An Interview With
by S. H. Watkins, Sr.
Mel Brown is one of the most versatile and skilled drummers in the world. With a resume that includes tours with the likes of The Supremes, The Temptations, Diana Ross and Teddy Edwards; recordings with the likes of The Beatles; Marvin Gaye, and Leroy Vinnegar; Brown continues to work six nights a week in Portland. Brown leads such diverse bands as a hard-bop sextet on Tuesday nights to live D.J. acid jazz on Wednesdays. He took a moment from his hard working schedule to sit down over a cup of coffee and talk to us about the past, the present and the future.
JazzUSA: I often hear references to ‘Northwest Jazz’, is there such a thing?
MB: It’s kind of hard to call it Northwest Jazz, because the musicians that are around here have played in all parts of the country with other people, they just happen to live here. I don’t think we have a certain style, just a jazz sound. You know, like in the east coast you got the hard hitting stuff, the west coast you have more of a laid back style which is a kind of a smooth thing; like the LA sound. As far as the Northwest, it’s kind of hard for me to put my finger on it.
JazzUSA: What about NAS? Some say that New Age originate in Portland or Seattle with that whole Jeff Lorber, Kenny G. thing.
MB: Well from that standpoint, it really started right here in Portland with Jeff Lorber. Lorber was a part of my band when I first moved back here from New York. When our saxophone player left, Jeff said “I have a friend in Seattle who plays alto”. I said “bring him down.” I knew him as Kenny Gorlick.
A couple of nights later I was leaving the club and I said to Jeff, “let me help you with your electric piano.” He said, “No I’ve got it, everythings cool.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but he and Kenny were waiting for me to leave the club so they could go to the club owner. They told the owner “we’ll start our own band and work for less money than Mel is charging you.” I got wind of that through Thera (Memory), that’s when I fired them. That’s when they started that Lorber thing.
JazzUSA: The rest is history. So in a strange way, you’re kind of responsible for the whole new age jazz thing getting started.
MB: Yeah, Jeff came to me and said “let’s practice this, let’s see what this is about.” So Thera, myself and Omar, we just kind of laid down grooves, and said this is a different feel but let’s try something. We kind of started some stuff, but he (Jeff) twisted it into another direction.
JazzUSA: What made you decide to become a musician?
MB: Actually from the time I was 12 or 13, when I started playing the drums. My dad was a Scoutmaster in the Boy Scouts. He brought in an assistant from New York, a guy that just got out of the service. His assistant turned me onto the jazz thing. He said, “Oh you like jazz? Here I got a tape of some music, try this out.” And it was that “Milestone” album with Miles Davis. I heard that and I said “this is what music is about, this is what I want to do.” But the guy, the assistant Scoutmaster that brought this music to me, his cousin is Max Roach. So that got me off and running.
JazzUSA: What about education?
MB: I started in the seventh grade playing drums. When I got really into the jazz scene, got really serious, I hit it. And then I had a scholarship to college, actually to any school I wanted to take it to, through the Oregon Women’s League, so I went to school at Portland State. That’s when it was Portland State College, back in 1962, we only had four buildings. So my junior year I switched to Business Admnistration, because by that time I was already recording with Billy Larkin and the Delegates. I saw things that were happening in LA and I said to myself “what happens if I get in a car wreck and I can’t play drums? I gotta have some back up!” I’m a numbers man, so I just got into accounting.
JazzUSA: You said you spent time in New York?
MB: Yeah, I lived there for five years, 1970 to 1975. I was working with the Temptations at the time.
JazzUSA: We talked a minute ago about how you helped launch the careers of Kenny G. and Jeff Lorber. Are there any other noteable jazz musicians out there now, that did a stint with you?
MB: Not from right here in Portland per say. There are a lot of drummers around here that I’ve taught that are out doing some things now.
JazzUSA: Like who?
MB: There’s a guy named Bruce Carter, he’s playing with Kenny G now. Basically, every drummer around town was a student of mine at one time or another. There are some guys that aren’t playing jazz, but are doing other things. There’s a guy by the name of Dee Castranova, that has been playing with all the heavy rock bands. He use to play with a group called Bad English, he’s recorded some with Kiss and now he’s like the rock and roll drummer.
JazzUSA: I know Max Roach is one answer, who else would you say were your two biggest influences.
MB: My other two teachers, Philly Joe Jones and Poppa Joe Jones.
JazzUSA: What about the rumors that you’re really just a blues muscian, playing jazz, as opposed to a jazz musician who can play the blues.
MB: Basically, I’m just a musician that can play all different styles.
JazzUSA: You like the blues?
MB: Oh yeah, I didn’t wake up and start playing jazz. I started out with rock and roll and then got into the blues. I use to work with some different people. I was working with Little Johnny Taylor and I did some things with Lowell Folsom. My very first gig that I ever played, I mean professional gig, was here (in Portland) at the Crystal Ballroom, with Ike and Tina Turner. I’ve covered so many different genres, cause when I was very young I was classically trained. A lot of guys used to tease me because I was standing up in an orchestra playing nothing but a snare drum, or I was playing timpani. They said, “awww man, you need to come out in the street and see what the other stuff is about.”
