventually he recruited them to appear in the show. The result was a reduction in gang violence and national fame. Members of the gang were invited to perform on the popular TV show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Brown was also recruited by Gary, Indiana, officials to launch a talent search in that town’s troubled inner-city. Among his early discoveries were five brothers known as the Jackson Five.
Brown produced several other plays during the 1960s, including “Joy 66,” “Summer in the City”, and “Buck White.” The latter, a musical based on themes of black power and militancy, made it to Broadway with Muhammad Ali in the title role. At the time Ali was under a government-enforced hiatus from boxing due to his refusal to join the Vietnam War draft. Meanwhile Brown continued to write and record music all for Columbia. In 1965 he moved to Verve and recorded the critically hailed “Mr. Oscar Goes to Washington.” Like “Sin and Soul,” this album showcased Brown’s vocal dexterity and ability to swing from politically confrontational songs such as “Brother Where Are You” and “Forty Acres and a Mule” to lighthearted humor as in “Living Double in a World of Trouble,” about having two girlfriends at once.
By 1972 Brown had recorded nine albums and collaborated on dozens more. Though jazz aficionados considered him a visionary, Brown could not get a new recording contract. Nonetheless, Brown stayed active in music and theater. He served as artist-in-residence at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he produced “Slave Song,” a musical drama told in rhyme. He produced a television special, “Oscar Brown Is Back,” that won two Chicago Emmy awards. In 1983 his play “Great Nitty Gritty” debuted in Chicago, once again with local youth in the cast. Brown also made television appearances, hosting music specials such as the 13-week PBS series “From Jump Street: The Story of Black Music,” and guest starring on shows like “Brewster Place” and “Roc.” He also regularly performed onstage, often with his daughter, jazz singer Maggie Brown. His son Oscar III had also shared the stage with his father until his 1996 death in an auto accident.
Brown made a comeback in 1995 with the album “Then and Now,” a compilation of old and new songs. Despite his age, his voice was still commanding and his message still relevant. Three years later, Brown recorded the live album “Live Every Minute” during a tour of Europe. He was 72 at the time. Over the next few years Brown toured worldwide, headlining shows and appearing at political rallies, including several against the Iraq War. He also became an honored guest on the Russell Simmons show “Def Poetry Jam.” In 2003 the show “Serenade the World: The Music and Words of Oscar Brown Jr.” debuted to packed houses in New York. In 2004 a documentary about his life, “Music Is My Life, Politics Is My Mistress,” premiered.
In 2004, when asked by NPR radio host Tavis Smiley what he gets out of performing at the age of 78, Brown responded, “Same thing I got out of it at 38…people are applauding.” He added, “That’s the best of all possible worlds. And so, you know, the more I can keep that going….” Brown did keep it going, all the way to May 29, 2005, when he died of respiratory failure. The loss was great, but as his daughter Maggie said in a statement quoted in the Chicago Defender, “he has left a wealth of works that will continue to touch the world.”
Oscar Brown Jr. was not a man easily defined. Labels like songwriter, composer, actor, singer, director, producer, playwright all fit, but not quite. He was also an activist, a visionary, and a social commentator. As influenced by the Harlem Renaissance as he was by the Civil Rights Movement, Brown had a desire to create and to communicate. “I wanted to present a picture of black culture to anyone who could hear it,” the Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying. In doing so he penned over 1,000 songs, recorded 11 albums, and wrote several plays. Though he never received the recognition many felt he deserved during his life, his music and words have had a continued influence on a whole new generation of artists and activists.
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