Oscar Brown Jr., Joe Locke and Geoffrey Keezer, Bruno Råberg
January 1, 1970The newsletter is back after a week off. As you may recall my having written two weeks ago, I gave the column a rest on the Friday of July 28. And having done that, I would have had nothing more than the Calendar picks to send. So I decided to give you two weeks worth of Calendar at once in this newsletter.
I also mentioned that I'd be reviewing the documentary on Oscar Brown Jr. this week, and I did. What I hadn't reckoned on was that the Friday column would be bumped by a couple of days, presumably for lack of space. It will be on Jon Faddis, who doesn't arrive with his quartet until Thursday, which gave the Globe some extra flexibility on when to run it. But that means I had one piece in yesterday's paper rather than the expected two, and that this newsletter is a little lighter than anticipated, too.
The film review, I realized last night, is probably the first of mine to have ever seen print. I know I wrote one on "This Is Spinal Tap" in the spring of 1984, for a Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism class taught by the great film critic Judith Crist. But until now I'd not had occasion to write one professionally. I have assigned a film review to my classes each semester at Boston University, however, so the Brown exercise was a nice chance to practice what I preach.
It also drew a couple of complimentary e-mails from readers, the Globe having attached my e-mail address to the bottom of the piece. One of them came from the film's director, donnie l. betts, who thanked me for it and also noted in passing that he spells his name lower-case. I had in the review I'd turned in, too, and sent a note with the review explaining that betts does it that way, but some copy editor must not have seen the note and made the switch. Either that or chose to let the Globe's house style supersede betts's wishes.
In any case, it was a documentary well worth seeing. And one additional selling point for it that I wasn't able to squeeze into the review is that it shows some nice footage of Chicago. Made me feel a little homesick.
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Documentary puts fascinating figure back in focus
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | August 4, 2006
Oscar Brown Jr. died last year at age 78, having lived a full and fascinating life. His chief claim to fame was as a jazz lyricist — he wrote "Strong Man" for Abbey Lincoln, and put words to such well-known jazz instrumentals as Miles Davis's "All Blues," Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue," and Nat Adderley's "Work Song" — but Brown also made marks as a singer, poet, playwright, actor, television host, and social activist. He unsuccessfully ran for public office in his native Chicago, wrote musicals that starred Muhammad Ali ("Buck White" ) and the Blackstone Rangers street gang ("Opportunity, Please Knock" ), and performed his cleverly rhymed, often politically charged lyrics in a style — as much spoken and acted as sung — that some consider a precursor to rap.
For all that, Brown died not particularly well-known. So it's a pleasure to see director Donnie L. Betts come along with the well-wrought documentary "Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown Jr." to give Brown his due.
Betts breaks Brown's life into three acts. The first opens with a clean-shaven, youngish Brown singing "Work Song" on "The Ed Sullivan Show" morphing into the white-bearded, middle-aged Brown doing likewise on some more anonymous stage, then cuts back and takes us through Brown's youth in the Bronzeville section of Chicago and his early jobs as a radio actor and union organizer. Act II shows him hitting full stride as a musician, moving from cranking out songs and plays while supposedly working in his father's real-estate office to selling his first album to Columbia Records ("Sin & Soul" ), chasing financing for his first would-be Broadway musical ("Kicks & Co." ), and collaborating on (and quarreling over) Max Roach's "Freedom Now Suite."
Act III takes as its starting point Brown's declaration that "a long time ago, I made a choice — I said you could either operate for money or for people," and gives a sense of how his civil- rights advocacy may have prevented his achieving the wealth and renown he seemed headed for in the early 1960s. The poet Amiri Baraka, one of several admirers popping up to comment on Brown (others include Lincoln, Studs Terkel, and the late Chicago journalist Vernon Jarrett), suggests that Brown could have been the black Neil Simon were it not for his politics.
The farm's worth of marijuana that Brown jokes of smoking over the years may have slowed his career's advance, too. One of the film's many strengths is that it shows Brown's shortcomings and losses without flinching. We hear of his first two marriages going awry, and one of the most affecting segments concerns the 1996 death of Oscar Brown III, who as a little boy had inspired Brown's charmingly childish lyrics to the Bobby Timmons tune "Dat Dere."