JazzUSA: You did a stint with Motown, didn’t you?
MB: Yeah, a long one.
JazzUSA: Were you living there as well?
MB: I was actually in California, but I was in Detroit so much, you might as well say I was living there.
JazzUSA: I was looking at the list of people you played with. And Motown list like everybody, I mean everybody. The only person I didn’t see on the list was Smokey, and you probably played with him.
MB: Oh yeah, I was with Smokey. I started with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. See, every year back in Detroit we had a Christmas show, and it ran from Christmas Eve to New Years Day. Everybody that had a contract with Motown was on the show. So while I was out with Martha, doing “Jimmy Mack” or “Dancin’ in the Street,” or “My Baby Loves Me,” Gladys (Knight) would be in the wings singing, Smokey over here, Levi (Stubbs) and boys they were waiting in the wings. It was a big family affair.
JazzUSA: Give me one thing you remember most from your Motown days.
MB: I just remember a bunch of fun, because it was a big family thing. You could be recording something for Junior Walker and Stevie Wonder would run by. And you’d say “Stevie what are you doing in here?” and he would pick up something and just start playing, that’s how things were back then. Even with the singers! They could be laying down some tracks and somebody would walk through, and they would say “hold it, hold it stop the track, put your voice on this!” A lot of the stuff like that was happening. Even with Martha and the Vandellas you might hear a male voice in the background… that could have been Johnny Bristol or Harvey Fuqua.
JazzUSA: What about now? You’ve got a new album out. It’s recorded live in a club (Jimmy Macks in Portland) but the acoustics are nice. Did it come out the way planned?
MB: Oh sure, it came out even better than I anticipated. I wanted to capture that live thing like Cannonball had on that “Mercy, Mercy,” where the crowd is involved. Most of the things I do here, if it’s a live album, the band is across the street and the crowd is on the other side of the street. The two don’t really mix, you’ll hear a few applause… that’s it. But with this CD you can hear people hollering, screaming and clapping and getting involved.
JazzUSA: Who’s idea was it to do that?
MB: I actually wanted to do something live, and Tim Gallineau (The Producer) said “ok, I’ve got the people that can do that.”
JazzUSA: People need to know you have a rich history. There’s going to be a lot of people who say “who the heck is Mel Brown?” Then they’re going to read this and realize that they’ve been listening to Mel Brown all their lives.
MB: Plus there are going to be people back on the east coast, who are going to say “I wondered what ever happened to him!”
JazzUSA: Any gripes with the business in general?
MB: It’s just time that somebody from back behind the scenes, gets a chance to come out in front. As you and most of the people know, everybody always talks about the singers out in the front. Who are the musicians who made the singers sing the way that they sing? There’s a lot of those guys who are dead now, that were actually back there doing those things. There are very few of us still around, and back then they didn’t even put our names on the albums.
JazzUSA: Drummers seem to have a tendency to write pieces that are drum-centric, and listeners don’t always want to listen to things that are drum-centric for an entire CD. You almost seem to take a backseat throughout this taping . You are the driving force but you give a lot of space to the other performers.
MB: Basically, what’s happening with me is I don’t have to prove a point. These other guys are saying “look at me I’m going to compete for the number one slot in Downbeat magazine, to be the best drummer.” I don’t want to do that, I want to compete with the other folks who are saying the President of this bank knows me by my first name, because I put a lot of money into this bank. So it’s the main appeal, I put myself in the position of saying if I sat in the audience, how long could I sit there and listen to this group.
JazzUSA: How did you choose your band members?
MB: I kind of hand picked them. There was a certain sound that I wanted to hear. And I knew who could give me that sound.
JazzUSA: What are you going to do in the future besides working six days a week?
MB: I gotta slow down before I go crazy here. I’m getting that itch to travel and move around, It’s time for me to get on the road. I need to get in touch with what’s happening musically. Do some festivals as opposed to playing clubs. Clubs are fine but, but I like the whole festival situation too; I guess it’s about 50/50. The thing about playing festivals that’s nice is that you don’t play for a long period of time, and you make pretty decent money. But you also spend half the night on your set adjusting to the sound because the sound men that are there aren’t familiar with your sound. You have to fight these guys to get what you want. When I do a soft press roll, they start turning up the dials, and it sounds like the building is coming down. So you spend all your time really upset by the time you finish your set. You didn’t play the music, you just fought for 45 minutes to an hour. Whereas in the club you can kind of get situated and the the sound can get down. And you can really get into your stuff.
JazzUSA: Any more albums in the works?
MB: We’re going to try and get busy and do something else, maybe with the sextet. We’re gonna take it and mesh it together with the quintet on one release. It’s not going to be a live thing, but it’s going to be the sextet on one side and the quintet on the other.
JazzUSA: We’ll be looking for that one. Good luck to you and thanks.