An Interview with Maggie Brown
Vocalizing with Maggie Brown
by Mark Ruffin
In the chemical reaction created during an explosion, the sound it makes is the last thing to occur. Such is the state of the career of Chicago vocalist Maggie Brown- she’s already blown up; we just haven’t heard the boom. The big bang will probably happen after the release of the live album she recorded with her legendary father, Oscar Brown Jr. The live taping was last month at the Chicago nightclub, the Hot House.
“I took the leap of faith about two years ago,” Brown said pinpointing when she lit the fuse to jumpstart her career. “I told myself that I had to jump off the diving board. I had been standing on the edge bouncing with my little nine to five paycheck every week.”
That’s when she decided to become a full-time musician.
Brown was like so many other very talented musicians who struggled with their art while working a full time day gig. She said she got frustrated at small number of jazz clubs and the scandalous lack of money being paid to musicians.
When she did get gigs, she said they were in smoke-filled rooms or clubs that she said featured, “music to be ignored by.” In 1995, she even invested in the recording of an album, “From My Window,” that was eventually ignored by both the jazz press and broadcasting outlets.
“Back when I was trying to get club gigs, I wasn’t getting any play,” Brown exclaimed. “It didn’t make sense, because I had a good tape and what is required for a good package, plus I thought I had some family reputation that would be of merit.”
Her 73 year-old father is still a sprightly, not to mention busy, man. He has worn many hats including singer, writer, politician, broadcaster, playwright, family man, actor and whimsical raconteur.
The nearly 40 year-old lyrics that he wrote for Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” Nat Adderley’s “Work Song,” and Bobby Timmons “Dat Dere” are still jazz standards, and are considered early examples in the art of jazz lyric writing called vocalese. He’s also famous for his song “The Lone Ranger,” where he immortalized the question asked by Tonto “what do you me we, White man?”
His son, Oscar “Bobo” Brown III, had a promising career as a bassist and poet wiped out when he was killed a few years ago by a drunk driver. His work lives on through the popular poetry/hip-hop & jazz group he co-created, the Funky Wordsmiths, who are currently recording their second album.
At the Hot House performance, father and daughter saluted the art of vocalese. They also performed the lyrics of other great practitioners of the art, as well as premiered overlooked work from the elder Brown, including words to the Charlie Parker tunes “Billie’s Bounce,” “Ornithology” and “Chasing The Bird.”
“I’m almost embarrassed by the lack of documentation that we have on Daddy’s work,” Brown exclaimed before running off a considerable list of unpublished plays, poems and songs. “I’m only recently working on putting it all together and being aggressive with publishing and getting people to perform his plays.
“There’s a lot to do,” she understated, “and I feel a great responsibility to shed light on his material.”
Promoting her father is just one aspect of her career that she turned the heat up on when she walked away from her full-time job as an administrative assistant. She also got very serious about her one woman show titled “Legacy: Our Wealth of Music.”
“Legacy”is edutainment about the history and evolution of African-American music, presented through narration, demonstration and lecture. In the multi-media presentation, she covers the history of Black music from field hollers to work songs, from slaves up to present day rappers.
“I had to go out and make organizations and educational institutions aware of Legacy, and it has helped me survive.
“It certainly is popular during Black History Month,” she added sheepishly.
Brown insisted that she has always had the get-up-and-go that you need to make a living in the music business. The singer says that now her focus is much more intense, and she’s much more business-like.
“I knew I was well overdue for a second album, but I also knew that if I waited until I had the budget to go into a studio or for some producer to find me, I’d be an old lady.
“So I put on my own producer’s hat and rationalized that a live recording was the answer,” she said.
Brown figured now was not the time to wonder how, or on what label the record was to be released on. She knows the history of some of the great hits that were recorded live in Chicago like Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips,” Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and Ahmad Jamal’s “Poinciana,” and in her heart feels her time to make some noise is now.