The film's greatest strengths are Brown and the access Betts had to him via archival footage and six years of interviews. There's no better way to appreciate Brown's humanity and humor than to watch the man in action.
Bill Beuttler can be reached at bill@ billbeuttler.com.
© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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Calendar Jazz Picks
Joe Locke and Geoffrey Keezer
Marblehead Summer Jazz, Unitarian-Universalist Church, 28 Mugford St., Marblehead. 781-631-1528. 8 p.m. $24 advance, $26 door
The Joe Locke/ Geoffrey Keezer Group has a fiery new album, "Live in Seattle," just out on Origin Records, on which vibraphonist Locke (right) and keyboardist Keezer are joined by Mike Pope on acoustic and electric basses and Terreon Gully on drums. This weekend in Marblehead, they'll be playing as a duo. But both men have stayed busy individually as well. Locke's pair of 2005 discs "Rev-elation," with the Milt Jackson Tribute Band, and "Van Gogh by Numbers," with Christos Rafalides helped lead to 2006 Mallet Player of the Year honors from the Jazz Journalists Association. Keezer's other output included his 2006 trio album, "Wildcrafted: Live at the Dakota," and extensive touring with the Christian McBride Band, the latter of which brought him to Berklee Performance Center in April for a splashy, multi-headliner concert titled "What Is Jazz."
Fri 8-4 Lee Konitz Trio Sax great Lee Konitz, who helped Miles Davis and Lennie Tristano launch the cool-jazz movement of the late '40s and early '50s, brings what the New York Times has called his "martini-dry alto saxophone" to the Regattabar tonight for a rare local appearance. Bassist John Hebert and drummer George Schuller will join him. Regattabar, Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett St., Cambridge. 617-395-7757. 7:30 & 10 p.m. $24.
Tues 8-8 Mimi Fox Trio Fox's recent two-CD release, "Perpetually Hip," is proof positive that a woman can play killer bebop guitar. Backing her will be fellow stereotype-smasher Esperanza Spalding on bass and James Williams on drums. Scullers, Doubletree Guest Suites, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston. 617-562-4111. 8 & 10 p.m. $18, $58 with dinner.
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Calendar Jazz Picks
Bruno Råberg Quartet
Rutman's Violins, 11 Westland Ave., Boston. 617-578-0066. 7:30 p.m. $10
It's no secret that bassists are generally the most in-demand of jazz side musicians. Around Boston, Råberg (below) is among the busiest. Recent months have seen him recording albums with drummer Brooke Sofferman and trombonist Dave Harris and performing with groups led by Daryl Lowery, Rich Greenblatt, and Teresa Ines in addition to fronting his own nonet. Miller, like Råberg, is a Berklee professor by day. Drummer Nick Falk has emerged from undergraduate work at Berklee into roles with an assortment of groups around town. Saxophonist Jeremy Udden, whose undergrad and graduate degrees are from rival New England Conservatory, is best known as a longtime member of the Either/ Orchestra.
Thurs 7-27 Mari Rosa Vocalist Rosa promises a program mixing 60 percent bossa nova and other Latin tunes with 40 percent straight-ahead standards and progressive jazz, including originals in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. Joining her will be pianist Ben Zecker, bassist Sven Larson, and drummer Zach Field. Ryles, 212 Hampshire St., Inman Square, Cambridge. 617-876-9330. 8:30 p.m. $8.
Wed 8-2 Bjorn Wennas and Carmen Marsico Septet The husband-and-wife team of Swedish guitarist Wennas and Italian vocalist Marsico perform music from his 2005 album, "Static," as well as improvisations on traditional music. Joining them will be Todd Marston on piano, Fender Rhodes, and accordion; Daniel Blake on saxophones; Kendall Eddy on bass; Miki Matsuki on drums; and Michael Daillak on percussion. Ryles, 212 Hampshire St., Inman Square, Cambridge. 617-876-9330. 9 p.m. $10.