Chillin’ with Norman Brown
by Mark Ruffin
When the smooth jazz super group, BWB, tour this spring, guitarist Norman Brown will send more than a few females readers of swooning. In addition to highlighting tunes from the group’s debut, Groovin’ the guitarist performs tracks from his Grammy-award winning album, Just Chillin. The nearly two hour show is highly entertaining, and in addition to featuring trumpeter Rick Braun and saxophonist Kirk Whalum, bassist Michael Manson anchors the group and is given a chance to play a tune from his debut album, The Bottom Line.
But many women will be drawn to the guitarist. Brown, who just turned 40, is very aware of his status as a smooth jazz sex symbol. “A lot of women come at me hard, and always have, ” Brown said as humbly as a nice, down-to-earth guy can. “From ten years old, when I started playing talent shows, I’ve noticed it.
JazzUSA became aware of Brown’s magnetism after a picture Will Downing elicited responses from female readers. More than half the letters mentioned Brown. One woman even knew details of his personal life.
“It’s something more than just me,” he insisted. “God gave me a good package, plus with the great music Sometimes it does overwhelm people.
“It’s a compliment, but I don’t get into it,” Brown continued, equating the way some entertainers chase women to the way others get hooked on drugs.
“I know people like that and they just can’t stop,” he said. “Life’s too complicated for that. I don’t need that adulation to feel whole. I’ve got enough.”
Actually Brown has been in a long term relationship with a delightful woman that this writer just happened to have met on a cold Chicago December night late last year. Brown said they’re practically married, plus the man has six children.
“As you can imagine, that keeps me pretty busy,” the guitarist understated. “Between them, my woman and my guitar that takes up most of my time”
Brown obviously was grounded well in what he said was a typical Midwestern family. Growing up in musically rich Kansas City, he was raised by parents who appreciated classic jazz music.
“I had a lot of brothers and sisters who were listening to Jimi Hendrix and Ernie Isley,” he remembered. “But my father was listening to Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell.
“Guitar music was always around, so I picked up the instrument when I was about eight years old.”
Most young guitarists usually have a Wes Montgomery epiphany at the high school or college levels, after a few years of learning simple pop chord changes. Brown was a bit advanced.
“I was nine when my father realized I was serious about the guitar,” Brown related. “He said, ‘you should really sit and listen to this.’ He put Wes Montgomery on and it changed everything for me. I had to learn how to play like that.”
It was during his high school years that Brown developed the full robust sound he’s known for today. The style is an obvious extension of Wes Montgomery with a dash of George Benson.
With his be-bop influence established, Brown headed to Los Angeles to that city’s famous Guitar Institute of Technology. He eventually became an instructor at the school. At this time, he knew he had the playing ability to make it, but he wasn’t making the right connection.
“I tried to get out there and play local gigs, but I just wasn’t fitting in with other musicians as a rhythm guitar player.”
So Brown began working on the highly individualistic playing and writing sound that he’s famous for today.
“I didn’t have any gigs playing live, so I started writing all these tunes. Eventually I practically begged these little restaurants to let me come play for the door.”
By the time he was signed to Motown Records in &&&&, Brown had written over a hundred songs that complemented his bright octave-laden playing. The then president of the company, Chicago native Steve McKeever, now the head of Michael Jordan’s Hidden Beach Records, heard Brown at one of those small restaurants in Southern California.
“It was actually producer Norman Connors who first dug what I was doing,” Brown explained.
“He took my demo tape around for two years trying to get people interested.
“He was the one who brought Steve McKeever down to this tiny gig I was doing. The rest is history.”
Brown’s debut, Just Between Us, which features Stevie Wonder and Gerald Albright among others, was a huge success.
He did two more records before Motown gave up on jazz. His next records were with the monolith Warner Brothers.
Just Chillin’ represents Brown first recognition from the Grammy people. He feels no slight at all winning in the pop instrumental category rather than jazz.
“For sake of identification, I guess they have to put some title on it, so I’ll take that one,” he said.
“I think it’s appropriate,” he said. “A lot of time people don’t consider our music jazz. I’m just part of the music business, so I just roll with it and don’t put too much energy into categories.
“But, at the same time,” the guitarist continued, “sometimes I think maybe I should do something that gives me that credibility, like a more traditional jazz record, so there would be no question about where I come from.
“I study be-bop all the time. That’s how I learned to play and it’s my daily practice regimen. But this is a business and the music that I make shows that I’m also a child of Earth, Wind & Fire and all of that (70’s) music.”
Brown also knows that his attraction to women is part of his business. He purposely puts a romantic edge to a lot of his music. His even plays the game with his production company, titled Normantic Entertainment, and the guitarist is quite aware that his good looks account for a number of record sales and concert tickets.
“I’ll be (at shows) pulling for the women,” he said laughing. “I’ve been working out and playing my butt off. Tell them I’ll fulfill their every need.”